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Why Do Individuals Support Political Violence?

Why Do Individuals Support Political Violence?

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This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Dyrstad, K., & Hillesund, S. (2020). Explaining support for political violence: Grievance and perceived opportunity. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 64(9), 1725-1753.

Talking Points

In the context of post-conflict electoral democracies in Northern Ireland and Nepal:

  • Individual support for political violence increases with higher levels of perceived political, social, and economic grievances.
  • When aggrieved individuals perceive that their political activities make a difference, they are less likely to support political violence to change the status quo, meaning that this sense of “political efficacy” is a moderating factor in individuals’ likelihood to support political violence.
  • Accountable institutions could be critical to breaking cycles of violent conflict insofar as they enhance individuals’ perceptions that their political activities make a difference, which can in turn reduce support for political violence.


What accounts for individual support for political violence? Karin Dyrstad and Solveig Hillesund explore this question, drawing on insights from both conflict studies and contentious politics research. Conflict studies research has identified a link between individual grievances and the onset of violent conflict at the country level. At the same time, contentious politics research has theorized that the more accessible the political opportunity structure is—and the more individuals perceive that their political activities make a difference (i.e., the higher their political efficacy)—the less likely they are to resort to violence to address their grievances. Yet, this relationship between grievances, political efficacy, and political violence has not been tested at the individual level. The authors take up this task, examining the interaction between grievance and political efficacy to see how it may affect individual support for political violence. The authors form two hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1 (H1): “Individual support for violence increases with higher perceived grievances,” whether these grievances are political, economic, or social. The authors take care to note the importance of individual perceptions in their analysis. What matters here are perceived grievances, which may “not always mirror objective conditions, due to misperceptions and manipulations.”

Hypothesis 2 (H2): “The relationship between grievance and individual support for violence decreases with higher political efficacy.” The idea being that an individual’s level of political efficacy—their perception of whether their political activities will be effective—matters to whether their grievances will lead them to support political violence.

Political opportunity structure: “a set of ‘consistent—but not necessarily formal or permanent—dimensions of the political environment’…that facilitate or impede peaceful resolution.”

Contentious politics: the use of disruptive tactics to spur a change in government policy or make a political point. Worker strikes, civil disobedience, and even “collective violence [are] a form[s] of contentious politics.”

Tilly, C. (2008). Contentious performances. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Political efficacy: “the expectation that one’s political activity will be successful.”

The authors test their hypotheses by examining 2016 survey data from the Post-Conflict Attitudes for Peace (PAP) survey in Guatemala, Nepal, and Northern Ireland. Support for political violence is based upon four hypothetical scenarios asking whether violence would be justified to defend oneself in the case of (1) state favoritism of some groups, (2) government repression, (3) increasing economic inequality, and (4) excessive military power. In separate questions, PAP also measures grievance by asking respondents to consider whether unemployment and poverty (economic); access to healthcare and education (social); and democracy, freedom of expression, and corruption (political) were a problem in their country. Political efficacy is measured by asking whether politicians care more about peoples’ opinions or merely about their votes.

Results aligned with the first hypothesis (H1): Higher levels of dissatisfaction (along a range of grievances) were related to greater support for political violence. About one-third of respondents were willing to justify political violence in the scenario of increased economic inequality, and about one-half were willing to do so in the scenario of increased government repression. Only 37% of respondents in Northern Ireland were willing to justify violence in at least one scenario, while 63% of Nepalese respondents and 70% of Guatemalan respondents were willing to justify violence in at least one scenario. In Northern Ireland and Nepal, support for violence was highest in the government repression scenario and lowest in the increasing economic inequality scenario.

The analysis also confirmed the second hypothesis (H2): Low political efficacy strengthened the link between grievances and support for violence, while high political efficacy weakened it, making it less likely people would support political violence despite having grievances. In Northern Ireland, an aggrieved individual with low political efficacy was more likely to support political violence, while an aggrieved individual with high political efficacy was less likely to support political violence. Similarly, in Nepal, aggrieved individuals with lower political efficacy were more likely to support violence, yet the relationship was not as strong. The authors theorize this may be the result of a third strategy for dissent not captured in the analysis—nonviolent protest. Nepal has a history of successful nonviolent collective action; therefore, Nepalese respondents may view nonviolent action as a less costly, yet equally effective, method as compared to political violence. In Guatemala, respondents reported high levels of political, social, and economic dissatisfaction (high grievances) and high support for political violence, which thwarted authors’ attempts to assess the role of political efficacy in moderating this relationship since there was very little variation in the data.

The remarkable consistency of political efficacy’s role as a moderating factor on support for political violence across the cases points to the importance of institutions. Anger alone does not determine whether aggrieved individuals support violence. High political efficacy can lead aggrieved individuals to channel their anger through existing political avenues rather than resorting to violence. The authors find higher political efficacy and less willingness for political violence in Northern Ireland than in Nepal and Guatemala. They suggest this is because in Nepal and Guatemala “the political systems offer less opportunity for meaningful political participation and…ethnic exclusion and widespread poverty provide ample motivation for political change.” It follows that accountable institutions could be critical to breaking recurring cycles of violent conflict.

Informing Practice

The overarching implication of this research is the importance of responsive and effective institutions which are necessary for high individual political efficacy which, in turn, prevents political violence. As this study underscores, if aggrieved civilians consider their political participation to be in vain, they are more likely to resort to political violence. A key factor in this explanation of political violence, briefly touched upon in the research, is the power of individual perception. As the authors explain, they are measuring perceived grievances, which can be subject to manipulation and therefore might not reflect objective conditions. Similarly, they measure political efficacy, or a person’s expectation that their political efforts will be successful, which is also a matter of perception and can also be subject to manipulation. Current events in the United States underscore the precarious state of affairs that can arise if strong institutions exist, yet people in power seek to manipulate the electorate’s perceptions to exacerbate grievances or reduce faith in institutions.

President-elect Biden won the U.S. presidential election with 290 electoral votes and 51% of the popular vote. Yet, incumbent President Trump claims the election was rigged—despite the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security stating this election was “the most secure in American history.” Chris Krebs, the former director of CISA, repeatedly rejected Trump’s claim of voter fraud by stating that there “is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Krebs was subsequently fired by Trump. The baseless accusations of voter fraud by President Trump have reduced Republican voters’ faith in the system. Recently a poll determined that roughly half of Republicans believe Trump “rightfully won” the election, while 68% of Republicans had concerns about a “rigged” vote counting process. Because of Trump’s false claims, many Republicans question the validity of the election. Voting is a significant component of political efficacy. Considering individuals are more likely to support political violence when political efficacy is low, President Trump’s actions to reduce political efficacy are deeply troubling. This is especially concerning when you consider that over 70 million people voted for President Trump, and far-right extremist groups are responsible for the growing trend of violence against political targets, including civilians, in the U.S.

To combat this risk of political violence when political efficacy is low, Congressmembers should reaffirm the effectiveness of democratic institutions, especially among their constituents. They should not be echoing speculation that the vote counting process was flawed or rigged, as many elected Republicans have done. Widespread election violence did not occur, but the threat of political violence due to election-related grievances remains, even if official presidential transition processes continue intact (and even if the grievances themselves are not grounded in objective reality). In line with the nonpartisan Trust Network, Republicans must reaffirm the security of the election process—ensuring that they are basing their assertions on evidence from trusted, objective sources—to protect not only American democracy, but Americans themselves. [KH]

Continued Reading

Bergengruen, V. (2020, November 13). Trump fires top cybersecurity official for contradicting his claims the election was rigged. Time. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

Jones, S.G., (2020). The rise of far-right extremism in the United States. Center for Strategic and International Studies. Retrieved November 27, 2020, from

LeBlanc P. & Marquardt A. (2020, November 13). Election officials, including federal government, contradict Trump’s voter-fraud conspiracy theories. CNN. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from

Trump, D. [@realDonaldTrump]. (2020, November 13). For years the Dems have been preaching how unsafe and rigged our elections have been. Now they are saying what a wonderful job the Trump Administration did in making 2020 the most secure election ever. Actually this is true, except for what the Democrats did. Rigged Election! [Tweet]. Twitter. Retrieved November 27, 2020, from

The Guardian. (2020, November 18). US election results: Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump to win presidency. Retrieved November 18, 2020, from


 Trust Network:

Key Words: political violence, conflict, rebellion, democratization, civil wars, internal armed conflict, democratic institutions

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