the toolbox’s dilemma, or why mass atrocity response advocates should think more about power

After many trials, tribulations, tabulations, and Chavez-esque levels of coffee consumption, I’ve finished my undergraduate thesis. I’ll make a couple of tweaks to the typological analysis tonight, in order to prepare for my 15 April due date, but I feel comfortable sharing the nearly-completed product. I’ve spent plenty of time blogging about the thesis, as well as distracting myself from it, in this space, so I figured I’d share:

Why do some responses to mass atrocities succeed in mitigating violence against civilians, while others fail? The nascent academic and policy literature on mass atrocity response emphasizes the varied functions of particular policy tools, emphasizing the dividends for mass atrocity response of economic sanctions, preventive diplomacy, or third-party military intervention. In this paper, I argue a greater role for power relationships, as opposed to tools of statecraft, in determining response outcomes. I posit a middle-range theory of relational power—an actor’s ability to influence organizational preferences, processes, and decision-making through social, interactive means—in mass atrocity response, through which I identify a taxonomy of social relationships between respondent actors and mass atrocity perpetrators. Using this theoretical framework, I conduct a typological analysis of mass atrocity response events between 1991 and 2011, and apply the social taxonomy to two case studies, in Sri Lanka and Darfur, Sudan. The case study analysis offers some support for the hypothesis that a perpetrator’s patron—an external actor, with overlapping social preferences—is the primary determinant of mass atrocity response outcomes.

If this seems like your run-of-the-mill, “undergrad-discovers-Wendt” analysis, I view it a bit differently: the “logic of consequences,” which undergirds realist interpretations of power in the international system, is important, but its importance emerges from the social implications of consequentialism, as well as their practical effects. tl;dr: tools of statecraft are important, but their social context bears further explication.

Far from a finished product, my thesis represents the contemporary consolidation of my thoughts about mass atrocity response, which I fully expect to evolve, in keeping with the field’s evolution. I enjoyed the process of qualitative research design, but it certainly has its limitations, as I discuss in the paper–with forty-eight mass atrocity events, limited capacities for statistical inference, and limited expertise in anything but a handful of case studies, my relational-power theory carries marginal weight. Over the next few years, I’d like to expand my research, and to develop the theory. How? Here are some ideas:

  • Add a bit of quantitative grist: My history of “successful” Stata regression analyses amounts to a bivariate assessment of ethnic fractionalization and conflict, and it wasn’t statistically significant. Needless to say, my quantitative skills aren’t what they should be. My typological table, in progress until twenty-four hours from now, should underscore a few avenues for quantitative measurement, which would disaggregate my measurement of relational power in mass atrocity environments. Take, for example, the friendly exercise of compulsory power, which might occur in the context of trade incentives for mass atrocity mitigation. Without statistical inference, it’s difficult to identify the correlative relationship between a friendly actor’s trade patterns, a proxy for compulsory power, and response outcomes. As far as I’m aware, the quantitative models needn’t be complex, but a basic, applied understanding might be useful.
  • Visualize the qualitative data: As I’ve noted in a previous post, the blogosphere’s preference for visually appealing, easily digestible data poses a (surmountable) challenge to qualitative researchers. Some platforms, like the World Peace Foundation’s Reinventing Peace blog, provide excellent case-study analysis, but three-thousand-word, no-visual posts about mass atrocity response have limited reach. In addition to the quantitative skills, a bit of coding might be useful, “at least” enough to design a rudimentary, quasi-interactive map of global mass atrocity events, and the vectors of local, national, international, and non-governmental response. I would scale up my two case studies, Sri Lanka’s civil war and Darfur’s conflict, to forty-eight, in keeping with my typological analysis. In the meantime, a Google Maps visualization, sans chronological analysis, might do the trick.
  • Disaggregate the mass atrocity events: As I note in my paper’s conclusion, my rudimentary, middle-range theory of relational power in mass atrocity response opens several additional dilemmas: within relational power, broadly speaking, do different forms of power yield different response outcomes, as a result of different kinds of social interaction? Probably. Does the exercise of military force, which I describe as an idiosyncratic tool of foreign-policy statecraft, differ in its impact from other applications of relational power? Again, probably. But the most interesting question to me, which I didn’t delve into in much detail, is the sub-event implications of relational power. As I observe, most discussions of mass atrocity response refer to meta-events, or aggregations of political conflict between various parties: consider, for example, the “Rwandan genocide,” which we remember as the genocide per se, rather than the escalation of local grievances, local organization, and local violence. In some contexts, this tendency is understandable, but in others, as Severine Autesserre observes, it’s less applicable: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya’s post-election violence, and Pakistan’s micro-insurgencies, in particular, come to mind. In keeping with my emphasis on mass atrocity events as evolutionary, adaptive phenomena, I’d like to get a better sense of how we analyze the atrocities’ component parts through a similar framework.

What else should I be looking at? Keep me posted, and I’ll try to do the same.

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