A Political Science Perspective on Teaching about Violence
Steven I. Wilkinson
Assistant Professor of Political Science, Duke University; HFG grantee
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In the third part of my course, I use books such as Arend Lijphart's Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration and Horowitz's Ethnic Groups in Conflict and A Democratic South Africa? to introduce students to the toolkit of policies that can be used to solve ethnic conflicts. Lijphart identifies four policies—an inclusive "grand coalition," a minority veto, cultural autonomy, and ethnic proportionality—that together he believes have prevented violence in states such as Malaysia and Switzerland, and that can prevent ethnic violence elsewhere. Horowitz, on the other hand, believes that Lijphart's policies underestimate the degree to which ethnic identities are constantly changing. In Ethnic Groups in Conflict, he identifies several electoral and constitutional mechanisms, such as the alternative vote system, that he thinks are more likely to moderate ethnic conflicts and encourage inter-ethnic cooperation.

Although the suggestions I have offered here relate to a course on ethnic violence, the course framework I suggest—analyze the identities, see how the state has made things better or worse, and then choose policies to make things better—can easily be adapted for courses that deal with other types of violence. In a course examining violent crime, for example, it seems natural to start with books that lay out general theories of violence, such as David Courtwright's Violent Land, which offers a gendered explanation for the prevalence of violence on the American frontier and in inner cities. In the second part of the course we could then move on to such works as Dane Archer and Rosemary Gartner's Violence in Cross-National Perspective, which present comparative data that tends to undermine the simple theories presented in the first part of the course. Finally, in the third segment of the course I might assign James Q. Wilson's Thinking about Crime, which emphasizes the importance of city-level policing and sentencing policies in explaining why similar cities have very different levels of violence.

In teaching about violence, my objective is always to give my students a sense that violence is not normal, and that the conflicts they see reported on TV or in the press are not a permanent feature of human existence, but the result of political processes that can and ought to be changed. I get this point across partly by making every course I teach explicitly comparative and historical, so that students can see that the same social problems lead to violence in some countries at some times, but not in others. But the best way of getting students to think creatively about the causes of violence, I have found, is to ask them to write a term paper in which they diagnose and "solve" their own violent conflict. In my course on ethnic conflict, I ask my students to write a 25-page paper in which they can analyze any ethnic conflict they choose. My only requirement is that they: a) describe the role of the state in creating the groups that are involved in violence; b) assess the ways in which the state has, historically, intensified or helped resolve the conflict; c) put forward and justify their own recommendations on how best to solve the conflict in question, using the toolkit of policies covered in the third part of the course. Many of my students are immigrants, or the children of immigrants, and one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching has been to see them re-examine conflicts in their countries of origin using new and more hopeful lenses that they have acquired in the class.


Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley.

Archer, Dane, and Rosemary Gartner. 1984. Violence and Crime in Cross-National Perspective. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bartlett, Robert. 1993. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Courtwright, David. 1996. Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Eaton, Richard. 1993. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Horowitz, Donald L. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Horowitz, Donald L. 1992. A Democratic South Africa?: Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Katzenstein, Mary, and Myron Weiner. 1981. India's Preferential Policies: Migrants, the Middle Classes, and Ethnic Equality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lijphart, Arend. 1977. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nirenberg, David. 1996. Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wilson, James Q. 1985. Thinking about Crime. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage.

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