Sociological Theory and Warfare



Sociological Theory and Warfare
Sociological Theory and Warfare
Siniša Malešević
Sociological Theory and Warfare
Sociological Theory and Warfare
Warfare has been one of the most important social phenomena that has shaped the history of the world and especially the modern world. As Wimmer and Min’s (2009, 2006)
recent, empirically comprehensive, quantitative studies of 464 wars fought in the last 200
years clearly demonstrate, war has been the most significant generator of social change
as it is warfare that has transformed the pre-modern world of empires, kingdoms, tribal
confederacies and city states into modern day nation-states. Furthermore, nearly all decisive moments in history which gave birth to modernity and eventually brought about
democratic, liberal, tolerant, and economically prosperous welfare state - from the French
and American revolutions to the Napoleonic wars, colonial expansion and the two world
wars - were profoundly violent events, which involved highly destructive and brutal practices: wars, revolutions, genocides and prolonged suffering. In other words, modernity
as we know it would be inconceivable without the historical legacy of organised violence.
However, not only is this centrality of warfare often ignored, but the popular perception is that
with the arrival and expansion of modernity, war and violence gradually became less prevalent
as modern, civilized, human beings allegedly recognised the futility, immorality and brutality
of violence. In this context, modernity is regularly counterpoised to the medieval times which
are usually depicted as pure barbarism. However, even a quick glance at the rough figures on
war casualties throughout history clearly indicates that reality is much more complex and
that our age is significantly more bellicose than the rest of human history. During the entire
10th and 11th centuries only 60,000 individuals died in wars; in the combined 12th and 13th
centuries war casualties rose to 539,000 while the following two centuries, the number of
dead in various wars leapt to 7,781,00. Nevertheless, it is the last 200 years that surpass all of
the previous history with a dramatic escalation in the number of war dead: over 19 million in
the 19h century and more than 111 million in the 20th century alone (Malešević 2010:118120; Eckhardt 1992:272-273). Hence, in contrast to popular perceptions, war and organised
violence do not disappear or fade away but instead, dramatically escalate in the modern age.
Both of these factors, the centrality of warfare for the emergence of modernity and the
continual increase in the destructive potential of modern era, require an extensive
sociological analysis. Nevertheless, despite the fact that warfare was and remains one of
the most significant social processes, much of the post WWII conventional sociology
tended to neglect, if not even consciously ignore, the study of war. Sociology’s inherent
rationalist bequest of Enlightenment, which articulated modernity in an unambiguously
evolutionary, progressist and pacifist manner coupled with the horrific legacy of the two
total wars, created a situation where most sociologists avoided systematic analysis of warfare
(Joas 2003; Tiryakian 1999). The geo-political stability, the institutional conservatism and
relative affluence of the Cold War era shifted the focus of sociological research towards
more ‘pacifist’ themes such as culture and socialisation, social stratification, gender, health
or education. It is only the turbulent events at the end of 20th and beginning of 21st century
that have, to some extent, changed this analytical bias, whereby a number of sociologists have
devised sophisticated theories of war and organised violence. In this process, sociology’s rich
and versatile past has been re-discovered as it became evident that the classics of sociology
have devoted much attention to the study of organised violence and war.
Sociological Theory and Warfare
In contrast to much of the contemporary mainstream sociology which focuses on topics
other than war, classical sociological theory was preoccupied with the study of warfare and
organised violence (Malešević 2010:193-212). Max Weber (1968) traced the processes
of rationalisation of human action to the birth of discipline in the military sphere and
analysed political life through the prism of coercive power and inter-state warfare. More
specifically for Weber, modern state is defined by its ability to monopolise the use of
force over particular territory and its historical development was tied to victories on the
battlefield. As he emphasises: ‘Cultural prestige and power prestige are closely associated.
Every victorious war enhances the [state’s] cultural prestige’ (Weber 1968:926). Marx and
Durkheim too provided comprehensive analyses of organised violence and war. While for
Marx (1999 1988) revolutionary violence and proletarian led warfare (‘armed people’)
were seen as the catalysts of social change for Durkheim (1915), war was a particular
form of anomie which represented an organised attempt to revert from the organic
to mechanical solidarity. Furthermore, they both identified distinct social processes
generated by the experience of war. Durkheim (1952) was the first to empirically test the
hypothesis that suicide and warfare are inversely proportional as he provided evidence
that the outbreak of war generally leads to a substantial decrease in suicide rates as interstate wars foster greater national solidarity. For Marx (1999:376) the brutality with which
the Paris Commune was crushed in 1871 was a reliable signal that the worker’s state can
be established only through reliance on organised violence and warfare: ‘Force is the
midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one’.
Nevertheless, when sociology was establishing itself institutionally as an academic
discipline at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the influence of Marx,
Durkheim and Weber was much weaker than today and they were often overshadowed
by other sociological theorists. Among these classical sociologists many were captivated
by the impact war and organised violence had had on the transformation of social
orders. Some, such as Ludwig Gumplowicz (1899) and Gustav Ratzenhofer (1904) have
focused on the relationship between social stratification and the violent struggle of groups
throughout history, arguing that the origins of nuclear family, private property and legal
institutions can all be traced back to violent conquests of one group over another. More
specifically they drew parallels between the emergence of civilisation and expansion
of warfare by attempting to show how cultural sophistication, artistic excellence and
scientific development have historically emerged as the by product of military victories:
defeated warriors often become slaves and serfs while the victorious groups gradually
transform into an aristocratic and parasitic leisure class.
Others such as Franz Oppenheimer (1926) and Alexander Rustow (1980) traced the
origins of state formation to early warfare and argued that a similar principle remains
at work in modern states: ‘States are maintained in accordance with the same principles
that called them into being. The primitive state is the creation of warlike robbery; and
by warlike robbery it can be preserved’ (Oppenheimer 1926:57). Otto Hintze (1975)
developed this idea further by linking the rise and expansion of states to the development
Sociological Theory and Warfare
of military organisations. In his analysis all representative political institutions such as
parliaments and assemblies have originated in the medieval congregations of warriors
where one’s participation in warfare was a precondition for the full membership in a
political community.
In a similar vein Italian elite theorists Gaetano Mosca (1939) and Vilfredo Pareto (1935)
understood violence and war as the crucial mechanisms for the establishment and maintenance
of stable rule. As Mosca (1939:228) puts it: ‘history teaches us that the class that bears the
lance or holds the musket regularly forces its rule upon the class that handles the spade or
pushes the shuttle’. In addition, they emphasised the capability of organised minority to rule
over disorganised majority by successfully combining coercion with ideological hegemony.
Some classical social theorists of this period, such as Herbert Spencer (1971) and William
Sumner (1911) were influenced by the various evolutionary theories, including those of
Lamarck and Darwin, dominating public discourse in Europe and North America at the fin de
siècle period. Hence, they both interpret historical change through the prism of evolutionary
development, from the simple, undifferentiated, and essentially violent communities towards
complex, heterogeneous and predominantly peaceful industrial societies of the modern era.
However, Sumner argues that modern wars differ from their pre-modern counterparts as they
produce unintended consequences such as the greater organisational discipline and cohesion
that ultimately prove beneficial for social development.
In contrast to Spencer and Sumner who attempted to explain the lack of social order
through the biological imagery of inherent conflicts of all against all, Marcel Mauss
(1990) developed a theory which emphasised the profoundly social character of violence
and non-violence. Instead of seeing aggressive behaviour as a primeval feature of human
beings which can only be tamed by civilization, for Mauss all known societies traditional
and modern manage violence and warfare through the social mechanism of gift exchange.
In his view, the lack of trust creates insecurity and fear which often leads to violent
conflicts as meeting or trading with the feared enemy becomes impossible. Hence, the
nearly universal practice of gift exchange fosters development of interpersonal trust and
formation of bond of interdependence and solidarity, which ultimately soothes conflicts
and prevents wars: ‘To trade, the first condition was to be able to lay aside the spear...
Only then did people learn how to create mutual interests, giving mutual satisfaction,
and, in the end, to defend them without having to resort to arms’ (Mauss 1990:82).
Finally, a number of classical sociologists such as Georg Simmel (1917) and Georges Sorel
(1950) mixed together an attempt to explain the impact of direct war experience on social
behaviour with an explicit normative militarism. Both Simmel and Sorel understand war
as an exceptional social state that radically and instantly transforms social dynamics.
While for Sorel, the human sacrifices that result from the violent class conflict generate
special feelings of class solidarity, for Simmel, war itself is a unique social event, a state he
terms ‘absolute situation’, that transcends all ordinary experience by heightening human
feelings and creating new social meanings, which ultimately revitalise the moral fibre of
entire society.
Sociological Theory and Warfare
Sociological Theory and Warfare
The unprecedented brutality unleashed by the two world wars coupled with the economic
prosperity and pacification of the European and North American continents after 1945
had direct impact on the character of sociological analysis in the second half of the 20th
century. Not only was there nearly uniform commitment to forget the bellicose approaches
of the past and to move away from the general preoccupation with the study of war but
the new context of relative affluence, political stability and social inclusion shifted the
focus of sociological theories towards topics such as welfare state, social stratification,
gender, ethnicity, culture, education or health and far away from the analysis of organised
violence. Thus, for more than four decades warfare remained a marginal subject of
research in the mainstream sociology.
However, the end of the bipolar world in the early 1990s triggered new violent conflicts
throughout the world: the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was followed
by the acrimonious violent conflicts throughout the region culminating in large scale
wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Central Asia. The global
ideological transformation had also generated new realities in Africa with major wars in
the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda and
elsewhere. This ideological vacuum was quickly filled by the rise of religiously framed
insurrections and terrorism on a global scale with a new focus on the spectacular forms of
destruction and the indiscriminate targeting of civilians witnessed in 9/11 in USA, 7/7 in
UK and 3/11 in Spain. Finally, the US led wars and military operations in Afghanistan
and Iraq followed by the protracted internal and external conflicts with substantial
human casualties regularly reported by the western media have made violence palpable
to the European and North American audiences. All of these changes have given new
impetus to the sociology of organised violence as there is now greater demand to provide
a sociological understanding of warfare.
Among the contemporary approaches to the study of war and violence four distinct
perspectives have been dominant: culturalism, socio-biology, economism and
organisational materialism.
Culturalist explanations of warfare have a long tradition in social science and history.
From Sun-Tzu (2009), Spengler (1918), and Toynbee (1950) to more recent studies of
Huntington (1993) and Keegan (1994), war and organised violence have been analysed
through the prism of inherent cultural, civilisational or religious differences. While the
most recent approaches share a general emphasis on the role of collective values, ideas and
norms in generating and sustaining violent conflicts they move beyond the simplified view
of human beings as being mere carriers of their cultures and provide more sophisticated
cultural explanations of war. So Phillip Smith (2005), John Hutchinson (2005, 2007),
Anthony D. Smith (1999, 2003), Jay Winter (1995) and Gorge Mosse (1991) all focus
on the role of symbols, rituals, collective memories and the process of signification in
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general as the key drivers of war experience. A. Smith and J. Hutchinson highlight the
importance of commemorative occasions and memorial places such as military parades,
war memorials, military cemeteries, monuments to war heroes and commemorative
events such as Remembrance Day in the UK, Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand,
or US Independence Day. They analyse these practices and events through the prism
of shared moral universe whereby the acknowledged sacrifices of predecessors (‘glorious
dead’) serve as the normative parameters for the behaviour of their descendants. In
other words, the war experience of collective sacrifice imposes a particular set of values
that tie, as Edmund Burke would put it, the living, the dead and the yet unborn, into
sacred communion. In this sense the rituals of collective remembrance such as those that
accompany Remembrance Day in the UK or Independence Day in the USA represent
‘a reflexive act of national self-worship’ where nation’s ‘true self ’ is ‘lodged in the innate
virtue of the Unknown Warrior and symbolised by the empty tomb’ (Smith 2003:249).
In a similar way P. Smith (2005) and J. Alexander (2004) argue that war and traumatic
events associated with the experience of organised violence should be understood not as
material but primarily as cultural events. Hence Smith (2005:212) maintains that ‘war
is not just about culture, but is all about culture’ while Alexander (2004:10) claims: ‘it
is the meanings that provide the sense of shock and fear, not the events in themselves’.
For Smith most wars tend to be framed in the apocalyptic narratives that utilise the logic
of binary codes (good vs. evil; sacred vs. profane; rational vs. irrational) and as such
apocalyptic narrative is seen as the only discursive form that can successfully generate and
legitimise group sacrifice.
Although culturalist perspectives contribute to our understanding of how warfare and
violence are culturally framed and coded, they have difficulty explaining the origin and
direction of particular wars. One can easily agree with the view that all wars are embedded
in specific cultural discourses and that all organised violence entails cultural coding and
collective articulation but cultural framing in itself is simply not enough to generate
and maintain warfare. Thus instead of being mainly a cultural artefact, a discourse or
narrative, war is primarily a material process that involves tangible and brutal physical
practices such as destruction, killing, dying and emotional suffering (Malešević 2010:6870).
This inherent materiality of warfare is strongly emphasised by another influential
contemporary perspective on war and violence – sociobiology. Being firmly rooted in
Darwin’s theory of evolution and Hamilton’s (1964) concept of inclusive fitness sociobiological approaches explain most, if not all, facets of human behaviour in reference
to the logic of natural selection. In this view social action operates according to the
same biological principles that regulate behaviour of all living creatures, whereby an
organism is genetically programmed to reproduce and to act in a way that is evolutionary
advantageous for its species. Hence, the central argument is that when humans, just as all
other animals, are unable to reproduce directly (i.e. create their own offspring) they will
aim to achieve this indirectly by favouring kin over non-kin and close kin over distant
kin (Dawkins 1989). In this genetically driven process, the struggle over limited resources
Sociological Theory and Warfare
Sociological Theory and Warfare
that would sustain the lives of one’s kin group becomes an optimal strategy for survival.
When this perspective is directly applied to the study of war and violence (Wilson 1978;
van der Dennen 1995; van Hooff 1990; Ridley 1997, Gat 2006) the focus is on the
organism’s ability to maximise its reproductive potential and the genetic predispositions of
humans for violent competition over territory, resources and mates. For socio-biologists,
warfare is a form of universal aggression that characterises all species. As Gat (2006:87)
emphasises: ’the interconnected competition over resources and reproduction is the root
cause of conflict and fighting in humans, as in all other animal species’. In a similar vein
Wilson (1978) makes no distinction between war and animal aggression and argues that
organised violence, just as all forms of belligerent behaviour, is rooted in the aggressive
impulses which have firm genetic foundation and which have evolved over millions of
years. Furthermore, he traces these aggressive impulses to the hormonal, endocrinal and
nervous systems of humans and other animal species and argues that the high levels
of testosterone make men inherently aggressive and war prone, whereas high levels of
oestrogen make women ‘intimately sociable and less physically venturesome’ (Wilson
The socio-biological perspective is a useful corrective to the overly culturalist
interpretations of warfare as it clearly recognises the intrinsic materiality of organised
violence. It is apparent that human beings have often fought each other over limited
resources, territory and other material artefacts. War is not only about cultural framing
it is first and foremost about inflicting tangible casualties and destruction. However, the
socio-biological perspective has moved the pendulum from one extreme to the other. Its
rigid biological determinism gives little explanatory room for the unintended constructs
of social action including social organisations, social structures, ideology, macro
economics, or geo-politics, all of which with the development of human civilization
become autonomous from individual human action and regularly create their own
social dynamics that are able to override biology. In addition, as socio-biologists reduce
warfare to simple aggression they are incapable of explaining the dramatic proliferation of
organised violence in the last 250 years. It is important to distinguish between aggressive
psychological and biological impulses and a social institution that is warfare. Unlike
aggression that implies impulsiveness, spontaneity, and effective, immediate response,
warfare is planned, organised from social action that involves collective intentionality,
division of labour, co-ordinated collective action, systematic use of weaponry, advanced
linguistic co-ordination and other social processes, many of which are preconditioned on
self and collective restraint. In this sense, rather than being a phenomenon present among
all known animal species, warfare is an activity invented and practised only by human
beings (Malešević 2010: 55-58; Fry 2007).
The third influential sociological perspective in the study of war and organised violence
is economism. There is a long and well established tradition in the study of warfare
that emphasises the economic aspects of violent conflicts. From Montesquieu, Adam
Smith to Norman Angel and Lenin, social scientists and theorists have had devised
complex theories that often counterpoise war and trade. While the proponents of classical
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liberalism maintained the view that when people trade they do not fight, believing that
proliferation of the global free trade would make the world more peaceful, the advocates
of the political economy perspective, including many Marxists, explained the dramatic
expansion of organised violence in late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the two
world wars and colonial expansion, by invoking capitalism’s incessant hunger for new
resources, markets and capital.
The more nuanced current articulations of the economist paradigm are the rational actor
models and the globalisation theory. The rational actor approaches develop a utilitarian
understanding of social action arguing that human beings are primarily self-interested
utility maximisers, whose actions can be explained in reference to their instrumental
rationality (Hechter 1995, Boudon 2003). In this context they understand warfare
through the prism of economic benefits and the instrumental rationality behind an
individual’s motivation to take part in violent conflicts (Laitin 2007; Kalyvas 2006;
Wintrobe 2006; Fearon 1995). Since violent action is often the last resort, as it represents,
in economic terms, high risk and costly behaviour with relatively uncertain outcomes, the
research focus is on the contextual rationality that leads to the use of violent tactics. Hence,
the decision to participate in warfare hinges on the individual, and by default, collective
perception that the deployment of violence will generate economic and symbolic gains
or alternatively will minimise one’s expected losses. As Laitin (2007:22) argues: ‘civil
war is profitable for potential insurgents, in that they can both survive and enjoy some
probability of winning the state’.
The globalisation theory shares a similar view of human beings as creatures essentially
driven by economic forces. However, instead of the instrumental rationality of selfinterest, the theorists of globalisation put a spotlight on the structural determinants
deemed responsible for the production of social inequality (Bauman 2002, 2001, 1998,;
Kaldor 2007; 2001; Sassen 2006). The general argument is built around the idea that
in recent years, capitalism has undergone substantial transformation and in this process
has undermined the strength and sovereignty of individual states. On the one hand new
neo-liberal policies of privatisation and deregulation have made capitalist enterprises
more detached from the state and thus more global. On the other hand, spectacular
technological advancements have radically transformed communication, transport and
exchange of goods, services and people making global trade effective and unconstrained. In
this new globalised world, they argue, geography has become history and the character of
warfare has also changed. For Bauman (2002) and Kaldor (2001) globalisation generates
new wars many of which emerge as the direct means of economic policy. They argue that
global neo-liberal policies privilege multinational corporations and simultaneously erode
the state power. Consequently, wars are fought over scarce resources such as oil, gas and
other valuable solid minerals whereby the large private corporations directly influence
war aims of large states and benefit from the monopolistic contracts (i.e. Iraq war) or are
placed in a position to profit quickly on the remnants of collapsing failed states involved
in predatory wars (i.e. Somalia, DR Congo, Bosnia and Herzegovina).
The economistic approaches make a major contribution to a better understanding of the
role material resources play in warfare. Many wars involve conflict over scarce resources
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without which it would be difficult to maintain large entities such as states. There is no
doubt that economy, both in its macro and micro forms, is an important segment of
war experience. However, warfare cannot be reduced to the simple profit or resource
maximisation. Although economic activities are an integral part of warfare, the causes
of many wars have been outside economics: geo-political primacy, ideological clashes,
security dilemmas, status enhancement, dynastic claims, territorial disputes and even
personal animosities of rulers (Mann 1986, 1993; Malešević 2008). Furthermore, the
view that globalisation represents a radical break with the previous forms of economic and
political organisations is highly problematic as the recent studies in historical sociology
indicate. The current levels of global trade are in many respects similar to those at the
beginning of 20th century. Not only is over 80% of the world’s trade still conducted
within the borders of individual nation states but the level of external trade for European
Union, Japan and US remains at 12 % of their GDP, which is nearly identical to the point
reached in early 20th century (Mann 2003; 1997; Hirst and Thompson 1999). In this
context, rather than being an unprecedented novelty caused by the forces of economic
globalisation, recent wars exhibit more similarity than difference with 19th and early 20th
century’s warfare (Malešević 2010; 2008. Kalyvas 2001)
In contrast to the economistic approaches, where warfare is essentially seen as a secondary
phenomenon mediated by primary economic interests, organisational materialism places
organised violence at the heart of its analysis. Drawing indirectly on the classical ‘bellicose’
tradition Charles Tilly (1985, 1992), Michael Mann (1986, 1988, 1993), Anthony Giddens
(1986) and Randall Collins (1975, 1986, 1999) focus on the historical role warfare has played
in state building. For Tilly (1985) war was a crucial catalyst of social development as the
steady increase in interstate warfare in early modern Europe resulted in a greater geopolitical
autonomy for state rulers. In this context modern, bureaucratic, centralised and territorialised
nation-states have emerged as an unintended consequence of protracted warfare and expensive
military campaigns. To pay for these costly wars, the rulers of pre-modern polities were forced
to dramatically increase resource extraction from the population under their control, as well
as to mobilize large sections of that population to fight, work and pay for these wars. There
were two principal corollaries of this structural change. On the one hand, a greater extraction
of resources stimulated the promotion of capital accumulation, the development of advanced
and pervasive fiscal capacities of states, the society-wide expansion of legal systems, and the
strengthening of communication and transport capabilities of states. On the other hand, the
larger tax burden, universal conscription and greater labour obligations were countered by
all-encompassing state protection, and the gradual extension of parliamentarianism and civil,
political, and some social rights.
In a similar vein Mann (1986) identifies warfare as the decisive social mechanism for
state building as once pristine states were established they utilised war for further state
expansion both externally (territorial conquest) and internally (enhancing its organisational
penetration). While external expansion helped establish early empires, which have over
time transformed into different forms of polity, culminating in territorially bound nationstates, internal expansion was even more significant as it brought about the ongoing
Sociological Theory and Warfare
process of social caging. By social caging Mann (1986:112-14) means the organisationally
enforced constrains on individual and collective liberties that were gradually but
progressively ‘traded’ for military protection, political and social security and economic
resources and in this process they generated centralised authority and stratified polities.
In addition, Mann explains the historically changing relationship between the state and
war by distinguishing between four different but mutually interdependent sources of
social power: political, economic, ideological and military. Throughout much of history
military power, defined as ‘the social organisation of concentrated lethal violence’ (Mann
2006:351), has been the decisive source of organised domination. In this context, warfare
was an indispensible ingredient of state development. Although many wars have proved
utterly destructive some wars have fostered dramatic social transformation. In particular
early modern European protracted wars launched a vicious cycle, whereby rulers
extracted more resources to fund wars leading directly towards greater repression in the
form of higher and more encompassing taxation, more severe military conscription and
increased reliance on bank loans and debts, all of which stimulated further state building.
To finance wars, the rulers, often unwillingly, increased the infrastructural power of states
(Mann 1986), which was most clearly visible in the tighter centralisation of rule, the
expansion of civil service, tax-collecting agencies, exchequers, police forces and judicial
systems. As state power grew, it threatened the security of other states with most of them
embarking on preventive wars thus perpetuating the vicious cycle whereby war-making
leads to state building and state-building leads to more war-making.
Organisational materialism provides comprehensive understanding of organised violence
and war that goes beyond economic, biological and cultural determinism as it recognises
the complexity of social behaviour and specific historical experience. Both Mann and Tilly
(just as Collins and Giddens) emphasise the role of different factors in state building and
society transformation: economic control of material resources, coercive strength and reach of
military power, the impact of cultural and religious doctrines and the administrative capacity
of political power. However, despite evident greater explanatory power than biological,
culturalist and economist theories of organised violence and war, this approach is not immune
to criticism. The principal weakness of organisational materialism is its rather narrow and
instrumentalist concept of ideology and its excessive focus on a particular form of social
organisation – the state. Both Mann and Tilly make little or no distinction between culture,
religion and ideology. While Tilly sees ideological doctrines as less important than military,
political and economic forces, Mann acknowledges the significance of ideological movements
but has less appreciation of the contents and ends of ideological discourses (Gorski 2006:
Malešević 2010:80-1). Not only does he not make analytical distinction between traditional
religions and pre-modern cultural beliefs and practices and the modern secular ideologies
but he also argues that for much of history, ideological doctrines ‘had no general role of any
significance, only world-historical moments’ (Mann 1986:371). In other words, this approach
neglects the impact modern ideologies have had in mobilising and legitimising social action.
In addition, as organisational materialism is preoccupied with the study of the relationship
between war and state, it often overlooks the importance of other forms of social organisations
and their relations with organised violence (Malešević 2010).
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Sociological Theory and Warfare
Notwithstanding popular perceptions shared by some academics that war and violence
are atavistic remnants of the past eras, it is the modern era that is the true epicentre of
organised brutality. As historical records and sociological research indicate, rather than
experiencing a continuous decrease, the last two centuries have seen an unprecedented
and cumulative increase in the scale, scope and quantity of organised violence. Despite
the fact that the modern nation-state has become a pre-eminent ‘bordered power
container’ (Giddens 1985:120) able to fully monopolise the use of violence over its
territory, thus making coercive action almost invisible, violence has not evaporated.
Instead, it is precisely this ability to legitimately monopolise its use that has given rise
to the proliferation of organised violence all over the globe whereby, political actors
in charge of nation-states can interpret any external claim to territory or population
inhabiting that territory as an illegitimate and hostile action which can be repelled with
the use of violence. Moreover, unlike the pre-modern world where wars often resembled
ritualistic skirmishes between aristocrats with little casualties and a lot of ignorance from
the majority peasant population, the modern polities often become huge war machines
where competing and often mutually exclusive territorial and other claims quickly acquire
strong popular support thus pitting entire populations against each other. The legitimate
monopoly on the use of violence together with the ever increasing organisational potency
and ideological legitimacy have made warfare much more destructive in modernity than
in any previous historical era (Malešević 2010; 2007). The classics of sociology were
already aware that to understand and explain the origins and function of state, private
property and social stratification one needs to take a careful analytical look at warfare.
It is war that gave birth to state and it is war that was decisive for the proliferation of
social inequalities. The contemporary sociology of organised violence has built directly
or indirectly on this multi-faced and valuable research heritage and has devised potent
explanatory models for the study of warfare. Whether they emphasise cultural, biological,
economic or political/organisational sources of organised violence the contemporary
sociological theories provide invaluable interpretative frames for understanding one of
the most pressing social challenges of the last several centuries – warfare.
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Sociological Theory and Warfare
Siniša Malešević is a Professor and Head of School of Sociology at the University College,
Dublin. He is also Member of the Royal Irish Academy. Previously he was a research
fellow in the Institute for International Relations (Zagreb), the Centre for the Study of
Nationalism (Prague) and senior lecturer at National University of Ireland, Galway. He
also held visiting research fellowships in the Institute for Human Sciences (Vienna) and
the London School of Economics. His research interests include comparative-historical
and theoretical study of war, organized violence, ethnicity, nationalism, and ideology.
His recent books include The Sociology of War and Violence (Cambridge University
Press, 2010), Identity as Ideology: Understanding Ethnicity and Nationalism, (Palgrave/
Macmillan, 2006), The Sociology of Ethnicity (Sage, 2004), Ideology, Legitimacy and the
New State (Routledge 2002; reprinted in 2008) and co-edited volume Ernest Gellner and
Contemporary Social Thought (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
© The author and the Swedish National Defence College, Department of Leadership and Management,
Stockholm 2011.
The opinions expressed in this report are those of the authors alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the
Swedish National Defence College or the Department of Leadership and Management.
Photo by Försvarets Bildbyrå.
Sociological Theory and Warfare
Sociological Theory and Warfare
Sociology at the Department of Leadership and Management
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Professor of Sociology
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