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Discussion Point: The Dog that Doesn't Bark


Discussion Point: The Dog that Doesn't Bark

January 30, 2013Victor Asal

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.


The dog that doesn't bark, the stair that does not creak and the aggrieved that do not shoot: the need for continued and expanded data collection of nonviolent groupsAsal, Victor_2119

Pointing out "the explosion of research on terrorism and non-state political violence in the decade following the September 11 attacks" has become almost a mandatory acknowledgement in articles about terrorism and civil war. Even if it is a tired truism, it at least has the virtue of being true.

Sparked by a dominant policy interest, personal motivation and funding that was not available previously, many researchers, including the author of this piece, were spurred and enabled to ask old questions with new resources about the how's, the why's, and the why not's of violence.

An important game changer was the creation of new datasets that allowed for an expansion of the study of terrorism and terrorist events. Before 9/11, datasets had primarily focused on event-based analysis of international terrorism made possible by the ITERATE dataset (Enders and Sandler 2000; Mickolus 2004; Mickolus et al. 1989).

Most research on insurgent or terrorist organizations was either focused on case study comparisons or was limited to a very specific area of study championed by experts in the field who did not receive the resources their research warranted (Crenshaw 1981, 1992, 2001; Eubank and Weinberg 1997; Eubank and Weinberg 2001; Eubank and Weinberg 1994; Hutchinson 1972; Taylor and Horgan 1999; Taylor and Horgan 2000).

After 9/11, resources were invested that resulted in the creation of databases that covered domestic and international terrorism (LaFree and Dugan 2007; MIPT 2006; Robison, Houghton, and Ellis Iii 2002), organizational features of terrorist organizations (Asal and Rethemeyer 2008; MIPT 2006) and a vast array of other data sources (see http://www.start.umd.edu/start/data_collections/ for examples).

While there is now a wide and growing array of data available that allows for the cross national study of violent non-state actors at the substate level (Asal and Rethemeyer 2008; Cederman 2006; Cederman and Girardin 2007; Cederman, Wimmer, and Min 2010; Cunningham 2006; Cunningham, Skrede Gleditsch, and Salehyan 2009; Cunningham 2011; Harbom, Melander, and Wallensteen 2008; Heger and Salehyan 2007; Hendrix and Salehyan 2012; Salehyan 2008) there are far fewer resources that examine a key element when it comes to understanding violent actors -- those that are not violent.

Event data focusing on attacks and data examining violent organizations can be aggregated to the state level and this can be used to tell us why certain states will be more or less likely to experience ongoing violence or outbreaks of different kinds of violence. Analysis of organizational level data and data about groups represented by organizations has shed light on factors impacting the nature and severity of organized violence. However, this kind of analysis- while important- does not tell us why particular non-state actors decide to start using violence or decide to stop using violence or how they combine contentious strategies.

While some available data efforts attempt to address this issue, most research lacks a key element -- the collection of data on nonviolent groups -- which curtails our understanding of the correlates of non-state actor political violence. Data on violent organizations can tell us an enormous amount about how organizations use violence and how they might interact with other actors including governments, but it cannot tell us about why they start or why they stop using violence.

State level analysis can tell us something about environmental factors that lead to the use of violence (Findley and Young 2011; Walsh and Piazza 2010), but it can't tell us about the organizational factors that lead to violence. Nor can it articulate how interaction between an organization and the government or other entities might lead to changes in behaviors (although certain kinds of event analysis have clearly shown an important light on government non state actor interaction ? see (Dugan and Chenoweth 2012)).

Though it is understandable for the government and foundations to fund data collection on violent groups, given the policy importance of these groups and their activities, the scarcity of data on comparable nonviolent groups limits our ability to understand why organizations choose certain types of contentious tactics in the first place and why some might choose violence.

Collecting data on nonviolent groups can be more problematic given civil liberties concerns, especially if data is collected on individuals. But the fact that most data focus on violent actors limits our ability to understand the varying impact of violent and nonviolent contention on outcomes.

Recent work by Chenoweth and Stephan (Chenoweth and Stephan 2011; Stephan and Chenoweth 2008) underlines the utility of data that allows for the comparison of violent and nonviolent actors that challenge governments. Examining campaigns that challenge governments over issues like democracy and secession, Chenoweth and Stephan are able to show that nonviolent contentious activities have a differential ? and more successful -- impact on government behavior than violent campaigns by nonstate actors.

What is needed is data on comparable organizations that we can examine as they decide for or against violence.

One of the few studies that allows for a useful comparison is work by Weinberg, Pedahzur, and Perliger (Weinberg, Pedahzur, and Perliger 2009) which examines what factors make political parties more likely to turn to terror. This work though is limited by the sole focus on political parties' use of terrorism within very particular contexts.

Another major project that takes on this issue is the Minorities at Risk Organizational Behavior (MAROB) dataset, which I have worked on with Jonathan Wilkenfeld and Amy Pate at START. MAROB currently makes available data on 104 ethnopolitical organizations in the Middle East for 24 years and will shortly have similar data available for Eastern Europe and post-Soviet states. This dataset has information on comparable organizations which run the gamut of political activity, in terms of whom they claim to represent.

Some only take part in protests, some only are involved in elections, some never are involved in elections and only use violence, while some take part in elections and violence both. Many of the organizations go back and forth in terms of their use of different strategies. Recent work has shown that organizational level factors like ideology, external support or relations with the government can be crucial in choosing between violence, nonviolence or a mixed strategy (Asal et al. Forthcoming).

Though useful, this data also has key limitations. Currently it only exists for the Middle East (and soon Eastern Europe) and only for certain kinds of groups. Given the key differences between regions of the world (preliminary analysis already has shown that the Middle East and Eastern European organizations often behave very differently for example) and the behavior of organizations motivated by different goals, there is a desperate need to expand this kind of data collection to other regions and other types of organizations.

These three examples illustrate the crucial theoretical and policy importance of collecting data on comparable entities that engage in violent behavior as well as those that do not. If we want to understand the choices related to violence then we need to collect more data that allows us to see the null cases. Currently, that is not the primary focus of many funders or researchers. Only by continued and expanded data collection of nonviolent groups will we truly be able to better understand the dog that doesn't bark, the stair that does not creak and, not-so-metaphorically, the aggrieved that do (or do not) shoot.

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