Two Tidbits on Social Unrest

1. We like to tell tidy stories about why social unrest happens, and those stories usually involve themes of grievance or social injustice—things like hardship, inequality, corruption, discrimination, and political repression. One or more of those forces probably plays a role in many bouts of unrest, especially the ones that emerge from or evolve into sustained action like we’re seeing right now in Hong Kong and Ferguson.

Still, a riot over the weekend at a pumpkin festival in semi-rural Keene, New Hampshire, reminds us that you don’t need those big issues or themes to get to social unrest. According to the L.A. Times, in Keene,

Young people chucked beer cans and cups at each otherjumped off roofstore down, kicked and smashed road signsset a large fire and chanted profanitycelebrated on top of a flipped cartook selfies in front of lines of riot policegot the attention of a police helicopterchanted “U-S-A!”pushed barricades and threw a street sign at policethrew bottles at the police after the police threw tear gas, and left behind a huge mess.

Why? Who knows, but the main ingredients in this instance seem to have been youth, alcohol, numbers, and the pleasure of transgression:

The description of the scene in Keene reminded me of the riots that sometimes erupt in college towns and sports-mad cities after big games, some of which have proven extremely destructive. These riots differ qualitatively from the rallies, marches, sit-ins, and the like that social scientists generally study. For two things, they usually aren’t planned in advance, and the participants aren’t making political claims. Still, I think our understanding of those ostensibly more political forms of collective action suffers when we make our causal narratives too tidy and ignore the forces that also produce these other kinds of outbursts.

2. Contagion is one of those forces that seems to operate across many forms of unrest. We’re sure that’s true, but we still don’t understand very well how that process works. Observers often use dominoes as a metaphor for contagion, implying that a given unit must fall in order for the cascade to pass through it.

A new paper on arXiv proposes another mechanism that allows the impulse to “hop” some units—in other words, to pass through them without producing the same type of event or effect. Instead of dominoes, contagion might work more like a virus that some people can catch and transmit without ever becoming symptomatic themselves. The authors think this mechanism could help to explain the timing and sequencing of protests in the Arab Spring:

In models of protests and revolutions, populations can have two stable equilibria—the size of the protest is either large or negligibly small—because of strategic complementarities (protest becomes more attractive as more people protest). During the Arab Spring, each country had unique grievances and agendas, and we hypothesize that each country had a unique proximity to a tipping point beyond which people would protest. Once protests began in one country (Tunisia), inspiration to protest spread to other countries via traditional media (such as newspapers) and via social media (such as Twitter and Facebook). This cross-border communication spread strategies for successful uprisings, and it increased expectations for success. Consequently, the uprisings began within a short window of time, seemingly cascading among countries more quickly than earlier revolutions did.

In coarse-grained data on the number of Facebook friendships between countries, we find evidence of the “cascade hopping” phenomenon described above. In particular, Saudi Arabia and Egypt appear to play the role of an intermediate country Y that propagated influence to protest from protesting countries to non-protesting countries, thereby helping to trigger protest in the latter countries, without themselves protesting until much later. Attributes of these intermediate countries and of the countries that they may have influenced to protest suggest that protests first spread to countries close to their tipping points (high unemployment and economic inequality) and strongly coupled to other countries via social media (measured as high Internet penetration). By contrast, we find that traditional measures of susceptibility to protest, such as political freedoms and food price indices, could not predict the order in which protests began.

As with the structural and dynamic stuff discussed around this weekend’s riot in Keene, this hopping mechanism will never be the only force at work in any instance of social unrest. Even so, it’s a useful addition to the set of processes we ought to consider whenever we try to explain or predict where and when other instances might happen.


Watch Locally, Think Globally

In the Central African Republic, an assemblage of rebel groups has toppled the government and installed a new one but now refuses to follow its writ. As those rebels loot and maraud, new armed groups have formed to resist them, and militias loyal to the old government have struck back, too. All of this has happened on the watch of a 2,000-person peacekeeping force from neighboring states. With U.N. backing, those neighbors are now sending more men with guns in hopes that another 1,500 soldiers will finally help restore some sense of order.

This is what full-blown state collapse looks like—as close to Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all” as you’re ever likely to see. As I wrote at the start of the year, though, CAR is hardly the only country in such shambles. By my reckoning, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia still, and maybe DRC and South Sudan qualify as collapsed states, too, and if Mali doesn’t anymore, it only just squeaked back over the line.

As the very act of listing implies, we often think of these situations as discrete cases. In our social-scientific imaginations, countries are a bit like petri dishes lined up on a laboratory countertop. Each undergoes a similar set of experiments, and our job is to explain the diversity of their outcomes.

The longer I watch world affairs, though, the less apt that experimental metaphor seems. We can only really understand processes like state collapses—and the civil wars that usually produce them, and the regime transformations that  often precede and succeed them, and virtually everything else we study in international studies—by thinking of these “cases” as local manifestations of system-level dynamics, or at least the product of interactions between local and global processes that are inseparable and mutually causal.

If we think on a systemic scale, it’s easier to see that we are now living through a period of global disorder matched in recent history only by the years surrounding the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and possibly exceeding it. Importantly, it’s not just the spate of state collapses through which this disorder becomes evident, but also the wider wave of protest activity and institutional transformation to which some of those collapses are connected. These streams of change are distinct in some ways, but they also shape each other and share some common causes.

And what are those common causes? The 2007 financial crisis surely played a significant role. The resulting recessions in the U.S. and Europe rippled outward, shrinking trade flows and remittances to smaller and poorer countries and pulling down demand for commodities on which some of their economies heavily depend.

Those recessions also seem to have accelerated shifts in relative power among larger countries, or at least perceptions of them. Those perceptions—see here and here, for example—may matter even more than the underlying reality because they shape governments’ propensity to intervene abroad, the forms those interventions take, and, crucially, other governments’ beliefs about what kinds of intervention might occur in the future. In this instance, those perceptions have only been reinforced by popular concerns about the cost and wisdom of foreign intervention when so many are suffering through hard times at home. This amalgamation of forces seems to have found its sharpest expression yet in the muddled and then withdrawn American threat to punish the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons, but the trends that crystallized in that moment have been evident for a while.

The financial crisis also coincided with, and contributed to, a global run-up in food prices that still hasn’t abated by much (see the chart below, from the FAO). As I mentioned in another recent post, a growing body of evidence supports the claim that high food prices help produce waves of civil unrest. This link is evident at the level of the global system and in specific cases, from the countries involved in the Arab Spring to South Africa. Because food prices are so influential, I think it’s likely that climate change is contributing to the current disorder, too, as another force putting upward pressure on those prices and sometimes dislodging large numbers of people who have to pay them.

As Peter Turchin and others have argued, it’s possible that generic oscillations in human social order—perhaps the political analogue of the business cycle—are also part of the story. I’m not confident that these patterns are distinct from the forces I’ve already mentioned, but they could be, at least in part. In any case, those patterns seem sufficiently robust that they deserve more attention than most of us give them now.

Last but not least, the systemic character of these processes is also evident in the forms of negative and positive feedback that arise to try to reverse or accelerate the slide into entropy. Powerful players with a stake in extant structures—mostly states, but also private corporations and even transnational NGOs—work to restore local forms of order that reinforce rather than challenge those structures. At the same time, other actors try to leverage the entropy to their own advantage. Governments less invested in the prior order may see new opportunities to weaken rivals or husband allies. Transnational criminal enterprises often find ways to expand revenue streams and develop new ones by smuggling arms and other contraband to and through societies that have fallen apart. Since the late 2000s, for example, “there has been a significant increase in the number of attacks on vessels by pirates,” Interpol claims, and I don’t think this concurrence of this trend with the spikes in popular unrest and state collapse is purely coincidental.

This system-level view finds linkages between a host of recent trends that we usually only consider in isolation from each other. It also suggests that this, too, shall pass—and then occur again. If Turchin & co. are correct, the current wave of disorder won’t peak for another several years, and we can expect the next iteration to arrive in the latter half of the current century. I’m not convinced the cycles are as tidy as that, and I wonder if the nature of the system itself is now changing in ways that will produce new patterns in the future. Either way, though, I hope it’s now clear that the miseries besetting CAR aren’t as disconnected from the collapses of Libya, Syria, and Yemen or the eruptions of mass protest in a host of countries over the past several years as our compartmentalized reading and theorizing usually entices us to think.

Comparative Politics, Meet Complex Interdependence

On the IPE@UNC blog a few days ago, Kindred Winecoff compellingly argued that much of the theory-testing done in international relations (IR) and international political economy (IPE) in recent years rests on the false assumption that outcomes across cases are independent of each other. Paraphrasing here, he points out that “almost all” of the big theoretical traditions in IR and IPE—neorealism, liberal institutionalism, and Marxism among them—identify ways in which outcomes across cases are strongly interdependent, but the research designs we usually adopt to test those theories implicitly assume they are not. In other words, “in the typical case, our empirical design does not match our theoretical structure.”

I think he’s right, and I think the same can be said of theories of political development, which is really most of what comparative politics is about. Two cases of current interest illuminate how it’s really impossible to understand persistence and change in national political institutions without thinking about how those institutions are embedded in a larger global context.

Let’s start with Myanmar. Conventional theories meant to apply to the reforms occurring there focus our attention on domestic processes, like socioeconomic modernization or economic inequality, as the likely impetus behind these changes. At best, though, these processes are structural conditions that have shifted little in Myanmar in recent years, and at worst they’re close to irrelevant. Myanmar is currently experiencing a rush of “modernization,” but much of it’s happening as a consequence, not a cause, of the regime-initiated liberalization. Any effort to understand why this liberalization is occurring now has to consider the growing fears of Burmese elites about their dependency on China, the bite of U.S. sanctions, and the opportunity costs of remaining isolated in a global economy that sees the country as an untapped trove and under-served market. If you try to estimate the effects of income or education or inequality on these trends in a model that ignores these wider forces, you’re probably going to get a misleading result.

Or take Bahrain. It’s impossible to explain the start of the popular uprising in Manama in the spring of 2011 without talking about diffusion, and it’s impossible to understand the outcome (so far) without looking at the material and diplomatic support the monarchy receives from powerful patrons—support that is itself rooted in those patrons’ regional geopolitical (counterbalancing Iran) and global economic (oil) concerns.

If you want to get really silly, imagine trying to infer the effects of income or oil wealth or inequality on the propensity for democratization from a data set composed only of Panama and Iraq. Talk about omitted-variable bias…

I don’t mean to imply that of scholars of comparative politics are oblivious to these issues. Interpretive studies of political development often reference international forces, and over the past 20 years, we’ve increasingly tried to incorporate these ideas into our statistical models as well. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s thoughts on linkage and leverage are an example of the former. Other studies have nibbled at the problem by looking for evidence of diffusion in patterns of democratization, or at the marginal effects from participation in international organizations and other treaty regimes. Studies on the relationship between oil wealth and the survival of authoritarian regimes also lean in this direction, although it’s telling that newer research suggests that these effects really aren’t about oil per se so much as the specific role that commodity has played in a particular (and likely fleeting) realization of the global political economy. Dependency theory also operated at this level, although the results were a bit cartoonish and the long-term predictions have now been proved flat wrong.

What’s still missing from comparative politics, I think, is the one-two punch of theories that are more explicitly systemic combined with methods that suit those theories. Right now, we’ve got little bits of each, but nothing that really brings the two together. We’re stuck in a complex adaptive system that doesn’t really distinguish between national and international, political and economic, human and natural, and our theories of stability and change in political institutions should take that whole more seriously.

Instead of thinking of the international environment as something we incorporate into our models by tacking one or two covariates onto the tail ends of our country-level equations, we should think more carefully about country-level institutions as middle-range manifestations of processes occurring in a global system. The simplifying assumption that states are separable units certainly has its uses, but we shouldn’t conflate that utility with causal relevance. Like maps, all models are simplifications, but those simplifications aren’t useful if they ignore the very causes they’re meant to locate. That’s true in a metaphorical sense, but as Winecoff calls out in the blog post that sparked this ramble, it’s also true in the more literal sense that badly misspecified models produce unreliable results.

I’ll wrap this ramble up by noting that the “development” metaphor itself helps illuminate the problem, and might even contribute to it by reinforcing a certain frame of mind. In many fields of study, “development” is a process that happens to individuals and follows a certain arc. It connotes directional growth and maturation, and it has a beginning, middle, and end. When we apply this metaphor to politics—comparing “fledgling” and “mature” democracies, for example, or talking about the “international community” as if it were something like a gathering of people in a room—we get stuck in a rut from which it’s hard to see the other, arguably richer, aspects of that world.

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