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Collective Threat Framing and Mobilization in Civil War


Research on civil war mobilization emphasizes armed group recruitment tactics and individual motivations to fight, but does not explore how individuals come to perceive the threat involved in civil war. Drawing on eight months of fieldwork with participants and nonparticipants in the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992–93, this article argues that social structures, within which individuals are embedded, provide access to information critical for mobilization decisions by collectively framing threat. Threat framing filters from national through local leadership, to be consolidated and acted on within quotidian networks. Depending on how the threat is perceived—whether toward the self or the collectivity at its different levels—individuals adopt self- to other-regarding roles, from fleeing to fighting on behalf of the collectivity, even if it is a weaker actor in the war. This analysis sheds light on how the social framing of threat shapes mobilization trajectories and how normative and instrumental motivations interact in civil war.

Corresponding author
Anastasia Shesterinina, Yale University, MacMillan Center, 34 Hillhouse Avenue, New Haven, CT 06520-8206 (
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I am deeply grateful to my interlocutors in the field. Consuelo Amat Matus, Erin Baines, Jeffrey T. Checkel, Brian Job, Stathis N. Kalyvas, Peter Krause, William Reno, Pilar Riaño-Alcalá, Lee Seymour, Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom, Elisabeth Jean Wood, four anonymous reviewers, the editors of the American Political Science Review, and participants in the Program on Order, Conflict, and Violence at Yale University and the Harvard-MIT-Yale Political Violence Conference provided insightful comments and advice. Support for research and writing is acknowledged from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University, and the Security and Defense Forum, the Faculty of Graduate Studies, the Department of Political Science, and the Liu Institute for Global Issues at University of British Columbia. The fieldwork reported in this article was covered by Ethics Certificate number H11-02222 of September 21, 2011. Any errors or omissions are my own.

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