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You are here: Home Issues December 2012 Professor M. Thoenig receives a million euros to better understand war

Professor M. Thoenig receives a million euros to better understand war

Mathias Thoenig, Professor of Economics at HEC Lausanne, has just been awarded a starting grant by the European Research Council (ERC). This is a first for a junior research project in Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Lausanne (UNIL). The grant, worth more than a million euros over 60 months, will enable Professor Thoenig and his team to launch a large-scale interdisciplinary research project entitled ‘The Economics of Grievances and Ethnic Conflicts’.

ERC grants are difficult to obtain and the procedure takes a long time. Less than 10% of applicants are successful. Switzerland has an excellent track record, having obtained numerous grants thanks to the high quality of its resident researchers and support from its institutions. HEC Lausanne is particularly outstanding, winning this second grant only two years after an advanced grant worth more than two million euros was awarded to Philippe Bacchetta, also Professor of Economics, for his ‘Liquidity and Risk in Macroeconomic Models’ project.

lHECture met up with Professor Thoenig to talk about his project.

lHECture: Ethnic conflict does not seem to be a subject commonly studied by economists. Why have you decided to look at it?

MT: In the last few years, the economic sciences have reappropriated a number of cross-disciplinary subjects that blend elements of geopolitics, sociology and economics. The analysis of armed conflict is one of these. Understanding why certain social groups defend their interests with violence and not through peaceful economic exchanges is also of interest to economists.

Development economists have documented in detail what is known as the ‘resource curse’, an affliction of some poor countries that are nevertheless rich in gemstones, oil or other raw materials. In countries with a fragile institutional setup, this abundance can cause explosive tensions between the different groups seeking to appropriate it for themselves.

Existing analyses have looked only at the economic costs and benefits of conflict. Our project aims to combine this with a study of the dynamics of identity and ethnic divides. We are trying to understand how oppositional beliefs and symbols are created and how they combine with the economic determinants of conflicts.

lHECture: Which conflicts are you looking at in particular?

MT: We are considering two main sources of information. On the one hand, we are identifying the common statistical profiles present in the 127 civil wars, associated mainly with ethnic tensions, that have taken place between 1945 and 2000 and that have been responsible for more than 16 million deaths. On the other hand, we are looking into the civil conflict that has ravaged Uganda in recent decades. The protagonists are the government and various rebel movements such as the sadly well-known Lord’s Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony. This is the perfect terrain for our project, because Uganda is a genuine patchwork of more than 50 ethnic groups, with tensions throughout the entire country. Using geolocation software, we can map the interethnic violence in the country and then compare it with the geography of interethnic attitudes observed in different opinion polls of Ugandan households.

lHECture: And what hypotheses do you draw from this?

MT: Two working hypotheses. The first is that interethnic grievances are manipulated to serve the economic interests of elites in the short term. The second comes from evolutionary biology and maintains that cooperation within groups and aggression between groups are two behavioural traits that are deeply embedded in social cognition. Human societies set themselves apart by their very high levels of cooperation but also of violence.

Our aim is to distinguish between these two hypotheses.

lHECture: How are you doing this?

MT : Among other things, using the LABEX (editor’s note: a laboratory for behaviourial sciences experiences set up at HEC Lausanne in 2010.) There we can manipulate the feeling of belonging to a group expressed by the participants. However, the truly innovative aspect will be emulating inter-group aggression and conflict in the laboratory.

With our protocol, we want to understand whether economic factors play a key role. By combining them with the administration of hormones (testosterone, oxytocin, vasopressin) we also want to test whether, on the contrary, these oppositional identities are primarily biological. And if such a predisposition to violence exists, we then need to look at how the representation of otherness can trigger it.

lHECture: So it’s a project on the crossroads between economics and biology?

MT : Yes, absolutely, it’s an interdisciplinary and interfaculty project. And it’s very exciting. From the HEC Faculty, the team consists of Professor J. Antonakis (organizational behaviour), Professor L. Goette, Professor R. Lalive and Professor D. Rohner (economics). Professor F. Pralong (endocrinology) from the Faculty of Biology and Medicine is a further team member.

lHECture: What will the applications and utility of this research be outside the academic world?

MT : Civil war, and especially ethnic war, puts a massive brake on the development of a country. When a conflict is over, peacekeeping by intervention forces and the rebuilding of a region’s physical, health and economic infrastructure may seem like the most pressing challenges. Our study promotes the importance of also restoring trust between ethnic groups through education and training, political discourse and symbols of reconciliation. This often neglected factor is crucial. Without trust, there can be no resumption of economic activity. Without trust, there can be no lasting peace. Through this study we are hoping to be able to influence the development of reconstruction policy to enable countries to escape the cycle of violence, mistrust and poverty.

Find out more about Professor Mathias Thoenig

Interview with Thomas Fitzsimons, November 2012, Lausanne.

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