Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Tilly, 2003, The Politics of Collective Violence (security studies

Charles Tilly is a prolific and eclectic philosopher and empirical scholar, who has never ceased adapting and revising his ideas. Here he presents a very comprehensive and attractive scheme for organizing practical thinking about collective violence.  It succeeds brilliantly by accounting for the connections between different kinds violence which are often analytically separated in major data collections.  The best-known major data enterprises, like those of Wright, Rummel, IPCRI, Singer and Small, Organski, etc. all make artificial distinctions between different types of violence, in order to make data collection possible.  The idea that wars consist only of more than 1000 battle deaths, for example, is incompatible with the actual experience of organized collective violence.  By limiting himself to conceptualization of conflict with a view to explaining variation,Tilly is not constrained by such artificial definitions.  The drawback is that the data to test his conceptualizations will never be complete.  On the other hand, there is no shortage of case studies supporting the framework, and once you accept the scheme, a lot of cycles of protracted violence become much easier to describe and explain.  Unfortunately, the language and labels are a bit obscure, and the book stops short of deductions for practitioners. 

Chapter 1 describes varieties of violence, with a focus on the relationships that are engaged in initiation or expansion. Much of the contention of politics involves opportunity hoarding and exploitation. The varieties of inter-personal violence can then be described in a two-dimensional space defined by the salience of violence in relations, and the degree of coordination between perpetrators of violence.  By focusing on relations between groups involved in violence (rather than ideas or motives) Tilly concentrates on the mechanisms that permit collective violence.  He zeros in particularly on boundary activation (us vs. them), brokerage, and polarization. 

Chapter 2 identifies the political context for variations in collective violence, including the categories of actors within regimes.  The key contribution here is an exposition of violent specialists and political entrepreneurs, playing roles in activation, connection, coordination, and representation of collective violence, which generate potential for opportunity hoarding and exploitation. He goes on to explain the variation of degrees of violence in different types of regimes along two axes: capacity of states, and degree of democracy. 

Chapter 3 explores trends and variations in collective violence, according to regime capacity and degree of democracy. Government-employed violent specialists do far more damage in high-capacity undemocratic regimes, and non-government violent specialists do more damage in low capacity undemocratic regimes. The mechanisms of activation and suppression (of boundaries, ties, and narratives, for example) affect the salience of violence, while the mechanisms of incorporation and separation (creating new ties or severing old ones) affect the degree of coordination between actors, while exploitation and opportunity hoarding provide the motivation and capability for actors to engage in collective violence. Chapter 3 is probably the most directly relevant to managers of violence (violent specialists in government or international employment), but the language is not readily accessible to staff planners; some translation and interpretation might help it to be more digestible in a staff college setting. 

The remainder of the chapters deal with the six specific types of collective violence that populate the two-dimensional space (salience and degree of coordination): violent rituals, coordinated destruction, opportunism, brawls, scattered attacks, and broken negotiations.  Taken together, this is where the somewhat cumbersome scheme begins to pay off.  There is a brilliant explanation of protracted cycles of violence in Ireland, which demonstrates the explanatory power fo the model.  My own experience in the Balkans and research on Cyprus, Sierra Leone, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and El Salvador, amongst other conflicts, convince me that Tilly’s scheme offers far more explanatory power for the variations in collective violence, and their implications.  The next step is to dissect the implications and deductions for managers of violence. 
David Last, February 22, 2014

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