Title: Dynamics of Violence in Conventional Civil Wars
Name: Laia Balcells
Department of Government
Georgetown University
Year: 2011
Type: Research Grant

What explains violence against civilians in civil wars? Why do armed groups use violence in some places but not in neighboring places with similar characteristics? Why do they kill more civilians in some places than in others? More specifically, why do groups kill civilians in areas where they have full military control and their rivals have no military presence? This research project explores the determinants of violence against civilians in the context of conventional civil wars, which are fought between armies, as opposed to civil wars fought between a state and irregular armed groups. Conventional civil wars are much more common than thought and display markedly different characteristics than insurgencies or guerrilla wars.

The theoretical argument in this project incorporates political factors in a strategic explanation of violence. I contend that armed groups target civilians who are strong supporters of the enemy, either to strengthen control over territory they already occupy or to weaken the enemy in territory the enemy occupies. Violence takes two forms, direct or indirect, depending on the location of civilian supporters of the enemy. While direct violence occurs when enemy supporters are located in zones controlled by the armed group, indirect violence occurs when enemy supporters are located in zones controlled by the adversary (provided the armed group possesses the military technology to carry out attacks in these areas). The key difference between the two forms of violence is that the armed group’s own supporters can constrain direct violence in zones of control, whereas they cannot do so in zones of enemy control.

Direct and indirect violence imply different strategies. When targeting enemy supporters behind enemy lines, the armed group aims to kill as many of them as possible, hence they target locations with high concentrations of enemy supporters. In territory the armed group controls, in contrast, the group must take into account the preferences of their own supporters, who know the identity of the rival’s supporters and can choose whether or not to collaborate with the group’s militants. Group supporters are likely to collaborate with the armed group and identify enemy supporters if and only if it is in their own interest to do so, which is the case when eliminating enemy supporters can decisively shift the local demographic balance and help them gain or consolidate political control of the locality. Thus, direct violence is likely to occur where the balance between group supporters and enemy supporters is relatively even. Indeed, in places where the group’s supporters are already predominant, violence is unnecessary, whereas in places where enemy supporters dominate, violence would have to be massive (hence too costly) to make a difference. The prediction is thus that indirect violence increases with rival supporters’s domination of a locality whereas direct violence increases with parity between supporters of the two rival groups.

Violence against civilians is only likely to occur, however, where there have been high levels of pre-war mobilization along the cleavage line that divides the two groups, whether being ethnicity, religion, or ideology. This mobilization is what leads people to identify as strong supporters of one side or the other. Put differently, conventional civil wars without meaningful pre-war mobilization should not be the sites of mass violence against civilians.

The empirical strategy of this project is multi-method: I use quantitative methods in combination with qualitative analyses. Following a recent trend in political science, the research design consists of systematically exploring intra-country variation (with large-n sub- national data) and combining it with additional secondary evidence from other cases in order to provide external validity. I combine insights from two novel subnational datasets (i.e., Spain and Côte d'Ivoire) with a crossnational test of implications and secondary evidence from other cases (e.g. Bosnia, Northern Ireland). In addition, for the case of Spain, I use evidence collected from oral sources (i.e., 60 civil war testimonies) and from over a hundred published sources, including general history books, as well as regional and local studies.

The Spanish Civil War is the main case study of the book; this is, together with the US Civil War, a paradigmatic case of a conventional civil war. Using this civil war constitutes a dispute to the neglect of historical cases in the study of civil war violence, which risks generating wrong conceptualizations of the phenomenon. The Spanish Civil War has a special relevance on its own because it was a crucial conflict in the West European interwar period and it was a particularly severe conflict. The case of the recent Ivorian civil war permits to test the observable implications of the theory with a recent civil war that was fought along ethnic lines. Thanks to the HFG research grant, I was able to build a provincial level dataset on violence during the armed conflict in Côte d'Ivoire (2002-2011), which also includes data on electoral results, ethnic composition, natural resources, and geographical characteristics of the provinces. I also gathered data on violence across the neighborhoods of the capital of the country, Abidjan. The results for the Ivorian Civil War are broadly consistent with those obtained for the Spanish Civil War, showing that direct violence increases with levels of parity between rival groups. Although the Spanish and the Ivorian civil wars are very dissimilar, the comparison of the two cases yields valuable insights. Importantly, the combination of evidence from an old and ideological civil war (Spain) and a new and ethnic civil war (Côte d'Ivoire) adds external validity to the theory put forward in this project.


Balcells, Laia. 2017. Rivalry and Revenge: the Politics of Violence during Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics).

Balcells, Laia and Abbey Steele. 2016. “Warfare, Political Identities, and Displacement in Spain and Colombia.” Political Geography 51: 15-29.

Balcells, Laia, Lesley-Ann Daniels, and Abel Escribà-Folch. 2016. “The Determinants of Low-intensity Intergroup Violence. The Case of Northern Ireland.”  Journal of Peace Research 53: 33-48.

Balcells, Laia and Stathis Kalyvas. 2014. “Does Warfare Matter? Severity, Duration, and Outcomes of Civil Wars.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 58(8):  1390-1418.