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Why Do People Fight in Civil Wars?

- April 30, 2008


bq. Statistical evidence from Sierra Leone’s civil war offers support to three major literatures that seek to account for revolutionary mobilization…[P]articipation in a military faction does depend on an individual’s relative social and economic position, the costs and benefits of joining, and the social pressures that emanate from friends and community members. While these arguments are often presented as rival, multiple logics of participation do coexist within the same conflict.

That is from a recently published paper by Macartan Humphreys and Jeremy Weinstein (gated, ungated).

The data come from a survey of demobilized combatants and non-combatants in Sierra Leone. This work, along with recent work by Stathis Kalyvas and Ana Arjona, is pushing the frontiers of both international relations research, in which civil wars figure prominently but individual-level actions are rarely investigated, and political behavior research, in which individual-level actions are the focus but civil war is rarely investigated.

Some other noteworthy findings concern the meaning of grievances:

bq. At the same time, our empirical results challenge conventional accounts of participation that emphasize grievances. While proxies for standard grievance explanations receive support in our study of those who rebel, we find that the same indicators—poverty, a lack of access to education, and political alienation—also predict the decision to defend the status quo.Moreover, these factors also distinguish those who are abducted into a fighting force from those who remain on the sidelines. Conventional interpretations of welfare measures which emphasize the individual and group frustrations that drive participation in violence are thus called into question. Individual characteristics that observers may readily take to be indicators of frustration with the state may instead proxy for features such as a greater vulnerability to political manipulation by political and military elites, a greater frustration with more peaceful forms of protest, or most simply, a lack of other options.

As well as the importance of social pressure:

bq. Our work suggests as well that involuntary participation is a fundamental part of revolutionary mobilization and political violence. Although this fact is already well appreciated by scholars of the Sierra Leone conflict, traditional theories of mobilization within political science make little mention of coerced participation.

I would add that studies of participation in genocide also emphasize the importance of coercion. See in particular Scott Strauswork on the Rwandan genocide.

For a sort of postlude to this work, see Humphreys and Weinstein’s investigation of how to demobilize and reintegrate civil war participants (e.g., here and here).