Polarization and Conflict (PAC)

Workshop in Nicosia, April 2006

Please note: This page refers to an event that has already taken place.

Time: 26 Apr 2006 - 29 Apr 2006
Place: Nicosia, Cyprus

Polarization and Conflict (PAC)

This workshop is held concurrent with (but independently of) the Joint Sessions of Workshops organized by the European Consortium of Political Research (ECPR). It is sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Civil War CSCW) at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), the Polarization and Conflict Network (PAC), the Department of Political Science at the University of Iceland (HI), the Chair in International Relations at the University of Konstanz, the Department of Sociology and Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), and the Standing Group on Political Geography (SGPG) of the ECPR.

Co-convenors of the workshop are Nils Petter Gleditsch (CSCW, NTNU, & PAC), Indridi Indridason (HI), Gerald Schneider (Konstanz & PAC), and Halvard Buhaug (SGPG & NTNU).


One session at the meeting will be devoted to the Cyprus conflict, with mainly local speakers. The rest of the program will consist of papers selected from those submitted to the conveners.


The workshop is co-sponsored by the EU-funded research network on Polarization and Conflict (www.polarizationandconflict.org/) that mainly unites political scientists and economists. We aspire to recruit some of the political scientists that are part of this network, but participation is open. We generally seek the participation of theoretically-oriented scholars from both comparative politics and international relations. We expect papers that are mainly theoretically motivated and that try to advance our understanding of the nexus between polarization and conflict, as well as large-n research designs to test the various propositions in this interrelationship, and comparative case studies to understand why some situations of high polarization are linked to political conflict and others are not.

The selection of participants will be based on the quality and relevance of their paper proposals. All the participants will present a paper and also act as a discussant on another workshop paper.

Description of the workshop

Recent developments in such diverse countries as Ukraine and the United States have shown that ideological and social polarization between contending groups is still a process to be reckoned with. According to the standard definition, polarization is a process of growing alienation between two or more social groups. While the group members show solidarity with each other, they feel socially, ideologically or economically separated from the members of another group. Some theoretical work suggests that the level of conflict, both violent and nonviolent, should increase with the level of polarization. If there are two groups, the likelihood of conflict is most pronounced with a bimodal distribution of the preferences or resource distributions across the groups (Esteban & Ray, 1999). This conjecture has a distinguished idea history. Marx (1867/1931) and de Tocqueville (1857) contended that a revolution becomes more likely if the workers start to organize themselves politically and if their economic situation does not improve in line with the welfare of capitalists. There is ample illustrative evidence for this hypothesis. Polarization between contending social forces is seen as a key cause of the end of the Weimar republic (Bracher, 1955; Winkler, 1994), the Russian revolution (Rosenberg & Koenker, 1987), and many other decisive breakdowns of political order. Linz (1978: 44) described political polarization as a ‘strong centrifugal tendency on the part of all participants and the fragmentation of parties’ and wrote: ‘The immediate result is deep personal antagonism between parties and the impossibility of forming a broad, shifting centre coalition against extremists on both sides of the spectrum. The notion of political polarization has recently been frequently discussed in the United States. In a comment in The New York Times, Brooks (2004) used these trends to herald a new era of ‘political segregation’: ‘People lose touch with others in opposing, now distant, camps. And millions of kids are raised in what amount to political ghettoes’. Time series evidence assembled by Rosenthal and associates (Rosenthal, 2004; McCarty, Poole & Rosenthal, 2004; Poole & Rosenthal, 1994) supports this claim. Their analysis identifies 1975 as a turning point when both Democrats and Republicans moved to more extreme positions on the left–right (or, in his parlance, the liberal–conservative) dimension of conflict. Layman & Carsey (2002a, b) qualify this view and caution that constituencies might not be as polarized as the political elites: Their ‘conflict extension model’ argues that the sharp ideological division is limited to party activists. No similar analyses exist for Western European countries. Work in economics shows that the development on some related measures of social inequality – deprivation and social exclusion – is far from uniform across the ‘old’ EU member states (Bossert, D’Ambrosio & Peragine, 2004). Schneider (2004) has shown that political polarization has been declining in most of the OECD countries; mainly institutional variables seem to account for the differences across states. Whether such differences across time and space are somehow meaningfully related to political conflict is, however, unclear.

The hypothesis that conflict, both in its violent and nonviolent form, is related to political polarization has preoccupied political science and the other social sciences for decades. While international relations scholars have mainly examined the impact of the global distribution of resources across states, comparativists have examined how social or political polarization affects collective decision making at the national level of interaction.

Interstate war: International relations scholars have debated for a long time whether a bimodal distribution of resources in the world system is a source of conflict or rather of peace. The hypothesis that bipolarity stabilizes the international system is due to Waltz (1979). Deutsch & Singer (1964) rejected this view relatively early and contended that multipolar systems are less conflict prone because of the growing uncertainty that characterizes such configurations. Scholars like Powell (1999) have attempted to unify such contending perspectives. Most of the empirical work on the topic mainly focuses on the polarization of military resources. Only a few studies assess the ideological division (Gartzke & Simon, 1996).

Civil war: One of the disputes in the ever growing literature on civil war concerns how various forms of polarization affect the likelihood of conflict. Drawing on empirical studies on the impact of polarization on economic growth, Reynal–Querol (2002) pointed out the importance of religious polarization. However, other studies had difficulties in replicating this finding and the related conjecture that ethnic fractionalization is in any way linked to political violence within states. Collier & Hoeffler (2004) point out that not fractionalization but rather the contested dominance of one large group is prone to conflict. This is, in their view, due to the fact fractionalization reduces the possibility of marginal groups to organise themselves effectively. In the meantime, new measures of fractionalization have emerged that await systematic cross-national tests (Alesina et al., 2003, Fearon, 2003). As the recent articles by Keefer & Knack (2002) and Alesina & La Ferrara (2004) suggest, group heterogeneity has mainly negative effects. Yet, the Olsonian thesis that heterogeneity is negatively linked to public good provision remains to be tested for situations of fierce group competition.

Government termination and voter turnout: Political polarization also affects nonviolent forms of social interactions. In democracies, the growing competition between political forces has been especially connected to the survival of governments and to the competitiveness of elections. In their seminal article, King et al. (1990) model polarization simply as the support for extremist parties and show that this reduces the tenure of a government. More generally, Warwick (1994, 1998) argues that the ideological distance is crucial for understanding the formation and dissolution of parliamentary governments. Ideological distance has been shown to influence, e.g., government formation (Martin & Stevenson 2001), bargaining duration (Martin & Vanberg 2003), and cabinet duration (Druckman & Thies 2002), which suggests that political polarization may play an important role. Another concept with some explanatory power in the coalition governance literature, the identifiability of government coalitions (Powell 2000), is also related to political polarization. A related hypothesis tests the impact that political polarization among voters has on their participation. For instance, Crepaz (1990: 200) measured polarization through the ideological distance between the extremist parties. In his view, ‘the bigger the degree of party polarization, the more people are exposed to political stimuli’. As indicated, political polarization has also been linked to the breakdown of political order. Yet, we have not yet seen much research on this topic and would encourage papers that explore this old hypothesis in the light of new theoretical frameworks and larger datasets as well as papers that explore the validity of the new polarization measures by Esteban & Ray (1994) and Duclos, Esteban & Ray (2004) and papers that compare the usefulness of such measures with the polarization indicator introduced by Sigelman & Yough (1978).