Sociology of War Research Paper

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The sociology of war is a central topic in both political and historical sociology, since war is one of the most important policies states can pursue, and the outcomes of wars have often shaped both the formation and the dissolution of states. The literature on war is thus concerned with both its causes and its consequences.

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Studies of the causes of war can be divided into three broad categories. The first type takes the system as a whole as the unit of analysis and focuses on how characteristics of the interstate system affect the frequency of war. Debates focus on characteristics of the interstate system that are thought to increase or decrease war, such as global economic cycles, balances of power, and the increasing role of transnational organizations such as the United Nations. States are the unit of analysis in the second type, which explores the relationships among political, economic, and cultural features of particular states and their propensity to initiate wars. Social scientists disagree about the effects of political systems (democracy vs. autocracy) and economic systems (capitalist, socialist, or other) within states on war. The third type analyses war as an outcome of choices made by individual and small-group decision making. There is also no consensus on which model of individual decision making is most appropriate for the study of war. Is the decision to go to war based on a rational calculation of economic costs and benefits, or is it an irrational outcome of distortion in decision making in small groups and bureaucracies?

Theories of the consequences of war tend to focus either on its role in state formation, or on its causal impact on internal revolts and revolutions. Historical sociologists have shown that the frequency, duration, and timing of medieval and early modern warfare were the most important determinants of the size and structure of states (Tilly 1975, 1990, Ertman 1997). However, just as war can make states, it can break them too. For example, Skocpol (1979) argues that costly warfare often leads to fiscal crises and state breakdown, facilitating revolutions.

1. Causes Of War: The Interstate System

Most studies of war that take the interstate system as the unit of analysis begin with assumptions from the ‘realist’ paradigm. States are seen as unitary actors, and their actions are explained in terms of structural characteristics of the system. The most important feature of the interstate system is that it is anarchic. Unlike politics within states, relations between states take place in a Hobbesian ‘state of nature.’ Since an anarchic system is one in which all states constantly face actual or potential threats, their main goal is security. Security can only be achieved in such a system by maintaining power. In realist theories, the distribution of power in the interstate system is the main determinant of the frequency of war.

Although all realist theories agree on the importance of power distribution in determining war, they disagree about which types of power distributions make war more likely. Balance-of-power theories (Morgenthau 1967) suggest that an equal distribution of power in the system facilitates peace and that unequal power distributions lead to war. They argue that parity deters all states from aggression and that an unequal power distribution will generally result in the strong using force against the weak. When one state begins to gain a preponderance of power in the system, a coalition of weaker states will form to maintain their security by blocking the further expansion of the powerful state. The coalitions that formed against Louis XIV, Napoleon and Hitler seem to fit this pattern.

Hegemonic stability theory (Gilpin 1981) suggests exactly the opposite, that unequal power in the system produces peace and that parity results in war. When one state has hegemony in the world system, it has both the incentive and the means to maintain order in the system. It is not necessary for the most powerful state to fight wars, since their objectives can be achieved in less costly ways, and it is not rational for other states to challenge a hegemon with overwhelming power. For example, the periods of British and US hegemony were relatively peaceful and World Wars I and II occurred during intervening periods in which power was more equally distributed. A related attempt to explain great-power war is power transition theory (Organski 1968). Power transition theory suggests that differential rates of economic growth create situations in which rising states rapidly catch up with the hegemonic state in the system, and that this change in relative power leads to war.

Debates about power transitions and hegemonic stability are of much more than theoretical interest in the contemporary world. Although the demise of the USSR has left the USA as an unchallenged military hegemon, its economic superiority is being challenged by the European Union and emerging Asian states (Japan in the short run, perhaps China in the long run). If power transition and hegemonic stability theories are correct, this shift of economic power could lead to great power wars in the near future.

Another ongoing debate about systemic causes of war concerns the effects of long cycles of economic expansion and contraction. Some scholars argue that economic contraction will increase war, since the increased scarcity of resources will lead to more conflict. Others have suggested the opposite: major wars will be more frequent during periods of economic expansion because only then will states have the resources necessary to fight. Goldstein’s (1988) research suggests that economic expansion tends to increase the severity of great-power wars but that economic cycles have no effect on the frequency of war.

One significant change in the last half of the twentieth century which will require substantial revisions in realist systemic theories of war is the development and increasing power of transnational organizations (such as the United Nations), since their assumption that the interstate system is anarchical may no longer be valid. If the military power of the United Nations continues to grow, it could become more and more effective at preventing wars and suppressing them quickly when they do start. Of course, it remains to be seen whether powerful existing states will choose to cede more power to such institutions.

Theoretical debates about the systemic causes of war have not been resolved, in part because the results of empirical research have been inconclusive. Each theory can point to specific cases that seem to fit its predictions, but each must also admit to many cases that it cannot explain. Part of the problem is that systemic theories have not incorporated causal factors at lower levels of analysis, such as internal economic and political characteristics of states. Since the effects of system-level factors on war are not direct but are always mediated by the internal political economy of states and the decisions made by individual leaders, complete theories of the causes of war must include these factors as well.

2. Causes Of War: Capitalism And Democracy

One of the longest and most heated debates about the causes of war concerns the effects of capitalism. Beginning with Adam Smith ([1776]1976), liberal economists have argued that capitalism promotes peace. Marxists (Lenin [1917]1939), on the other hand, suggest that capitalism leads to frequent imperialist wars.

The Smithian liberal argument suggests that since capitalism has both increased the benefits of peace (by increasing productivity and trade) and the costs of war (by producing new and better instruments of destruction), it is no longer rational for states to wage war. The long period of relative peace that followed the triumph of capitalism in the nineteenth century and the two world wars that came after the rise of protectionist barriers to free trade are often cited in support of liberal economic theories (but the same facts can be explained by hegemonic stability theory as a consequence of the rise and decline of British hegemony).

In contrast, Marxists (Lenin [1917]1939) argue that economic problems inherent in advanced capitalist economies create incentives for war. First, the high productivity of industrial capitalism coupled with a limited home market due to the poverty of the working class result in a chronic problem of ‘underconsumption.’ Capitalists will thus seek imperial expansion to control new markets for their goods. Second, capitalists will fight imperialist wars to gain access to more raw materials and to find more profitable outlets for their capital. These pressures will lead first to wars between powerful capitalist states and weaker peripheral states, and next to wars between great powers over which of them will get to exploit the periphery.

With the increasing globalization of economics, and the transitions of more states to capitalist economies, the debates about the effects of capitalism, trade, and imperialism on war become increasingly significant. If Adam Smith is right, our future is likely to be more peaceful than our past; but if Marxist theorists are right, we may see economically based warfare on an unprecedented scale.

The form of government in a country may also determine how often it initiates wars. Kant ([1795]1949) argued that democratic states (with constitutions and separation of powers) will initiate wars less often than autocratic states. This conclusion follows from a simple analysis of who pays the costs of war and who gets the benefits. Since citizens are required to pay for war with high taxes and their lives, they will rarely support war initiation. Rulers of states, on the other hand, have much to gain from war and can pass on most of the costs to their subjects. Therefore, when decisions about war are made only by rulers (in autocracies), war will be frequent, and when citizens have more control of the decision (in democracies), peace will generally be the result.

Empirical research indicates that democratic states are less likely than nondemocratic states to initiate wars, but the relationship is not strong (Kiser et al. 1995). Perhaps one reason for the weakness of the relationship is that the assumption that citizens will oppose war initiation is not always correct. Many historical examples indicate that in at least some conditions citizens will support war even though it is not in their economic interests to do so, due to nationalism, religion, ethnicity, or other cultural factors.

Perhaps the most interesting current debate about democracy and war surrounds the proposition that democratic states never fight each other. There is clearly a strong empirical generalization to be explained, since all agree that democratic states rarely fight each other—depending on exactly how ‘democracy’ and ‘war’ are defined, some argue they never do (Weart 1998). However, scholars disagree about the causal mechanism responsible for this association. Some stress the role of political culture, arguing that the norms of toleration and mutual accommodation that prevent conflicts within democracies from escalating to violence have the same effect in limiting violent conflicts between democracies. These states consider each other part of the same ‘ingroup’ sharing the same values, and are thus very unlikely to fight. In contrast, others suggest that ‘democratic peace’ could be the result of rational self-interest. Democratic politicians may simply fear the negative impact that losing a war might have on their prospects for re-election. Further research, probably at the level of detailed case studies that can reveal precise causal mechanisms, will be necessary to resolve this debate.

3. Causes Of War: Decision Making

Few theories of war focus on the individual level of analysis; their assumptions about individual decision making are usually implicit or undeveloped. Notable exceptions include rational choice theories (Bueno de Mesquita 1981, Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman 1992) and arguments about organizational and small group decision making (Allison 1971).

Bueno de Mesquita begins by assuming that the decision to initiate war is made by a single dominant ruler who is a rational expected-utility maximizer. Rulers calculate the costs and benefits of initiating war, and the probability of victory, so wars will be initiated only when rulers expect a net gain from them. These assumptions generate several counterintuitive propositions. For example, common sense might suggest that states would fight their enemies and not their allies, but Bueno de Mesquita (1981) argues that war will be more common between allies than between enemies. Wars between allies are caused by actual or anticipated policy changes that threaten the existing relationship. The interventions of the USA in Latin America and of the USSR in Eastern Europe since World War II illustrate the process. Other counterintuitive propositions suggest that under some conditions a state may rationally choose to attack the stronger of two allied states instead of the weaker, and under some conditions it is rational for a state with no allies to initiate war against a stronger state with allies.

Other analyses of the decision to initiate war focus on how the social features of the decision-making process lead to deviations from rational choice. Allison (1971) argues that standard operating procedures and repertoires within states tend to limit the flexibility of decisions and make it difficult to respond adequately to novel situations. Others focus on the small groups within states (such as executives and their cabinet advisers) that actually make decisions about war. The cohesiveness of these small groups often leads to a striving for unanimity that prevents a full debate about options and produces a premature consensus. In spite of these promising studies, work on the deviations from rational choice is just beginning, and we are still far short of the general microlevel theoretical model of the decision to initiate war.

4. Consequences Of War: State Formation And Bureaucratization

How and to what extent does war affect the formation and the structure of states? Tilly (1975, 1990) argues that ‘war made states’ in the early modern era. Warfare (along with the repayment of debts from past wars) cost far more than any other state policies in early modern Europe. Moreover, the timing and the nature of war shaped the structures of these developing states.

One of the most interesting ongoing debates concerns whether war facilitates or hinders bureaucratization. Weber ([1922]1978) argued that states involved in military competition with other states (e.g., Western Europe) would be more likely to bureaucratize than those that were more isolated (e.g., China, Japan). Although he does not use this terminology, he basically argues that states not facing the threat of war would be satisfied with existing administrative arrangements, whereas those competing militarily would be forced to adopt the more efficient bureaucratic form.

In contrast to this, Levi (1988) views war as a consistent impediment to bureaucratization. She argues that war raises the discount rates of rulers, causing them to pursue policies that provide immediate gains even if they are costly in the long term. Thus, rulers facing war would be unlikely to pay the high start-up costs of bureaucratization, but would instead do things like selling offices which would make bureaucracy much more difficult to implement.

Ertman (1997) suggests a related argument in which the timing of war is important. When states experienced early sustained warfare (prior to about 1450) they developed patrimonial administrations (due to lack of trained personnel and the dominance of ‘cultural models’ derived from feudal and Catholic institutions). These institutions were very difficult to bureaucratize due to the power of entrenched officials to block reform. Ertman argues that states that were able to avoid frequent war until later were able to develop more bureaucratic administrations.

Finally, wars that result in severe losses may facilitate bureaucratic reforms. One of the main barriers to bureaucratization is the entrenched officials in the state administration who have both the incentives and the power to block reform (Ertman 1997). These officials will not be dislodged by most wars, but their power will be broken by a severe loss at war, especially one that results in foreign occupation.

5. Consequences Of War: Revolt And Revolution

Since the classic work of Simmel ([1908]1955, pp. 98–9) and Coser (1956, pp. 19, 95), the conventional wisdom has been that wars decrease the probability of revolts by increasing the internal cohesion of societies (the ‘ingroup–outgroup’ or ‘conflict–cohesion’ hypothesis). However, the results of empirical tests of the relationship between revolt and war have been mixed, at best.

In contrast to the ‘conflict–cohesion’ hypothesis, historical sociologists focusing on the early modern period (Tilly 1975, p. 74) argue that fighting wars increased the likelihood of revolts. Tilly argues that since subjects had few institutionalized mechanisms available to stop rulers from initiating wars contrary to their interests, the only option they had to try to limit war was revolt. In addition, Tilly (1975, p. 74) notes that since participating in wars weakens rulers, it increases the likelihood of a revolt.

Theda Skocpol (1979) has made the most compelling argument that war is a primary cause of major ‘social revolutions.’ Her argument about the origins of the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions stresses the importance of factors that weaken the state, making it more vulnerable to overthrow. The main factor that tends to weaken states is war, especially in the context of strong peasant communities and an alienated dominant class. This work has been the primary inspiration for the development of a ‘state-centered’ approach to historical sociology.

6. Conclusion

This short summary has only been able to scratch the surface of the voluminous literature on war. Future research should attempt to link the several topics discussed here, by bringing together the micro and macro causes of war, and by tying the causes more closely to the consequences of war. The increasing development of technologies of mass destruction and the rise of transnational political units will also challenge existing theoretical frameworks. Like most of sociology, the sociology of war is still in its infancy.


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