Political Science War1

Published on November 5th, 2012


The Causes of Civil War

By Tor G. Jakobsen

Civil wars are the most frequent form of armed conflict since the end of World War II. These conflicts constitute an enormous burden on ordinary people who are not involved in power politics. But what are the causes of civil wars?

Man’s history has been stained by countless armed conflicts. As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes so eloquently described the nature of man’s existence: “Bellum omnium contra omnes” or “the war of all against all”. The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz stated that war is interwoven with politics, more precisely the prolonged arm of, or continuation of, politics.

Professor Paul Collier defines civil war as taking place when “an identifiable rebel organization challenges the government militarily and the resulting violence results in more than 1,000 combat related deaths, with at least 5 percent of the casualties on each side.” In other words, a civil war takes place when a group of citizens forms a rebel organization and carries out large-scale enduring attacks on government forces and civilians. Regarding civil conflict, two main theoretical schools have competed in explaining collective violence.

Explanation #1: The Deprived Actor Argument

This line of thinking highlights grievances as an important cause of civil war. It tries to explain the link between deprivation and violent behavior. The argument is that discontent is turned into dissent through psychological processes, both cognitive and emotional. According to Dr. Ted Robert Gurr, it is through these processes that the deprivations generate grievances, and grievances, together with identification with other deprived actors, bay result in violence. This is called the frustration-aggression mechanism which is held to be an important part of man’s psychobiological makeup, and is, according to Gurr, the source of a person’s proneness to collective violence.

Explanation #2: The Rational Actor Argument

On the other side of the table stands the rational actor school of thought. This line of thinking downplays the role of grievances, and instead emphasizes both resource mobilization and opportunity structures as factors motivating rebellious activity. Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler assume that higher income for a person leads to a higher opportunity cost of rebellion. In other words, if you have a good income, you are not likely to risk this to participate in rebellious activities.

If one follows this logic, each individual then makes a cost-benefit calculus, and the higher their income from non-violent activity, the higher the potential reward for rebellious activity must be for them to quit their daytime job. Whether or not the expected utility (EU) of rebellion (R) is greater than the expected utility of keeping their daytime job (D) is a function of both the income level (i), potential reward ($) for the insurgency, and the perceived probability of success (p).

Thus, an increase in (i) contributes to EU(R) < EU(D), and an increase in ($) or (p) makes the probability of EU(R) > EU(D) greater.

The ongoing debate

The debate between the deprived actor and rational actor schools is continued through the ongoing grievance versus opportunity discussion. In 2004, Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler published their article “Greed and Grievance in Civil War.” Here they contend that opportunity factors provide a better explanation of the occurrence of civil war than grievance factors. In sum, the opportunity (rational actor) argument has received more support in the research community in the latest decade than the grievance (deprived actor).


Further reading:

Collier, Paul & Anke Hoeffler (2004) “Greed and Grievance in Civil War” Oxford Economic Papers, 56(4): 563–595.

Gurr, Ted R. (1970) Why Men Rebel. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Jakobsen, Tor G. (2011) “Theories of Collective Violence: The Continuing Rational Actor versus Deprived Actor Debate” in Tor G. Jakobsen (ed.) War: An Introduction to Theories and Research on Collective Violence. New York: Nova: 19–34.



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One Response to The Causes of Civil War

  1. Ali Hussein says:

    I do strongly concur with Prof. paul collier that civil war occurs mainly due to grievances that is always raised and realized by a group of rebels who end up waging war on the government .This cause of war is rampant in Africa due to the greediness of its presidents and their inner circle .

    I do read a lot on the causes of conflicts and how its being resolved being a student pursuing an MA in peace and conflict management .

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