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What Should We Mean by “Pattern of Political Violence”? Repertoire, Targeting, Frequency, and Technique


To leverage the full range of observed variation in patterns of violence toward the development and testing of theories of political violence, scholars need adequate conceptual foundations: what should we mean by a pattern of violence on the part of an armed organization? Scholars often distinguish degrees or levels or types of violence across organizations and conflicts, but definitions and measures vary sharply. We argue that patterns of violence are not reducible in ways often assumed in the literature: lethal violence is not a good proxy for the overall pattern, and differences in patterns are not well captured in the binary “terror” versus “restraint.” To address these concerns, we provide a new conceptualization of political violence, defining an organization’s pattern of violence as the configuration of repertoire, targeting, frequency, and technique in which it regularly engages. This approach adds precision to the documentation and analysis of political violence, clarifies the evaluation of rival theories, and opens up new research questions. We demonstrate its utility through an analysis of violence against civilians in Colombia, drawing on an original database of massacres, judicial proceedings, and other sources, and show that the concept of “pattern” helps bring ideology and politics back into the analysis of organized violence.

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