Explanations for Political Violence

O’Neil describes three possible explanations for political violence: Institutional, Ideational and Individual explanations.  Of these three explanations, the one that I find the most compelling is the institutional approach.

The institutional approach is based on “political institutions, such as states and regimes; economic institutions, such as capitalism or societal institutions, such as culture and religion.” (O’Neil pg. 211)  It is not that the other arguments of individual or ideational explanations are not valid, but rather that they are not the direct cause but rather the indirect reactions of an existing institution.  People’s violence and actions may be motivated by ideas or personal beliefs but are only able to realize that it is unfavorable to them when the institution has been in place.  People’s ideologies or individual beliefs being suppressed and their consequent actions only come to life if their is a political institution in place to suppress them in the first place.  O’Neil describes institutional explanations as being “a root source for violence, a necessary condition for violent action to take place, and a presumption that changes in the institutional structure would eliminate the motivation for this violence.” (O’Niel pg. 211)  People facing religious persecution are most likely facing this discrimination as a result of a regime that is suppressing their individual beliefs.  Therefore, they believe that the destruction of this institution will bring them change.  Individual beliefs may be a cause of what allows them to have the motivation to act but the ultimate goal is the elimination of an unsatisfactory institution.

When analyzing the causes of the Arab spring, O’Neil describes “civil society in much of the region is weak and fragmented, a result of states repression and low levels of development.”(O’Neil pg. 220)  The motivation behind the Arab spring was a push for democracy which is an institutional change.  The regime that was existent was not supportive of the ideals of the people.  Fortunately for Tunisia, the regime lacked the military force necessary to counter the actions of the people but people living under military rule in Egypt still vie for democracy.

As a more recent “Arab spring” occurs in Egypt, young citizens of the country are calling for a democratic rule.  Bassem Yousef, a satirical comedian believes that democracy is still living in the hearts of the people.  Sissi, the current president has become too powerful and continues to commit human rights violations.  Yousef states that “as the repressive nature of the Sissi regime has become more clear, Youssef appears to be championing the same young, pro-democracy advocates who helped launch the 2011 uprisings in various countries in the Arab world.” It is clear that it is the change in political institutions that have caused the Arab spring and the more recent uprising in Egypt.

O’Neil, Patrick H. 2015. Essentials of Comparative Politics, 5th Edition. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.



10 thoughts on “Explanations for Political Violence

  1. I agree that institutional violence can be a big problem, but I also don’t think that ideational and individual explanations are always a direct cause of institutions. One source of violence could be ethnic conflict, which is not really the result of any institution and may just be ideational. O’neil defines ethnic conflict as “conflict between ethnic groups that struggle to achieve certain political or economic goals at each others expenses”. Because ethnic groups feel that they are inherently different from each other, different groups may feel the need to use violence in order to help their own ethnic group prosper. This could mean that states with less homogeneous populations might suffer from higher levels of political violence from ethnic groups fighting for more rights and privileges.

  2. I would argue that the ideational approach is the more variable approach that O’Neil describes. Institutions are, generally speaking, static aspects of a body politic. Dissimilar to ideas, institutions are predictable; it is not impossible to speculate the current economic trend, the position of social associations (e.g. Black Lives Matter, etc.), or even the direction of political organizations. Until a revolutionary concept is interjected into these structures, they will remain relatively static. Change that affects the whole of society occurs only when an antithetical concept takes root within the social conscious. Such concepts are, typically, instigated by an idea.
    Today, in a world that is dominated by the pervasion of the internet, these ideas quickly spread and take root in such a way that they become harder to avoid. Take, for example, the social collective known as Anonymous. They exist primarily as an ideal; meaning that their presence and influence is incalculable. Yet, they were able to instigate small-scale cyber-warfare against Egypt. Even terrorists groups such as ISIS spread their ideals through internet outlets such as twitter. In other words, these ideas have begun to exist in a medium that is constant, evolving, and reaches around three billion people. As a result, ideas have become an undying and pervasive element that promulgates associations of similar minded individuals.
    Institutions act as a catalyst that establishes a common ground on which ideas are created, but remain aligned to the social consensus (i.e. remains static). Ideas perpetuate change and direct people towards an idealized goal. This, in turn, is more likely to cause political violence as such concepts will always create an opposing viewpoint. As a result, the instigation of revolt or acts of terrorism are founded upon ideals. Institutions will either remain or be destroyed and rebuilt upon the ideals of the victors. The goal, therefore, is the establishment and perpetuation of an ideal that causes perpetual conflict in an effort to achieve an ideal state.

  3. I agree with Max’s view. Institutions are not inherently violent, and while violence may occur because some institutions do clash, the main driver of intra-state conflict is more derived from ideational factors. In the 21st century ideas spread through mass communications are what have caused conflict to occur, and more so what has caused conflicts to escalate. Groups like ISIS spread their violent messages and fundamentalist ideas through multi-media, as Max pointed out. The ideational explanation also has root in intra-state conflicts like the Rwandan Genocide. It was the idea that the Hutu’s were superior to the Tutsi’s, and that the Tutsi’s needed to be exterminated, which led to the genocide. This can also be extrapolated to other intra-state ethnic-religious clashes, where the idea that one ethnic or religious group is superior and that opposing groups need to be eliminated.

  4. I agree with the original post that institutions are the main attributor to political violence. I also agree that institutions are not inherently violent but I do not think that ideational factors or individual beliefs alone can cause political violence at this level. In order for beliefs and ideas to become violent, they rely upon the institution. As O’Neil discusses, institutions cause political violence in two ways; by enabling violent actions and by constraining citizens so much that they resort to violence. Institutions as O’Neill describes is “a necessary condition for violent actions to take place”. Even though the ideational and individual arguments are also valid, I agree with the original post that they are reactions of the existing institution. Beliefs may be the motivational factor for their actions but without institutions, these beliefs would not have any backing for political violence. This is exemplified in the two cases mentioned, the Arab Spring and the more recent Arab Spring that occurs in Egypt.

  5. While I do agree that the individual and ideational explanations do have impacts on political violence, I find the institutional explanation the most convincing of the three explanations in terms of its relationship to political violence because institutions translate into behavior that demonstrates the beliefs of the institution itself. In the United States, for example, the institution of capitalism creates a social hierarchy, which divides the people into classes in which each class has different interests. This division and difference in interests creates classism, which definitely has the potential for political violence. This political violence is usually created by one class in order to destroy the interests of the other class or to place emphasis on a problem within society. As evidenced by the riots in Baltimore, Maryland, we can see that political violence can unfold very easily, when institutions such as racism start to emerge from classism. Once institution’s begin to alienate or attack a certain group of people, those people will respond with political violence in efforts to bring attention to or to protect themselves from the oppression that they experience. In my opinion, the majority of problems, such as poverty and inequality, in the United States are understood through institutional explanations.

    – Kese-O

  6. I think I will actually have to disagree with Max’s view. I agree with Jueng in that without ideas there would be no violence, but the ideas formed that lead to political violence are in response to a disagreement with an institution. In other words, from a sociological perspective, it makes sense to me that the institutional, ideational and individual explanations are all intertwined in creating political violence, but since ideas and a person’s motivation to carry out violence towards political ends are dependent on an institution, the institutional approach seems the most compelling. Max is right in that institutions are relatively static, but this fact does not lead me to believe Jueng’s argument is any less convincing. It would seem to me that, if institutions are relatively unchanging, it is the ideas and personal beliefs of people that bend and change in response to the institutions. I do agree that the internet has given even more power to individual ideas than ever before, looking at Max’s example of ISIS. These ideas, however, would not have been circulated if there wasn’t an institution to have an idea about. While I really do believe it may not be necessary to pick one single explanation for such a complex problem, if I had to I think Jueng makes the most compelling argument for the institutional explanation.

  7. I believe that the original post brings up great points about how political violence is often caused by institutional factors. I agree with the original post’s point that people may commit acts of violence in order to change an existing institution. However, I find the The Arab Spring is a great example of both institutional and ideational factors. Looking at the big picture, regimes were overthrown or contested in an effort to bring democracy to the Middle East—an institutional change. However, looking more in depth, one can see how ideational factors also played a large role. For example, social media websites played a huge role, as protestors used them to help disseminate their ideas and beliefs to the public. Without the use of social media, the revolution may have had different results, which shows how ideational factors can play a significant role in political violence.

  8. The more I interact with people through my work as a pastor, the more I feel as though we are not in touch with our own ideals or even ourselves as individuals, but rather are extensions of the institution of politics. One of the things that institutions do (for positive or negative outcomes) is give people an identity. In a positive sense, an institution can give a framework and freedom for an individual to recognize their own ideas, thoughts, strengths, and weaknesses. In a negative sense, an institution gives a blanket identity to all who belong to that institution or to whom that institution wants to influence. I more often see people make religious ideology or personal life choice claims based on their political beliefs (or more correctly the beliefs of the institution) rather than make political claims based on their religious beliefs. The power of the institution to claim an identity on large numbers of people while affecting their personal ideology without much thought leads to fearful, hateful, and violent action. I believe that with more awareness given to the individual and ideology, and a freedom for dialogue in the framework of the institution, the more varied our thoughts, actions, and beliefs would be. In a culture that accepts different beliefs and where dialogue among those different than you is the norm, there is no fear of the other and no need to put an end to the ideas of the other. However, where dialogue is not sought out, but uniformity in belief is required by the institution, fear arises when there is disagreement in ideology and violence arises.

  9. I believe the ideational and those individual behaviors and beliefs are a direct result of the disintegration of the institutional systems. Individual beliefs and how people react to their suppression take on very extreme differences. In some cases their freedom to act out in extreme violence to others is an ideology that legitimizes their suffering and solidifies their allegiance to those within the same belief. Institutions that suppress individual ideas and create an dependency on acceptance have the power that controls human behaviors and a complete belief which is hard for those outside the group to comprehend.
    The dilemma that has been created by rejecting an institution such as a regime that an individual has been suppressed by may be replaced by another institution with ideas of greater control with even more devastating consequences.

  10. While ideational and individual impacts serve as explanations for political violence, I agree that the root of this problem lies within institutional approach. Both ideational and individual impacts are shaped and formed due to the institutions that they are part of, either voluntarily or not. Individuals beliefs are suppressed by the norms or regulations that institutions represent. Many institutions intimidate our actions and beliefs subconsciously, and this puts a pressure on the population. While individual explanations can spread political violence, like ISIS spreading through social media, governments have the power to dictate what is allowed.

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