Social Structure and Conflict

James Robinson

Why are conflicts in some areas especially frequent and severe?

Ethnic groups live in close proximity to one another in many regions of the world. But in some regions—such as in Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and the Middle East—civil wars occur more frequently, last longer, and are more violent than violent conflicts in other areas. To understand the underlying causes of civil war, James Robinson studied 145 ethnic groups located in sub-Saharan Africa, an area where substantial ethnographic data has been gathered. Using conflict data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, his team coded ethnic groups based on their social structure—that is, the kinship systems that hold people together and make collective action possible. Statistical analysis demonstrated that ethnic groups organized as “segmentary lineage societies,” in which groups are organized by family lineage, are much more likely to experience violent conflicts and civil wars. The likely reason is that such groups find it much easier to mobilize fighters and therefore exacerbate collective action problems.

The prevalence of civil war
Civil wars are a prevalent feature of the modern world, far outpacing interstate conflict. When Robinson began his study in 2013, there were 34 ongoing civil wars, 18 in Asia and the Middle East, 14 in Africa, and 2 in the Americas (UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset). Some, like the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan state, have been very protracted and can be traced back to 1987. The civil war in Mindanao, the southern island of the Philippines, has been ongoing since the late 1960s. These and other civil wars have caused significant damage and loss of human life. In 2013 alone, an estimated 70,451 people died fighting in civil wars (UCDP Battle-Related Deaths Dataset) and 10.7 million civilians were newly displaced (UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2013). At the end of 2013 more than 33 million people had been displaced by conflict.

Conflict data
Researchers accessed conflict data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), which provides the precise location of each conflict event in all African countries for the period 1997–2014. The ACLED dataset contains additional information about each conflict event, including the number of resulting fatalities, conflict participants, and the type of conflict. Each conflict is characterized as one of seven types: violence against civilians, remote violence, riots and protests, battles, nonviolent transfer of territory, nonviolent activity by a conflict actor, and headquarters or base established.

Seeking resolution
Social structure may be an important key that can contribute to theories of power and civil war. Groups that have been organized historically as segmentary lineage societies do not initiate more frequent conflict, but they experience more battles and violence against civilians, more fatalities, and their conflicts last longer than in societies that are not organized in this way. These results are robust to a number of different confounding factors, and they may explain the dynamics of current regional conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

(working paper)