A Political Science Perspective on Teaching about Violence

Steven I. Wilkinson

This article appeared in Teaching About Violence, the Spring 2000 edition of TheHFG Review, a Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation publication that examined topics of violence in depth.

Political scientists who teach about violence nearly all recognize the value of incorporating readings from other disciplines. In my own courses, for example, I frequently include extracts from The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport’s classic social psychology text, to spark discussions of whether diversity programs based on the “contact hypothesis” can reduce ethnic tensions and conflict. But despite our increasing openness to multi-disciplinary approaches to violence, political scientists inevitably pay greater attention to some issues than do our colleagues in psychology, history, sociology, and anthropology. What distinguishes political science from these other disciplines, in my view, is the central importance we attach to the role of the state in causing violence, and in failing to prevent it where it takes place.

First, we are interested in how the state shapes the identities (e.g., region, class, caste, tribe, and ethnicity) and the inequalities of economic resources and power that lead to violence. Second, we want to understand how and why some states do a much better job of preventing violence than others. We recognize, for example, that mass ethnic violence like that in Rwanda or Bosnia rarely takes place unless the state allows it to happen. So we try to identify what it was about the Rwandan and Yugoslav states that led their leaders to promote ethnic violence at one moment, rather than another. Third we want to influence policy. We use comparative analysis and statistical analysis to identify the policies that have been most successful in reducing violence. Once we identify the “right” policies, we then try to persuade politicians, NGOs, and governments to adopt them.

I think that in a semester-long course on violence, it makes sense to treat each of these three issues in sequence. In my own course on ethnic violence, I begin with readings that make students recognize that some of the solid ethnic categories and ethnic conflicts they may be used to thinking about are in large part the result of state categorization and discrimination. To emphasize that this process is not new, I use several books that look at the construction of ethnicity and how state-inspired ethnic categories affected the level of violence in the pre-modern period: Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350, David Nirenberg’s Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages, and Richard Eaton’s The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760). Robert Bartlett, for instance, describes how the medieval state decided who could be counted as a German or Slav, and how in the early middle ages it was relatively easy to cross from the status of “Slav” to the more privileged “German” class. He also shows how, as the shortage of manpower on the German frontier began to diminish, merchants and artisans developed a biological view of race that allowed them to block economic competitors who were Slav. By the end of the thirteenth century, entrants to the German guilds had to prove that they had German ancestors going back several generations. Medieval states discriminated between members of different ethnic and religious groups in ways that encouraged violence. In Spain, for example, the law required the confiscation of property and death for a Muslim who killed a Christian, but only a fine and exile for a Christian who killed a Muslim.

After establishing that state categorization and discrimination is not new, I complete the first section of my course with readings that show students how these processes have been intensified in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially as a result of the western colonization of much of Africa and Asia. Donald Horowitz’s Ethnic Groups in Conflict is a useful text here, because it demonstrates how colonial rule strengthened some ethnic identities (such as Malay in Malaysia, Ashanti in Ghana) and favored some ethnic groups (Kikuyu in Kenya, Hawiye in Somalia) over others. Horowitz also shows how this process of colonial categorization and discrimination led to conflicts after decolonization, as favored groups such as the Kikuyu sought to hold on to their privileges in the face of sometimes violent protests by their rivals.

In the second section of my course, I explore the ways in which governments have tried to deal with ethnic tensions and ethnic violence. There is great variation in state responses to ethnic demands. Some, such as China, use a combination of occasional concessions and repression. Others respond by creating new federal units, decentralizing political institutions, and recognizing ethnic differences through policies such as ethnic preferences in government and employment. The comparative method allows us to explore how these policies affect the probability of ethnic violence in very different political and cultural environments. One book I like very much is Myron Weiner and Mary Katzenstein’s India’s Preferential Policies, which explores the issue of whether ethnic preferences have the capacity to resolve ethnic tensions by comparing their effects in India, the U.S., and Malaysia.

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.

Steven Wilkinson, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University, is an HFG grantee.


  1. Allport, Gordon W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley.
  2. Archer, Dane, and Rosemary Gartner. 1984. Violence and Crime in Cross-National Perspective. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  3. Bartlett, Robert. 1993. The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  4. Courtwright, David. 1996. Violent Land: Single Men and Social Disorder from the Frontier to the Inner City. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  5. Eaton, Richard. 1993. The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760. Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  6. Horowitz, Donald L. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  7. Horowitz, Donald L. 1992. A Democratic South Africa?: Constitutional Engineering in a Divided Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  8. Katzenstein, Mary, and Myron Weiner. 1981. India’s Preferential Policies: Migrants, the Middle Classes, and Ethnic Equality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  9. Lijphart, Arend. 1977. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  10. Nirenberg, David. 1996. Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  11. Wilson, James Q. 1985. Thinking about Crime. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage.

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