Civil War Research Paper

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I. Introduction

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II. What Is Civil War?

A. Civil Wars Versus Interstate Wars

B. Civil Wars Versus Other Types of Internal Political Violence

III. Measuring Civil Wars

A. Death Totals as Metrics for Civil Wars

B. Levels of Analysis

IV. Theories About Civil War

A. Greed

B. Grievance

C. State-Based Explanations

D. Policy Implications

V. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Since the end of World War II, there have been 5 times as many civil wars as interstate wars and at least 5 times as many deaths due to civil wars as due to interstate wars (Singer & Small, 1994). For various reasons, the relative peace among the members of the state system did not seem to elicit a similar effect within the members of the state system during the six decades after World War II. It is perhaps not surprising then that scholarly literature on civil wars has grown substantially—and substantively—in the 21st century. Scholars ostensibly accept that civil wars are social phenomena distinct from interstate wars, which implies that civil wars likely have causes, correlates, and outcomes that are substantively different from the causes, correlates, and outcomes of interstate wars.

This research paper discusses the major theoretical contributions and controversies related to the civil war research program. First, civil wars are defined conceptually, then operationally. Second, major theories focusing on the causes of civil wars are discussed, along with future directions and policy implications. The paper ends with a summary and a brief note on the current state of civil war research. While the discussions herein are by no means exhaustive, they tend to focus on the most notable civil war theories at this time.

II. What Is Civil War?

Civil war is defined in two ways: conceptually and operationally. The latter definition is subordinate to the former in that the latter attempts to make the former definition empirically useful. As will become clear, the disagreements among scholars about operational definitions can be traced to divergent opinions about what civil wars are conceptually. It is thus necessary to commence with the conceptualization of civil war prior to discussing alternative operational definitions.

A. Civil Wars Versus Interstate Wars

The first step is to elucidate what makes a war a civil war. Simply, civil wars are those fought between or among disputants within a single country, in contrast to wars fought between or among disputants of different countries. But to characterize civil wars as different from interstate wars in this manner is to miss the truly consequential differences between the two types of wars. A twofold trend of civil wars not found in interstate wars makes civil war a conceptually different type of war.

First, civil wars are fought between disputants of relatively unequal political stature. States ostensibly have the sole legitimate authority to use coercive power within the country. All other subgroups are therefore politically inferior to the state, which renders the state inimical to subgroups’ autonomy and the subgroups’ autonomy inimical to the primacy of the state. That is, when subgroups desire more autonomy—such as when the Kurds attempt to dissociate themselves from the Turkish state—the subgroups begin to pose an existential threat to the state’s primacy in that territory. Likewise, increased state vigilance manifestly threatens the ability of subgroups to govern themselves. For instance, China’s actions in Tibet in 2008 transferred much of Tibet’s local authority to the state apparatus in Beijing. In both cases, the state is politically superior to the outgroup. This contrasts with interstate wars, which involve disputants who are—theoretically— political equals. That is, no one state is legally subordinate to another. Canada has no legal right to make Lesotho’s laws, nor does Lesotho have any right to impose laws on China. Were these states ever to war with each other, there would be no rebel group.

This distinction in the relative political (in)equality of the disputants in civil and interstate wars arises because of the structural contexts within which the two types of wars occur. As mentioned, an established civil hierarchy exists whereby states can force compliance legitimately. It is this hierarchy that rebels seek to deconstruct or reconstruct and which the states wish to preserve or augment. Conversely, the international system is void of a formal, constitutional order (Waltz, 1959). It is therefore argued that interstate wars likely occur as a result of disagreements or ambiguities about what states’ obligations are to one another, given that they are political equals and are not inherently subordinated to one another (Waltz, 1959).1 The second critical distinction between civil and interstate wars, then, is that civil wars occur in a context of order whereas interstate wars occur in a context of anarchy.

Although counterintuitive, that civil wars occur where there is order does not correlate with less chaos. Indeed, some posit that civil wars tend toward more chaos than do interstate wars precisely because order preexisted (e.g., Vazquez, 1993). In this view, chaos erupts because disruption of the extant order leads to a disruption of the sociopolitical paradigm by which all citizens and groups of citizens interact. On the other hand, there is no sociopolitical paradigm to be corrupted on the international stage; the only type of war affecting the macro sociopolitical paradigm of the international system would be world wars (Vazquez, 1993).

Empirical data tend to validate the idea that civil wars have a relatively more violent disposition. Mason (2004) estimates that civil wars produced 170,000 battle deaths per year in the first five decades after World War II. These deaths, according to Singer and Small’s (1994) Correlates of War Project, accounted for 64 out of every 100 battle deaths suffered (Mason, 2004). The 1997 update of Correlates of War shows the same trend, with more battle deaths attributed to civil wars than to interstate wars (Sarkees, 2000). Even these data obscure the differences in brutality. For example, scholars observe that civil war casualties tend to include a relatively high percentage of noncombatants (Holsti, 1996) as states and rebels target civilians for a variety of reasons (Kalyvas, 2006; Mason, 2004; Mason & Krane, 1989). Moreover, if it is true that civilians become targeted only after they are convincingly labeled “barbarians” (Salter, 2002), then wars in which political unequals engage in combat ostensibly would be the wars most likely to produce civilian casualties. That is, the task of labeling the enemy a barbarian within the civil war context appears much simpler than the task a state would have in labeling another state barbarous. And if such labeling is a virtually necessary condition of civilian casualties, then it follows that civilian casualties are more likely to occur in civil wars than in interstate wars. The point is this: Not only do civil wars substantively differ from interstate wars, but logic and evidence suggest that these differences explain why civil wars tend to take on a decidedly more violent disposition, including the tendency to produce substantial civilian casualties.

B. Civil Wars Versus Other Types of Internal Political Violence

On distinguishing civil wars from interstate wars, the task remains to discriminate civil wars from other forms of domestic mass behavior and political violence. One characteristic is that civil wars involve collective action (Lichbach, 1998; Mason, 2004). For collective action to occur, individuals face a paradox they must resolve in order to commit to group goals (Lichbach, 1998; Olson, 1971), in this case rebellion. Briefly, the benefits of a successful rebellion are public goods. When a good is categorized as a public good, it means (a) that the good is not able to be excluded from public consumption—that is, the good cannot be privately held—and (b) that the enjoyment of the good by one consumer does not diminish the quality or quantity of the good for another individual. The implication is that an individual who had not aided in the rebellion would still be able to partake of the benefits of a successful rebellion. And given that the costs of a failed rebellion likely would be heavy for participants, both possible outcomes incentivize choosing to stay home instead of joining the group. The emergent paradox is that if everyone were to join, success would be virtually guaranteed, but since the potential costs of joining are so high, few do so at first (Lichbach, 1998). Civil wars occur only when a critical mass of individuals overcomes the incentives to stay home.

To be certain, similar paradoxes arise for other types of collective action, including protesting and rioting. What separates the collective action in civil wars from these other types is that civil wars simultaneously involve collective action (rebellion), political motivations (deposition or preservation of sociopolitical order), and reciprocation (fighting between the rebels and the state). That is, in civil wars, political motivations undergird collective action, which manifests in violent rebellion to which states violently respond. Civil wars combine collective action with violence that is both political and reciprocal. Each concept is discussed in turn below.

Violence in civil wars is inherently political, which is to say, for instance, that rebels’ objectives are based on subverting and changing societies’ legal structures. Criminals, by contrast, tend to be less ambitious. Criminal behavior can be described as circumvention of society’s legal structures.

The dichotomy between the political and the criminal is critical to defining civil wars conceptually because it permits researchers to scientifically distinguish between the behaviors of the Tamil Tigers and Al Capone’s Chicago gangsters, for example. The former wanted to live by a sociopolitical order wholly autonomous and distinct from the sociopolitical order imposed by the Sri Lankan central government. Conversely, Al Capone and his ilk sought only to live outside the sociopolitical order and had little desire, if any, to displace or significantly alter the prevailing sociopolitical order.2 In a sense, then, antistate behavior wrought by political motivation—as in the Tamils’ case— is intentional and systematic. Antistate behavior wrought by criminal motivation is coincidental—a strategy used to navigate around state strictures that occasionally pose inconveniences.

To classify civil wars as inherently political is hardly to isolate them from other phenomena. Indeed, politicide and coups d’état are but a couple of examples of alternative types of political violence. In neither of these types, though, is the violence mutual. In the case of politicide, the state targets civilians who do not and—perhaps—cannot fight back. The converse case applies to coups d’état; essentially, the state is powerless to fight back and subsequently cedes its authority to the usurpers. For the political violence to be associated with civil war, however, there must be dueling (explained below) and organized violence between the disputants (Fearon & Laitin, 2003; Sambanis, 2004). For this reason, routs, massacres, or any other type of one-sided violence conceptually differs from civil wars; each can, however, be a precursor to civil war (Kalyvas, 2006; Mason, 2004).

While it is generally accepted that mutual violence between disputants is a necessary condition for a civil war to exist, there is debate about whether the state must be a disputant. The phenomenon of failed states in particular has brought this issue to the fore. The modern sociopolitical arrangement requires a state to impose social contracts and to provide its citizens with basic protections from internal and external threats (Migdal, 1988). Weak states have limited capacities to do so and often co-opt existing social networks in order to accomplish the most basic operations (Migdal, 1988). In failed states, not only are the most basic state operations neglected, but no coherent apparatus exists from which the state can operate, nor is there a general consensus among the populace of what or, more important, of who the state is (Buzan, 1983). Classic examples include, among others, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and Somalia (“The Failed States Index,” 2005; Patrick, 2007). The problem for civil war studies is whether the type of fighting typically observed within the territories associated with failed states constitutes civil war, a subtype of civil war, or a separate type of conflict altogether. At issue is the absence of the state as a disputant in the fighting taking place in these countries.

In one of the most important and influential books on conflict, Small and Singer (1982) include among their civil war criteria the requirement that the state must be a disputant in the internal fighting. Yet Sambanis (2004) observes that this principle is not uniformly applied. In Somalia, for instance, a state does not exist in any institutional coherence. There is, consequently, no state involvement in the brutal fighting ongoing within the territory. Still, scholars tend to classify the conflict as a civil war (Sambanis, 2004; see, e.g., Fearon & Laitin, 2003; Sarkees, 2000). To reconcile this incongruence, some degree of nuance has been added.

Foremost, the idea of the state as a disputant has been reinterpreted to include claimants to the state (Fearon & Laitin, 2003; Sambanis, 2004). A claimant is any substate group that asserts its right to fill the void left by, or never occupied by, the state. The fighting in territories of failed states often occurs among multiple, competing claimants (Holsti, 1995). Under this context, such conflicts ostensibly pit disputants against one another for the right to impose their preferred sociopolitical order. As noted above, violent conflict over sociopolitical order within a territory is what makes wars civil wars. For this reason, conflicts in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Somalia, for example, tend to be classified as civil wars.3 The state as a disputant is therefore not a necessary requirement for civil war; rather, the disputants must simply be competing over the right to act as the state.

This makes sense considering that this is essentially what states are doing when they instigate or reciprocate violence against coherent substate groups. States fight for the right to impose their sociopolitical order in the given territory, which is exactly what substate groups do in the absence of a coherent state. Consider a few examples.

Secessionist conflicts occur when ethnic enclaves attempt to dissolve their political ties to an existing nation-state in favor of forming their own. Competing claims about who ought to impose whose sociopolitical order therefore evolve from the ethnic enclave and from the extant state. The Chechens’ fight to separate Chechnya politically from Russia is an illustrative example of this type of conflict. The Chechens believe they ought to be able to impose their preferred sociopolitical order within Chechnya, but Russia claims the right to project its preferred sociopolitical order from Moscow.

Some intrastate conflicts are believed to emerge because one socioeconomic group perceives itself to be disadvantaged or exploited by another socioeconomic group, which usually controls the state. The fighting that emerges is a result of the outgroup’s desire to depose the existing sociopolitical order, for which the ingroup stands, in favor of a new or significantly altered sociopolitical order. The social revolution in China that took place throughout the 1930s and 1940s represents this type of conflict, as do other rebellions, especially other social revolutions. In that conflict, the Communist Party of China won support from peasants, arguing that the system as run by the Kuomintang exploited the peasants and left them altogether politically powerless. The only way to garner power was to depose the Kuomintang’s sociopolitical order and replace it with the Communist Party of China’s preferred sociopolitical order. The Kuomintang fought to preserve its right to occupy the state apparatus from which it could impose its preferred sociopolitical order.

Finally, conflicts in territories of failed states, as mentioned above, often involve competing claimants to the state. That is, the substate groups battle for the right to impose their preferred sociopolitical order throughout the territory. Mobutu Sese Seko’s departure in 1997 sent Zaire into conflict illustrative of that often found in failed states. Mobutu’s departure left a void in central authority. Within a year, violent conflict emerged as Laurent Kabila’s Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire, commonly known by the initials AFDL, which changed the name of the country to Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo issued competing claims to the state. Each, in the absence of a coherent state, sought the right to impose his preferred sociopolitical order throughout the Congo.

Although these three examples are by no means exhaustive of the types of intrastate conflict observed, the examples do cover many of the contexts from which intrastate conflict emerges. And despite the differences in the makeup of the disputants in each case, one fundamental aspect of each conflict is striking in its recurrence: The genesis of conflict arises from competing claims to the right to impose the territory’s sociopolitical order. The implication is that conceptually, civil wars can be defined without setting firm criteria about the makeup of the disputants. What is more important is the goal of the disputants.

Based on the analysis above, civil wars have been isolated conceptually from other social phenomena. First, civil wars take place within an internationally sovereign territory. Second, civil wars involve collective violence that is reciprocated; one-sided waves of terror do not qualify. Third, the ultimate goal of the disputants is to win or maintain the right to impose their preferred sociopolitical order on the populace residing within a given territory. A working conceptual definition of civil war is warranted:

Civil wars are mutually violent conflicts between or among organized disputants who live within the borders of a sovereign member of the international system and who have issued simultaneous, competing claims to the right to impose the sociopolitical order over all, or a segment of, the territory within the system member.

To define civil wars this way jibes with most of the contemporary conceptualizations of civil war by emphasizing the origin and intent of the disputants. Separatist conflicts, social revolutions, rebellions, and conflicts between substate groups trying to fill the void left by the state all fit within this definition. Unfortunately, this definition has flaws, too, which will become evident in the next section.

III. Measuring Civil Wars

In order to use civil wars as an empirical concept, not only must researchers isolate civil wars conceptually; scholars also must find ways to populate cases from which data can be collected. And for all the progress the literature has made in isolating civil wars conceptually, problems still persist in the operationalization of civil war. For example, the conflict between the Colombian government and the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) fits most of the elements of the civil war definition given in the previous section. Recent developments, though, have led FARC rebels to begin to base their operations out of neighboring Ecuador. The retreat of rebels to neighboring states (Sahleyan, 2007) is but one part of a trend in which civil wars have begun to take on international dimensions (Gleditsch, 2007). Indeed, some fighting between the Colombian government and FARC rebels has taken place in Ecuador. The problem this poses for the present conceptualization is that the FARC rebels no longer live within the recognized borders of the state they seek to depose, nor is all the fighting contained within Colombia, yet the conflict is a widely cited case of domestic insurgency, which suggests the above definition ought to be altered some. But to relax the definition would be to begin to blur the conceptual lines between civil and interstate wars again. This case thus illustrates that endemic problems persist, which makes producing a standard set of civil wars difficult and explains why myriad sets exist. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that each set tends to favor the idiosyncrasies of its author’s research goals (Sambanis, 2004).

A. Death Totals as Metrics for Civil Wars

Recognizing that problems exist, however, does not imply that the literature is void of any standard approaches to operationalizing civil wars. First, a typical practice is to employ death totals to identify important civil war properties. Total aggregate deaths tend to indicate whether violence up to the level of a war has taken place, and relative death totals among the disputants have been used to indicate whether the violence was one-sided or mutual enough to be considered dueling violence (e.g., Fearon & Laitin, 2003; Gleditsch, Strand, Eriksson, Sollenberg, & Wallensteen, 2002; Sambanis, 2004; Sarkees, 2000; Singer & Small, 1994). The proximity of deaths in time also is used to determine the beginning of and, in some cases, the end of civil wars (see Sambanis, 2004). The differences among the studies include the threshold of deaths necessary and the time over which the deaths must take place. For instance, Gleditsch et al. (2002) use a lower per annum restriction than do Fearon and Laitin (2003) or Sambanis (2004).

The crux of the debate over the utility of deaths as a metric for civil war properties is whether limited skirmishes and overall low levels of violence are sufficiently high to classify as civil wars. If the death threshold is too low, then researchers might include cases in which no real threat to the state or extant sociopolitical order exists. Conversely, setting the threshold too high would bias studies toward bloodier conflicts, which may or may not be more divisive than the excluded, less bloody conflicts. The high death total might have something to do with advanced technology, population density, or some other exogenous factor not inherent to the conflict itself. Indeed, Sambanis (2004) discusses the attributes of employing relative measures in order to ensure that the death total substantially affects the nation-state under consideration. For instance, 1,000 deaths in China represent 0.001% of the population, whereas 1,000 deaths would account for about 0.03% of the Uruguayan population and 0.2% of the Montenegro populace. Put another way, deaths in China are worth about 5% of each death in Uruguay and worth about 0.33% of each death in Montenegro. There are also cultural, philosophical, and ideological differences across time and space that place different values on life in general (Finnemore, 2003). For instance, it was just over 200 years ago when the United States constitutionally agreed that people of a certain suppressed and enslaved minority were equivalent to only three fifths of a person from the majority ethnic group. In essence, a literal application of this provision would require nearly 1,700 deaths from the suppressed minority to equate to 1,000 deaths of the majority. For these reasons, deaths are not as straightforward a measure as scholars would like.

The arbitrariness of death thresholds is also an issue. Take Fearon and Laitin’s (2003) 1,000-death threshold, for example. Seemingly, there is little substantively different in a civil war from the time of the first death until the time of the 1,000th death. Yet the first death does not become a civil war death until the 1,000th death is reached. Despite these frailties, it is difficult to discern what might be a better, more consistent indicator of political violence than deaths, hence the widespread use of deaths as a metric.

B. Levels of Analysis

In addition to the issues associated with measuring key properties of civil wars, there is also a debate about what the appropriate level of analysis is for civil war research. The debate prompts researchers to consider whether their measures authentically operationalize their conceptualization of civil wars. Failure to do so could result in an ecological fallacy whereby researchers use one level of analysis to operationalize theories about civil war conceptualized on another level of analysis.

Currently, there are two major camps. One branch of the literature is devoted to resolving macrolevel puzzles about the causes and effects of civil wars (e.g., Collier & Hoeffler, 2004; Fearon & Laitin, 2003; Horowitz, 1985). In effect, the primary question these studies ask is, why do some states experience civil war while others, similarly situated, do not? A second branch of the literature focuses on microlevel puzzles, questioning why some individuals join rebellions when others do not, and what prompts individuals to engage in violence (e.g., Gurr, 1968; Kalyvas, 2003). Some works do a good job of synthesizing the two approaches, showing how macrolevel conditions can affect individuals’ choices and, ultimately, their behaviors at the microlevel (e.g., Kalyvas, 2006; Mason, 2004; Mason & Krane, 1989).

The key is that studies must not blur the levels of analysis. Theories about the root causes of civil conflict are no more capable of explaining why individuals commit to mass violence than theories about the desire to punish for past injustices can explain why some states are more prone to civil wars than others. The following examples should make this point clearer. In the former case, consider Horowitz’s (1985) seminal work on ethnic conflict. A root cause of civil wars, Horowitz argues, is the need ethnic groups have to compare favorably with each other. When one group compares unfavorably with another, the situation fosters enmity and, eventually, conflict between the groups (Horowitz, 1985). And while this certainly seems to be the case, the theory does not explain the motivation an individual has to commit to violence. That is, not all marginalized individuals join their coethnics to fight, and, moreover, many who do fight do so for reasons that differ from the stated political reasons (Kalyvas, 2003).

Of course, in the latter case, whether individuals are motivated to violence by a sense of justice and retribution or by cold calculation and personal ambition does not explain why some states tend to be more prone to political turmoil than others are. Consider Gurr’s (1968) enduring work on relative depravity. Essentially, Gurr (1968) argues that a necessary condition for mass political violence is anger in individuals. The anger evolves from situations when what one thinks one can achieve falls short of what one believes one rightfully should have the opportunity to achieve (Gurr, 1968). That this article is cited frequently four decades after it was written is testimony to its explanatory power. It does, however, fall short of explaining why some states seem more prone to mass political violence than others do, despite the presence of “angry” individuals in each, or why some states produce more relatively deprived individuals than others do. As a microlevel analysis of civil wars, the study cannot explain macrolevel factors.

The point should be made that these are not criticisms of the works inasmuch as they are illustrations of the gap that exists when authors employ different levels of analysis. A few studies do attempt to bridge this gap, however. For one, Mason (2004) discusses the motivations individual peasants have to join revolts but also demonstrates how certain state properties, such as land-tenure patterns, change peasants’ calculi and makes some states more prone to peasant revolt than others are. Mason explains why some peasants choose violence and some do not, as well as why some states seem more prone to peasants who choose violence than other states do. And it is likely that this approach represents the immediate future of the field. That is, integration of the various levels of analysis appears to be on the uptick, although scholars must beware that in integrating, they do not conflate the levels.

IV. Theories About Civil War

Having introduced the most prevalent conceptualizations of civil war, as well as some of the different issues that go along with empirically investigating the concept, this research paper now turns to highlighting some of the most prevalent theories on civil war. This section focuses on theories about the causes of civil war.

To know the root causes of civil wars has been the quest of most civil war researchers. In order to explain the incidence of civil wars, scholars typically take one of two approaches. One approach is rebel based; the other is state based. Theories belonging to the rebel-based approach seek to explain what motivates or encourages substate groups to issue a competing claim to the right to impose a sociopolitical order and, ultimately, to engage in political violence in an effort to substantiate their claim. Two general categories typify the explanations for rebel behavior: greed and grievance (Collier & Hoeffler, 2004).

A. Greed

Proponents of the greed explanation argue that rebels fight only when there is something to be gained by winning and when the probability of winning is sufficiently high (Collier & Hoeffler, 2004). In other words, civil wars are thought to occur because rebel groups have something economically tangible to gain by winning and have reasonable expectations of winning. The theories within this category therefore tend to focus on variables related to rebels’ opportunities.

Two articles demonstrate the key dimensions of the greed, or opportunity, theory. Collier and Hoeffler (2004) demonstrate that rebellions occur when they can be financed. Factors that affect the financing capacity of rebel organizations therefore are critical variables to civil war discussion. One variable is the cost associated with paying recruits. Collier and Hoeffler explain that recruits forgo income to join themselves to a revolution. The benefits they get from joining and fighting must exceed this forgone income. Therefore factors that depress the income recruits could earn outside the rebellion shrink the cost per recruit for rebel organizations, which ostensibly means more recruits and a greater opportunity to succeed (Collier & Hoeffler, 2004).

Fearon and Laitin (2003) show that civil wars are more likely to occur in nation-states where rebels can employ insurgency: “Insurgency is a technology of military conflict characterized by small, lightly armed bands practicing guerrilla warfare from rural base areas” (p. 75). Consequently, in employing insurgency, rebel groups reduce their need for more recruits, which drives down the cost of financing the rebellion. The practice of limited engagements also reduces costs by lessening the need for stockpiles of ammunition. In a sense, when factors enable insurgency to be used, the likelihood of conflict increases because the costs of financing the rebellion are reduced. So wherever insurgency is a viable technology, rebels have a greater opportunity to finance a rebellion, all else being equal.

The bottom line of each of these two articles is that rebellion is more likely to occur wherever it is more likely to be financed. Sources of financing, therefore, are critical (Collier & Hoeffler, 2004), as are factors that affect the amount of financing required—that is, whether potential recruits must forgo relatively high incomes (Collier & Hoeffler, 2004) or whether rebels can employ a cost-reducing technology such as insurgency (Fearon & Laitin, 2003). To be sure, many more articles touch on other factors related to the greed theory, but these two articles highlight the major facets that link rebels’ opportunities to the incidence of civil war.

B. Grievance

The alternative rebel-based theory of civil war incidence is based on grievances. It argues that what drives rebellion is the desire to reform or remake the extant sociopolitical order because of its apparent lack of fairness. According to this theory, rebels fight to rectify social injustices they face. The causes of rebellion, then, are the factors that contribute to perceived social injustices. For this reason, inequality— in a variety of forms—and relative deprivation are the two main foci of the grievances explanation.

Inequality, especially income inequality, aggrieves people (Muller & Seligson, 1987). Inequality by itself, though, does not convert grief to anger and anger to action. Anger is fomented when the inequality is seen as unjust or illegitimate. Such situations occur when the prospects of achieving what one believes one has the right to achieve are low (Gurr, 1968), and such situations are furthermore exacerbated when the relative deprivation is thought to have been foisted on the downtrodden—either formally or informally—by a rival ethnic group (Horowitz, 1985). Under this theory, civil wars represent violent attempts to correct years of perceived mistreatment, not opportunities exploited by rebel entrepreneurs.

Of course, some question whether greed and grievance theories are mutually exclusive. Greed and grievance can interact (Kalyvas, 2003), which would explain why some cases of severe relative deprivation persist and why not all ethnically heterogeneous societies conflict. In the former, despite a reason for rebellion, the opportunity to rebel may not materialize. In the latter, while resources may be plentiful such that rebellion is financially feasible, there may be no relative deprivation worth rectifying; outcomes might be in line with expectations. In either case, employing one theory seems insufficient to explain the observed behavior. Rebels’ motivations in civil wars may at once be born of greed and of grievance.

C. State-Based Explanations

Much of the literature on why or how rebels fight takes for granted the state’s role in civil wars. States tend to be treated as a constant in the civil war calculus. Yet states have many components, and it is not unreasonable to build theories of civil war based on differences in these components. For instance, it could be that certain types of states tend to produce relatively high degrees of inequality or that certain state characteristics tend to yield more and greater opportunities for rebels to finance their operations. Whatever the case may be, there is little doubt that differences in state characteristics exert some effect on the incidence of civil wars. Consider the following examples of state strength and democratization.

Weak states tend to be more prone to civil wars than do strong states (Fearon & Laitin, 2003). The reason civil wars occur in weaker states more readily than in strong states is twofold. First, weaker states tend to be incapable of imposing sociopolitical order throughout their entire territory, which includes providing equal protection and services to all citizens (Migdal, 1988). Weak states tend to be more prone to state-sponsored inequality (Migdal, 1988). This opens space—both figuratively and literally—within which rebels can emerge. Second, weak states are more likely to resort to indiscriminate violence against civilians in order to flush out rebels because the state’s intelligence-gathering mechanisms tend be as poorly developed as other aspects of the state (Mason & Krane, 1989). The cumulative effect of state weakness, then, is to give rebels more cause to fight and to make insurgency a more viable option, which in turn makes financing the rebellion more feasible (Fearon & Laitin, 2003). Other theories about state capacity and civil war exist, but most of these are either elaborations or qualifications of the theory as presented here.

The level of democratization also appears to have important implications for states’ vulnerabilities to civil war. Democracy preempts rebellion because it decreases the incidence of grievances by giving individuals a voice in the government and permits individuals to coordinate together politically in an effort to work to peacefully remedy perceived inequities (Hegre, Ellingsen, Gates, & Gleditsch, 2001). Coherent autocracies, on the other hand, preempt rebellion by prohibiting the political coordination needed to generate mass violence (Hegre et al., 2001).Where civil war is most likely to occur, then, is among states that suffer from institutional incoherence that fosters grievances, on one hand, and still has elements of openness, on the other hand, which permit individuals to come together and coordinate their efforts to effect political change (Hegre et al., 2001). Therefore, states characterized by some democratization and some autocratic tendencies tend to be those most prone to conflict. Again, state characteristics are shown to influence the incidence of civil war.

D. Policy Implications

Understanding the nature of, and causes of, civil wars has profound implications for policy. Presumably, the better scholars understand what factors most likely contribute to civil war, the more likely it is that policies aimed at addressing those factors can be authored and implemented. For instance, consider Horowitz’s (1985) discussions about how to resolve ethnic conflict. The resolution directly addresses what Horowitz found to be an important cause of ethnic division, namely, that political fates are often tied to ethnicity. Even democracies can be rife with ethnic conflict if parties form along ethnic lines because again political fate will be directly tied to ethnicity. To resolve this dimension, Horowitz proposes that certain institutions be in place that bring about political parties that cut across rather than reinforce existing ethnic cleavages. That is, parties should be introduced that reflect sociopolitical interests that put coethnics at political odds with each other.

As another example, the fact that institutional incoherence produces vulnerabilities to civil war suggests that researchers should find more effective ways of promoting the transition from autocracy to democracy (Hegre et al., 2001). That is, states appear most susceptible to civil war in the stages of polity transition. The implication is that if democratization is to continue, then ways to minimize the institutional incoherence during transition, as well as to reduce the amount of time spent in transition, are needed.

Finally, understanding the dynamics of the conflicts might also foster policies that can effectively end civil wars that do break out. The statement assumes a link between conflict causes and conflict termination. The veracity of the assumption holds implications for policymakers. In either event, knowing would enable more effective policies to be implemented to end civil wars that do commence.

V. Conclusion

The scholarly understanding of civil wars is undoubtedly growing. Researchers are now able to wed rebels’ motivations and opportunities with theories about state characteristics and civil war onset. For the advancements to continue, however, there needs to be more focus on a standard conceptualization and subsequent operationalization of civil wars. The problem is that researchers will continue to arrive at conclusions based on different cases, which erodes the ability to broadly apply the lessons learned from these studies. Of course, much progress has been made, and civil war research is not the only field that faces questions about the concept under investigation: Astronomers argue about what makes a planet a planet; physicists still cannot agree on the correct specification of the atom; and literary scholars still debate the identity of Shakespeare. So to say that the concept of civil war needs refinement, then, is not a harsh criticism at all. Rather, it is recognition that better conceptualization and operationalization could lead to discoveries that become significant contributions to the human pursuit of progress and peace.


  1. Moreover, it would seem that the interstate wars in which the systemic order is of issue would be the large, infrequent hegemonic wars where one or more states attempt to establish a hierarchy (Organski & Kugler, 1981).
  2. It is perhaps arguable that they even had an incentive to see that the sociopolitical order persisted.
  3. It might be reasonable, too, to split civil wars into subtypes because the idiosyncrasies of civil wars in which states are disputants and of civil wars in which claimants are disputants might differ (see Stephens & Liebel, 2008, for example). For the purposes of this research paper, though, it suffices to show that conflicts occurring in territories of failed states can be classified as civil wars.


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