Drivers of Conflict

Below is a summary of the extensive and frequently contentious literature on the drivers of large-scale political violence. These drivers have been divided into three categories: drivers of both intra- and interstate conflict, drivers of intra-state conflict / civil wars, and drivers of inter-state conflict. It is important to note that the motivations of leaders and fighters can often be different, that conflicts often have multiple drivers, and that drivers change over time.

Drivers of Both Intra- and Inter-State Conflict:
  • Competition among social groups/ideological differences are often cited as drivers of conflict, typically focusing on tendencies of people to align with tribal, ethnic, or religious groups and to make sharp in-group / out-group distinctions. Collier and colleagues, for instance, find that ethnic and linguistic diversity within a society is correlated with onset of civil wars.6 Samuel Huntington’s controversial argument that fault lines between civilizations will be a major source of conflict in the early 21st century also fits this general category at the global level.7

  • Some have argued that competition for resources and greed contribute significantly to political violence. Thomas Homer-Dixon’s research program has found that demographic and environmental stresses tend to promote civil violence. For example, Jared Diamond and others have argued that population density and resulting scarcity of arable land created conditions that led to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.8 More broadly, according to Michael Klare, “Historically, many wars have been fought over the possession or control of vital resources: water, arable land, gold and silver, diamonds, copper, petroleum, and so on.”9 This driver also manifests when parties or individuals engage in violence to enrich themselves.


Paul Collier, Anke Hoeffler, and Dominic Rohner, Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War. CSAE WPS/2006-10 (August 2006). Available on-line at: http://www.csae.ox.ac.uk/workingpapers/pdfs/2006-10text.pdf.


Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998).


Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York, NY: Viking Press, 2004).


Michael Klare, “Resource Conflict,” Compiled for the Peace and World Security Studies Program (PAWSS). Available on-line at: http://pawss.hampshire.edu/topics/resource/index.html.

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