Rethinking Civil War

Thumbnail Image



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title

Repository Usage Stats



Why do some civil conflicts simmer at low-intensity, while others escalate to war? When and why do some civil conflicts experience cycles of escalation and de-escalation? This dissertation challenges traditional approaches to intrastate conflict by arguing the need to distinguish both theoretically and empirically between the onset and escalation of civil conflict. I start with a formal model with incomplete information and a two-stage informational updating process. The model develops a novel, strategic argument about three causal mechanisms that differentially drive low-intensity violence (LIV) versus full-blown war: the information environment, the type of rebel group, and the state's capacity. Violence yields information on group identity and type, but differentially so over time; this inter-temporal variation in formation colors the state's strategic response, conditional on state capacity. For example, stronger groups become relatively more common past LIV, whereas before LIV, states have limited information on challenger type and so less ability to bargain. Empirical implications are tested in the third chapter using data on self-determination disputes from 1960-2005, with strong support for my argument. Results highlight the changing role of state capacity: stronger states are less likely to face LIV, but if they do, they are more likely to escalate to war. The fourth chapter expands on this analysis by using multi-state survival modeling to assess how the conflict evolves from start to finish, yielding nuanced findings about how key covariates affect a conflict's transition from (and cycles through) LIV to war to peace. This approach therefore forces a reexamination of the seminal findings in civil war.





Webster, Kaitlyn (2019). Rethinking Civil War. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


Dukes student scholarship is made available to the public using a Creative Commons Attribution / Non-commercial / No derivative (CC-BY-NC-ND) license.