Book Project

Strategies of Violence and Nonviolence in Revolutionary Movements

From Eastern Europe to South Africa to the Arab Spring, nonviolent action has proven capable of overthrowing autocratic regimes and bringing about revolutionary political change. In fact, recent research suggests that nonviolent movements are more than twice as effective in achieving their goals than violent ones. So why do some political movements nevertheless believe it necessary to take up arms? Can they be convinced otherwise? My book project examines why political movements that seek to overthrow the state come to embrace a strategy of either armed insurgency or civil resistance. I argue that, surprisingly, neither movement ideology nor the regime's past patterns of repression has a decisive impact. Instead, it is the structure of a movement’s own base of supporters that shapes strategic behavior. Specifically, I demonstrate that movements that lack what I term "social overlap"—ties of kinship, caste, religion, ethnicity, class, or association, both with other sections of society as well as the regime—perceive themselves as less able to activate key mechanisms of nonviolent success: they anticipate mobilizing fewer participants, struggling to win over defectors, and facing brutal repression from the regime. They are consequently more likely to reject civil resistance and turn instead to insurgency. 

To test the theory, I employ a nested mixed-method design. Statistical analysis of a cross-national dataset of revolutionary movements reveals that groups that lack social overlap are four times more likely to take up arms. I supplement the large-n analyses with a case study of revolutionary campaigns in Nepal, drawing on archival research as well as over 60 interviews with ex-combatants, movement leaders, and local experts. Nepal’s unique history allows for close comparison between movements that have employed opposite strategies within the controlled context of a single state and within a narrow period of time. Ongoing research adds cases from anti-colonial revolts in Egypt and Syria as well as the recent "Arab Spring" uprisings. The book as whole thus brings the regions of South Asia and the Middle East into comparative perspective and marshals evidence at the sub-state, regional, and global levels of analysis. 

The book pushes forward an emerging literature that investigates strategic nonviolent action as an important phenomenon in global politics. Furthermore, in contrast to political economy or state-centric approaches, my research advances a "socio-institutional" paradigm of conflict that theorizes the role of social structures in shaping the trajectories of both violent and nonviolent contention. Finally, the findings have implications for policymakers who have an interest either in better anticipating where conflicts are more likely to turn violent or in encouraging the use of nonviolent methods. 


"The Security Force Ethnicity (SFE) Project: Introducing a New Dataset," with Paul Lorenzo Johnson. Conflict Management and Peace Science. First published: June 12, 2016.

The ethnic composition of state security forces is believed to have important effects on the dynamics of conflict processes, but data limitations have impeded our ability to test such hypotheses cross-nationally until now. To address this problem, the Security Force Ethnicity dataset provides time-series, group-level measures of the ethnic composition of military forces in the Middle East between 1946 and 2013. We draw on an extensive review of case studies and histories to produce unique ordinal codings for participation rates in the officer corps and in the rank and file. We demonstrate the utility of the data through empirical applications, examining the relationship between military ethnic composition and the incidence of coups and repression. Our findings illustrate the theoretical and empirical importance of disaggregating ethnic representation in the military from inclusion in other institutions of the state. Article | Dataset | Pre-pub PDF | SFE Website

"Militias as Sociopolitical Movements: Lessons from Iraq's Armed Shia Groups,"Small Wars and Insurgencies,  Vol 25, no. 5-6 (October 2014): 900-923.

From Lebanon's civil war to the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the Shia militia has emerged as one of the most powerful and important actors in the Middle East security environment. Despite this trend, they remain poorly understood by scholars and policymakers alike. This study seeks to expand our understanding of the militia as a type of non-state armed group through an examination of Shia militia movements in Iraq. between 2003 and 2009. More than simply warlords, paramilitaries, or foreign proxies, Shia militias in Iraq enjoyed substantial popular legitimacy, pursued a broad social and political agenda, and participated actively in the formal institutions of the state. Understanding the triangular relationship between the militia, the state, and the population is essential in explaining the rise and fall of the Shia militias during the U.S. occupation as well as in developing strategies to deal with their most recent resurgence. Article available online (gated).

“A Step Short of the Bomb” in Journal of Public and International Affairs (2011)

The global spread of technology will inevitably result in more states acquiring the scientific and technical means to create a nuclear weapon. In order to confront this reality, policymakers and analysts must develop a better understanding of why some states feel compelled to conduct overt nuclear tests while others are content to pursue a strategy of hedging: developing the capability but not actually testing or deploying nuclear weapons. Using case studies from Japan and South Asia, this article seeks to explain nuclear policy through a combination of two factors. First, states attempt to maximize their relative security vis-à-vis their rivals by balancing the value of deterrence with the risk of proliferation. Secondly, domestic political sentiment and the balance of power amongst competing bureaucratic factions may either enable restraint or push a state toward conducting a nuclear test. By applying these two factors to the case of Iran, this article will evaluate the drivers of Iranian nuclear behavior and offer policy recommendations to increase the odds that Iran will pursue a latent, rather than an overt, nuclear capability.  Article available online.

“From Coexistence to Cleansing: Ethnic Violence in Baghdad, 2003-2007″ in al-Nakhlah: Journal of Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization (Spring 2011)

Between 2003 and 2006, the nature of conflict and violence in Iraq transformed from an insurgency against the new U.S. imposed leadership into a sectarian civil war, pitting the country’s minority Sunni population against the majority Shias and centering primarily in the capital city of Baghdad.  Some scholars have seen this as the predictable, if not inevitable, result of an identity conflict that dates back centuries.  However, this interpretation runs counter to the sentiments of many Iraqis, especially among Baghdad’s middle class, that sectarian identity had not been a source of interpersonal conflict before the U.S. invasion.  Using first-person accounts gathered from journalists, non-governmental organizations, web log diaries, and interviews, this paper argues that sectarian violence in Baghdad appears to be less a result of any primordial religious hatred than a collective defensive reaction to the fear and vulnerability created in a time of war and political upheaval.  Specific policy decisions made by the United States as well as the terrorist campaign of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were instrumental in exacerbating this feeling of vulnerability and sparking a chain reaction of violence. Article available online.