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date: 20 October 2017

Summary and Keywords

Empirical research on civil war onset has been largely dominated by two approaches: a correlational or “correlates of civil war” approach which seeks to identify country-level characteristics associated with a higher likelihood of civil war outbreak, and a bargaining approach which starts from the assumption that warfare is costly and which views civil conflict as a by-product of bargaining failures. Correlational and bargaining studies of internal conflict onset have reached an analytical plateau because they fail to specify the precise mechanisms that yield civil warfare instead of a different type of violent or nonviolent outcome. An alternative, contentious framework is advanced for studying civil war onset. This framework situates the conflict event within a larger cycle of contention and specifies the mechanisms through which civil conflict is most likely to occur. According to this contentious perspective, civil wars are commonly produced by the combination of one structural condition—a state crisis of authority and/or legitimacy—and the interdependent effect of two mechanisms—radicalization and militarization. Through theory development and vignettes from a handful of civil war cases, the article makes the case that the contentious approach holds promise for elucidating how exactly civil conflicts break out. Despite holding initial explanatory power, the contentious theory of civil war onset advanced herein awaits more systematic empirical testing.

Keywords: bargaining theories of war, civil war, contentious politics, correlates of civil war, empirical international relations theory, ethnic conflict, mechanisms, violence

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