A Fictional Account of Torture that Illuminates Politics

I knew locking a man up in a dark room was meant to arouse fear before torture; hoping they’d begin with the bastinado, I thought about the lies I could tell to save my hide.

That is Black, a character in Orhan Pamuk‘s 1998 novel My Name is Red  (pp. 246-7).  The passage, which I continue below, offers a useful window into the central claim Steven Pinker makes in his book about the centuries long decline in homicide produced by government’s assertion to a monopoly over the legitimate exercise of coercion, and development of courts and police to enforce the claim.


Bastinado (aka foot whipping); demonstration using a cane.  Source: Wikimedia

Pamuk’s novel is set in Istanbul during the 1590s.  And though it is not widely know, but torture was widely used in courts and other judicial proceedings as the means to establish the innocence/guilt of accused throughout human societies up to the 18th Century.  As Radley Balko explains in his Rise of the Warrior Cop, police as we know them today are a 19th Century development, spreading globally from London.  Criminal courts that relied on forensic evidence are a post-1920 development (think “Perry Mason,” “Adam 12,” “Law & Order,” “CSI,” etc.).

Thus, as far as the living memory of our species is concerned, the use of torture as legitimate means to investigate and adjudicate charges is completely foreign.  Pamuk’s fictional account packs in a brief scene a wonderful antidote.  Though it was not his intention to do so,[1] the Sultan’s use of torture to investigate the murders that are at the core of the novel illustrate not only Pinker’s process–generalized beyond homicide to human cruelty–at work, but also reflect nicely on the moral claims that accompany the focus on the monopoly on violence.

We begin with more of a glimpse inside the detainee’s head as he is removed from the room and the process begins.

In the hands of my torturers, I had nothing in which to take refuge.

I didn’t even notice that tears began to fall from eyes.  I wanted to beg, but as in a dream, no sound issued from my mouth.  I knew from wars, deaths and political assassination and torture (which I’d witnessed from afar) that life could be extinguished instantaneously, but I’d never experienced it this closely.  They were going to strip me from this world just as they’d stripped off my garments.

They took off my vest and shirt.  One of the executioners sat on me, driving his knees into my shoulders.  Another placed a cage over my head with all the practiced elegance of a woman preparing food and began slowly turning the screw at its front.  Nay, it wasn’t a cage, but rather a vise that slowly squeezed my head.

I screamed at the top of my lings.  I begged, but incoherently.  I cried, mostly because my nerves had given out.

They stopped momentarily and asked: “Were you the one who killed Enishte Effendi?”

You see, it is a judicial inquiry.  The Sultan has directed his staff to interrogate the detainee, Black, because a murder has taken place and no police force exists to investigate, nor prosecutor, nor judges.  In medieval Europe this process was known as Trial by Ordeal (aka, Trial by Fire).  The Spanish Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials are widely known events that featured trial by ordeal, but few realize that trial by ordeal was the standard judicial process practice throughout Europe for centuries.  Those events were not in the least exceptional.

Let us return to Black’s trial by ordeal.

I took a deep breath. “Nay.”

They began to tighten the vise again.  It was excruciating.

They asked again.


“Who then?”

I don’t know!”

I wondered if I should just tell them I’d killed him.  The world spun unpleasantly about my head.  I was overcome with reluctance.  I asked myself if I were growing accustomed to the pain.  My executioners and I stayed still for a moment.  I felt no pain, I was simply terrified.

Just as I decided from the silver coin in my pocket that they weren’t going to kill me, they suddenly released me.

Why was Black released?  He had passed the ordeal: the practice worked such that a suspect was subjected to predetermined level of pain, known only to the torturers.  If s/he did not confess, she was deemed not guilty, and another suspect would be subjected to trial by ordeal.

Here is how that unfolds in My Name is Red.

They removed the viselike contraption that had actually done little damage to my head.  The executioner who had pinned me down stood up without even a hint of apology.  I donned my shirt and vest.

There passed a long silence.

At the other end of the room, I saw Head Illuminator Osman Effendi.  I went to him and kissed his hand.

“Don’t be concerned, my child,” he said to me.  “They were just testing you.”  …

“Our Sultan has ordered that you not be tortured at this time,” said the Commander.  “He deemed it more appropriate for you to help the Head Illuminator Master Osman find the rogue who’s been killing His miniaturists and they loyal servants preparing His manuscripts.”

You see, Black was one of several painters (miniaturists) working in a shop on book projects commissioned by the Sultan.  Two members of the shop, one a Master, had been murdered, and the Sultan was, in effect, deputizing Master Osman and Black to conduct an inquiry to determine who was the guilty party.  The Commander continues.

You have three days in which to interrogate the miniaturists, scrutinize the illuminated pages they’ve made and find the sly culprit.  The Sovereign is quite appalled by the rumors being spread by mischief makers about His miniaturists and illuminated manuscripts.

Why?  Because the government had no police force and no prosecutor/court, murder investigations and prosecutions took place on an ad hoc basis.  Given the absence of modern institutional solutions to homicide alternative systems were necessary.  The ubiquity of trial by ordeal–in some times and places conducted under ad hoc authority, and in others, under an institutionalized court–in the absence of modern police and courts is fascinating.

Equally interesting, I expect you will agree, is the rest of Sultan’s solution to the homicide problem in his polity.

Within three days, if you fail to produce the swine along with the missing page he stole–about which much gossip is flying–it is Our Just Sultan’s express desire that you, my child Black Effendi, be the first to undergo torture and interrogation.  Afterward, let there be no doubt, each of the other miniaturists will have his turn.

Everybody knows that when a crime is committed with Our Sultan’s wards, regiments and divisions, the entire group is considered guilty until one morning one among them is identified and turned in.  A section that fails to name the murderer in its midst goes down in the judicial records as a ‘division of murderers,’ including its office or master, and is punished accordingly.

To summarize, in the Sultan’s realm the problem of homicide was addressed via a mixture of ad hoc investigations, trial by ordeal, and self policing motivated by collective punishment.  One need only have been a tweenager (middle schooler), not a rational institutional theorist, to understand why such a system is more brutal, and a less effective deterrent, than the flawed, but superior, “monopoly” alternative.

Pamuk’s scene wonderfully captures why, as Pinker explains, the government’s claim on a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of coercion, enforced via the creation of professional police and courts, has dramatically reduced the homicide rate in our species.


[1] Pamuk wrote the novel well before Pinker even thought of pursuing the project that produced his book.

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Your Field Needs a MINDfields Project, and You Need to do It


Christian Davenport conceived the MINDfields project a number of years ago: a video interview project to document and archive the lived experience of senior scholars in his field.  As explained on the project’s homepage, The MINDfields project:

conducts interviews with senior conflict, violence and peace scholars.  The interviewees reflect on the trajectory of their research agendas during the arc of their careers, thus providing a unique perspective on conflict and peace research unavailable elsewhere.  

It was inspired

in equal parts by Charles Tilly’s concern that new generations of researchers enter the profession with limited appreciation and understanding of the intellectual past of conflict scholarship, the scholarly community’s response to Tilly’s passing in 2008, and the Iconoclasts series on Sundance Channel.

I am calling on tenured faculty in other fields to launch similar efforts for their communities.  We have structured MINDfields as a DIY project where we use our phones or a cheap video camera, and then post the result to YouTube.  Production quality thus leaves much to be desired, and we’ve had audio issues, blah, blah, blah.  You can adopt DIY, or commit some sort of resources and produce a higher quality output.  It’s up to you.

We have also adopted a structured interview approach where

We Just Turn on the Camera, ask Six questions and Life Happens (more or less)

* What research of yours are you most proud of?

* What led you to undertake the research project for which you are most widely known?

* Looking back at the evolution of the field over the course of your career, what do you think should have received more attention?

* Are there any approaches, theories, topics, etc. that you believe should have received less attention from the community?

* If you had done an interview like this when you were in mid-career, who would you have liked to interview?

* What do you think are the most exciting or promising areas in current research? Future research?

You can adapt/adopt that or create your own (un)structured interview process.  It’s up to you.

I am sure there are other efforts out there, but the only similar project I know of is the Parents of the Field project of  George Mason’s School for Conflict Analysis & Resolution.

So this is a call to get off yo butt, coordinate with a colleague or two, and build some community.  Do it!


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Wolfording: An Explainer

What the hell does is mean to Wolford?


While experts bitterly dispute[1] the the authenticity of the original Wolford post, is widely agreed that the practice is a social media post (generally to Facebook, but also Twitter, Instagram, or other platforms) featuring a book and an alcoholic beverage, frequently, though not necessarily, in a public house / bar / lounge / restaurant, and generally while traveling.  Scott Wolford, a member of an obscure coterie of academics known as political scientists, is responsible for establishing the practice.  Hence the moniker.

It is unclear who was the first to copy the practice, thus launching the meme, but several examples follow.














Below: a partial gallery of originals posted by Wolford himself.
















[1] As is well known, the most intense academic disputes involve the most arcane and smallest of stakes.


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Democracies Violate Rights Fighting COIN Wars

`We put a wrap on the Spring slate of CC Virtual Workshops discussing an interesting paper by Adam Scharpf that begins with offers the following figure as a puzzle: why would democracies and autocracies violate rights at equal levels when engaged in counter-insurgency when the former violate rights at substantially lower levels when not engaged in COIN operations?


Jessica Di Salvatore, Shanna Kirschner, Jonathan Powell, Jacob Shapiro and Juan Tellez served as discussants of the paper, “Regimes, Organizational Rivalry, and Repression in Counterinsurgency Wars,” and we had a fun, stimulating discussion. You can watch the video here.

Scharpf argues that slack is greater within coercive forces in democracies compared to autocracies, which permits inter-service rivalry to generate human rights violations in the COIN campaigns of democratic countries to rise to the level of those committed by autocratic regimes. That is, Scharpf argues that interservice rivalry produces a focus on short-term measures of “success” by commanders, which we can summarize as a “body count” premium. In autocratic countries leaders need not restrain commanders from a body count approach, beyond limits placed by international scrutiny. As such, violations will be substantial. But the need to “coup-proof” leads autocratic leaders to use coercion as a means to sustain leadership (e.g., bloody purges), and this limit on agency slack among coercive agents in autocracies prevents them from violating rights wantonly (due to international pressure). For democracies, however, both domestic and international pressure incentivize executives to limit rights violations during COIN conflicts. However, they are unable to “discipline” coercive agents like autocrats can, thus where inter-service rivalry exists, the can get a little out of hand.

Put another way, Scharpf expects the median level of rights violations to be equal between autocratic and democratic countries fighting insurgencies, but the former to have lower variance than the latter. The following figure shows that this is the case.


As always, there are measurement issues. Scharpf needs to interact a measure of democracy with a measure of inter-service rivalry. To do this, he creates a dichotomous indicator of rivalry from Pilster & Böhmelt‘s effective number of services measure for the former and selects the Polity dataset for the latter. Both indicators received attention within the CCVW group. Scharpf recognizes that the Pilster & Böhmelt data is a proxy indicator, and the limits that creates for the internal validity of his inferences. Suggestions for alternatives included construction of either a fractionalization or polarization index using the Pilster & Böhmelt data or using a mass killing indicator such as UCDP’s one-sided violence or the PITF Atrocities data.

Other issues concerned the use of democracy itself. Earlier work by Davenport, Armstrong and Moore as well as Conrad and Moore revealed similar dynamics to the Scharpf piece but they paid a bit more attention to the measure of democracy employed. For example, Vreeland has definitively shown that using Polity without extracting the influence of civil conflict on the measure is highly problematic. Additionally, the VDEM project identifies 7 different types of democracies and 300 measures. Gone are the days of just using Polity without confronting this variation. There was a concern that democracies were less likely to see insurgencies and that this selection bias would need to be addressed.

Concerning COIN there was also some discussion about how this was differentiated from/overlapping with state repression. Do not both involve police raids, curfews, interrogation, torture and mass killing? If so, then how could one separate discussion of COIN from repression? Related as civil war involves repressive action/COIN, does focusing the analysis on repression during civil wars muddy the waters even further?

Shapiro explained that he was not persuaded about the internal validity of the inference, and encouraged Scharpf to invest more effort thinking carefully about the joint parameter space of the independent variables, and how he could use that information to identify some specific cases to study qualitatively to really nail down the agency slack—rivalry process generating a focus on body counts. The advantage of this approach is it severs the project’s dependence upon the Pilster & Böhmlet measure as a proxy for a concept it doesn’t measure well, and further permits direct (qualitative) measurement of the other moving parts ignored in the regression equation.

The downside to Shapiro’s recommendation is that such a study would be vulnerable to the retort: “sure, but how do we know those aren’t outlier cases?” Shapiro would explain that is why selecting the cases based on relevant values from the joint parameter space is so important. What we enjoyed about this exchange is the improvement in the quality of this sort of discussion relative to what we would have expected when we entered the discipline back in the 1990s. To his credit, Scharpf wants both external and internal validity. His current paper seeks to score high on the former, but scores low on the latter. The Shapiro proposal would score high on the latter and low on the former. Whether he pursues a multiple paper route or a book project, Scharpf (and the rest of us!) will do well to pursue more than one design to test the implications of his theory, and a single paper does not have the space to do so effectively.

A number of other interesting issues we do not touch on here were raised, and we encourage you to watch the video.

In wrapping up the Spring 2016 CCVW we wish to thank everyone who participated. We are delighted to see so much interesting work being done, and to be able to play a role in both community building and strengthening individual projects. Please keep an eye out for our Fall 2016 Call for Papers in June. We look forward to another great slate of workshops and continuing to learn a great deal about conflict and peace, have some fun and (of course) shake things up a bit.

@engagedscholar & @WilHMoo

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There You Go Again: Clueless White Folk Stylee

The social media people at the American Political Science Association recently sent a sizeable portion[1] of our discipline into existential angst tweeting an irrelevant and offensive photo promoting an article recently published in an association journal.  Wendy Wong, a co-author of the article the tweet promoted, has explained it better than I can in her post at The Duck:

Instead of contacting us to request a photo, or choosing a stock photo that reflects the subject of our article, APSA decided to accompany this promotion with a photo of a random Asian woman.

I was stunned.

So it’s pretty obvious to me why this is offensive, but let me spell it out.

  • What does the Getty Image “Portrait of a young woman smiling” have to do with INGOs? Or authority?  Or politics?
  • What happened to my co-author?
  • What kind of search terms were being used to even generate such a photo that APSA found worthy of posting not just on PSNow, but tweeting?
  • Has all of my work on INGOs boiled down to some irrelevant stock image?
  • Is it that hard to Google “NGO” for images related to the work being advertised?
  • Yea, “all Asians look alike,” but REALLY?!


My daughter, who advises on social media campaigns for her PR firm, had this response when I shared the story with her.

What.  What what what?!  What would possess someone to do that?  The photo doesn’t relate to the copy!

To which I replied:

We know what possesses them: white othering.  It is horrifying, but the PR person is a normal white person: neither her/his parents nor society taught her/him otherwise.  Still lots of that out there.

Cue the white males at Inside Higher Ed!

I know, you are thinking there is noooo fucking way a blog that covers higher education will add insult to injury covering this story.

Au contraire!  From central casting I offer you Scott Jaschik, a founding editor for the site.


Here is Jaschik’s coverage:


I’m gonna let John Stewart handle this.


Following Wong’s lead, while it is obvious to me why this is offensive, let me spell it out:

  • Political scientists, men and women, were angered and expressed their frustration on social media.
  • Framing a story as a “women’s issue” story recreates the insidious media practice of treating so-called “[white] male” politics as “normal” and “other” topics as “speical interest,” which is to say, of lesser import.

OK, I need to run and teach a class, so I will leave it at that rather incomplete, but hopefully minimally acceptable list.

To the best of my knowledge Jaschik does not yet understand his gaffe: he has engaged in no ownership, made no correction, nor offered any apology I am aware of.  And yes, I did tweet at him last night, so there is some reason to believe he is aware that some of non-women are miffed.



[1] A majority, no a super majority, right?  Please let it have been a super majority!

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Protest Diffusion: Kern CC Virtual Workshop

After three years of the Conflict Consortium Virtual Workshop, 36 sessions, approximately 150 participants, 100+ institutions being involved and a thousand or so viewers (thus far), our last session ended with a bang – of sorts. The Crabtree, Kern and Pfaff paper, “Diffusion of collective action in authoritarian regimes: The June 1953 East German uprising,” explores a newish, as well as fascinating topic, and in an interesting way. The study explores the “technology-did-it” account of mass challenge to authoritarian government by exploring the impact of foreign radio on the June 1953 East German uprising.

The basics of the manuscript are clear:

  • existing literature is mixed on the impact of communication technology on social movements
  • there is persistent interest in the topic as many believe that communication technology is important for diverse forms of contentious politics
  • the authors are able to take advantage of a unique data archive in order to facilitate examination of an understudied topic (i.e., information about radio broadcasts as well as protest behavior in East Germany)

We had an esteemed group (as always): Michael Biggs, Pauline Moore, Heidi Reynolds-Stenson, Cyrus Samii and Zachary Steinert-Threkheld. You can watch the video here.


The 1953 East German uprising is fascinating because it went from quiescence to more or less nationwide to crushed in roughly 36 hours. The East German party, police and military were all caught flat footed: there wasn’t a hint of protest in the air prior to the local strike. Twenty four hours after 300 workers went on strike 40,000 Berliners gathered to protest, and by late afternoon an estimated one million plus East Germans were in the streets voicing demands in more than 700 locales spread throughout the country. East German media did not note the events until it announced the Soviet military’s declaration of martial law that evening, which suppressed the revolt. Governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain, historians, and other social scientists widely accept that the Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) reports of the events spurred a diffusion of protests over the course of those two days.

Kern shared that they began the project fully expecting to find strong support for a relationship between the RIAS signal coverage across East Germany and the existence of protest. To determine what relationship existed required some innovative data collection and measurement, and the authors were surprised to learn that no such relationship emerges from the data. However, both Euclidian distance from Berlin (where the first strike took place) and, distance as measured by rail lines, are negatively related to the likelihood of a protest. Dr. Holmes, we have a mystery!

Zach got us started noting that he found the null finding, compelling but not the positive account. That raises the question: if not radio was not the mechanism that diffused the protests, what did? Crabtree, Kern and Pfaff suggest that most likely what drove the protest were the network and diffusion dynamics proxied by spatial proximity. Quite naturally, we all speculated about what else spatial proximity could be measuring. We spent some time thinking about what diffusion patterns might have been at work as well as what else could plausibly be brought in/measured to assist in better identifying causal mechanisms.

We also discussed whether null findings that challenge a widely accepted explanation are publishable. By and large the discussants were positively disposed, but as always, the effort is more publishable if it contains a positive account to replace the disconfirmed one. The authors are debating whether to (a) stick with the limited spatial diffusion results, (b) bolster them with more detailed historical vignettes consistent with the evidence, or (c) abandon the construction of a positive account and pursue submission of a null result.

This research is provocative. It raises issues of how detailed work on a single case (if we should even call it this as it is actually multiple cases within a case) always butts up against the issue of generalizability and scope conditions. It brought up issues of social movement organizations, social movement activities, authoritarian resistance, repression (largely missed from the study), causal inference examinations focused on one mechanism but bracketed everything else, what role information plays by itself in the mobilization process as well as how it intersects with human perception and organizational framing. There was a healthy exchange between sociologists who generally focus on social movements/dissent and political scientists who generally don’t. The latter was especially useful as the paper was a little better at explaining how protest differed within a town as opposed to between them.

The discussion ended with general enthusiasm for the project as well as a variety of different directions the authors could take. Relevant to this, the piece and discussion offered some rich ideas for how others in the sub-national, disaggregated research tradition might address their own topics of interest. Indeed, those of us involved in this type of work are often banging our heads against the same types of issues.

@engagedscholar & @WilHMoo

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Genocide & Sanctions: Taylor CC Virtual Workshop

Today’s Conflict Consortium Virtual Workshop featured Whitney Taylor‘s co-authored paper (with Holly Nyseth Brehm) “Sanctioning Atrocity: To What Effect?”  An excellent panel comprised of Risa Brooks, Halvard Buhaug, Jacqueline DeMeritt, Matt Krain and Babak Rezaee offered feedback.  You can watch the session here.


The paper is a pretty straight forward statistical analysis of the impact of international sanctions upon the duration and magnitude of genocides.  Taylor & Brehm address the selection process (onset of a genocide) with a two equation modeling strategy, and find that sanctions (and several measures of the characteristics of sanctions) have no discernible impact upon either the magnitude nor the duration of genocides.

The discussion kicked off with a suggestion to invest greater attention to developing and advocating a theoretical argument.  Lauding the paper’s attention to the important goals of reducing both the magnitude and duration of these types of events, commentators pushed Taylor to rely less on existing arguments about why sanctions work, and extending those research designs to the study of genocidal events, and more on developing their own theory of why sanctions might (not) impact the genocide practices of states.

A number of folks identified additional literature that might be engaged.  Lebovic & Voeten (2006, 2009) which explore the impact of naming and shaming on countries human rights practices, and DeMeritt (2012) and Krain (2012) who examine their impact on one sided killing and genocides.  Conrad & Moore (2010) and Davenport & Appel (2014) study the termination of torture and repression spells, respectively, and were also mentioned as potential sources for ideas about how to enrich the theory.  Other papers I am forgetting were also mentioned.

The major thrust was to consider whether to leave the paper largely as is–an extension of existing ideas and logic about a process (sanctions) to a focused area of state behavior (genocide) that serves as something of a brush clearing function–or raise the piece’s ambition by developing specific, and novel, arguments about how the process might unfold differently in that setting.  In particular, we encouraged Whitney to think more about the distinction between the direct and indirect routes by which sanctions bring pressure, and whether focused sanctions might be the only type we should expect to have an effect.  She shared that so few states have employed focused sanctions to pressure genocidal activities that their statistical models can gain no leverage.  This fact seems interesting in itself.

Naturally a variety of geeky technical issues were raised, some of which address purely technical issues (e.g., boot strapping standard errors) but others of which have potentially more empirical and theoretical implications.  For example, the decision to work within a country-year unit of observation and not explore lags may mask relationships that operate over accumulated time.

To wrap up, Taylor & Brehm shared an interesting paper that spurred a fun conversation.  Hopefully they will be able to make good use of the discussion as they move forward with their project.  Whatever the ultimate outcome, I enjoyed the session.


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