Understanding conflict: Greed, Grievance… Fear?


photo credit: Stopwar via photopin (license)

While I was studying for my MA I was fortunate enough to be in contact with the Order, Conflict & Violence Program, and to take a course with Daniel Branch on Violence and the State in East and Central Africa. Without this exposure I can’t imagine I would be doing the work I am today. The most influential lesson I learnt was that conflict was not a disordered mess of chaos. That consensus had been reached that violence against civilians in conflict should be viewed in relation to strategies that are ordered and rational (Keen 1997, Kalyvas 1999 and 2001, Duyvesteyn & Angstrom 2000, Vinci 2005, Hovil and Werker 2005). This immediately made sense to me and I have since been committed to seeking the  strategy behind violence in order to understand, and therefore respond, to conflict dynamics.

However what fascinated me was the motivations for violence. I read about the dichotomous relationship between “greed and grievance” as the primary motivating factors for conflict (Grossman 1991 and 1995, Berdal and Malone 2000, Mitchell 2004. Most particularly associated with the work of Collier and Hoeffler 2004).

In a very handy overview of to Greed vs. Grievance, Sudip Pandit describes the ‘debate’ as follows:

“Greed  and grievances can be regarded as the most important causes of civil war. Much of the academic debates on the economic causes of contemporary armed conflict has become polarized around the Greed Vs grievances dichotomy, just posing “loot-seeking” with “Justice-seeking” rebellions, and more generally the significance of economic versus socio-political drivers of civil war. The scholar, Frances Stewart, who has often been seen as proponent of the grievances theory, and Paul Collier, who has often been linked with the greed theory.”

So far, so reasonable. But, for me, this was not sufficient to explain more than the broad context of a conflict and associated organised violence. Initially focusing on the approach that Greed and Grievance were mutual and interrelated (not exclusive) categories, there remained a gap where ‘humanity’ and its flaws should be –  Where was the psychological process? Where was ideology? Where was the irrational action in the face of fear? This was raised most obviously in my studies of atrocity and genocide and being struck by references to the role of fear in undertaking the first move: ‘if we hadn’t started first, they would have done this to us…’ – which I read in testimonies from both Rwanda and Bosnia. I could not find this reality of experience in ‘Greed’ or ‘Grievance’ that distinctly felt part of an intellectual approach steeped in rational choice theory (see here for a great discussion between Morris P. Fiorina and Ian Shapiro on Rational Choice Theory in Political Science).

I do not subscribe to the view that ideology, on its own, is sufficient to push towards violent action, but nor do I find the broad, cold, concepts of ‘Grievance’ or ‘Greed’ as sufficient to cover the complexity of human action. So I have since been seeking alternative ways of adapting these theories to allow for more nuanced approach to conflict analysis as a practitioner (rather than as an academic). I have since found myself using this model of motivation analysis:


The basis for this was to separate out the emotions, fear in particular, from grievance. This remains a work in progress – most recently I have found myself explicitly referencing ideology under the ’emotional’ label and associating ‘narrative’ with grievance – although this does not account for historical narratives of domination rather than victimhood.

I have not yet ascertained the best description for each of these categories and perhaps this is the point – there are no exclusive categories in the motivations experienced by people in conflict and the purpose of their breadth is to enable sufficient flexibility to ensure that you do not miss key factors that can be crucial to analysis – and therefore your response. I am also increasingly influenced by our current understanding of the psychology of violence (beginning with the most useful synopsis by Stephen Pinker in Better Angels of Our Nature) and feel at just the start of the journey to bring theses categories of analysis together in a more coherent form for practical use. While this may not be sufficiently precise for academic usage (as yet) this suits me infinitely better as a practitioner examining motivations for violent action with those seeking to deal with their consequences.



Categories: Conflict & Violence, in pursuit of nuance

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