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Bridging levels of analysis in the study of conflict

- January 26, 2015

Fighters from the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) militia sitting on pick up trucks mounted with a machine gun on Jan. 5 during clashes with forces loyal to Libya’s Tobruk-based government near the Wetia military air base. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)
Since the end of the Cold War, civil wars have become shorter and more intense, but compared with the past, they have also proven overall less victimizing to civilians. Post Cold War civil wars are also more likely to end with some kind of compromise as compared with wars before 1991, when they tended to end in military defeats. Why? The answer lies in what Stathis Kalyvas and I have termed “Technologies of Rebellion.” Put simply, civil wars display less the characteristics of guerrilla warfare and are increasingly fought between symmetric forces at either high or low levels of military capacity.
Does Warfare Matter? Severity, Duration, and Outcomes of Civil Wars” shows the value of distinguishing between irregular, conventional and symmetric non-conventional (SNC) wars. They may all be civil wars, but they have very different dynamics and point to different potential outcomes. The demise of irregular civil wars and the increase in conventional and SNC wars appear to account for some of the changing patterns in civil war duration, severity and termination since the end of the Cold War. Irregular wars, which are fought asymmetrically between a stronger state and a weaker but robust insurgency, are characterized by attrition and thus tend to last significantly longer than other conflicts. In contrast, civil wars fought symmetrically, with intense fighting along visible front lines and greater destruction, are likely to end sooner. Symmetrical wars tend to be more deadly to combatants, while irregular wars tend to come with a greater toll for civilians. For example, the recent civil war in Libya or the current civil war in Eastern Ukraine are not civil wars fought between peripheral guerrilla insurgencies and well-armed incumbents. Rather, they are conflicts fought between governments and rebel organizations that are equipped to clash head-to-head with them. As such, these civil wars are likely to end sooner than civil wars such as the ones in Peru or Colombia, which have been fought irregularly and have lasted for a long duration.
In our research, we bridge different levels of analysis in the study of civil war: Technologies of Rebellion is a meso-level variable allowing us to link micro-level behavior (for example, recruitment) and macro-level patterns (for example, civil war duration). A burgeoning new research agenda on the micro foundations of civil wars and other forms of political violence has started to shed light on some of the complex micro-level causes of political violence. Despite considerable progress, this new body of literature has yet to consider specific linkages between micro-level conflict dynamics and wider social processes. In a special issue I have co-edited with Patricia Justino for the Journal of Conflict Resolution (un-gated until Feb. 15), we have brought together research that has attempted to bridge micro and macro processes. It features original research on different forms of political violence and different dimensions of conflict, such as the determinants of communal violence, the causes and consequences of electoral violence, taxation by armed groups, the formation of wartime political orders, recruitment and desertion, and civil war duration, severity, and outcomes.
Ana Arjona uses original empirical evidence from Colombia to demonstrate that during wartime there are different types of institutions that originate from the interactions between armed groups and civilians. The varied forms of governance materialize in different “social contracts” (disorder, rebelocracy or aliocracy), which impact a myriad of civil war dynamics, including violence, displacement and recruitment. Arjona shows that these different forms of social contracts exist in wartime areas and that they have implications on civilians’ lives and decision-making processes. For example, living under rebelocracy might make civilians more likely to collaborate with the rebels, and this can in turn lead to more robust and unyielding insurgencies.
Theodore McLauchlin studies desertion from armed groups by incorporating the frequently used macro-level variable “rough terrain” in a micro-level analysis of wartime dynamics. Rough terrain constitutes a meso-level variable permitting the connection of individual behavior and general patterns. He uses individual-level data from soldiers fighting in the province of Santander in northern Spain during the 1936-39 civil war to show that combatants who come from hill country are considerably more likely to desert than combatants whose hometowns are on flat ground.
Jaideep Gupte, Patricia Justino and Jean-Pierre Tranchant explore riot victimization in India using a unique household- and neighborhood-level survey from the state of Maharashtra. They use a multilevel framework to identify how conflict dynamics play out for different units of analysis. They find that economically vulnerable households, households living close to unsafe areas and shop owners are more prone to suffer from riots, and that households report lower levels of victimization if they are further from police stations, exhibit higher levels of trust and are able to rely on outside help in times of need. More broadly, the article shows how riot victimization works through channels operating at both the micro (individual) and meso (neighborhood and district) levels.
Roxana Gutiérrez-Romero focuses on Kenya, where communal violence was widespread after the 2007 elections. She makes use of an original panel research design that allows her to measure the causes of electoral violence at the local level, on one hand, and the impact of this violence on citizens’ preferences, on the other. The article finds that political parties use vote buying and intimidation strategically in competitive areas, where these practices can make a difference in electoral results. Gutiérrez-Romero also finds that individuals affected by violence are more likely to identify through ethnic lines, and that victims of two very different malpractices, such as violence and vote buying, are more likely to support the use of violence to resolve disputes.
Rachel Sabates-Wheeler and Philip Verwimp analyze the effects of forced contributions (cash and forced labor) to rebel movements during Burundi’s civil war on household welfare levels. They find that cash payments to rebel groups increase the economic welfare of households that pay them. This is counterintuitive, but the authors argue that regular cash payments could be acting as an insurance mechanism against negative outcomes for individuals with a certain economic profile. This micro-level welfare effect is in turn linked to a macro-level pattern, the persistence of weak state capacity in conflict-affected countries, as payments to armed groups may reinforce their power relative to that of states.
The articles in this special issue constitute very diverse research, dealing with different types of political violence and using diverging methodologies, units of analysis and case studies. Yet, the pieces altogether constitute a step forward toward a more comprehensive research agenda on conflict that reconciles the insights and methodologies of two approaches that have thus far been largely divorced: those that look at processes taking place at the national and cross-national levels, and those that study processes occurring at the local and household levels. I trust that research along these lines will be soon more common in the field of conflict studies for it is able to yield findings that are grounded in firm micro foundations while also having some generalizability.
Laia Balcells is an assistant professor of political science at Duke University.