Inequality & Conflict: Hillesund’s CCVW Session

The Spring 2016 Conflict Consortium’s Virtual Workshop (CCVW) jumped into its second session with a paper from Solveig Hillesund entitled “Types of inequality matter: How political and economic forms of horizontal inequality spur different conflict mobilization processes.” Olga Chyz and Kathleen Cunningham were on deck for the discussion, as well as the ever-present Christian and Will. You can watch the session here.


Hillesund has put together an interesting, and well executed, study with a number of strengths. Here is the abstract:

Several large-N studies provide strong support for the proposition that the likelihood of internal armed conflict rises with higher levels of horizontal inequality, that is when inequality aligns with salient social group demarcations. But little attentition has been paid to the question of whether political and economic forms of inequality tend to spur different mobilization processes, and result in different forms of conflict. In this study, I propose that three important differences between political and economic horizontal inequality will affect the form that mobilization takes: intragroup variation, normative standard and government responsibility. Insights from social movement theory suggest that mobilization for civil conflict cannot be fully understood in isolation from other forms of mobilization. I therefore extend existing propositions on the micro mechanisms of the inequality-civil conflict relationship to a wider array of social conflicts, that is conflict that does not target the central government or is waged with nonviolent means. I hypothesize that (i) political horizontal inequality is more likely than its economic counterpart to spur civil conflict; and that (ii) economic horizontal inequality is more likely than political horizontal inequality to spur other kinds of conflict. The expectations are empirically supported by statistical analysis of Africa, 1991-2009, supplementing civil conflict data from the UCDP with social conflict episodes from the Social Conflict in Africa Database. A robust relationship appears to exist between economic horizontal inequality and the onset of social conflict Political discrimination of ethnic groups, on the other hand, increases the risk of civil conflict, but not that of other kinds of conflict.

CCVW demonstrated again how provocative and interesting conflict studies can be. Hillesund’s paper was on the one hand timeless as it sought to investigate a seemingly age-old, as well as very broad, problem about how inequality promotes conflict behavior. On the other hand, the research sought to draw upon and develop a specific approach to investigating the topic – in particular, the recent book by Cederman, Gleditsch and Buhaug (2013). The tension between the two was fascinating.

Hillesund challenges existing work by suggesting that it too narrowly focuses on only certain types of conflict behavior. The field had already begun to expand the conceptions of inequality, examining economic as well as political dimensions, and thus the proposed expansion was much appreciated. Hillesund’s paper not only endeavors to focus on armed conflict/civil war undertaken by ethnic groups (which had been examined already), but also other forms of contention such as non-violent direct action as well as protest behavior. The paper explores the different effects that the different forms of inequality have on the different forms of conflict. In a nutshell, she argues that political inequality stimulates violent challenges to the polity while economic inequality is more likely to generate non-violent protest or inter-ethnic group conflict.

The discussants raised several interesting questions. For example, some of the discussion highlighted the framing. Some suggested she reframe the research by identifying an an explicit puzzle or question at the outset. Both Christian and Will observed that the Cederman, et al book is largely a repackaging of they find theoretically richer work around by Gurr (1970, 1993) and Tilly (1978), and McAdam (1982), Benford & Snow (2000), and so on. More specifically, Hillesund’s argument discusses processes of grievance, mobilization, political opportunity structure, and cultural frames. We recognized that as a work that extends the Cederman, et al book, this was to be expected, but encouraged her in future work on the topic to engage the theoretical and empirical work that researchers from Collier & Hoefler (2004) and Fearon & Laitin (2003) onward brush aside.

There was also some discussion about conceptualization, specifically the decision to distinguish “civil conflict” (defined as violent challenges to the state) from “social conflict” (defined as non-violent challenges to the state and communal conflict). This conceptualization blends identity politics (ethnic groups v states, ethnic groups v other ethnic groups) and tactics (violence v non-violence). A potentially stronger theoretical case might be made by arguing that political inequality has a stronger impact upon non-violent and violent challenges to the state than economic inequality, whereas economic inequality has a stronger impact upon non-violent and violent communal conflicts. Relatedly, drawing explicitly on the idea of repertoires, noting that tactics are “co-selected,” might be a fruitful direction. This had implications for measurement as well as modeling.

With respect to moving from the group level to the national level, the explicit statement of the argument was praised. But there were some questions raised about the “weakest link” assumption (i.e., measuring inequality at the national level using the group that suffered from the greatest level of inequality). We encouraged her to

There were some fundamental issues brought up about what political horizontal inequality was. For example, the measure that Hillesund used was about how one group was discriminated against by another relative to other groups in the society. How was this different from repression or democracy, however, which are often related to behavioral challenges? Economic horizontal inequality was measured by looking at the poorest ethnic group relative to some national average. Was this a useful way to think about the problem however? What did the group centric analysis mean in the context of a national-level investigation?

Moving in a different direction, a few of the panelists raised questions about the use of Idean Saleyhan and Cullen Hendrix’s Social Conflict in Africa Database. The group wondered: what were the implications of examining the dynamic of interest in Africa? Were there any specific processes that needed to be incorporated into the analysis (e.g., anti-slavery and anti-colonialism) that might impact subsequent selections of challenging tactics? What about the diffusion of tactics and people throughout the continent? Might the Afrobarometer be used to tackle some of the issues regarding mass perceptions posited in the theoretical set up?

In sum, Hillesund has put together an engaging study that extends the work of Cederman, et al in interesting and useful directions. She has opportunities to strengthen the framing, thereby clarifying the study’s theoretical and empirical contributions. Her project also stimulates additional directions for future inquiry, and while the group gave her a bevy of critiques and suggestions, we are confident she we will run with them to productive ways to not only revise the present effort, but also to inform her future work on the topic.

@engagedscholar & @WilHMoo


About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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