Theories of Violent Conflict Part 1: Rationalism and Greed

This is the first post of the series ‘theories of violent conflict’, where I will engage with theories and perspectives in conflict and peace research. In this post I aim to highlight two things: first and foremost, I will explain a dominant view on studying contemporary conflict: rational choice theory and the ‘greed theory of war’ (Collier 2003). This theory assumes that people will conduct in civil war if the perceived costs outweigh the benefits. Second, I will contextualize this theory in relation to the politics of portrayal.

Rational Choice Theory and Economic Man

In order to try and deliberate peace between groups, it is vital to understand how and why groups resort to violence. But how is violent conflict approached in in politics? Within conflict and peace research, a way to study war in conflict and peace research is to empirically study conflict, and determining when violence is beneficiary for an individual. One dominant theory that has prevailed research since the turn of the century is rational choice theory (RCT), which conceptualises individuals as rational actors, actively engaging in war. This view especially prevailing in contemporary international relations, and is used by policy makers and institutes like the World Bank to explain and understand contemporary conflict. RCT assumes a person will resort to violence if the benefits of war outweigh the cost of war. This theory shifts the attention from social systems to individual calculation and opportunity, and stems from neo-classical economic theories. Homo Economicus, or”‘[e]conomic man’ is the rational human being, who acts out of self-interest and the desire for wealth that economists use when deriving, explaining and verifying their theories and models” (Demmers 2012, 101), So the individual is considered a rational agent, and as long as war pays off, conflict will be sustained. One of the advocates of the utility maximization explanation of violent conflict is Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who in The War Trap (1981) argued that war is likely to emerge if actors on both sides expect it to be profitable. In this line of thought, actors (individuals, groups, or states) are unitary objective utility maximizers, and actions are consistent and goal-oriented. But especially if the cost of war includes violent acts such as killing, the highly political question arises, when conflict is deemed beneficiary, and what assumptions lie underneath?

Rationalism and greed theory

In a similar line as Bueno de Mesquita, scholar Paul Collier and his colleagues produced an influential World Bank Report named: Breaking the Conflict Trap (2003). This report conceptualizes it is utility maximization that drives conflict. His work, and the work of Collier and Hoeffler in 2001 is now known as the greed theory of war. Collier wanted to discover the motivation for rebellion, and empirically studied quantitative data a range of civil wars by comparing available statistics. Important to note, Collier was not interested in studying what people say, but what people do. So he observed social action from a distance, and tried to infer motivation for conflict by making sense of patterns of behaviour. In his argumentation he concludes: “the true cause of much civil war is not the load discourse of grievance but the silent force of greed” (Collier in Demmers 2012, 102). However, how did Collier answer the question if and when conflict is deemed beneficiary? Collier and his colleagues designed a model with which they can empirically measure proxies assigned to either greed or grievance:


  1. Share of primary commodity exports in gross domestic product (GDP)
  2. Proportion of young males in the total population
  3. Average years of schooling


  1. Ethnic grievances or religious hatreds, measured in the way a society is factionalized by religion or ethnicity
  2. Economic inequality, measured in land ownership
  3. Government economic incompetence, growth rate of the state in the last five years

Politics of Portrayal

Both in RCT and Collier’s model, the individual decision-maker is regarded as a primary unit of analysis. Important to note is that this model and Collier’s proxies have been highly criticized. To mention a few: representation of greed and grievance, the interconnectedness of greed and grievance, and general lack of data. More importantly, the explaining civil war in terms of greed and/or grievance is a serious political act, which has serious consequences. Following this line of thought, there is a fundamental objection towards RTC and greed theory because implicit assumptions lie underneath the idea of greed-motivated conflict. This is best captured in a quote from scholar Christopher Cramer (2006, 126):

Given that war often involves not only killing and maiming but being killed or maimed, one thing rather possibly forgone in war is life. Thus it must be assumed that poverty is so gruelling that the opportunity cost of being killed is very low. The poor engage in war because life is cheap.

Cramer contests the crude images from RCT and people in civil war as capable self-interested brutes. What is striking is that despite its many criticisms, this viewpoint on violent conflict is a very legitimate and popular conceptualisation of conflict in contemporary politics. Instead of understanding new forms of violence as “manifestations of systemic failures and mechanisms” violence is understood as a local issue (Demmers 2012, 111). The political implications of this representation is that they cast responsibility and blame towards local states and rebel groups, instead of acknowledging their interconnectedness with geo-political history, and global politics and economies. It is easy to see what the attraction is for framing conflict in such a manner, because it simplifies war and puts the responsibility and blame of war on local actors. However, the question that remains is: what are the implications for such representations? I will discuss one answer to this question in my next post, where I focus on violent conflict as discourse, so stay tuned for the next blog!

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