Category Archives: Ontology of Conflict

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.


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.


Neopatrimonialism … an often used, yet analytically doubtful concept.


Many analyses of civil conflict like to refer to “neopatrimonialism” as explanation for collective violence, analyses of the Syrian conflict being no exception. Neopatrimonialism has not only been invoked for Syria but for every single African country that has experienced violent conflict and it has often been singled out as a causal factor, particularly in the literature that has linked civil war with state failure. And yet, there is no clear definition of what neopatrimonialism is nor by which mechanisms it creates violent conflict. There is some rather vague understanding that a neopatrimonial system is one based on close networks of power which control access to economic and political resources in a country. In some cases, neoopatrimonialism is used synomynous to nespotism, when kinship ties in government are denounced; in other cases, it is used as euphemism for mafia networks, indicating a criminal character of the economic activity that is at the origin of the network.

Most African and Asian countries are said to be neopatrimonial. In Africa particularly neopatrimonialism is the dominant form of politics, or so it is said since seminal works of anthropoligsts like Bedsloe or political scientists like Jeffrey Herbst and William Reno. According to them, politics in these countries are constructed on personal hierarchical ties and networks which are based on reciprocal obligation at the dispense of socialized, i.e. distant, legally based relations which Weber identified as characteristic of bureaucratized societies. It remains disputed up to which point and how this “traditional” form of governance was transformed by colonialism but Africanists like Patrick Chabal or political sociologists like Joel Migdal consistently argue that colonialism rather prevented the emergence of an administrative strong state and of a political culture of autonomous and powerful citizenship. It is the persistence and predominance of patron-client networks which seemingly structure African politics that makes the notion of neopatrimonialism so enduring.

Yet, as handy as the concept of neopatrimonialism appears, the nature of patron-client networks and of the politics these generate vary throughout the world as do the effects tehy have on conflict; hence, many Africanists, for instance here, dispute the utility of the concept altogether and prefer to differentiate various systems of hierarchical obligation and how they transform under economic, social and political pressures. Paul Richards and Jean-Pierre Chauveau demonstrate in their comparative  analysis how different forms of neopatrimonialism in Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire has led to different forms of conflict. In Sierra Leone the commodification of dependent rural youth has led to the revolt of the RUF whereas in Cote d’Ivoire the same development has first disenfranchised youth to leave to the cities, and then, when these young people tried to reintegrate their village communities following the economic crisis, to a conflict with foreigners who had taken their places in village communities and agriculture upon the first wave of urban migration. Both authors agree with others that it is not patrimonialism per se that has created these explosive situations but its distortion and degeneration through various factors such as large-scale economic crises, migration, the intermeshing of new ideas and styles of social organization etc.

More importantly, patrimonialism is extremely difficult to nail down as an indicator of fragility, not only because of its vague definition but also because of the large variety of contradictory findings on the effects of patrimonial networks. A number of studies in economic sociology have argued that it is exactly neo-patrimonial structures of society that have allowed countries like Japan, Korean or China to shoulder the enormous burden of reconstructing a rapidly growing economy on the ruins of war and destruction, and that these same networks continue to assure the economic success of these countries. Contrary to the argument that neo-patrimonialism necessarily leads to violence because it is distorting resource allocation, many authors in area studies, anthropology, and comparative sociological economics argue that neo-patrimonial social structures can have stabilizing effects, facilitate communication and allocation of resources and enhance the efficiency of collective efforts by reducing coordination costs. The observation that a state-in-society form is neo-patrimonial does not in itself tell anything about the capacities of the state nor about the risks of civil wars.

All summed up, neopatrimonialism does not seem to be a very helpful concept to understand the political structures that are likely create situations of mass collective violence. In fact, it does not seem appropriate at all to capture a specific category of political structures. Its attractiveness is probably less due to its analytical sharpness than to its ideological contents. Neopatrimonialism is, from its resonance at least, clearly an opposite of liberalism and democracy which, both, per definition promote individual merit and perform on functional premises only, not on personalised networks and which both, are, of course, much more efficient than those other systems…that’s at last what convinced liberals argue, like a former British colleague who, in a public lecture, accused “guanxi” to be holding back Chinese economic development. That was in 2010, when the British economy had already started its deep dip-down and the China had become the second largest economy of the world. And that was just one hour after he had asked me in the uni corridor if I would not have a job for one of his friends’ sons ….


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.