(Marriage records at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Tuomo Lindfors)

Research on political violence and conflict has expanded our understanding of when violence is likely to take place, where it is expected to occur, and why certain targets and tactics are more likely than others.

To identify these dynamics, scholars have prioritized outcomes that can be measured in counts, like fatalities per year, bombs per locality, or displaced persons per region.

However, by focusing on how many rather than how, this approach has left little room for the fact that certain forms of violence – even certain forms of killing – stand out among others, even in the context of war.

The puzzle of morally transgressive violence

My research focuses on the ‘how’ of violence, and in particular, on the use of “morally transgressive violence” in conflict – that is, on exceptionally gruesome forms of violence that transgress societal norms about appropriate treatment of persons and bodies, such as rape and sexual assault, denial of proper burial, mutilation, and torture.

The puzzle that motivates my research is this: what explains the extensive use of morally transgressive violence in some conflicts, but not in others? Why, despite considerable costs to perpetrators – time inefficiencies, the potential emotional toll, and the risk of revenge or prosecution – do these extreme forms of violence nonetheless become common features of certain conflicts? And why in some other conflicts, even those with long histories of hostility and hatred, do they not?

My research explores these ideas in two conflicts with contrasting experiences of transgressive violence: Northern Ireland’s Troubles, which were characterized by relatively restrained and discriminate patterns of violence, and the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, which involved the widespread use of more transgressive forms of violence.

Supported by the MIT GOV/ LAB Seed Grant, I spent the summer collecting archival data in the first of these two cases: Northern Ireland.

Deepening us vs. them divisions

My working hypothesis is that morally transgressive violence is purposefully employed to harden divisions between ethnic groups. The logic here is that deliberately degrading violence dehumanizes the ethnic outgroup, and in doing so, empowers the perpetrators and other ingroup members to reap the rewards of hardened ethnic divisions: access to the ethnic vote, control of ethnic organizations, and the authority and prestige that accrue to ethnic, religious, and tribal elites in divided societies.

This logic suggests that morally transgressive violence should be uniquely useful in contexts with ‘soft’ ethnic boundaries – that is, in contexts where patterns and practices of group division are present but less important, and where ingroup elites have less access to the aforementioned benefits of well-defined ethnic divisions.

Counterintuitively, this suggests that we should see more transgressive ethnic violence where group boundaries are soft, and more restrained forms of violence where “us vs. them” boundaries are already well-defined.

“Hard” group boundaries before The Troubles

To investigate relations between Protestants and Catholics before the Troubles in Northern Ireland, I collected evidence from a range of sources, including ethnographies, memoirs, journalistic accounts, survey and census data, archived films, and relevant secondary literature. This wide range of data allow for a detailed description of intergroup relations – one that clearly points to hard lines of division long before the Troubles erupted in 1969.

With segregated residential patterns, professional organizations, social clubs, sports leagues, newspapers, and youth groups, Catholics and Protestants occupied almost entirely distinct social spheres in the decades before the Troubles.

The sense of “us” vs. “them” was pervasive: people patronized “their own” shops, sent their children to different schools, and attended different bars and social events.

Mixed marriages, just 4% of all marriages in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s, carried a strong stigma: numerous testimonies speak to the social ostracism that accompanied such marriages, with one or more partners often being required to drop their former friendship and family ties.

A testament to the strength of these group boundaries is provided by a conversation between two young children in 1950’s Belfast.[1] One child complained that, living on a new estate, she had no one to play with. ‘But’, she was asked, ‘haven’t you any neighbours to play with?’ She replied, ‘Yes, there are children next door, but they aren’t neighbours, they’re Protestants.’

What do these hard Protestant-Catholic divides mean for the likelihood of transgressive violence? According to the working hypothesis, if extreme violence is useful for strengthening group divisions, we would expect this type of violence to be less likely to emerge in the (already deeply divided) Northern Irish context.

“Restrained” violence during The Troubles

How well does this expectation fit the empirical record? To explore the ‘quality’ of violence during the Troubles, I collected two key outputs: (1) a geolocated dataset of every conflict fatality with a detailed description of each death,[2] and (2) a large collection of witness testimonies from human rights statements and recorded interviews.

In addition, I gathered evidence from a range of Troubles-era sources, including official paramilitary documents, reports produced by civil authorities, oral history interviews, press and local media accounts, and summarized hospital records.

Together, these data point to a pattern of relative restraint in violence.

Fatality descriptions and other qualitative accounts describe the “standard” Irish Republican Army (IRA) execution – in which the victim was hooded, taken far from public view, and shot in the back of the neck – an act of reprehensible violence that is nonetheless quite qualitatively different from the brutality found in some other conflicts.

The fatality data also indicate the lack of intentional targeting of women and children by paramilitaries on both sides,[3] a theme that is also present in the paramilitary documents and memoirs.

Further evidence of restraint includes the provision of warnings before paramilitary bombs and housing burn-outs, the virtual absence of sexual violence during the conflict, and the evidence of ingroup punishment for acts of violence that were deemed to overstep moral boundaries.

Overall, the empirical record points to restraint in violence during the Troubles. The takeaway from this evidence is this: to the extent that morally transgressive violence is used to split societies along ethnic lines, it was neither required nor utilized in the already deeply divided context of Northern Ireland.

In the next phase of this research project, I plan to test this hypothesis with evidence from the 1992-1995 Bosnian War.


[1] Overheard and later published by Barritt & Carter, in their 1962 academic study on Protestant-Catholic relations.

[2] Fatality descriptions compiled in the Lost Lives project (McKittrick et al. 2001).

[3] Around 94% of targeted murders by the paramilitaries were male.