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date: 16 August 2017

Fractionalization and Civil War

Summary and Keywords

Civil wars have becoming increasingly complex in the last 50 years, the role of fragmentation in contemporary civil wars needs to be addressed. Two primary dimensions of fractionalization are: (1) fragmented conflict (i.e., those with many different actor) and (2) fragmented actors (i.e., internally divided “sides” of a conflict).

In addition to the two types of fragmentation, there are also various causes of fragmentation. The primary causes of fractionalized conflicts are rooted in the interplay between opposition actors and the government, and among opposition actors. Peace negotiations, accommodation, and the process of war all put stress on opposition actors (and to perhaps a more limited extent, on governments). Lastly, there is a set of conflict-related outcomes and processes that have been linked empirically to fractionalization. These include accommodation of opposition demands, higher rates of violence (against the state and civilians), infighting, duration of conflict, and side-switching.

Keywords: fragmentation, fractionalization, civil war, internal conflict, conflict processes, empirical international relations theory


Traditional views of civil war pit an established government against a rebel army, where the rebels seek to overthrow the government or separate from the state entirely. Yet, a state-versus-rebels approach to understanding civil war has become increasingly inaccurate. Many contemporary civil wars include multiple rebel groups, actors that break apart mid-conflict, and the emergence of new fighting forces throughout the war and conflict resolution processes.

This article examines the state of the literature on fractionalization and civil war. It begins by defining the dimensions of fractionalization. The second section addresses existing knowledge about the causes of fractionalization. The third examines the consequences of fractionalization for a variety of conflict processes.

What is Fractionalization?

Civil wars are fractionalized, or fragmented, when they can be cannot be characterized simply by defining two opposing sides.1 Often, a fractionalized war means that there are multiple rebel groups fighting against the same state. A specific conflict may be identified as more or less fractured depending on the degree of violent conflict or cooperation among disparate rebel groups. Single actors can also be characterized as fractured or fragmented. For example, rebels or opposition movements more generally are often described as fragmented or fractionalized when there are multiple internal factions, even if some cohesion exists among them.

Scholarship on fractionalization in civil war has increased significantly in the past ten years. High-profile complex disputes such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn a great deal of attention from qualitative researchers. In parallel, there has been a marked growth in the new data available to analyze conflict dynamics at an increasingly disaggregated level. These trends led to a fundamental shift in the way civil war is studied (Cederman & Gleditsch, 2009).

The literature examines two principle types of fragmentation. First, actors vary in their extent of cohesion or fragmentation. All actors participating in a conflict can be arrayed on a spectrum between extremely fractionalized, often loosely organized and very cohesive, typically hierarchically organized actors. In practice, terms such as “dissidents” or “rebels” can refer to either very cohesive or very fragmented actors. Second, conflicts as a whole can be fractionalized, where there are multiple different “sides.” Each “side” of a dispute is comprised of actors that may be more or less cohesive. These two elements can be combined to understand fragmentation within a conflict.

Fragmented Actors

Bakke, Cunningham, and Seymour (2012) develop a tripartite approach to describe opposition movements. The three dimensions include (1) the number of organizations that comprise the opposition (making distinctions, for example between political or military wings), (2) the degree to which connections between organizations are institutionalized, and (3) the distribution of power among organizations within an actor (see also Krause, 2014, on the role of power).

The first dimension of fragmentation is the number of unique organizations or factions included within an actor and more organizations (or factions) within an actor constitute greater fractionalization. Most simply, an opposition actor can be just a single organization challenging the government. One example of this is the longstanding Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI). The KDPI has promoted the interests of the Kurds since the 1940s and for decades maintained a position as the representative of Kurdish interests in Iran. In other cases, opposition actors have clear divisions, such as those with an armed wing and a political wing. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Northern Ireland is a prime example. As a military organization, the IRA has closely associated with the political party Sinn Fein, though the two are not considered to be a single organization.

In some instances, the choice to form political and military wings is made early on. Yet in other situations, rebellion begins with a single organization that succumbs to splintering. This leads to multiple organizations with often complex relationships between them. For example, the National Liberation Front of Corsica in France suffered multiple rounds of splintering, but also of reunion (Daftary, 2000). Thus, some actors or movements experience fractionalization as a proliferation of organizations over time. Other oppositions begin quite fragmented and comprise a large set of organizations pursuing similar goals but with little coordination among them. The more organizations or factions within an actor, the more fractionalized it is.

The degree of institutionalization among constituent organizations is a second key dimension of fractionalization. Institutionalization refers to the extent to which factions recognize and accept specific rules for engaging with one another. Actors are more institutionalized when the ties between factions are clearer and factions respect behavioral constraints.

Within states, there is a large body of work addressing formal political institutions, and some states are clearly more institutionalized than others (e.g., North, 1981). Yet, states are not the only actors where common “rules of the game” matter. Both formal and informal institutions can shape the patterns of interaction in complex actors (Helmke & Levitsky, 2004). The links between political and military wings in some rebel movements illustrate this concept. Political and military wings are often formally linked, and the two factions work together to make decisions. However, each “wing” is responsible for particular types of actions and are expected to operate with some degree of independence. Another way that factions link together is through an “umbrella” organization. For example, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) came together as an umbrella organization representing leftist opposition organizations in El Salvador and eventually played a role in ending the civil war (Wood, 2003; Allison & Alvarez, 2012). Umbrella organizations, then, play a role in coordinating disparate preferences and agendas amongst a set of independent or quasi-independent organizations. Actors are considered more institutionalized when the ties between factions are clearer and respected by organizations as common rules that guide their behavior.

A third element of fragmentation is the distribution of power among organizations. An actor is more fractionalized when many different organizations have a share of power. In some opposition movements, there is one dominant, most powerful, organization. The Tamil Liberation Tigers established military supremacy among Tamils in Sri Lanka, though there were other Tamil organizations vying for power and influence (Mampilly, 2011). Similarly, Fatah in the Palestinian movement was able to establish hegemonic power for a period for of time (Krause, 2014). At other times, the Palestinian movement has demonstrated a wider distribution of power with Fatah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad all yielding significant power. The extent to which power is centralized in one faction is another dimension on which one can assess how fractionalized the movement or actor is. Shifts in centralization and decentralization of power are more complex than the other dimensions of fractionalization (number and institutionalization across organizations). Power can be established and maintained with military action, but can also come through broad-based constituent support (DeNardo, 1985; Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011).

This tripartite approach to fractionalization highlights how dynamic actors in conflict can be. Each of these dimensions—the number of organizations, the degree of institutionalization, and the distribution of power—can change rapidly. Empirically, one sees organizations splinter or get eliminated from the conflict entirely, umbrella groups form and disintegrate, and power (both military and nonmilitary) shift among actors quickly (Christia, 2012).

Multiple Actors in Conflict

In addition to fractionalized actors, many conflicts feature multiple different “sides” to the conflict. In some wars, there are two obvious “sides,” such as the Mozambique government versus the rebel group RENAMO (Hultman, 2009; Emerson, 2014). The government is always a participant in civil war and is typically viewed as trying to maintain status quo power structures. While it generally makes sense to think of the government as one actor (although there are certainly divisions within the government that can influence cooperation and conflict), in some cases, the government side of a conflict splinters, and for periods of time, there are competing governments (such as Lebanon in the 1980s and the current civil war in Libya).2 More frequently, the “government” side in a civil war includes armed forces outside of the official security services, such as Interahamwe which was instrumental in the Rwandan genocide and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which targeted the rebel group FARC during the long Colombian civil war. Carey, Mitchell, and Lowe (2013) identify 332 progovernment militias (PGMs) operating around the world at some point between 1981 and 2007. These PGMs contribute to fractionalization of conflict because, while they fight to advance the government’s interests in the conflict, they are not controlled by it.

The opposition (or nonstate side) comprises actors that seek some change in policy or in the structure of the state. Scholars typically divide civil wars between those where the rebels fight for control of the state (such as the conflict in Cambodia) and those where rebels fight to separate from the state (such as the Chechens in Russia) (e.g., Hegre & Sambanis, 2006).3 The distinction between the government and an opposition, then, is primarily about where power is centered in the state and who occupies the power centers. In separatist wars, the national government wants to keep power centralized, while organizations representing a peripheral opposition want control to be devolved. While organizations supporting greater local autonomy may have different preferences about exactly what that entails, it is often still reasonable to view the conflict as two sides—the government and the periphery.

However, when the opposition organization’s demands are more distinct, one sees the emergence of multiparty civil wars (Cunningham, 2011). In these wars, rebel groups fight the government as well as fighting other rebels. For example, the civil wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon cannot be characterized as conflict between the government and a rebel opposition. Instead, these conflicts include a number of fighting forces, and conflict often takes place in multiple sites around the country. In multiparty civil wars, rebels can and do work together. However, patterns of both conflict and cooperation among rebels can change quickly, and allegiances among the disparate rebels are fluid (Christia, 2012; Staniland, 2014).

The Syrian civil war is characterized both by multiple parties to the conflict and by fractionized actors (Lynch, 2013). One can think about the Syrian civil war as containing four broad sides—the government side, where the leadership is disproportionally from the Shia Alawi sect (although members and supports draw from other sects), the “moderate” or secular opposition, which primarily draws from Syria’s Sunni majority, Islamist groups, including ISIS, which also primarily recruit from the Sunni population but have a religious agenda, and Kurdish groups. Within each of these broad sides, there are important divisions. Government forces fight alongside Hizbollah (a Lebanese rebel group), and Iranian forces, and are backed by Russian airstrikes. Since the beginning, there have been a multitude of actors in the moderate opposition, so many that it has been difficult to determine the extent to which fractionalized actors, such as the Syrian National Council, can maintain their integrity during conflict negotiations. Attempts by outsiders to push the disparate opposition organizations to coalesce have been unsuccessful. ISIS came to dominate the Islamist side of the conflict in 2013, but still faces competition from the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria (the al-Nusra group) and other, small, organizations. There are also several Kurdish rebel groups operating in Syria. Together, the proliferation of actors means that the conflict is both multiparty and fractionalized, and makes for an extremely complex civil war.

Foreign Fighters

In addition to fractionalized actors and multiparty conflicts, there is another trend worth noting—the increasing relevance of foreign fighters. Malet (2013) shows that foreign fighters (i.e., soldiers that travel to join one side of a conflict they are not involved in) participated in wars as early as the 1820s, and their participation in civil wars has increased steadily over time.

The “Islamic State” (IS) is a prime example of this phenomenon as individuals travel from around the world to join the fight. Soldiers that constitute foreign fighters for IS tend to be young, and the Islamic State trains and indoctrinates many of them. Bakke (2013, 2014) shows the distinction between local fighters and foreigners. In Chechnya, foreign fighters have brought new ideas about the goals of the struggle, as well as new expertise in terms of tactics and strategy. In this dispute, Bakke argues that the interaction between foreign and domestic fighters has helped to shift the dispute from a nationalist war to a more Islamic-centered dispute. Moreover, foreign-sponsored training camps changed the way that local soldiers viewed the legitimacy and efficacy of more violent tactics.

One likely factor contributing to the rise in foreign fighters is that rebel groups now have greater ability to reach potential recruits around the world. There has been a vast increase in the number of websites related to terrorist groups in the past 15 years.4 Easy access to social media makes it possible for smaller organizations to increase their presence and elicit support. The proliferation of these smaller organizations increases the fractionalization of civil war.

Causes of Fractionalization

Existing scholarship addresses a number of motivating factors for the fractionalization of actors and conflicts. One approach examines structural preconditions that have been associated with the ease of rebellion. For example, societies with many ethnic groups may be more conflict-prone, particularly when groups are geographically concentrated (Toft, 2003) or these groups have faced economic discrimination and political exclusion (Cederman et al., 2013). Ethiopia has seen conflict among groups organized along ethnic identity lines and the government. The Tigray, Eritreans, Oromo, and Somalis coordinated to overthrow the communist government in the 1980s and early 1990s. Weak or “failed” states such as Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo can also contribute to fractionalized conflicts, as governments are unable to project power throughout the territory, making it easier for violent groups to emerge in different parts of the country.

Competition with other opposition organizations and with the state both play a significant role in determining fragmentation. First, repression by the state has been linked to fractionalization of the opposition. Rebel movements can break apart under the stress of high or increasing costs of conflict. DeNardo (1985) argues that both factions and individuals respond in different ways as they attempt to mitigate the costs of war. Resulting disagreements on strategy can lead individuals and factions to split from the organization, increasing fractionalization.

Others suggests that repression, or increasing costs to the opposition, can galvanize a movement, increasing cohesion in the face of a common enemy. When a specific group is targeted based on their identity, individuals may rally around the common threats despite having diverse political goals (Simmel, 1955; Zald & McCarthy, 1980; Kalyvas & Kocher, 2007). McLauchlin and Pearlman (2012) argue that the effects of repression will depend on how content rebels are with the status quo power dynamics within the movements. If the organization or its leadership is unstable to begin with, increased stress can fracture the movement (see also Coser, 1956). Without such internal discontent, increased pressure from the state will not necessarily lead to greater fractionalization.

The state is not the only source of increased pressure on rebel actors. The nature of violent conflict itself can engender fragmentation. Della Porta (1995) suggests that the use of violent tactics can lead to splits between moderates and hardliners within a group as they debate the merits of different types of tactics and strategies. For ethnopolitical movements (such as the Basque in Spain) the militarization of political competition affects social cohesion underpinning collective action (Wood, 2010). This is especially true when governments employ collaborators from within the opposition (Lyall, 2010) or when the government has induced some factions to defect to the state (Staniland, 2012; Seymour, 2014).

Repression and increased costs of conflict put stress on actors, altering their perceptions about the costs and benefits of fighting. The process of conflict resolution and the accommodation of rebel demands can also alter this cost/benefit analysis in ways that make fragmentation more likely. The scholarship on peace “spoilers” suggests that divisions over peace settlements (both process and outcomes) emerge because of ideological and personality differences among opposition leaders (cf. Stedman, 1997). Moreover, Pearlman (2008/2009, 2011) argues that competition among fragmented opposition factions to be the recipient of settlement benefits can lead to violent spoiling (Pearlman, 2008/2009, 2011). Similarly, when states do accommodate opposition demands, they often create a new pool of resources and benefits that can drive a wedge within a rebel group as factions have competing visions about the future (Cunningham, 2011; Seymour et al., 2016).

External support to parties in a conflict can also lead to greater fractionalization. Outside supporters introduce new preferences to the conflict (Cunningham, 2010), and external supporters can shape the actions of rebels they give support to (Salehyan et al., 2011). The addition of more preferences can engender greater divisions among warring parties. Syria demonstrates this dynamic. A number of states have provided support to different factions in the opposition and to the Assad government. Not only do external supporters contribute to conflict fractionalization, external support itself can also make conflicts more difficult to resolve (Crocker, 1999; Regan, 2002; Sawyer, Cunningham, & Reed, 2015). Finally, even mediation designed to resolve conflicts can play a role in increasing fractionalization. Typically, mediators try to foster collaboration between moderates that exclude hardliners, but in doing so, mediation can create incentives for fragmentation in the same way that accommodation does (Beardsley et al., 2006).

Effects of Fractionalization on Conflict Processes

There are numerous implications of fractionalization. This section addresses the scholarship in three areas: (1) violence, (2) settlement and accommodation, and (3) side-switching. Existing work has demonstrated a significant effect of actor and conflict fragmentation in all of these areas.


High fractionalization is linked to multiple types of violence, including the outbreak of war, fighting among factions, and attacks on civilians. Examining the fractionalization of social movements (as opposed to specific warring parties), Cunningham (2014) shows that governments often have difficulty determining what opposition actors want and when they will resort to violence when these movements are more divided. This uncertainty makes it difficult for states to effectively manage disputes with more internally divided movements, creating incentives for actors within these movements to challenges the state violently. She finds that more internally divided movements are consistently associated with a higher chance of civil war than movements with fewer internal divisions.

In addition to a higher chance of war occurrence, more fragmented oppositions see a much higher rate of internecine violence between organizations and of attacks on civilians (Cunningham et al., 2012; Staniland, 2012). Rebel group and dissident organizations that operate in a fractionalized conflict compete for resources, including civilian support. In some instances, competition over local support leads to coercion against civilians (Kalyvas, 2006). For example, the Tamil Tigers used coercion of civilians to maintain dominance in the Tamil region during their war against the Sri Lankan government.

An emerging body of research using Carey, Mitchell, and Lowe’s (2013) data on progovernment militias show that PGMs are linked to a number of different types of violence. As progovernment actors that are not officially under the control of the security services (although they may cooperate with them), these actors can lead to increased violence in at least two ways. First, they can use violence that the government would otherwise want to use itself, giving the government a way to deny these acts. Second, in some cases the government may want PGMs to refrain from violence, but because of accountability problems in principal-agent relationships be unable to do so. Mitchell, Carey, and Butler (2014) show that the presence of PGMs increases the risks of repression. Cohen and Nordas (2015) find some PGMs commit higher levels of sexual violence, but argue that this use cannot really be explained by either delegation or accountability problems, but rather complements state-led violence against civilians.

Accommodation and Negotiated Settlement

Fractionalization is most often associated with violence. Yet, Cunningham (2014) shows that a higher degree of fragmentation is also associated with accommodation in disputes over self-determination. Although most studies of war settlement focus on peace deals at the end of a conflict, governments actually accommodate rebels during conflict as well in a number of ways. In Africa alone, Thomas (2014) finds 237 instances of concessions offered to rebel groups, more than half of which can be considered political concessions. Moreover, Cunningham (2014) finds over 200 instances of accommodation of self-determination movements, some of these occurring in cases of active civil war. Accommodation made to fragmented oppositions in wartime is typically limited and gives factions some of what they want. In return, the satisfied opposition factions often stop fighting or capitulate in terms of the demands they make. Governments have strong incentives to use limited concessions when facing fragmented oppositions because the accommodation may satisfy some factions and decrease the strength of the challenge to the state. Moreover, when there are radical demands, limited accommodation can help the state discern whether extreme demands are credible preferences or a strategic bargaining position (Cunningham, 2014).

Limited accommodations can shape and help to manage disputes, but do not often lead to complete resolution of violent conflicts. Civil wars with more rebel groups tend to be longer than two-party wars and see fewer of the fractionalized conflicts ending in comprehensive peace deals. Some of the most notable long-running wars have included multiple rebel groups, such as Cambodia, Colombia, and Somalia. Examining conflicts around the globe, Cunningham (2011) finds a significant difference in the length of wars with different numbers of rebel groups, even between wars with three versus one rebel group. He argues that there are four key barriers to settlement in these fractionalized wars. First, finding a peace deal that satisfies a greater diversity of preferences is difficult. Second, the change in the number of parties, as well as coalitions and fighting between sides make determining the balance of power challenging at any given time over the course of the conflict. Third, rebel groups in fractionalized conflicts have incentives to hold out in an effort to be the final signatory to a peace deal in order to get more at the bargaining table. Finally, shifting alliance among actors in fractionalized conflicts makes coming to agreement harder to do. Taken together, fractionalized actors and conflict are likely to produce only limited accommodation of opposition aims and are likely to be longer and harder to resolve conclusively.

The barriers to bargaining presented by multiparty conflicts mean that international efforts to resolve these conflicts are much more prone to failure. A large body of literature has shown that international actions such as peacekeeping (Fortna, 2008) and mediation (Bercovitch & Gartner, 2008) can contribute to the successful resolution of civil wars. Doyle and Sambanis (2006) conclude that UN peace-building efforts are actually effective at building peace in just under half (13) of the 27 cases they examine. However, simply dividing these cases into civil wars with one, and more than one, rebel group shows that UN peace-building efforts were successful, by their criteria, in 10 out of 16 two-party wars (63%) and only in 3 out of 11 multiparty wars (27%).

In response to the barriers to comprehensive settlement presented by conflict with multiple rebel groups, some governments and mediators advocate for a “partial peace” approach, in which some rebels are intentionally excluded from the peace process. This strategy can be problematic, as it was in Burundi in negotiations in Arusha, Tanzania from 1998 to 2000. Julius Nyerere, who facilitated the Burundian negotiations, chose to exclude the two main rebel groups from negotiations, which meant the negotiations were doomed to failure. The Arusha process, then, while it produced an agreement signed by 19 parties, did not resolve the war. In the years following the agreement of 2000, negotiations were held with the two main rebel groups and the war was eventually resolved, but it took eight years before both the main rebel groups had agreed to stop fighting.

Another way to pursue “partial peace” is to negotiate sequentially with rebel groups. This was attempted in Chad, where the government has signed peace deals in sequence with a series of rebel groups. Nilsson (2008) demonstrates that partial peace succeeds in stopping the fighting among some actors, but rarely leads to full resolution of the conflict.


A final area where fractionalization affects conflict is the occurrence of side-switching. Side-switching occurs when a faction of any rebel or government side of a war defects to another actor in the conflict and continues fighting. For example, several Tamil factions defected to the Sri Lankan state during the civil war. Side-switching can occur for several reasons. Staniland (2012) argues that a combination of pressure on a faction from fighting the state and competition among rebel factions can lead to intense fear for a faction’s survival. In turn, that fear leads factions to defect to the state to ensure their survival. Seymour (2014) demonstrates that side-switching in Sudan has largely been opportunistic. Rebels work to maintain patronage systems and to compete with local rivals, and in doing so, are willing to defect to a state that can provide military and financial support. In a large statistical study, Otto (forthcoming) finds that organizations that have originated by splintering of other organizations are most prone to switching to the state. Moreover, the origins of rebel organizations determine whether they are likely to defect to another side. Otto (forthcoming) argues that “splinter” groups—those rebels that already broken off from another rebel group—are most likely to defect. These groups are often more homogenous and smaller units, which Otto suggests increases the group’s ability to make and follow through on a decision to switch sides. Side-switching is a dynamic feature of fractionalized conflicts, and one that makes resolution more difficult and violence more likely as factions fight their former allies and brethren.


The past decade has seen a rapid increase in scholarship on fractionalization in civil war. Despite the plethora of work on multiparty international conflicts, the view of civil wars as dyadic persisted until relatively recently. Subsequently, research on fractionalization of civil wars has uncovered a number of critical insights. First, multiparty conflicts differ in important ways from two-party conflicts. Alliances in these disputes are fluid. Rebels can and do switch allegiances across the spectrum of warring parties. Wars with multiple rebel groups are longer, deadlier, and harder to resolve. Moreover, conflict gets harder to resolve as more external actors join in the dispute. These unique features of fractionalized conflicts affect a variety of conflict processes. Fragmented disputes have higher rates of civilian targeting and infighting among organizations. They are also characterized by more limited accommodations by state governments and fewer comprehensive peace settlements.

Second, actors in civil war—rebel or governments—are not unitary. Nor do they act as if they are unitary in many instances. The “sides” of the civil war often comprise a multitude of different organizations and preferences that have different views of how the conflict should end and that vary in their willingness to fight. At the extreme, there is fighting within what might be considered one side of a conflict.

A number of factors contribute to conflict fractionalization. The primary determinants of fragmentation are dynamic factors—the processes of accommodation and of ongoing conflict or repression. Both accommodation and conflict put stress on conflict actors that can lead to fractures and defections. The growing literature on the causes and consequences of fractionalization has real-world implications for conflict resolution. Critically, the occurrence of “spoilers” that emerge to resist or stop peace processes should not be understood as an isolated phenomenon. Instead, conflict resolution processes must treat fragmentation as a likely part of negotiations and fighting.

Acknowledging the complexity of conflicts and actors participating in them has clearly advanced the field. Yet, it has also inspired further questions. Why are some actors resistant to fragmentation? What can explain the different paces as which fragmentation occurs, sometimes rapidly, other times over decades. For policymakers, a key questions is whether actors or conflicts can be made more cohesive from the outside (Cunningham, 2017). Scholars still know little about what conflict resolution strategies might help fragmented actors in particular to resolve within-side differences. In light of this, increased attention should be focused on three areas.

First, the field needs greater systematic information on the tactics states use when engaging with fragmented actors (i.e., comprehensive talks, piecemeal talks, narrow accommodations). Second, more data is needed on how other actors (third party states, nongovernmental organizations, and intergovernmental organizations) attempt to address fractionalization and generate consensus. Third, more detailed studies of decision-making within organizations is needed to understand the process through which organizations split, part, and come together. With greater information in these areas, the field can move forward in understanding how the pernicious effect of fragmentation might be addressed.

Beyond new avenues for research into fractionalization, scholarship on conflict needs to account for these dynamics consistently. This can be done in several ways. First, quantitative studies should address whether one or more “sides” of a dispute is fragmented, as this has been shown to have critical impacts on a number of conflict processes. Second, moving forward, conflict scholars need to be both more creative and more precise in thinking about the outcomes of interest. For example, the literature on fractionalization has shown clearly that bargaining “failure” is not a simple concept. Both outbreak and resolution of conflict are multifaceted experiences where some, but not all, of the actors are accurately captured by our models. Scholars need to carefully address whether fractionalization has been shown to impact their key mechanisms (such as commitment problems) or whether they expect it to do so. This is not a barrier to studying fractionalized conflicts, but instead an opportunity to delve more productively into the “dynamics” of conflict.


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(1.) The terms fractionalization and fragmentation are used interchangeably.

(2.) Kalyvas and Balcells (2010) show a sharp decline in support for governments from major world powers after the Cold War, which may contribute to the fragility of the states facing civil war.

(3.) This divide is maintained in part by the dissections made in major civil war data sets such as the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) (Pettersson & Wallensteen, 2015). UCDP also now includes a category of externalized civil war, which bridges the divide between civil wars and international conflict. See Cunningham and Lemke (2013) on the hazards of subdividing conflict by type.

(4.) “The Internet as a terrorist tool for recruitment and radicalization of youth,” Department of Homeland Security White Paper, April 24, 2009. Retrieved from