One of the most powerful predictors of violent political conflict is
proximate violence in space and time. This spatiotemporal pattern has been
identified between countries as well as within them. What explains this
clustering is less clear, and different studies point to different mechanisms.
Focusing on sub-Saharan African states, we examine whether population attitudes
may contribute to the spatial diffusion of political violence that is found at
sub-national scales. In a quasi-experimental research design, using
geo-referenced survey data of 18,508 respondents for 162 administrative units
across 16 countries, paired with precisely geo-referenced conflict event data,
we find that popular acceptance for the legitimacy of using physical violence
in the survey is positively associated with subsequent conflict events.
Furthermore, the combined effects of nearby violence and approval of violence
is stronger than either condition alone, implying a diffusion effect. This
relationship remains even after controlling for previous levels of conflict,
meaning that the finding cannot be dismissed as merely reflecting a reverse
causal effect. We also find some evidence that conflict events affect public
opinion, implying a mutually reinforcing relationship between violence and
general acceptance for using violence.