Expert Commentary

Why we kill: Reviewing the political science research on the roots of violence

2014 paper from Dartmouth College on the evolving research understanding of political violence and a review of key intellectual trends.

Although some recent research indicates that international respect for human rights has improved in past decades, it is difficult to ignore the fact that violent conflicts continue across the world, from Iraq and Somalia to Mali and Ukraine. Historians and political scientists have long been interested in the causes and consequences of such conflict. Why does the violence continue to take place at all? Why is it bloodier in some parts of the world than in others?

In a 2014 paper, “Why We Kill: The Political Science of Political Violence against Civilians,” political scientist Benjamin A. Valentino provides an overview of political science literature on violent conflict, as well as highlighting recent research trends. Valentino, of Dartmouth College, has published works on genocide, humanitarian intervention and the costs of war. He has also served as a fellow at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where he has been involved in developing a public early warning system to prevent future mass killing.

In examining the existing literature, Valentino highlights several general findings in his paper:

  • Until the 1990s, the body of political science research on violent conflict suffered from two key shortcomings with regard to scope: (1) It focused almost exclusively on causes of conflict, leaving aside topics such as the consequences of the violence and; (2) It primarily addressed traditional interstate war, neglecting other forms of political violence including genocide and ethnic cleansing. In short, “while historians attended to individual instances of political violence, rejecting general theorizing, political scientists staked out the other extreme. By searching for general theories of war and revolution, political scientists overgeneralized.”
  • There was also a “pre-1990s consensus” that “tended to portray this violence as either the result of ancient, often ‘tribal’ hatreds, or the ‘wanton and senseless’ acts of individual madmen or sadists.” Valentino cites Robert Kaplan’s book Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History as a work that offers this characterization. He also notes that this attitude extended to policymaker circles, providing Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger’s comment on the Yugoslav conflict in 1992 as an example; “this war is not rational. There is no rationality at all about ethnic conflict. It is gut, it is hatred; it’s not for any set of values or purposes; it just goes on.”
  • Valentino offers the caveat that terrorism seemed to be an exception to the pre-1990s consensus. He cites experts such as Martha Crenshaw (Stanford University) and Walter Reich (George Washington University) who in the early 1990s articulated the view that “terrorism can be understood as an expression of political strategy … a willful choice made by an organization for political and strategic reasons, rather than the unintended outcome of psychological or social factors.” Robert Pape (University of Chicago) makes a similar point in his research, including in his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism: “Terrorism is a strategy of coercion, a means to compel a target government to change policy. The central logic of this strategy is simple: … [T]o inflict enough pain on the opposing society to overwhelm its interests in resisting terrorists’ demands, and so to induce the government to concede, or the population to revolt against the government.”
  • In more recent research, political scientists acknowledge that most political violence — not just terrorism — is strategically complex and based on more than pure ethnic animosity. Valentino references pivotal works, including the 1995 Human Rights Watch book Slaughter Among Neighbors: Political Origins of Communal Violence and a 1996 paper by James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin (Stanford University), “Explaining Interethnic Cooperation.”
  • Valentino also notes that “one of the most firmly established findings is the strong association between the military strategy of insurgency/counterinsurgency and violence against civilians … the new scholarship shows that civilians are intentionally targeted during insurgencies because of the unique relationship that exists between civilians and insurgents in such wars.” He cites works by scholars such as Timothy Wickham-Crowley (Georgetown University) articulating these claims.
  • “Most scholars exploring the motives of political elites see violence, usually violence directed against other ethnic groups, as a tool used by elites to seize or maintain political power. Put simply, elites in competitive, although not necessarily fully democratic, political systems may use violence and the fear of other ethnic groups to generate political support from their coethnics.” This view is expressed by political scientist Paul R. Brass (University of Washington), among others.
  • The paper also highlights areas for future research. Valentino notes, “One of the most obvious questions that arises from the new consensus that violence against civilians is instrumental and strategic is whether this strategy works.” He explains that the limited research to date seems to indicate that “large-scale, indiscriminate violence against civilians generally is not effective, at least in the long run.” Political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas (Yale University) argues that indiscriminate violence in civil wars tends to “backfire on those who use it.” Similarly, Robert Pape’s research on the use of air power in war concludes that inflicting heavy bombardment on a civilian population usually “generates more public anger against the attacker than against the target government.”
  • Another area ripe for future research is tackling the question of why civilian violence appears to have declined so dramatically in the past two decades. Valentino cites the psychology professor Steven Pinker (Harvard University) as an early explorer of this issue; Pinker documents this decline of violence in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Valentino concludes the review by reiterating the importance of the topic: “A clearer understanding of the sources of political violence, of course, is only a necessary, not sufficient, condition for preventing it. Whether scholars or policy makers can identify successful strategies of intervention to limit violence against civilians and whether our societies can muster the political will to implement them are among the most important questions for scholars of political violence in the coming decades.”

Related: The Council on Foreign Relations 2014 Global Conflict Tracker is a useful infographic for depicting international conflicts of various intensities.

Keywords: genocide

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