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Civilians in Conflict


Admission requirements

No admission requirements. No restrictions.


Internal armed conflict (or conflict within states) is a dominant form of political violence in the contemporary world and, thus, a central threat to international security. While the number of conflicts between states remains low, in 2019 the world experienced a total of 52 active conflicts, the highest number in the post-WWII period (UCDP data). With a total of 51,000 in 2019, the number of fatalities caused by this conflict has deescalated considerably in the last years, especially following the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. Yet, violence continues to increase in many places of the world, most notably in Afghanistan and Libya.

This seminar introduces students to cutting-edge research on this type of conflict, with an emphasis on civil wars. Unlike most of the courses dealing with this topic, this seminar takes the perspective of civilians and looks into the different ways in which they cope with violence and other war dynamcis, such as rebel governance. While civilians caught up in conflict are commonly seen as mere victims or resources to be plundered, this seminar highlights that even in the coercive context of internal armed conflict, civilians retain agency and make choices that are consequential for their own protection, as well as for the trajectories and outcomes of conflcits.

The seminar explores in depth subjects like: violence against civilians, rebel governance, recruitment, cooperation and noncooperation with armed groups, internal and external displacement, civilian resistance, militia formation, civilian protection and self-protection, and surviving strategies, among others.

Course objectives

Students will learn about how internal armed conflicts operate on the ground by studying the behavior of those (civilains and combatants) living in warzones. The course sets to answers questions that are crucial to understanding how armed conflicts operate and how we can move towards more effective regimes of civilian protection: Why do some civilians stay in their territories while others leave? Why do some of those who displace stay within their own countries (internally displaced populations) while other go abroad (refugees)? Why do some of those who stay collaborate with, or even join, armed organizations while others opt to resist armed groups? Among those who resist, why do some do it nonviolently (e.g., creating peace communities) while others organize violence of their own (e.g., militias)? How do these different responses affect civilian protection and their chances of surviving war?

Theoretically, students will learn the fundamentals of some of the major established and emerging theories of violence and civilian behavior in conflict settings. Empirically, students will learn about a wide array of armed conflicts, past and present, in different regions of the world. In addition, students will be exposed to a variety of research methods and research designs to studying political violence. With this, they will begin to acquire the tools needed to assess what makes a theory sound, what makes an answer more or less reliable, and what are the pros and cons of alternative research designs.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

Critical Reflection Paper
Students are required to write two Refection Papers on two of the assigned readings (mandatory or optional). These papers should clearly identify the research question, the main argument, the hypotheses (if any), the basics of the research design (what did the author/s do in order to answer the research question), the evidence put forward in the paper to support the argument/test hypotheses, and discuss whether this evidence is convincing and why. If students choose a fully theoretical paper, they should identify the main argument and discuss ways to investigate it empirically in terms of research design and evidence.

Papers should be between 800 and 1000 words and should be sent to the instructor by email at least two days before the section in which the paper will be covered. This material will be explicitly used to motivate in-class discussion.

Case Presentation
Students (individually or in groups, depending on how many students enroll) are required to choose one internal armed conflict (past or present) and explore in detail how one of the topics covered in class apply to that case. For example, students will look for information (qualitative and/or quantitative) on recruitment, displacement or civilian resistance in Mozambique, and should analyze this data in light of the theories studied in class: How the theory proposed by author x helps understand displacement in Mozambique? Or, why the theory proposed by author y is insufficient to make sense of civilian resistance in South Sudan? With my guidance (in the form of office hours), students will work on this task throughout the entire course and they are expected to present their main findings in the last part of the course.

  • Reflection Papers: 40% (20% each)

  • Group Presentation: 50%

  • Online Forum Participation: 10%

Note on in-class participation: In-class participation will not be assessed. However, I will take carefull note of students’ engagement in class and those who actively participate will receive a bonus on their final mark. This way, there is an extra incentive to participate. Those who feel like actively participating will be rewarded, while those who don’t feel like and prefer just to pay close attention, won’t be penalized.

Reading list

Students are expected to carefully do all of the mandatory readings before each section and to be prepared to discuss them in depth. Although the instructor will introduce and problematize each of the topics, the format of the course will be that of a discussion seminar. Therefore, careful reading and active in-class participation is essential for a successful seminar. Readings are divided by session and each section has a maximum of three readings (journal articles or/and book chapters). In additional to mandatory readings, the students will be provided with a list of suggested readings for each section. Students should engage with both mandatory and suggested readings for their topic of choice in their case presentation.

A full syllabus will be uploaded to Brightspace, including the list of readings.


See 'Practical Information'

This course is earmarked for the specializations NECD, IP and PPD




Juan Masullo