Who Fights? The Determinants of Participation in Civil War


  • This research draws on a survey led by the authors together with the Post-conflict Reintegration Initiative for Development and Empowerment (PRIDE) in Sierra Leone. Financial support was provided by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and logistical support came from the Demobilization and Reintegration Office of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). We are particularly grateful to Alison Giffen and Richard Haselwood for their extensive work on this project; to Allan Quee, Patrick Amara, and Lawrence Sessay, our partners in the field at PRIDE; to Desmond Molloy at UNAMSIL; to students in our jointly taught graduate seminar on African Civil Wars who, through theoretical debates and empirical exercises, shaped the analysis offered in this article; to Bernd Beber for excellent research assistance; and to anonymous reviewers of this manuscript and participants in seminars at UCLA, Stanford, Columbia, McGill, and the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association for thoughtful feedback.

Macartan Humphreys is assistant professor of political science, Columbia University, 420 West 118th St., New York, NY 10027 (mh2245@columbia.edu). Jeremy M. Weinstein is assistant professor of political science, Encina Hall West, Room 100, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305 (jweinst@stanford.edu).


A range of seemingly rival theories attempt to explain why some individuals take extraordinary risks by choosing to participate in armed conflict. To date, however, competing accounts have typically not been grounded in systematic, empirical studies of the determinants of participation. In this article, we begin to fill this gap through an examination of the determinants of participation in insurgent and counterinsurgent factions in Sierra Leone's civil war. We find some support for all of the competing theories, suggesting that the rivalry between them is artificial and that theoretical work has insufficiently explored the interaction of various recruitment strategies. At the same time, the empirical results challenge standard interpretations of grievance-based accounts of participation, as poverty, a lack of access to education, and political alienation predict participation in both rebellion and counterrebellion. Factors that are traditionally seen as indicators of grievance or frustration may instead proxy a for more general susceptibility to engage in violent action or a greater vulnerability to political manipulation by elites.