Skip to main content

CliffsNotes: Empirical Studies of Conflict

Scholars of political violence from across the country gathered (virtually) at the Empirical Studies of Conflict 2020 annual meeting May 28-29. With a focus on technology, fragility, and development, researchers discussed the economics of conflict, the political impacts of social media, crime and policing, refugees, and civil war and foreign intervention. Here, presenters summarize what problem they hope their research will help to solve; what they are learning; and why they care about the work they do.


Repression and dissent around a potential critical juncture: Panel data evidence from Zimbabwe

Adrienne LeBas and Lauren Young

news_esoc-lebas.jpgQ. What’s the problem to solve?

A. Authoritarian regimes often use repression against their citizens, but social scientists have an imperfect understanding of how repression affects political behavior. Repression sometimes inhibits protest, either by inducing fear or raising the costs of organization. Under some conditions, though, repression strengthens citizens' resolve and makes protest more likely. Our research sheds light on how information, citizens' understanding of the likelihood of repression, and the actions of others affect their willingness to express dissent. This helps us better understand when and why citizens overcome the fear of repression and challenge authoritarian states.

Q. Describe your research.
A. We use face-to-face surveys and WhatsApp-implemented phone surveys to track individual attitudes during the critical July 2018 general elections in Zimbabwe. These elections—the first since the ouster of Robert Mugabe—were characterized by a more open period of campaigning and seemed to be an indicator of political opening. Yet the military opened fire on protesters the day after the election, and a state campaign of repression followed. Our unique panel data allows us to observe how ordinary citizens updated their views on repression and willingness to express dissent in real-time.

news_esoc-young.jpgQ. What have you learned?
A. We find that exposure to both repression and protest by others increased citizens' willingness to engage in protest and other acts of dissent. This suggests that repression is not as effective a tool in dissuading protest as conventional wisdom suggests. Though exposure to repression does induce fear and other mobilization-dampening emotions, it also generates emotional responses that favor mobilization. Our research suggests that citizens' exposure to both repression and dissent by others makes them feel more positive toward opposition actors, an effect that is particularly potent for those who were previously less politically committed. Repression and protest lay the groundwork for further confrontation by increasing levels of political polarization among ordinary citizens.

Q. What led you to become political scientists?
A. Initially planned to be an agronomist. While working in a lab on fungal control of rice pests as an undergrad, I learned that access to inputs and new technology was a deeply political problem. I did coursework in economics and political science, and eventually went to graduate school in political science, because I was interested in how transnational actors and political institutions impact the success of policies to redress food insecurity and poverty. [LeBas]

I had planned to work in humanitarian assistance, but I decided to do a social science PhD after getting the chance to run a survey in northern Liberia as an intern for an international NGO. I loved the process of doing a survey—traveling in close quarters with a team of researchers, trying to get inside someone else’s life experience—and developed a better understanding of just how little evidence policymakers usually have when designing policies to alleviate violent conflict. [Young]

Q. Why do you care about this stuff?
A. In many circumstances, citizens participate in collective action despite significant risks. We tend to avoid normative judgments in the social sciences, and often view decisions as the outcomes of structural forces. At a human level, though, we have to recognize that participation in collective action can be quite brave and prosocial. The fact that we still don’t have a sufficient model of how and when it works is also motivating at an intellectual level. We also both conducted fieldwork in Zimbabwe during periods of state-sponsored violence and economic crisis, and these experiences shaped our research and made us more committed to understanding popular mobilization and political change.


Refugee Return and Food Insecurity: Explaining Increases in Violence in Ongoing Civil Wars

Kara Ross Camarena

Q. What is the problem to solve?
A. Refugees are often blamed for destabilizing the places where they seek refuge. If this is true, and we can understand how it happens, then we may be able to prevent it.

news_esoc-kara-teaching.pngQ. Describe your research.
A. My research focuses on refugees who return home while a civil war is ongoing. I ask: do large return flows during the civil war make violence worse? To answer this question, I examine refugee return using quasi-experimental methods in sub-Saharan Africa with a ten-year panel beginning in 2000. I find that unexpected, large returns in the midst of a civil war cause additional violence. More limited evidence suggests some violence may be due to demand for food.

Q. What have you learned?
A. Large, unplanned for migrant flows can make ongoing civil wars worse. Humanitarian interventions that provide basic needs upon arrival of migrants could mitigate the violence.

Q. What led you to become a public policy researcher?
A. One evening while I was living in Arusha, Tanzania, I went to have a quick dinner alone at a hotel restaurant. I was seated by a lawyer who was representing a defendant in the Rwandan War Crime Tribunal, and we had a fascinating conversation. I got a glimpse of the perpetrator's side of the Rwandan genocide, and it made me question a lot of what I had learned about Rwanda. I realized that how people respond to conflict depends in part on political, economic, and social context. I later learned that public policy could shape this context.

Q. Why do you care about this stuff?
A. There are millions of people in the world who embark on extraordinary journeys in order to save themselves and their families from violence and persecution. My research provides guidance on how policy can help these people in search of safety.


How Repression Affects Public Perceptions of Police: Evidence from Uganda

Travis Curtice

news_esoc-travis.pngQ. What is the problem to solve?
A. My work seeks to understand two problems. First, what drives cycles of political violence and insecurity? And second, why don’t people trust police to keep them safe? By understanding these problems, I hope my research contributes to policies that help reduce the fear and insecurity that people face.

Q. Describe your research.
A. I study political violence and its effects on people’s perceptions of the police. Most of my work focuses on policing in unconsolidated democracies and conflict-affected states. I’ve worked in Kenya, Liberia, Nepal, and Uganda. I use diverse methods, including survey experiments, field research, qualitative interviews, and cross-national comparisons, to navigate the ethical challenges of researching such socially sensitive topics and the demands of causal inference.

Q. What have you learned?
A. When political authorities rely on the police to repress political dissent, it undermines people’s confidence in the police, making them less likely to support the police or cooperate with them.

Q. What led you to become a political scientist?
A. In many ways, I stumbled into becoming a political scientist, in part because it offered some of the theoretical and empirical tools I was looking for to understand patterns of conflict. In 2004, I was teaching English in Zenica, Bosnia. While working there, I witnessed victims from a mass grave in Srebrenica being buried at the memorial in Potočari. It’s the kind of experience that stays with you. I knew then that I wanted to study conflict. But it was three years later, when I was working in IDP camps in northern Uganda, that I knew I wanted to pursue my doctoral studies.

Q. Why do you care about this stuff?
A. Bridging the gap between academia and policy motivates my work. Outside of academia, I worked in development in conflict-affected communities and as an election analyst for several election observation missions. These experiences shaped the questions I ask and my approach to research. Having one foot in the policy/practitioner world reminds me why the stakes to understanding political violence and conflict are so high.


Do Commodity Price Shocks Cause Armed Conflict? A Meta-Analysis of Natural Experiments

Darin Christensen, Graeme Douglas Blair, and Aaron Rudkin

news_esoc-darin.pngQ. What is the problem to solve?
A. Many countries—often low-income countries—depend heavily on primary commodity exports, things like palm oil or iron ore. As global demand for these commodities fluctuates, the ensuing price swings can have large economic and political consequences. Our interest is in whether and under what conditions these global price swings generate instability and conflict.

Q. Describe your research.
A. We conduct a formal meta-analysis of 46 high-quality empirical papers in economics and political science that address the question of whether commodity prices shocks impact armed conflict. These papers collectively study more than 200 countries.

Q. What have you learned?
A. When you pool together all different types of commodities, there’s no effect of prices shocks on armed conflict. But when you break out the different types of commodities, we find that price increases for a capital-intensive commodity, such as oil, increases armed conflict. The opposite is true of agricultural commodities, which are labor-intensive. We also find that prices increase for artisanal minerals—think gold and diamonds produced in small-scale mines—increase the likelihood of conflict. This confirms past claims that such minerals are highly lootable and, thus, a lucrative target for attacks when prices are high.

news_esoc-graeme.pngQ. What led you to become political scientists?
A. I like how social scientists think—how we combine theory and data to better understand why social problems arise and, thus, what might be done about them. [Darin]

I got interested in the politics of natural resources talking to Albert Brownell, a Liberian environmental lawyer and activist, who works with communities that have shut down timber production and use that leverage to bargain with the government and the companies for fair operating terms and compensation. I found the idea that ordinary people can affect social change through disrupting an important source of government revenue really powerful. I spent my graduate work studying how communities living near oil infrastructure in Nigeria organized around the same logic: interrupting oil production through fighting and protests to demand a fair share of oil profits. [Graeme]

Q. Why do you care about this stuff?
A. We work with a number of NGOs and governments in resource-rich countries, where these are pressing questions. It’s motivating to think that our research findings could inform the problems they target and the policies they put in place. [Darin]

Policymakers are increasingly looking to implement evidence-based policies but are faced with an array of mixed if not contradictory evidence. When two sets of prominent scholars publish papers that come to the opposite conclusions, as in this space, it's hard even for experts to figure out how to make policy decisions. Meta-analysis is one tool to help cut through these disputes and guide decisions about when and where, for example, commodity shocks are likely to be a problem for economic and social policy. It's a tool that's very common in medical research, but hasn't been adopted quickly in the social sciences. If we want policymakers to take academic research seriously, we need to provide tools that guide decision-making. [Graeme]


The Ethnicization of Syria’s Conflict: A Social Media Analysis

Alexandra Siegel and Yael Zeira

news_esoc-siegel.pngQ. What is the problem to solve?
A. Ethnic conflicts are often seen as especially violent and intractable. But how do conflicts become ethnic in the first place? Our research explores when and why some conflicts are "ethnicized"—how ethnic interpretations of conflict become dominant in the war of ideas. The goal of this work is to improve our understanding of what drives and what mitigates ethnic conflict.

Q. Describe your research.
A. We analyze the online and real-world spread of ethnic narratives, frames, and interpretations of the Syrian civil war, which began as an anti-regime revolution and took on an increasingly ethno-sectarian hue. We develop a new framework that systematically maps Syria's pre-conflict ethnic structure, and, using Twitter data, crowdsourced surveys of Syrians, and machine learning methods, we measure ethnicization. Drawing on this framework, we empirically demonstrate the ethnicization of the Syrian conflict and plan to conduct network and spatial analysis to identify the key drivers of this process.

Q. What have you learned?
A. We are in the early phases of this project, but our preliminary analysis suggests that ethnic frames and narratives of the Syrian conflict first gained traction outside of Syria, before becoming more prominent domestically, showing the important role that external actors may play in fueling ethnicization.

news_esoc-zeira.pngQ. What led you to become a public policy researcher.
A. Ethnic conflict is part of my family’s history. My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and my grandfather fought in the 1948 War that simultaneously resulted in the creation of Israel and the dispossession of the Palestinian people. From a young age, I was aware of the ways that conflict impacts the lives of ordinary people, and that made me want to know about how different groups come into conflict and how we can bridge intergroup divisions. [Yael]

I became interested in using social media to study politics when I was living in Cairo during the Arab Spring. While using Twitter and Facebook to figure out which streets were closed, how to avoid teargas, and other day-to-day logistics, I became fascinated by the political discussions unfolding online. This experience motivated me to pursue a PhD, using social media data to answer policy relevant questions about political behavior in the Arab World. [Alex]

Q. Why do you care about this stuff?
A. What keeps me motivated is puzzling out an answer to a question we haven’t fully been able to answer before and knowing that the answer matters—that it has consequences. When there are new and clear policy implications that come out of my work, that’s what’s most exciting to me. [Yael]

I’m excited by the opportunity to bring new tools and data to help us answer policy-relevant questions. From clerics and royal family members to elected officials and everyday citizens, millions of people use online platforms to talk about politics. They leave behind digital footprints that enable us to map their behavior in real time, offering new means of understanding the dynamics of conflict and political behavior. [Alex]


The Economic Value of Crime Control: Evidence from a Large Investment on Police Infrastructure in Colombia

Miguel Angel Morales Mosquera

news_esoc-morales.jpgQ. What is the problem to solve?
A. I hope my research will help policymakers around the world who are trying to be more effective in alleviating the consequences of urban crime. My research provides a deeper understanding of the efficient deployment of police resources, and the role that infrastructure can play in moderating crime. It proposes a measure for the benefits of spending public money to reduce offenses, giving policymakers an estimation of the costs created by crime.

Q. Describe your research.
A. My research is largely focused on uncovering the benefits and costs of crime policy and society’s responses. My current work is focused on estimating an individual’s willingness to pay for crime reductions. I combine theory with new sources of granular data to better understand the economic consequences of urban crime in developing countries. In my most recent paper, I use the housing market to develop estimates of the local welfare of individuals after a large investment in police infrastructure in Colombia. Applying a research design based on the openings of hundreds of police stations in the three largest cities, I study the effects of public safety investments on crime and housing markets. I assembled a detailed spatial dataset on the location and operation of police stations and linked this information with administrative data that provides information on reported crime, policing, census and property values.

Q. What have you learned?
A. I’ve learned that localized policing led to important reductions in crime, mainly explained by deterrence effects. Yet, these reductions in crime are highly localized with no evidence of crime displacement in the surrounding area where police are deployed. I also learned that there are significant economic benefits and they translate to increases in property values. Now, I am studying what are the consequences on residential sorting and neighborhood composition.

Q. What led you to become a public policy researcher?
A. Two events promoted my vocation to understand the world and contribute to improving society’s conditions. I was born and raised in Cali, Colombia during the time that drug cartels (Cali and Medellin) were fighting against each other and against the government, a period of extremely high levels of violence in Colombia. This experience deeply influenced me and sparked my interest in understanding the causes and consequences of crime. Later, I had the opportunity to work in the Colombian Central Bank during the 2008 global financial crisis. During that time, I saw firsthand how public policies and rapid responses have an enormous impact on society.

Q. Why do you care about this stuff?
A. I am passionate about what I do. Doing research in public policy has the extra motivation that research results have an important and faster impact in society. For instance, policymakers and agencies in Colombia have shown interest in the results of my research. They are interested in data-driven analysis to improve the design of their crime policy.