Paul Staniland

Militias, Ideology, and the State

What factors shape relations between governments and militias?

Research on militias portrays them as subservient proxies of governments used to achieve tactical goals. But a broader view of recent and current conflicts reveals significant diversity in state–militia relations. Militias can occupy different roles within a political system, ranging from armed allies to mortal enemies of rulers. Different types of militia are targeted with strategies that reflect these roles. As regime and armed group ideologies change, and as militias become more or less useful, so do militias’ relationships with state power. In this article, Staniland creates a typology of militias’ political roles drawn from their ideological fit with and operational utility to a government. He outlines four distinct strategies that states can pursue toward militias, ranging from incorporation to suppression. He then argues that regime ideology shapes how governments perceive and deal with militias. Using comparative evidence from India and Pakistan, he shows that varying regime ideological projects contribute to different patterns of militia–state relations. These findings suggest that political ideas ought to be central to the study of political violence, militias should be studied in direct dialog with other armed groups, and a traditional focus on civil war should be replaced by the broader study of ‘‘armed politics.’’

This approach merges previously isolated work on insurgency, militias, electoral violence, and state-building into an integrated research agenda. Political violence does not exist in a political vacuum as states and armed groups interact with one another in fascinating forms of armed politics. Systematically theorizing and measuring these patterns of competition, cooperation, and coexistence provides a valuable new way of grappling with fundamental questions about violence and political order.

Journal of Conflict Resolution (2015)

Download Full Story (PDF)

The University of Chicago