Category Archives: Epistemology

Why the South is not in the East, some reflections on postcolonial studies at the recent International Studies Association annual convention in New Orleans


With this post I want to start reflecting on other topics than peace and conflict research strictly speaking. To the extent that my research has turned away from conflict research and (hopefully) will turn away from peace research for some time after I have finished this */&%$”***book I’ll use the blog as notepad for other reflections on IR and global studies. 


The International Studies Association’s annual convention, which just came to close last Saturday in New Orleans, is probably the largest academic international relations conference, in terms of people but also in terms of topics and approaches. Thanks to the great work of the programme chairs Pinar Bilgin and L.H.M. Ling this year’s conference was an extra-ordinary showcase for alternative approaches, notably postcolonial, queer or gender studies and other critical and alternative ways of thinking about world politics. Many of this was new to me and it was really exciting to be able to explore so many different ways of thinking about world politics and global society. And yet, a lot of puzzling impressions, too…. And one of them was the question why the farthest east postcolonial studies get is India. The sinosphere (Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Korea, Mongolia) are apparently not part of the postcolonial world; only one paper out of more than 260, which deal with China referred explicitly to postcolonial thought. Singapore or Malaysia are also absent from postcolonial studies maps. And Japan, anyway, is entirely absent from the agenda as if it would have always been the high-tech, American vassal state that is only interesting for liberal IPE or Asian realist conflict analysis and not one major example of orientalist thought and colonial warfare (on the receiving and sending side). Indonesia and Thailand might be more often subject of postcolonial analysis but at this conference such were equally conspicuously absent. Why?

It is strange that postcolonial IR should neglect an entire region of the world, which was just as much object of brutal, exploitative and estranging colonial practices, although in highly variable forms and in which a huge number of inequalities, racisms and structural exploitations continue to be reproduced. Why is it that this region should be excluded from the questions that postcolonial studies have so successfully formulated for India, Middle Eastern and African countries and societies. This is particularly striking as literature studies, area studies or historians like A. Dirlik have extensively used Orientalist analyses to expose 19th and 20th century writings about East Asia. One just has to think of the ways Ruth Benedict’s ‘The Chrysanthemum and The Sword’ or the film (and book) ‘The Geisha’ have been torn apart by postcolonial scholarship (and media). The big absence of postcolonial analyses of East Asia at ISA is something particular to international relations and global studies, not to social sciences and humanities in general.

I don’t think this is a coincidence but intimately linked to the fact that East Asia simply does not fit very well the economic narratives that underfeed postcolonial studies. The economic success of East Asian countries, particularly of Japan but also of Korea, Singapore and China (and to a lesser extent of Malaysia), rattles too uncomfortably on the socio-economic ontology of postcolonial studies. An essential argument of postcolonial studies is that orientalism is the cultural manifestation of the South’s material exploitation and oppression. Sometimes this is explicitly linked to (neo)Marxist readings of imperialism or colonialism but more often than not the assumption remains implicit that the world is marked by a fundamental bipolarity of the capitalist modernity of the West and the exploited, colonized ‘otherness’ of the South. In fact, the economic narrative looms large behind post-colonial ventures into IR but it is rarely explicitly discussed. The economic success of East Asian countries and their strong developmental states are therefore hard to explain from a postcolonial point of view and attract only attention as examples of model students of the West or for what remains in poverty and exploitation (a lot). The economic history of East Asia is at once a refutation of the provincialism assumption, apparently confirming rather classical (neo)Marxist assumptions of globalization (see Robinson or Harvey), and of the resistance assumption, i.e. that integration into world processes will go through upheavals of resistance. These difficulties of inscribing East Asia past forty years into a postcolonial frame are additionally compounded by the historical complexity with which the East Asian ‘subaltern’ has created and continues to create ‘subalterity’ in Asia and around the world.

Yet, the narrative that East Asia has become simply another manifestation of the ‘West’ appears too simplistic to me and somehow profoundly contradictory to cultural studies’ interests in the orientalisation of East Asian societies and cultures. It would be an interesting exercise of reflectivist scholarship if the lack of postcolonial studies of East Asia’s politics and economics were to be explained in a postcolonial framework.



And now once again, all together now: what is terrorism and who becomes a terrorist?


The recent killing of the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo and of four French Jews in Paris has again brought the debate back over what terrorism is and who becomes a terrorist. The questions are, obviously, not new and it might be seen as a sign of a vibrant social science debate that they have not been satisfactorily answered (see for instance this interesting row of articles in the Journal of Social Philosophy). In the meanwhile, the space for ideologization and politicization of these questions from all sides remains open with the troubling consequences we can already see in France, from increased securitization and surveillance to mounting racism.

There is an intuitive understanding of ‘terror’ as arbitrary and gratuitous violence that aims at spreading fear and insecurity among a population. However, with this in mind drone attacks are, quite obviously, as much terrorism as the killing of cartoonists and supermarket costumers (a good discussion how the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ are politically constructed and disputed in the case of US-Israel-Palestine relations can be found here). The question what terrorism is and who the terrorists are goes deeper because it touches the much more fundamentally political question of legitimate uses and users of violence; hence, any intuitive answer will be unsatisfactory.

Debating the question becomes all the more complex in an age of transnational violence. In the 1970s and 1980s when left-wing extremists killed politicians and industrial leaders in Westeuropean states, they did so within a neatly circumscribed political field with a so-called military-industrial state complex on the one hand and a so-called revolutionary cell on the other. The question of what terrorism is became subsumed in the question whether the Red Army Fraction’s (in Germany) killings were politics or not (and the imprisoned RAF members treated as political prisoners or as common murderers). Although in theory the RAF’s members appealed to an abstract idea of world revolution, the RAF’s act were not committed in the name of some far-away imagined community but self-assumed in their own interest as revolutionaries within Germany; the aim was to kick off a revolution in Germany first not in any other part of the world.

This is different to the current attacks. Here, there is also a very abstract idea of a Muslim community in the background and which, by definition, includes French Muslims, but importantly there is the very concrete objective of destabilising Western military policies in far away countries. The strategic target of the attacks was, if the communique of the Yemenite Al Qaida is to be believed, actually not in Paris but in Syria, Afghanistan, Mali, Tchad and other ‘holy lands’. The killers did not aim at changing French politics in France. Yet, the killers were French as French can be, apparently not particularly religious themselves and rather socialized in the petty criminal and drug dealing milieus of France’s marginal zones; they were neither Palestinians nor Libyans who have to deal daily with the terror of Israeli or French bombings.

With RAF killings, the answer one gave to the question what terrorism was (murder or a political act) automatically included the answer to the question what a terrorist was (a murderer or an insurgent against social injustice). Now, this has become more complex. One could for instance acknowledge that some armed groups are resistance movements to occupation (as many do for Hamas in Gaza) and acknowledge their legitimacy to use violence.

However, it is then difficult to see what French marginalized, disenfranchised youth has to do with it. In order to make this argument, one needs to create a connection between Gaza or Syria and Corèze (where the Kouachi brothers apparently grew up). This is what a number of texts circulating on the internet actually try to do by postulating a general oppression of all Muslims, in France and in Iraq alike, but the link remains unconvincing per se. There are many marginalized, disenfranchised and frustrated youth in France; yet, not all of them are Muslims and not all Muslims are marginalized and disenfranchised. As Olivier Roy points out correctly the very idea of a Muslim ‘community’ in France is factitious. It might well be that it was one objective of these attacks to create such communitarian antagonism, exactly because it does not exist in the facts of French society.

It is more promising to separate the motivations of the killers from the motivations of the killing. The debate over who becomes a terrorist is often represented as opposing the hypothesis of individual mindsets to the hypothesis of strategic, well-calculating political networks. Yet, there is no reason other than the observers’ own ideological goggles not to assume that both can be true. One can perfectly well see the three young men as mere tools of a larger, transnationally calculating strategy of violent confrontation, and as subjects who act out their own individual social and, eventually mental, troubles within their very own realm. Young men and women have to  be socialized into networks of violence (as summarized here) and these structures of socialization are, indeed, ‘homemade’. (I find it noticeable for instance that the Kouachi brothers staged their attack like a headshooting video game which is much more symptomatic of French youth culture and not in the Hamas or Chechen style of a suicide bombing.)

If, indeed, both were true then the political responses, too, have to be kept separate. ‘Standing the ground in Syria’ as the French President took his mouth full the other day or bombing Yemen will not stop the French marginalized zones of society to produce young men and women who are willing to let their lives to kill others; and starting (finally) to work seriously on the issues of daily racist prejudice, of rampant exclusion and marginalization, of urban decay and (most important of all in my eyes) educational misery might not have much effect on Palestinian statehood or peace in Syria. Yet, the realization that one has maybe very little to do with the other would, very importantly, open space for a democratic debate whether the state’s money should to go into more bombs on far-away places or is better spent on education, culture and employment, in France’s marginalized zones in particular but in the entire country in general.

So far for politics…but on the research side of things, separating the individual terrorist from the greater question of transnational terrorism paradoxically requires an inter-disciplinary approach. Academically, the question of the terrorist’s mindset has been kept at arm’s length by political science research out of fear that any investigation into the subjective experience of terrorism (and the corresponding debates about deviance or not) would delegitimate the assessment of its economic, social and political causes. If one argues that the oppression of Palestinians in Gaza is causally the same as the oppression of ‘muslims’ in France and that therefore the three killers of last Wednesday have acted out of the identitary humiliation that Muslims apparently feel all over the world, then, of course, any psychological or socio-psychological explanation of terrorism is inacceptable. On the other hand, if one argues that terrorists are purely the product of dysfunctional socialisation processes, examples of delinquance rather than politics, or simply psychopats, then any further investigation into the causal connections with wider world politics is inacceptable. In both cases, the reaction would be to fend off inter-disciplinary approaches out of ideological fears or egoistic fencing off of research claims.

If, however, one accepts that there is a missing link between individual mindsets (which still then need to be more clearly defined) and greater globalised schemes of oppression (which then still would need better explanation than simply ‘oppression’ or ‘imperialism’), then social sciences working on the individual and micro-cosmen of terrorists (psychology, socio-psychology, anthropology, sociology) need to be integrated with those social sciences who work on the dynamics and pitfalls of globalisation (international relations, comparative politics, international political economy).

That is easier said than done. Apart from a host of practical problems (the competitive nature of funding that incites in-disciplinary research or simply the physical non-dialogue between the disciplines), there is a row of serious epistemological and ontological questions that need to be cleared. Obviously, there is the agent-structure problem and, if one thinks in terms of linear causality, the what/who causes what/who? Yet, this could be solved with an approach that disposes of linear causality and accepts the relational assumption that socialization is a two-way (or even multi-way) process, in which agents continously participate, by their very lives, in the reproduction of structures, which, in turn, condition the individual’s agency. Yet, the greater problem is that these dynamics of reproduction-socialization-reproduction are not linear and direct, and maybe not even coherent. In the end, the question which structures produce which kinds of agency and vice-versa can be only answered empirically, and that is probably the most frustrating part for all those who want social science to produce ready-made answers immediately when disaster strikes.


Why surveys will not tell us why they fight.


Reacting to my post on the Stapel Affair Macartan Humphreys sent me an email the other day saying that he was very unhappy to see his research being described as uncritical. Unfortunately, an email exchange is not quite the right communication mode to discuss such matters and even more disappointingly he refused to write his own blog post here to set straight what he thought I got wrong. Yet, the exchange did allow me to reformulate my reservations about using surveys to investigate why people would take up arms and engage in a violent conflict and it might be useful to repeat them here. To get this straigt, however: in my post where I talk about Humphreys and Weinstein’s survey “Who fights?” I do not say that there methods is in any way fraudelous or that they are sloppy or inaccurate in their scientific procedure; on the contrary both are, indeed, very diligent in documenting their data collection and in providing explanations about the process of research.My argument was, however, that by using an extremely inappropriate method, namely surveys, they make themselves complicit of shaping and maintaining an externally created narrative of the reasons and causes of conflicts which might be, can be, could be but very probably is not what the interviewees would say were they allowed to speak in their words and narratives. Surveys in particular deprive the interviewees of their own voice as surveys are only efficient tools of data collection if all data is formatted in the same categories and definitions.

Hence, there are two type of objections that I have about survey research: the first set of reservations is about the methodological weaknesses of surveys more generally and for obtaining knowledge about people’s “real” motives in particular; the second set of objections concerns the scientific logic that makes researchers use surveys in the first place, i.e. of a more epistemological order. As far as the first set of objections is concerned, it is noteworthy that surveys are blunt tools if one seeks to find out the “real” motives (whatever those might be) of people’s doing and  especially of their wrongdoings.

However private the athmosphere of the questionning, interviewer and interviewee meet up as strangers and the interviewee will, in the large majority of cases, show her public face. When talking students in methods classes through survey design I like to cite the example of one question of the World Value Survey that asks “Is prostitution defendable?” with the possible answers “under no circumstances, under some circumstances, sometimes, always”. In China the answer is to more than 87% “under no circumstances” which makes my students laugh heartily and whoever has watched the nightly traffic in any hotel in China knows why. Of course, prostitution is as endemic in China as it is elsewhere in the world (maybe even more so as China is still a country where marriage and sex are seen by many as two very different things) but prostitution is also morally highly frowned upon and, consequently, in this culture where “face” is even more important than in other;s no matter how confidential the interviewing athmosphere is, it is extremely hard to get the large majority of people to admit that they even know what prositution is.

There are, apart from the very factual sociologial base data, not many questions where people are not compelled to keep up their public face when confronted with questions in surveys. Very few people want to be seen as thinking differently from the pack, to stand out or not to say what they think is the socially acceptable thing to say. Of course, if the research is concerned with this public face then surveys are a fine method to see how homogenously public discourses and standard narratives are spread, how well people acknowledge the lingo of those and if they adhere to them or not. For electoral or marketing studies, the stern public face shown in surveys is, indeed, an ideal tool to capture how well a brand name or platforme has developed into a commonly recognizable dominant discourse. But if one wants to go beyond the established and socially acceptable narrative, things become much, much more complicated.

That surveys are biased by respondents’ desire to keep up a public face and, also, to please the interviewer is a well-known phenomenon in social science research and one of the major restrictions for the use of surveys and polls. A common response to this problem is to argue that questions and responses simply have to be formulated in a better way, that more explorative tests have to be done and to propose a row of statistical instruments to control for biases; and it is true that some progress has been made to identify particular weaknesses in question or response formulation.

Yet, delving deeper into the issue of response biases has also shown that there are huge cross-cultural differences in the way people understand and respond to questions and that these are compounded by age, gender and social differences. A survey of combattants in an armed conflict in Africa (or Latin America or Asia for that matter) by Western scholars crosses the cultural boundary twice: first, there is the obvious national culture difference between the American, English, French etc. researcher and the Sierra Leonean, Liberian, Columbian or Philippine; second, there is the “professional culture” divide between the academic and the violence professional. This implies an important social divide between the usually well-off, usually middle-class, usually urban and highly educated Westerner and the usually poor, usually underclass, usually rural and barely literate combattant. Double-testing and counter-checking certainly sounds like a promising inroad in controlling for these biases but they also promise to blow up the research project to its double or even triple size (and cost) and are therefore rarely done in a systematic and controlled manner (and in Humphreys’ and Weinstein’s published work there is no reference that they have undertaken any of such tests).

From the above, it is obvious that those biases are more likely to occur if the answers to the questions are restricted, pre-formulated and vague, i.e. if they have the double effect of being on the one hand externally imposed (not the own words of the respondents) yet, on the other hand, sufficiently ambiguous to allow varying interpretations. In fact, recognition of this has pushed parts of social psychology and sociology to move away from overly standardized questionnaires in order to provide inter-discursive room for respondents’ own formulations and words.

Given the difficulties of undertaking a survey in an appropriate way in these circumstances, one may wonder why researchers choose to do so in the first place. As mentioned, it might be the purpose of the research to identify the socially acceptable discourse or to see how compliant respondents are to such desiriability. Yet, this is certainly not the intention of the combattant surveys. Here, the aim is rather to find out the “real” motives of their joining of armed fractions, always assuming that there are a countable and verifiable number of “real” reasons. This is assuming that one can reduce all the forms of hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, pressures, feelings of obligation and duty, rational calulations of survival, achievement, strategic and opportunistic moves, all the pleasure and misery, all the social interaction and solitary ruminating of an individual to a functionally small number of variables that can be “tested”. This enumeration of emotions, calculations, reasons and thoughts is not exhaustive and does not consider yet that all of them might be present at one given moment or only some, that they might contradict each other and that their importance and meaning will vary from individual to individual. Fear is rarely experienced in the same way by any two individuals and peer pressure is exercised differently on a 16-year old  youngster than on a 35-year old family father. This does not mean that one cannot account at all for this wide and varied array of motives and reasons…but it requires an enormous amount of simplification and reduction of complexity if they are to be reduced to a manageable number of variables. That simplification can go as far as rendering any result either banal or inconclusive.

So, again, why would one want to do this then? Using such a method despite these reservations expresses a stern belief that proper academic research only “proves” things if it is carried out over a large number of cases (the question what a large number of cases is, is again relative as the social sciences claim that for instance n=2000 is large is laughable for any natural scientists…just imagine a medical study on a new drug carried out only over n=2000 subjects…). From this point of view, ethnographic or sociological research based on in-depth interviews, participant observation, focus group interviews, analysis of diaries, blogs or other texts written by the study subjects, or the analysis of artefacts (music for instance) are all nice and fine and sweet but not really “proves” because their n is so small; they could be “random observations”.

This reflects an understanding of science in which there are facts somewhere out there, a truth even, that we can discover by excluding (refuting) the false and random observations through hypothesis testing. This implies an uncritical understanding of the categories and concepts we use as any kind of refutation procedure assumes that “we”, and that is you, me, the researcher and the research subject, all know what those categories represent and what they mean. In this case for instance this means that there is one unitary and solidly confirmed — a “true” — understanding of categories like child soldiering or poverty. Of course, some exploratory research might be necessary to obtain this factual knowledge about child soldiering but once we have done our homework we can establish confidently such a category and apply it to our research objects. We can establish criteria which will allow us to refute or confirm that this or that person is a “child soldier” or that “poverty” is a cause of armed conflict. We either assume that it doesn’t matter whether the subjects see themselves as child soldiers (or children or soldiers) or poor. It also doesn’t really matter what kind of child soldiering we are talking about (given a purely age-based defintion, Napoleon was a child soldier as was Clausewitz) and it doesn’t matter what kind of poverty we are talking about …in fact, there must not be any great internal differentiation of these categories, otherwise they cannot function as categories.

And this is where uncritical, undifferentiated and unreflected reproduction of categories becomes also complicit with current power structures. Contrary to the pretention of a “value-free” science, all these categories are imbued by the understanding that is being produced and reproduced by dominant social, economic and political structures and their agents. The so-called common sense rarely is common but most often defines what some define as is supposed to be common. This becomes very clear if one thinks of categories of gender or race…for centuries it was absolute common sense (and for some circles it still is) that women or blacks are simply not as intelligent, active, creative, inventive, industrious etc. as white men.  Applying categories witout critically reflecting how these are produced and what they mean, and what they mean for different subjects, including those under investigation, means simply accepting and uncritically reproducing these patterns of domination that have established these as “common sense”.

From the said that this does not mean that any survey or quantitative method is inappropriate; yet, it is so if it uses ascriptions rather than descriptions and if it reproduces categories without critically reflecting on the construction of these categories. The question to ask is actually rather simple: who understands what by which means when I, as observer and as agent of (at least) one specific understanding, talk about “poverty” (or childsoldiering or any other category used) and which power structures are reflected in this understanding? In the absence of this question, the categories used in a survey will always reflect only one specific, namely the observer’s (and at the time of publication the reader’s) understanding. Apart from being hence inconclusive and, at the end of the day, not saying very much, they also misrepresent the “facts” and miss out the largest part of the story that the subjects of inquiry would have to tell.



Empathetic reflexivity as data collection method


Winter holiday is time to read the books that do not fit easily into the research and teaching agenda yet promise some new insights. This year’s reading was no exception: Pierre Bourdieu’s “Esquisse pour une auto-analyse”  which made me think through a number of questions about data collection for conflict analysis. This autobiographic non-autobiography is another tentative of the French sociologist to explain his approach to social sciences, this time by referring to his intellectual and academic trajectory. He notably explains in length his early (intellectual) struggle as young “normalien” (graduate of France’s prestigious grande école Ecole Normale Supérieure) against the grand authorities of the time, and particularly his ambiguous relationship to Claude Lévi-Strauss’ works which he admires for their pioneering character but also sharply criticizes for their epistemological and, hence, methodological premises.

Commonly, Bourdieu’s criticism is understood to have been directed against Lévi-Strauss’ scientistic naturalism for its rigid structuralist thought…and, yes, in this sense Bourdieu can certainly be called a “post-structuralist”. Yet, it is less the naturalism of Lévi-Strauss that is at stake but the ahistorical and unreflective take on societies against which Bourdieu argues. Bourdieu most certainly does not share any so-called post-modern arguments about the utter contigency of society which leaves us with pure phenomenologist thunder and aw. He does argue that social behaviour follows patterns and rules, yet these are historically specific and need to be analysed empirically. He upholds this epistemological position for two reasons: one, because he ascertains that any social situation is fundamentally shaped by power and the particularity of power is exactly that it shapes, determines, limits and enables human behaviour — the sociologist’s task is to analyse these shapes, determinations, limits and abilities and to do so we need to know also the subjective side of power, how power is perceived (or not), used (or not), expanded (or not), diminished (or not) and the effects these power games have on body and mind of individuals, groups adn entire societies.

Second, assuming in a positivist manner fundamental laws of society poses a major epistemological problem, namely the question how we, as researchers and observers, can know, understand, think and talk about these laws to which we would be, logically, also subject. We would have to be able to step through the looking glass and make us as observer disappear in another world (which we know from Alice is a paradox by itself) OR we assume that WE are fundamentally different from THEM. Bourdieu argues that Lévi-Strauss had chosen the latter option, hence, “a vision of the social world based on the denial of the social” as Bourdieu puts it (Esquisse pour une auto-analyse, p. 62) by representing his objects of analysis as preserved in a historical, social, political and cultural vacuum, unconscious of the world around them and ready-made aesthetic, museal objects. The counter argument Bourdieu makes is that the world is not stuck in an eternal variation of the same theme (like we would be running up and down Esher’s staircase) but evolving, changing and moving because individuals, groups and societies do, subjectively, deal with those objective structures of which they are part. Once we admit this, we also have to admit that we, the observers, are part of this “game”. Instead of denying our integration into the subjective living of objective structures, we should rather use this awareness as source of understanding of and knowledge about the social world.

If Bourdieu’s argument would be taken for granted on this very basic level of thought, one could misread him as pleading for an empiricist sociology. Yet, Bourdieu draws on a huge philosophical fund when he negotiates the relationship between the empirical and theoretical, the subjective and objective, his main reference being the French philosopher Pascal (Méditations pascaliennes) and the German “idealist” Emmanuel Kant. Put in a nutshell, he refuses to accept the distinction between the empirical and ideational world and challenges the common argument that one cannot analyse both at the same time (Loic Wacquant has nicely written about the ways Bourdieu bridges the empirical/theoretical and objective/subjective divide here). For the analysis of armed and violent conflict this throws up a row of interesting challenges, and it does so first of all for the questions what exactly should be empirically observed and this question does not only concern the problem whether large or small phenomena should be observed (already discussed in this post) but also what about the conflict needs to be observed.

Taking Bourdieu’s critique seriously one will stumble and fall when trying to identify “causal mechanisms”. Whatever the mutual constitution and influence of agent and structure is, it will hardly be a linear one of an independent variable A having an effect on a dependent variable B, maybe (or not) transformed by intervening variable Z. Not only does the idea of linear causal mechanisms exclude any possibility of reflexive “loops”, it also ignores the idea of mutual constitution (so the acceptance of the fact that one cannot know whether the hen or the egg were first), it denies the freedom of subjective alteration and transformation, it disregards the historicity of structures and it denies the freedom of subjective alteration and transformation of these. Yet, much of the current conflict analysis is still preoccupied with “causal mechanisms” despite the fact that research of the past ten years has shown that there are too many, that they are too unspecified and that there are barely “provable”.

This is particularly evident in the behaviouralist approaches to the influence of economic conditions on war which has been particularly prone to arguing in terms of “causal mechanisms”. Yet, it is the proliferation of hypothetical causal mechanisms that has made this research area one of the most frustrating in civil war analysis. Despite increasing efforts of collecting data, the major neglect of context and complex causalities has produced an erratic variety of “maybe” explanations. Ross for instance identifies five causal mechanisms which could explain the relationship between resource wealth and onset of war ; Humphreys indentifies six “families” of causal mechanisms how natural resources set off civil wars, and another seven families for causal mechanisms how natural resources impact on the duration of conflicts. None of these bundles of causal mechanisms has ever been systematically tested, probably because they are much too complex for linear regression models; particularly if more than two variables have to be assumed of influencing each other dynamically.

Unsurprisingly, this strand of research has not produced any conclusive insights about how economic structures shape the likelihood of collective violence, rebellion or war. Michael Ross’ work is examplary for this: In his early works, swimming in the streamline of Collier and Hoeffler’s greed model, he found a significant relationship between resources that can easily be looted  so which excluded for instance oil. Two years later, he finds that oil wealth is correlated with a risk of war as is wealth in diamonds and gas if a different regression model and different data is used. He then, in his most recent book, again belittles the risk of oil as triggering factor for civil wars alltogether, stating “When oil-producing states fall prey to civil war, oil is never the only factor; it is sometimes not even the most important factor” (145). In this strand of research, whether oil is important for the onset or the duration of conflicts does not depend on what people make out (or don’t make out) of oil wealth but on the data rows the researcher uses.

Yet, asking these questions is, again, not enough as I have argued in my post on Weinstein’s and Humphreys’ ill conceived survey of former combattants in Sierra Leone. It is how you ask questions. Peters summarizes this very concisely in his study of young fighters in Sierra Leone when he asserts the necessity for an empathetic encounter which takes the subjective understandings, thoughts and feelings of the object of analysis seriously. However, Peters’ book also epitomizes the practical and methodological difficulties of such research: it requires extremely good knowledge of the society under investigation, including language skills, and access to the population that is observed over a longer period and based on trust and, at least in parts, intimate knowledge of what Charles Tilly called “local scripts”. Most of the literature that provides deep insights into civil wars like Elliotts “Vietnamese War”, Wood’s “Insurgent collective action” or Mats Utas’ “Sweet Battlefields” are the result of years if not decades of work within the communities. Of course these difficulties exist for all deep sociological work, but in cases of collective violence they are aggravated by the sheer brutality of conflicts, the strain their observation puts on the observer who might become witness to extreme cases of violence and who, in any case, will have to take note of the devastation of wars.

Instances of collective violence are furthermore particularly difficult to define and delimit (see my post on Syria) as these rarely take place in all the territory and covering the totality of the population. As Charles Tilly already noted in 1969, collective violence is a particularly ill-bounded social phenomenon, and all tentatives to establish clear definitional boundaries to the categories of violent events observed necessarily allows the influx of normative theorizing about political authority, its legitimacy and the legitimacy of contesting and protesting against it. The risk of being thwarted by the phenomenon observed is clearly recognizable in Carolyn Nordstrom’s work which presents masses of empirical materials, asks extremely well formulated and challenging questions but gives only very little answers or conclusions.

Furthermore, going into the field cannot and must not be the only way to collect data as this would make all historical research futile. Bourdieu himself was, indeed, very critical of history as science (although one might say that this has been ascerbated by the French media/academic context and that most of these debates are rather personal feuds). When dealing with the reported experience and sources, reflexivitiy becomes not only an ethical requirement but an epistemological necessity. There is no language, no experience and no concept that is not shaped by social domination and none has a meaning per se. Only if we ask ourselves what we understand by the words we use and how we understand how others use them, are we able to decipher those social structures of meaning that “make” the world. Empathy is essential but not sufficient; reflexive empathy is necessary if we want to grasp the full meaning of people’s thoughts, motivations, actions and words.

This said, the idea of “authentic” voices, sources or, more generally, data becomes critical. In fact, such “authentic” data does not exist per se; it is interpreted as such by the observer (and then, of course, not “authentic” anymore). In order to show the own meaning that subjects concede to their world, the observer has to render their words “authentically” (e.g. verbatim, as Bourdieu chose to do in La misère du monde) yet these same words also need contextualisation, analysis, dissection and critical examination (in the Kantian sense of “critique” as proof, test, check etc.). Writing about these experiences, rendering subjective thoughts and critically discussing them in the light of objective regularities becomes a challenge of scientific inquiry in its own right.

For conflict analysis this means that we do not forcibly need “more” and “new” data and the tendency, that can be observed particularly in US research, to accumulate more and more interview hours, surveys, datasets etc. is actually detracting the observer’s critical sense from a deep analysis of meaning. Yet, for meaning we need a deep understanding of contexts and this is rather often lacking. We can find for instance dozens and dozens of surveys on about any aspect of the life of Bosnians during and after the war, but we have very little critical, contextual and reflexive-empathetical literature on the lives of Yugoslavs before the war. The same can be said for other societies up to the point that a colleague who is a specialist on Algeria had the one 2013 new year’s resolution of “breaking the 1962 barrier” (i.e. wanting to write a history of Algeria AFTER 1962).

A critical and reflexive-empathetic treatment of data also opens another way of data collection as much more than the politically spoken and written word can become a source once it is reasonably interpretable as expression of meaning. Even the observer’s own experiences may become a source of understanding if they are systematically, critically and empathetically reflected in the context of the analysis. Participant observation hence obtains an epistemological importance that positivist approaches cannot grant.




The Stapel Affair and the malaise of social sciences


So, the Netherlands and the discipline of Social Psychology have their big fraud affair! For years Diederick Stapel had been inventing data and publishing like hell in peer-reviewed journals until three rather courageous junior colleagues finally managed to alert the University that something was fishy…The University of Tilburg investigated the case and came to the conclusion that this case not only revealed individual misbehaviour but also major dysfunctions of the academic field of social psychology.

I think that other social sciences would do well to keep their “Schadenfreude” deep inside, read chapter 5 of the report and rather have seriously critical look at practices in their own respective fields. Many of the weaknesses the  Tilburg committee had identified for the Stapel’s case can be found generally throughout social sciences, even though not in this extreme form. It is the very nature of a good scandal that  it is about extreme, exceptional acts. Yet,the outright fraudelent papers are only part of Stapel’s “oeuvre”, the much larger part of his publications were found too be simply characteristic of “sloppy science” as the report says. This sloppiness has reasons and these are pretty much the same as for other cases of fraud and imposture: fast reputation, fast money and telling the world what the world wants to hear. Stapel’s confessions are sympathetic in this respect: “I have created a world in which almost nothing ever went wrong, and everything was an understandable success. The world was perfect: exactly as expected, predicted, dreamed. In a strange, naive way I thought I was doing everybody a favor with this. That I was helping people. …”

Wanting to do good, dreaming up a world and reaping the benefits of a place in the spotlight are a poisenous mixture for any scientist. In much of the social sciences and academia generally being convinced of one’s own intelligence, intellectual beauty and importance is actually a quite essential quality to survive the shark’s bassin of competitors over grants, posts, and honours. Being shown around as a poster child among the powerful, and even if this happens only in a very small and secluded circle of let’s say “the development experts” or “the NGO advisors”, easily gets to the head of quite a lot of people. In an international studies conference, one will have more difficulties numbering out the colleagues who do not suffer from occasional fits of megalomania than counting those who are humble, devoted and reserved about their achievements. The latter happen to be also those who receive less prizes, are less promoted and who would committ such follies as not applying for a new grant facility for the simply reason that it is not in their habitual area of research… in short, those colleagues who are less visible, quieter and, hence, often considered as less succesful than their brawling, boasting and, eventually, overbearing colleagues. Yet, it also happens that their research is often much more thorough, detailled, painstaking, “data scratching” rather than “data crunching” and that their theoretical reflections as well as conclusions are hesitant, careful, obssessed with the specificities of their cases and, to put it in a nutshell, utterly “unsexy”. They refuse to be squeezed into two-word headlines and to be summarized in 300 word abstracts. Annoying, indeed. And disadvantaged in comparison to the loud researchers who have no problems to wash away cumbersome complexities of the social world in order to replace them with catchy labels and categories which show “impact” and “larger audience” qualities.

There are many complaints and since long that the peer-review system is not working well and indeed the main malaise of the academic world remains the overbearing influence of “peers”. The Tilburg Report  states: “In the case of the fraud committed by Mr Stapel, the critical function of science has failed on all levels. Fundamental principles of scientific method have been ignored, or set aside as irrelevant.” (p. 54) and they say this not only with respect to the invented data but also with respect to other papers which display “sloppiness”. This sloppiness concerns numerous statistical flaws, misleading or missing information on the research procedures or manipulating the data in a way that it shows the desired results (for instance omitting variables, “shaving” off outliers to enhance significance etc.). The committee is appalled that these errors, omissions, mistakes and flaws have not been detected and denounced by colleagues, journal reviewers, editors or simply attentive readers.

When talking about conflict studies, let’s examine for instance those econometric methods which are so en vogue. Of course, there is not any study that committs uses fabricated data as Stapel did. Yet, there is a lot of sloppiness and complacent in-circle reasoning that lets slip more than one dubious hypothesis and finding through the net of critical examination. Much of this is due to the relatively great institutional power and visibility this research area has gained in recent decades, among others by advising international bodies and national development agencies on questions of development aid and security, the infamous “greed hypothesis” which I will discuss later being a case in point. At any given international studies conference of the past years, there will be easily three numbercrunchers for one qualitative working social scientist and at least five colleagues using some kind of decision making model based on rational choice for every one colleague having talked or at least listened to people in armed conflict (you do not always have to talk to them yourself as I will discuss further below). Econometric methods clout their analyses in the aura of natural science preciseness and objectivity, and usually strictly avoid discussing any of their assumptions, methods or findings in a reflective and critical way.

What is particularly fascinating about the numbercrunching colleagues is that they tend to use all the same data despite loud and recurrent criticism. It is for instance entirely normal to teach a critical understanding of GDP figures in any high school economics class; but it is still rare that econometrists working on conflicts and poverty will critically discuss the explanatory value of GDP figures. They are simply used as “proxy” for economic performance no matter if we can have major doubts that GDP actually tells us something about national economies or not, or if they, indeed, available in sufficient quality for those countries we are interested in when investigating civil wars in the past two decades. If GDP figures are not available in good quality, other indicators which are derived from GDP are not so either. And yet, Gini coefficients are for instance widely used particularly in those studies which aim at proving that there is a direct relationship between poverty and violence like the infamous “Greed vs. Grievance Study” of Paul Collier, at the time adivsor to the World Bank, and Anke Hoeffler, at the time junior scientist in Collier’s team at Oxford (so far for the glamour of research).  Taking the same data set as used in the Collier and Hoeffler Study of 2004[1] , it was only possible to identify Gini coefficients of good quality[2]for four out of the 79 cases. Crucially, the entire hypothesis that grievances do not play a major role in civil war outbreaks hinges upon the argument that inequality, measured by the proxy of the Gini coffefficient, had no significant positive correlation with war outbreak.

How much critique does it need to invalidate an analysis and is this dependent on the author’s status? It needs masses and the more popular the author is the less likely is it that sharp critique will be heard. Nicolas Sambanis and Harvard Hegre for instance, both by no means big critics of numbercrunching, showed in their article on civil wars and the PRIO dataset that slight changes to the coding of civil wars already had a major impact on the results. This critique was published; Sambanis’ very long detailled discussion of every single proxy used by Collier and Hoeffler, and how it NOT contributes to our analysis of war is only available as working paper on his webpage. As another colleague said in 2011 “It took over 10 years argument to get over Collier’s and Hoeffler’s greed hypothesis; they have diverted much needed attention and energy from the study of civil wars”.

Sambanis discussion of proxies also points to the observation that many studies contain already major flaws in their very conception not only in the data they use or the statistical methods they employ. An extraordinary example of such studies can be found in Macartan Humphrey’s and Jeremy Weinstein’s work. Methodologically their work is certainly absolutely flawless and the way they put their data at disposition for replication is extremely laudable. Yet, the very conception of some of their studies are, to say the least, astonishing. For their survey of ex-fighters in Sierra Leone which was published in 2008 undert the title “Who fights?”, the authors had interviewed members of the Sierra Leonean RUF and Self defence units who were being demobilised. The survey produced a wide array of interesting data on the origins of these fighters and contained also a large section that sought to explore their motives of taking up arms…and it is here where a look at the original questionnaire makes the critical mind wonder.

Both authors indicate that their interviewees were commonly at the beginning of their twenties at the time of their interview. They were also in the large majority of rural background. Most of them had merely finished elementary schooling before joining their respective combat unit. One of the questions to assess their political awareness asks: “Which political party or group did you support before the conflict began?”. What seems to be a question that is perfectly fine when asked in the run-up to the US presidential elections becomes extremely irrealistic when asked Sierra Leoneans who were at the outbreak of the war, 12 years earlier, around 10-13, who lived in large isolation of the capital city where party politics took place and who, as the findings of their own survey, were barely literate.

Further down, Weinstein and Humphreys ask in several questions for the motives of joining the warring factions. At each question the choice of answers that indicate material motives outnumber other choices. Answers indicating material incentives are explicit and concrete; answers indicating political goals are worded in very abstract and cloudy sentences. For instance: “What did the group tell you you would gain from joining?” with the choice of answers “1. Money, 2. Diamonds, 3. Women/ Men, 4. Food, 5. A Job, 6. Land, 7. A way to improve the situation in Sierra Leone, 8. That my family would be protected, 9. A possibility to get revenge, 10. other” … the ex-fighters would have needed to be fine ideologists to answer 7 above all and alone. There are other startling examples in the questionnaire which tell a lot about the authors’ preconceived ideas and how the questionnaire was streamlined to produce the inevitable result that political motives were irrelevant as compared to material motives; a conclusion that so shortly after the war and at the moment where there was the large international support for the conservative-liberal President Kabbah was exactly what the UN and other international donors wanted to hear…

Both authors are very transparent about the data and the statistical methods they use (although I cannot find the link to the questionnaire anymore…). To mention them in a blog post that starts with a link to a ousted fraudster seems extremely unfair. Yet, my aim is to push the nail of sloppiness in social sciences further in. It is actually not sloppiness but more or less conscious complacency and power schmoozing that is at the heart of the matter. In some quarters Humphreys and Weinstein’s work has been hailed as being brilliant because they would be the first to have asked fighters why they fight…a statement that ignores all the detailed and on-the-ground work that had been done before but which, unfortunately, had come to conclusions that neither pleased the UN nor Western donor agencies (for instance Paul Richards “Fighting for the rainforest” and Krijn Peters earlier publications of the research of his book). The statistics additionally give these findings the aura of the “scientific” and the “objective”, hence providing a legitimation for the results that is rather based on the reader’s (willing) ignorance of the arbitrariness of survey methods. Such ignorance has a reason and that is that not only authors sometimes only like to publish what they like but readers too only like to read what they think they know already.

The formation of cliques, schools of thought, chapels and sects and their grip to institutional power in the form of university chairs, tenure committees, professional association committees, editorial boards of journals and lucrative advisor jobs for government and IOs has yet to be broken. What the Stapel Affair so brillantly shows is that whoever has gained the admiration and confidence of those illustre circles can go very far in writing whatever pleases and confirms received ideas. Critical voices are not only less published ; they are also less sollicited by those who confer external legitimacy to fashionable research, namely government agencies, international organisations etc. It is not only the scientific community that needs to rethink the way it pushes “likeable” papers and suppresses the annoying ones (a review of mine that contained the above criticism and more was rejected by one journal reviewer in one single paragraph which quintessentially said “this is too critical, I don’t like it”, an experience other critics of these approaches above know all too well). Those at who this research is addressed have to rethink, too, if they prefer to read what they know and think already or if they want thoroughly researched, alas uncomfortable truths that eventually could lead to real policy change.


[1] Klaus Deininger and Lyn Squire, “A New Data Set Measuring Income Inequality”, World Bank Economic Review 10 (1996): 565-591.

[2] Deininger and Squire distinguish the quality of their data according to the reliability of their sources; acceptable quality means that the income surveys on which the calculations of the Gini coefficient are based cover the entire national territory and are representative of the populations’ income. In most of the cases here where the quality was not acceptable the weakness was that survey data did not cover the whole national territory.


The ethics of analysing mass violence


In a recent book review in Perspectives on Politics, Chris Blattman thinks aloud on the moral problems of doing research on violence and conflict. The dilemma he describes, indeed, appears to be crucial: as scholars we should strive at keeping a critical and reflective distance to the subjects studied and this might, in the case of particularly mediatized cases like child soldiering, appear as cold and cynical reaction to what is clearly morally most appaling and horrible: “You catch yourself speaking of genocide or child abduction as variables and forgetting they are atrocities” (Perspectives on Politics, 403).

This sounds so right and very reflective and, yet, there’s something misleading with the assertion that the ethical problem of conflict analysis would be the gap between the inhumanity of the violent crimes and the coldness of the objective researcher, alone. This would imply that the moral motivations of the researcher might be questionable but, honestly, this is not the case, is it? We can safely assume that anyone who is interested in disentangling reasons and causes for war’s miseries does so, exactly because it is such a horror, and for this motivation the method by which research is undertaken, whether by statistical variable approaches or through qualitative ethnographic approaches, does not really matter. Nobody would suggest either that a medical researcher who treats cancer as variable does so out of disrespect for people dying from the disease; everyone sensibly assumes that researchers do research because they want to find answers and eventually cures.

In conflict analysis it is not so much the moral integrity of the researcher that is at stake but rather something more profoundly disquieting, namely the moral integrity of research itself, particularly of this kind of research. It is crucially the problem that our entire scientific, rational thinking and our desperate search for certainty might be less a solution than a part of  problem of contemporary large-scale, collective violence.

Superficially, one could think of the obvious problem that research and research findings might be wrong or wrongly used. All research risks abuse, misunderstanding, and distortion through practice, and at the simple sight of much research in conflict analysis, particularly of “peace studies”, one could easily believe that the main ethical challenge lies in giving the “right” and to avoid “wrong”  advice to practitioners and policy-makers. For instance, the decade-long obsession with “greed” and “warlords” in conflict analysis has heavily influenced major development agencies, from the World Bank to DAC passing by national agencies like DFID, before it became evident in research as well as in policy-making (although at a much slower pace) that there is more to collective violence than diamonds.

Yet again, focusing on the results of research and its possible usages hides from sight the more fundamental epistemological problem that the way how  scientific research organizes knowledge, perceives and conceives of its object and proceeds in treating knowledge matters as objects. It is, indeed, much more in the search for certainty and for control of the unknown, unknowable and unconceivable that social sciences (and humanities) come to their limits when they deal with human violence. This double face of reason, being the condition for understanding but maybe also the seed for inhumane destruction have been cogently analysed Theodor W. Adorno and Herbert Marcuse in their Dialectics of Enlightment and Negative Dialectics. They demonstrated with Kant’s distinction between pure and practical reason that it is exactly the pure reason of enlightenment that has produced a sense of rationality in which moral judgment (which is always linked to the practice of life, i.e. to practical reason) has disappeared. Reducing reason to pure reason and situating moral imperatives in the domain of pure reason, makes rationality become “purposeless efficacy” of which the subject is irrelevant in the sense that it is the efficacy that counts…whether the efficacy of Auschwitz or the efficacy of the categorical imperative.

This is so, not because of pure reason itself, but because of the way pure reason has been integrated and become the very rationality of the capitalist production mode. Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s analysis is firmly although critically rooted in Marxist theory. Adorno and Horkheimer saw inherent affinity between Kant’s pure reason which eliminates the raison d’etre of practice and the commodification of all spheres of life and humanity through industrial and capitalist production. Everyone and everything becomes a thing as everyone and everything can be produced, and everyone and everything can, categorically, be thought without the experience of the practical world devising which and who of these everythings or everyones is actually unique, for instance as mother, as childhood memory, as “magic object”. Proust’s madeleine does not exist, only the combination of butter, eggs, almonds and orange scent baked at a given temperature, reproducable and edible. Pure reason has stripped off meaning, most particularly moral meaning, and left only purpose.

Behaviouralist research and particularly liberal-economist models of behaviouralist research tend to fall into exactly that trap although it is, to repeat, not the quantitative, statistical method as such that is problematic. Obviously, treating atrocities as variables reifies them yet the essential problem is that it does so on the grounds of an epistemology that is utterly unaware of the logic of reification. The aim of treating atrocities (or humans or ideas or anything else for that matter) as variables is to stripp them off their particular meaning and extract them (abstract them, Kant would say) from their concrete context, the rational being that it is exactly this operation that will produce knowledge about the item at stake.

Of course, this already presents a source of error as apples might be compared to pears but again this is only the methodological challenge. The moral and ethical challenge is rather that the logic by which behaviouralist research transforms everything into variables remains deeply unreflective of its own conditions of existence, its own rules and its own, tacit, even unconscious assumptions.

This is particularly evident for the homo oeconomicus assumption, the point being not so much that it might be wrong (it actually is) but that it’s condition of existence is the requirement of pure reason that the condition of our insight is not the particular, practical, contextual being but the abstract, reasonable idea. The homo oeconomicus exists because it is logic of liberal economic deductive models that he/she must exist. The constrution of the model of analysis follows the logic of the model and not the logic of practical life, as the epistemological premise is that pure reason would allow us to construct a logically consistent, and therefore an inalienable true explanation. There are a number of other basic assumptions and basic logical operations of our scientific models which, similarly, are mainly consistent with the scientific models to which they belong but not with practical life; they are constructed on the grounds of the pure reason of the argument, commonly an economic argument, but not on the grounds of the practical contexts of the human lives they are applied to.

If morality is to be reintegrated into conflict analysis, this logic for the purpose of the model has to be abandoned. This means that the epistemological approach has to be changed to allow practice and context as basis of insight, alongside pure reason. This infers a triple challenge : one, to deconstruct the logic of such a pure reason epistemology; second, to reflect upon the practical implication of any modelling and epistemology of conflict analysis; third, to reconstruct research that is conscious of the ethical hurdles of researching violence.

Presenting purely phenomenological accounts of the impressions violence and war make on the observer — something of the kind that large parts in Carolyne Nordstrom’s books do — is an unsatisfactory answer to Adorno/Horkheimer’s challenge. It rather avoids addressing the ethical problem of doing research by trying to make the researcher become a pure canvas on which the stories of violence are written. The motivation to subordinate the researcher’s personality to the narrative seems largely guided by the remorse of the survivor for not having shared the pain and misery of those whose stories we are recording. The ethical dilemma is then one of injustice between the observer and observed (which nevertheless might have the beneficial effect of preserving the subjective agency of the observed).

The path out of this aporia seems rather to make the logic of investigation a part of the investigation itself; to reflect upon the place this investigation has in a wider social net of interacting ideas and behaviours by including the question “why do I as a researcher think about the violence I’m investigating in this way?” rather than asking only “why do they (the actors) do this?”. If we do want to maintain the premise of reason’s unicity then both quesetions need to part of the same investigation.



Syria and the politics of naming


Violence has erupted again in Syria, indicating the failure of the UN special envoye Kofi Annan to find a peaceful solution to the conflict between the Syrian government and … yes, well, how would you call them? The government calls them “terrorists”, the international press calls them mostly “rebels”, some say “resistance fighters” and they call themselves mostly “revolutionaries” and refute the label of “civil war“. Of course, it is a common place that one’s terrorists or another’s freedom fighters. But the politics of naming are not simply an ideological word game but they conceal more important debates about the epistemology of conflict analysis and about the ontology of conflicts. As Jacob Mundy and Yves Winter point out, these name tags say a lot about the legitimacy that is conferred to the armed action and to the response. The question is not only whether the terms “terrorism”, “rebellion”, “revolution” capture accurately the violence displayed by a violently protesting group; the question is also which means of response and repression become legitimate for the government and international actors who might be involved. The legitimate means with which to respond to violence are certainly different whether we treat violent actors as criminals, rebels, terrorists or revolutionaries.

But, as Mundy argues, getting the name right also means getting the cause analysis right. In this perspective the naming is part of the conflict itself. Rebellions are much more short-sighted and are closer to riots than to the to the ideas of changing entire socities which are expressed in the notion of revoutions. Revolutions seek fundamental change in politics, society and economy, and are more profound and usually ideologically framed. The belittlening of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere as “Arab Spring” has concealed much of the revolutionary, and ideological impetus. Consequently, although the violence in Syria is often described as resulting from the movements of last year, the political and causal relationship becomes murky once the Syrian revolutionaries are called rebells or violent protesters. Rebels and protesters are a conjectural, punctual phenomenon; they can be — maybe — “sold off” through two, three policy measures and the regime could live on. Revolutionaries  want President Bashar Al-Assad’s head and those of his regime; they want another economy and they are trying to imagine another society.

Revolutionary situations are not merely situations in which human rights are violated — This is how the UN are presenting the story in Syria. Reducing such a situation to human rights violations wrongly infers that human rights would be, in principle, respected in this country but that they are not now, at this moment and more or less accidentally by this government. The fundamental legitimacy of the state’s goverment to act and to represent a, however configured, state of law is not disputed when such situations of collective violence are barely presented as human rights violations. However, in a revolution arbitrary violence by the government is neither accidental nor can it be dissociated from the already vanished legitimacy of this government. The human rights violations are secondary to the alltogether disputed legitimacy of the government itself. And this also means that ending arbitrary bombings, arrests, torture etc. will not restore Assad’s legitimacy…as the recent bombings in Damascus have shown. Naming wrongly means understanding wrongly means not being able to solve the conflict.

Revolutions are not civil wars, however, they can easily develop into such. But again, the name tag “civil war” implies yet new meanings which may or may not capture the causes and dynamics of the ongoing violence. In contrast to revolutions, which mark the overthrow of an existing order, civil wars are rather associated with long lasting violence, attrition, and the idea of homogenous groups confronting each other (e.g. confederates vs. yankees; Reds vs. Whites). They imply militarization (as contrary to armed violence), strategy, planning and long-term organisational formations. This may include ideological training and development that would not be observable in simple uprisings.

Yet, the reality on the ground of civil wars is also much more messy with pouches of protest and resilience within the government, splinterings of groups, a large variety of in-group fighting, diverse actors with different goals, ideological and political changes etc. Not all who are fighting in a civil war are revolutionaries or they actually might be but not forcibly the same…What they are cannot be decided a priori and from the outside but only after a careful analysis of the motives and causes of the violent actors. Whoever wants to understand the complexities of revolutionary wars might want to read through David W.P. Elliott’s “The Vietnamese War“.

Whereas media might be excused needing a handy and quick category for violent situations like in Syria, academia and policy circles at least should show more awareness that naming implies knowing and understanding the motives and causes of the violence. For Syria, this is seemingly not what is happening though.



Patchworks are not always pretty: the problems of mix-and-match approaches in conflict analysis.


Mixed-method approaches are the order of the day in conflict analysis and given the insufficiency of the early large-N studies this should be greeted as a sign of progress. The Journal of Peace Research recently published a special issue on conflict and climate change that displays some of those mixed-method studies and which, at the same, epitomizes the major problems of epistemology of patchworking different methodologies together. Some of the papers claim using ethnographic case studies in order to delve deeper into the causal mechanisms that reign the competition over scarce resources like pasture land in times of drought. These case studies are clearly instrumentalised and function as data provider for the otherwise behaviouralist research designs. The major epistemological differences between ethnography and political science are thus silenced rather than solved in an innovative way.

Obviously, several traditions exist within ethnography, yet, it is safe to say that the latest with Geertz’ hermeneutical approach, ethnography has become much more reflective on its naming and analysing practices than most of political science is. Notably in its behaviouralist strand – to which most of the conflict analysis of the researchers in this special issue belong –, political science has shown little reflexivity and only minor sensitivity towards questions of hermeneutics, of understanding of the “other” and of the distortive effects politics of naming have not only on the object studied but also on the subject studying (a debate about the naming of civil wars has just recently appeared in Security Dialogue).

In order to apprehend the gap between ethnography and political science in analysing collective violence, one should read Ted Gurr’s “Why men rebel” in parallel with Carolyn Nordstrom’s “Shadows of War”. Where the former flows over with generalisations, sweeping claims about human nature and ontological simplifications, the latter is an accumulation of encounters with violence and their narratives, with the author clearly rejecting to draw any general conclusion from her observations. In ethnographic hermeneutics the aim is to render voice and to withdraw the observer, yet not by silencing the tension between observer and observed, but by problematizing and discussing it reflexively (what Nordstrom does in her introduction and in interstices of her book). Contrary to the deductive rationalisations of political science, hermeneutic ethnography does not take any a priori decision on content or form of the stories that people will tell. Actually, being able to become aware of such, often even unconscious, a prioris and reflecting on the way they impact on the relationship between observer and observed is the major challenge of ethnographic hermeneutics. Although Nordstrom’s approach of accumulating observations without conclusion is not fully helpful either, the behaviouralist subsumption is even less so.

Just to take the article by Adano, Dietz, Witsenburg and Zaal, it becomes clear that this epistemological position is fundamentally violated in behaviouralist research . In their article, Adano, Dietz, Witsenburg and Zaal focus on “scarce resources” and draw heavily on former behaviouralist research on resources, competition and conflict in order to formulate hypotheses to which the “ethnographic” case studies provide supportive evidence (or not). The field research they report becomes data material that feeds into their behaviouralist study, which basically means that they are reifying their object of analysis. Instead of having the observed speak for themselves and having them deliver themselves  their understanding and interpretation of events, the outside observer ascribes the “relevant” or “right” interpretation. By doing so, the observers are also classifying and judging, for instance with their ethnic or “tribal” taxinomies or when they explain the conflict issues on the basis of prior behaviouralist research which postulates general “laws” for which the case study is just another “prove”. In such cases, there is no learning from the cases and from the field; the subjects and agents of politics and violence disappear and become simple datapoints. Such an approach (re)produces orientalisms and is incapable of deeply reflecting on conflict and politics as it does not allow “other” knowledge and interpretations than those already formulated by prior behaviouralist theories. Obviously, it produces insights that can be called new given that it adds certain knowledge. However, the assertion of certainty that emanates from such research is illusionary as its constructed and interpreted nature remains unreflected.