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Demographic Shifts and Civil Conflict

Speakers discuss their current research on demographic security, and argue for greater inclusion of demographics into the study of other social sciences, particularly in their field of political science.

Date & Time

Jun. 13, 2007
12:00pm – 2:00pm ET


The demographic study of population is fundamental to security, according to professors Monica Duffy Toft and Christian Leuprecht. At an event sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program on June 13, 2007, the speakers discussed their current research on demographic security, and argued for greater inclusion of demographics into the study of other social sciences, particularly in their field of political science. By expanding their purviews to include demographic projections of variables such as fertility and mortality rates, age ratios, sex ratios, migration, and settlement patterns, political scientists could better predict future population dynamics, as well as look for ways to improve governing systems and prevent future societal breakdowns leading to conflict. Leuprecht, whose research focuses on the political implications of demographic change, said, "Political scientists are accused of not being able to predict anything but only able to explain things that happened in the past. But by studying demography, it helps get [political scientists] out of [the] ex-post facto conundrum that they are alleged to face."

Looking Back to Look Forward

Throughout modern history, population dynamics have been central to state security strategies, Duffy Toft said: "People mean power and power can be projected by way of bodies." But the study of demographics did not emerge until the French Revolution, when the government began looking at comparative birth rates and the enduring interest of the state. The ability to mobilize large populations was thought to be a significant determining factor in the revolution's outcome.

The Industrial Revolution introduced new methods of transportation like steam ship and rail, which could move large armies to far away battlefields. Machines began to overtake manpower, however, during World War I with the introduction of heavy field artillery and automatic weapons that made mass armies vulnerable. And then with World War II, the nuclear weapon showed that a single device could put an entire population at risk of near-total elimination.

Despite the rise and prominence of technology, Duffy Toft noted that people still hold power. A series of colonial wars and decolonization movements in Asia and Africa demonstrated that "high-tech, capital intensive, highly modernized industrial powers were susceptible to bitter losses against relatively backwards military powers." This dynamic has held true in recent decades: for example, the Soviets in Afghanistan and the United States in Vietnam. Yet, the dominant security mentality has remained the same, she said: "Technology trumps people."

Conflict and Security

Duffy Toft and Leuprecht both noted that they use necessarily limited definitions of conflict in their research, in part due to a lack of sufficient data. Duffy Toft, for example, does not incorporate religious groups in her studies because she believes existing data on such groups are inadequate. Additionally, her research excludes refugee figures because governments—which provide the state data on which she bases her studies—do not count refugees as citizens.

Leuprecht distinguished between conflict and security, noting that, while he studies both, he focuses more on how people "perceive their lives to be transpiring and if they feel secure in their physical, economic, and especially in their cultural environment." Therefore, he measures violence both in physical terms—battle deaths—and in emotional terms—whether "the other side is doing large scale significant violence to one's perceived group." This two-part analysis reflects the demographer's delicate task: capturing group identities and reliably classifying something that is multidimensional. Leuprecht noted, however, that it is difficult to capture identity-based data: "All identities are constructed but really, people view themselves in essentialist terms…. So it is fine to place them into categories as long as we recognize the limitations."

Ethnic Conflicts

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, conflicts have declined, particularly international conflicts. Yet this trend is not true of ethnic-based violence in states with the least capacity to provide services to their citizens. Duffy Toft's research reveals that 90 percent of large-scale political violence occurs at the sub-state level, and that group population ratios play an important role in state security. In addition, Leuprecht observed that ethnic-based conflict is most prevalent in states with the least amount of political and economic capacity.

Duffy Toft pointed to two worrisome demographic dynamics that are correlated to civil war: First—and most troubling for state security—when the majority group is growing and gaining strength while the minority group is shrinking; and second, when the majority is decreasing while the minority is increasing. In both situations, changing group ratios contribute to political violence. Yet out of the 588 cases of population studies she conducted, 471 are static (no change in ratio of proportions between populations). Nevertheless, she argued that it is important to know when major population changes occur and what outcome could result.

Call for More Research

Although it is widely acknowledged that changes and shifts in population make states insecure, the "understanding [of] these dynamics remains scant," commented Duffy Toft. Both scholars noted that demographic security is a substantially understudied field. The challenge for political scientists studying demographic shifts in conflict zones is a lack of available and reliable data. They also noted the challenges of separating demographic determinants of conflict and war from more traditional factors. Census studies are expensive and are fostered by relatively stable political environments, meaning that poor countries and countries in conflict generally do not conduct national surveys. "Countries undergoing civil strife are precisely those for which we need data and also those in which data collection is hampered by violence," said Leuprecht.

Not only is there a lack of available data for poor and insecure countries, but the collected data are often unreliable. What data are available, Duffy Toft pointed out, are "prey to political machinations." For example, Lebanon's last census was conducted in 1932, and the ethnic and religious data from it were used to determine the political power structure of the country. Duffy Toft suggested that the Lebanese Maronite community manipulated the census data to gain political power, as a more recent household survey conducted by the Egyptian aid workers showed that the Muslim numbers were undercounted.

Duffy Toft and Leuprecht agreed that as data become available there will be more identifiable and clear implications of demographic shifts on security. "Even in states without a democratic system, there is a keen sense that demographic numbers matter," said Duffy Toft.

Drafted by Alex Fischer.


Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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