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Varieties of Political Violence Events

Which events count as political violence? The aim is to further conceptualise political violence by delving into its varieties. This will be done by employing Stathis Kalyvas’s (2019) typology on The Varieties of Political Violence, while offering various theoretical explanations of these events, as well as providing empirical examples which will generate a more in-depth understanding of political violence, specifically the different socio-political contexts in which it manifests.

Image 1: Lordello, G. (2017, February 8). Members of the Brazilian Army deploy in the streets Tuesday during a violent protest in Vitória, the capital of Brazil’s Espirito Santo state [Photograph].

A Typology of the Varieties of Political Violence

Kalyvas (2019) created a typology to explore the variation of events related to the phenomenon of political violence. The author (2019, p.12) took a macro-level approach to dissect the concept with the aim “to cover the entire span of the phenomenon“, and identified 11 types of political violence events, referred to broadly as the varieties of political violence. Kalyvas continued to categorise the 11 types along two key dimensions, namely “whether the perpetrator of violence is a state of a non-state actor; and whether the target of violence is a state or a non-state entity“. As such, the following section will offer a brief description of nine types of political violence events as identified in the typology, which includes the following: (1) interstate war, (2) state repression, (3) genocide, (4) ethnic cleansing, (5) inter-communal violence, (6) organised crime/cartel violence, (7) military coup, (8) mass protest/rebellion/riots, (9) political assassination (Kalyvas, 2019). The remaining two types, namely terrorism and civil wars, will be addressed in the forthcoming articles of the series.

Image 2: Swanson, D. (2020, September 29). Anti-racism protesters clash with police and federal agents outside the Justice Center in Portland, Oregon in July [Photograph].

Interstate Wars

According to Kalyvas (2019, p. 15), the first type of political violence is interstate war, typically referred to as international war, noting that “interstate war is clearly the highest, most sophisticated manifestation of collective violence, simply because it is produced by the highest, most sophisticated form of collective human organisation: the state“. In this type, violence is perpetrated by states against states (Kalyvas, 2019). Clausewitz (1832/1984, p. 75) famously conceptualised war as a “continuation of politics by other means“. Since then, various scholars have attempted to explain why political leaders choose to adopt military force rather than other strategies to achieve desired ends. As such, the study of interstate war in international relations has varied enormously in its theoretical and methodological approaches (Levy, 2013). However, the debate on the causes of war has arguably developed and evolved against the backdrop of the two ‘grand theories’ of international relations — namely realism and liberalism — which offers competing frameworks for explaining what causes states to go to war with one another (Lopez & Johnson, 2017, p. 11). As such, the following section will briefly describe these two theories while also offering a third perspective — the individual-level psychological theories of interstate war.

The first approach to studying interstate war is broadly referred to as the ‘realist theories of war’ and is largely a descendant of the realist tradition adopted by Carl von Clausewitz (1832) in On War and Thomas Hobbes (1651) in Leviathan. Both authors viewed war as a consequence of the anarchic system and the state’s attempt to survive (Levy, 2013). The realist view of interstate war is based on the following assumptions as summarised by Levy (2013, p. 582): “the key actors in world politics are sovereign states or other territorially based groups that act rationally to advance their security, power, and wealth in an anarchic international system“. In addition, the core realist proposition of war is “that variation in the distribution of power help to explain variations in the frequency of war and other forms of international behaviour“ (Levy, 2013, p. 583). The vast majority of realists assert that war occurs largely as a result of predatory aggression, meaning that dissatisfied states conclude that the best way to enhance their specific interests would be through military force. Jervis (1978, p. 167) noted that this can lead to uncertainty among adversary states and that, as a consequence, these states can respond by initiating their own defensive actions, which then results in a ‘security dilemma’. This dilemma arises when a state’s efforts to make itself more secure lead to insecurity among adversaries (Jervis, 1978). When this occurs, it becomes difficult to reverse the escalation and war could follow as a result (Lopez et al., 2017).

Image 3: Bosse, A. (2017, November 20). Frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, by Abraham Bosse, with creative input from Thomas Hobbes, 1651 [Frontispiece].

The realist tradition is further divided on how the anarchic international system might reinforce the security dilemma. ‘Offensive realists’, such as Mearsheimer (2001, p. 21) argue that the international system is both hostile and unforgiving: therefore, the intentions of adversaries are often misunderstood and as a result, great powers adopt offensive strategies in an attempt to pursue hegemony. Then, ‘defensive realists’, argue that the anarchic nature of the international system does not force states into conflict, but rather the attempts of states to maximise their own security and to maintain the balance of power creates risks for war (Lopez et al., 2017). Van Evera (1999, p. 5), a defensive realist scholar, noted that the offence-defence balance is influenced by “military technology, doctrine, geography, national social structure, and diplomatic arrangements“.

The second approach is referred to as the ‘liberal theories of war and peace’. In essence, the liberalist theories question the pessimistic nature of realist theories. Liberals largely argue that states can overcome the pressures of anarchy and reduce the chance of war. The theory largely explains the war in terms of its peace component, specifically noting that “democratic institutions and economic interdependence each promote peace“ (Levy, 2013, p. 587). Owen (1994, p. 88) provided a short description of the democratic peace theory by arguing that “liberal ideas cause liberal democracies to tend away from war with one another, and that the same ideas prod these states into war with illiberal states“. Taken in this light, the main assumption of the theory is that democracy and trade will decrease the chances of interstate wars (Levy, 2013).

Image 4: Crofts, E. (2019, August 15). A portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte by Ernest Crofts [Painting].

The third approach to understanding interstate war does not form part of the ‘grand theories’: rather, it considers the individual-level psychological explanations of war. Byman and Pollack (2001, p. 109) advanced this theory in Let Us Now Praise Great Men: Bringing the Statesman Back In by posing the following question: What is the impact of individuals on international relations? The authors then took a historical approach and analysed various personas of historical significance, including Napoleon, Bismarck, and Napoleon to name a few. Through this historical review, Byman et al. (2001) concluded that individuals, their decision-making, and their state of mind matter in the study of interstate war. The theories mentioned above can be dissected further in more detail, but this brief overview creates the necessary basis for understanding interstate war, specifically in terms of the different theories that pertain to the causes of interstate war.

State Repression

The second type identified is state repression, which includes both the realised and threatened coercive action by state authorities. According to Kalyvas (2019, p. 18), this type of political violence “is by definition unilateral and is encouraged where the opposition is either [initially] unarmed or very weak“. Kalyvas continued to note the importance of distinguishing state repression from genocide, due to the consideration that the intention behind the use of violence in genocide is extermination, while in state repression the intention is compliance (Kalyvas, 2019). Another author who wrote extensively on state repression was Davenport, who theorised that “regimes respond to domestic threats with political repression“ (Davenport, 1995, p. 683). The scholar further hypothesised that such repression can be either a function of a “unidimensional conception of threats’ or ‘one that is multidimensional in character“ (Davenport, 1995, p. 683). He then continues to posit that state repression is “conditioned by certain political-economic characteristics“ including “democracy, economic development, coercive capacity, dependency and lagged repression“ (Davenport, 1995, p. 683). These characteristics were included in Davenport’s (1995) article in an attempt to explain the variance in domestic threat perception and how this influences regimes to employ state repression. With reference to the first characteristic, namely democracy, the author stated that “when the presence of democracy increases within a nation-state, the likelihood of threats being perceived by the government and repression being applied is decreased“ (Davenport, 1995, p. 690). This statement has been supported by rigorous empirical studies conducted by both Henderson (1991) and Hibbs (1973), which found a correlation between non-democratic regimes and state repression. The logic behind such an assertion is based on the fact “that democracies are generally more legitimate forms of government as well as more tolerant of dissident behaviour“ (Davenport, 1995, p. 690).

Image 5: Souleiman, D. (2020, December 17). Children gesture as US troops patrol in their military vehicles on the roads of the Syrian town of al-Jawadiyah and meet the inhabitants, in the northeastern Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey [Photograph].

The phenomenon of state repression and Davenport’s theory related to ‘democracy’ is perhaps best illustrated in the case of Syria under Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian popular uprising began on March 18, 2011, in the peripheral town of Dar’a near the border with Jordan. It began with the arrest of 15 young schoolchildren who were tortured for writing graffiti that read “the people want the overthrow of the regime“. The peaceful demonstrations spread throughout the country and turned into a national movement: consequently, the regime responded by countering the protests with the deployment of security forces (Droz-Vincent, 2014). Droz-Vincent (2014, p.34) in ‘State of barbary’ (take two): From the Arab Spring to the return of violence in Syria noted the following: “The dynamics of contention have been reshaped in Syria by the violence first utilised by the regime, its “war effort“ to crush protests by all means, and the trap of an all-out sectarian leading to a militarisation of the uprising veering towards full-scale civil war“.

Then, in terms of the Syrian state’s response, Human Rights Watch (HRW) (2010, p. 1) documented the various forms of state repression in A wasted decade: Human rights in Syria during Bashar al-Assad’s first ten years in power, including repression of political activism, restrictions on freedom of expression, torture, enforced disappearances and ill-treatment. Droz-Vincent (2014, p.38) made similar findings when noting that the security apparatus engaged in “summary-style executions of soldiers or officers who disobeyed orders to fire on peaceful protestors“ and the regime “intimidated dissidents“ by engaging in targeted killings. This led HRW (2010, p. 27) to note that this repression was carried out in an environment characterised by an authoritarian regime. Taken in this light, the case of Syria illustrates Davenport’s theory on ‘democracy’ which purposes that state repression is more likely in authoritarian regimes than in democratic regimes.

Image 6: Unknown. (2017, December 26) To save Syria, Assad must step down [photograph]

Genocide & Ethnic Cleansing

Genocide is the third type identified by Kalyvas (2019, p. 19), who stressed the importance of the concept as not relating to “merely an instance of politically motivated mass murder but rather defined by its intention to achieve the complete extermination of a particular group“. As a relevant legal instrument in this domain, Article II of The Genocide Convention of 1948, defined genocide as the following (UN General Assembly, 1948, p. 277):

Any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily harm to members of the group'
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The definition stresses an important feature of genocide — i. e., the deliberate attempt to destroy a group (Lambrecht, 1999). A tragic example of this type of political violence is the Rwandan genocide, which lasted for approximately 100 days in 1994 and claimed the lives of between 500,000 to 600,000 Tutsis. The perpetrators of the genocide were the Hutu ethnic group who attempted to exterminate the Tutsi ethnic group. The genocide took various forms and manifestations, including mass killings, rapes, and torture (Des Forges, 1999). Médecins Sans Frontières International Movement (MSF, 2003, p. 1) reported that the “genocide was the outcome of longstanding strategies implemented by politico-military extremists who roused ethnic resentments against the Tutsi minority“. The example of Rwanda would constitute genocide according to The Genocide Convention due to the fact that violence was directed at a specific group, and involved direct bodily harm, killings, and attempts to prevent births (Des Forges, 1999).

Image 7: Monk, R. (2019, February 10). Masked men carry a cholera victim away in the Goma refugee camp in Zaire. Writing for The Globe and Mail on July 30, 1994, photographer Russell Monk described the deadly hazards of disease, famine and overcrowding that refugees faced in the camp [Photograph].

Then, the fourth type identified is closely related to the genocide but is typified separately as ethnic cleansing. According to Kalyvas (2019, p. 19), in ethnic cleansing “like genocide, a group is targeted in a way that is essentialised, direct, and total, but instead of exterminating a group, the goal is instead territorial removal with the aim of creating an ethnically homogenous state“. Jenne (2016, p. 112) provided a similar argument by noting that at the most basic level, ethnic cleansing is “the deliberate policy of homogenising the ethnic make-up of a territory“. In addition, Jenne (2016, p. 112) stated that the expulsion of a certain populous group can be due either to “religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these“. Taken together, both authors argue that this type of political violence is bound to territoriality and is most often related to the manifestation of ideologies rooted in nationalism.

Jenne (2016, p. 112) offered an illustrative example of this type of violence when referencing the Serbian campaign against Muslims during the Bosnian War in the 1990s. The war broke out after Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, after which the war quickly escalated when Serbian forces attempted to secure occupied territories to form a Greater Serbia. What followed was the purposeful and violent elimination of Bosnian Muslims from territories annexed by Serbia with the purposeful aim of homogenising these territories (Zila, 2014, p. 158). In both the case of the Rwandan genocide and the ethnic cleansing campaign against Bosnian Muslims, violence was usually carried out by the state against non-state actors, albeit with different objectives (Kalyvas, 2019).

Image 8: Haviv, R. (2011, July 6). Serbian paramilitaries kick and kill Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) civilians on the streets of Bijeljina on 31 March 1992, the first day of the Bosnian war. Serbian troops slaughtered hundreds of unarmed Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) civilians - men, women, children and elderly - in during the attack on this norteastern Bosnian city [Photograph].

Intercommunal Violence & Criminal Violence

The fifth and sixth types identified are grouped as violence perpetrated by non-state actors, with the targets of violence being largely context specific. As such, the sixth type mentioned by Kalyvas (2019, p. 20) is intercommunal violence, which “described situations whereby both the perpetrators and targets of violence are non-state actors“. Recently, the term has attracted considerable attention and significance in its relation to conflicts between pastoralists and sedentary farmers in several regions across Africa (Meier, Bond & Bond, 2007). For example, Shettima and Tar (2008, p. 163) mentioned that “the West African sub-region has been a theatre of resource conflict involving sedentary farmers and mobile pastoralists“. This pattern of farmer-pastoralist conflict has manifested itself through direct intercommunal violence between the groups in Niger, Senegal, Benin, and Mali, in their attempts to control resources (Shettima et al., 2008).

Then, the seventh type identified by Kalyvas (2019) refers to violence perpetrated by organised criminal organisations or cartels against the state or civilians. In this case, violence is employed by criminal organisations whose “goal is to exercise indirect influence on state authorities so as to be able to conduct their business and continue to extract illicit profits“ (Kalyvas, 2019, p. 21). Lessing (2015) provides an illustrative example of criminal violence when referring to the case of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s war against the Colombian state between 1984 and 1991. In this case, cartels employed violence against law enforcement agents with two objections in mind, firstly to intimidate them, and secondly to reduce the price of bribes (Lessing, 2015).

Image 9: JesUs Abad Colorado. Soldiers overlooking Medellín in the 1990s

Military Coups

The seventh type of political violence identified is military coups. Kalyvas (2019, p. 21) noted that “although instigated, planned, and organised by individuals hailing from within the military, a military coup is directed against a country’s governments and therefore constitutes a particular instance of rebellion“. In this type, violence is perpetrated by military officials against the incumbent government. The study of military coups has been approached from various angles in scholarly literature, ranging from attempts to explain coups in terms of social and economic variables, to the contagion effects of coups (Wells, 1974). For example, Londregan and Poole (1990) assessed the interrelation between economic privation and the incidence of coups by using data from 121 countries between 1950 and 1982. The authors found “a pronounced inverse relationship between coups and income“, concluding specifically that “coups are 21 times more likely to occur among poor countries“ (Londregan et al., 1990, p. 151).

Another attempt to explain coups is based on the theory of contagion. According to such an approach, “the occurrence of a coup in one country stimulates those in other countries, especially neighbouring ones“ (Wells, 1974, p. 874). The theory was implicit in the work of Bell (1968) who spoke about two waves of military intervention in the political affairs pertaining to Africa. The first wave started in December 1962 and lasted for 14 months: during this period, various coups occurred in West Africa, such as in modern-day Benin and Chad. Then, the second wave began in November 1965 and continued until February 1966. During this time span, coups occurred in the following countries: Nigeria, Upper Volta, Ghana, Central African Republic, Congo, and Dahomey (Bell, 1968).

Image 10: Paul Lorgerie. (2022, February 4) Supporters participate in a demonstration called by Yerewolo Debout sur les remparts, an anti-France political movement, in Bamako, Mali. [photograph]

Mass Protest/Riots

The eighth type identified was termed by Tarrow (1998) as contentious collective action, by referring to mass protests and rebellions. Kalyvas (2019, p. 22) defined mass protest as typically involving “a peaceful activity associated with the expression of group claims and the activity of social movements in democratic settings“, further positing that sometimes, “mass protest escalated into low-intensity violence primarily directed against material objects“ with the potential to escalate into a rebellion. Various scholars have attempted to decode collective action. For example, Wacquant (2008, p. 24) argued that collective action “constitutes a sociological response to mass structural violence unleashed upon them by a set of mutually reinforcing economic and socio-political changes“. This perspective entails that inequality, exclusion, racism, and state violence can provide breeding grounds for riots and protests to take hold (Wacquant, 2008). Newburn (2021) in The Causes and Consequences of Urban Riot and Unrest concluded that this type of violence usually occurs in urban areas, and being largely capital-focused.

An excellent example of mass protests is the various ‘Colour revolutions’, which were defined by Baev (2011, p. 5) as “non-violent mass protest aimed at changing the existing quasi-democratic government through elections“. These Colour revolutions took place in various parts of the world, such as in multiple former republics of the USSR, including Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004). These public protests adopted colours as a symbol to identify their supporters — orange in the case of Ukraine and rose in the case of Georgia (Lane, 2008). According to Lane (2008, p. 565), these events had one thing in common, “an attempted socio-political transformation intended to introduce democracy from below“. Taken together, these authors highlight that mass protests are largely a peaceful activity where the target of change is the incumbent government, while as noted by Kalyvas (2019, p. 22) mass protests can potentially escalate into low-intensity conflicts.

Image 11: Kostin, I. (2018, February 15). The Orange Revolution [Photograph].

Political Assassinations

Then, the ninth type identified was referred to by Iqbal and Zorn (2008, p. 385) as the “highest-profile acts of political violence“, referring to political assassinations. Assassinations included by Kalyvas (2019) were heads of state, high government officials, and public figures for political reasons. In this type of political violence, non-state actors are the perpetrators of violence directed against the state (Kalyvas, 2019). A noteworthy feature of political assassinations is that such events have the potential to escalate into war. The best-known example of such an escalation is the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, which according to Hjembo (2014, p. 1) “is remembered as the event which sparked the First World War“. This begs the question of what the logic behind political assassinations is. Perliger (2015, p. 20) noted that it “is based on the perception that by eliminating a particular individual who has political power, it is possible to achieve political changes [or shorten the path to these changes or to “victory”] without necessarily affecting the mindset of the public or policymakers, controlling territory, or challenging the physical power of an existing regime directly, although all of these may accompany an assassination“.

Image 12: New York Herald Tribune. (2018, January 30). Heir to Austrian Throne Assassinated; Wife by His Side Also Shot to Death; Earlier Attempt on Their Lives Failed New York Tribune June 29, 1914 [Illustration].


The present article set out to conceptualise the phenomenon of political violence by referring to the variation in pertaining events. As such, the article presented a typology created by Kalyvas which provided a useful analytical tool for studying the varieties of political violence. What becomes clear is that events which are categorised as political violence are diverse in theory and nature. The attempt to explore these varieties is of theoretical importance because it adds volume to the centuries-old debates surrounding political contestation. In addition to the theoretical importance, the effort to understand the varieties of political violence can also contribute towards generating context-specific policies that deal with each distinct type. The article mentioned nine types of events but excluded two from the article, as they will be addressed separately in the forthcoming chapters of the series. Therefore, the third article will explore the tenth type identified in the typology, namely civil wars.

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Oct 31, 2022

Although the topic is very complex, you succeded in presenting it in a very clear and consistent way. Excellent article!


Interesting and informative article! You display a sound theoretical knowledge, which allows the reader to understand a complex and (as you demonstrated) highly variable phenomenon. I also appreciated the application of such theoretical framework to empirical examples, which surely helps to gain a stronger insight into historical events.

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Deretha Bester

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