Economic Theory and Localized Violence in Northern Ireland

Earlier this month, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with Dr Neil Ferguson, Senior Researcher at ISDC and a Senior Research Associate at BIGS in Potsdam, to discuss his work on an ESRC-funded studentship researching the relationship between unemployment and terrorism in Northern Ireland. 

Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling me a bit about your background as a researcher, and how you found yourself working on the relationship between unemployment and terrorism in Northern Ireland?

Dr Ferguson: I grew up in Northern Ireland towards the end of the Troubles. When I was a teenager there was still this kind of post-conflict feel about the place. I was in my mid-teens when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, so up until that point, even though there wasn’t much open violence, Northern Ireland was not at “peace” by any standard definition I’d use today; and much less in a situation of positive peace. When I first went off to university, I studied economics, and I became interested in how the subject might describe the place I was from. I was interested in how there were places in Northern Ireland where there was basically no violence at all, and other places where violence was quite intense and how this gap was observable even in places that were geographically close together. I wanted to understand how economics might shed a light on what drove the intensity of violence in certain areas, and I thought I might be able to draw on Charles Becker’s work on crime and punishment while looking at fine-grained regional variation in employment levels.

So, I applied to conduct this research as an ESRC 1+3 studentship on the Scottish Graduate Programme in Economics – first at the University of Edinburgh and then at Heriot-Watt University, which gave me the opportunity to turn my master’s into research training, and to explore this idea that local measures of unemployment might help to explain fine-grained variations in violence. Being honest, it also gave me the chance to complete a post-graduate education that might not have been open to me otherwise.

What did conducting this research entail, and what did you end up learning from it?

I first split Northern Ireland into nearly 600 sub districts based on census units, for our analysis. After that, I thought the economic theory was going to be simple. If you have no opportunities in the legal labor market, you turn to an illegal labor market, which might be a militant organization. However, the first thing I realized once I got started was that the logic of Becker might not always hold with violent crimes, let alone political violence.  There is a logic that socio-economic and demographic status might predict ‘rational’ crimes like burglary, where the perpetrator stands to personally gain from the action. I quickly found out that this logic might not hold water when it comes to crimes of passion, let alone organized, group-based violence – at least not at highly geo-spatially disaggregated levels in Northern Ireland.

So, I began to look deeper at the fine-grained localized violence, and what I found is that networks between violent organizations are a strong predictor of violence. In places where both a Republican faction and a Loyalist one were present, you had a very specific pattern of violence targeting civilian populations. While I later learned that there is a substantial body of literature exploring this broader topic in political science, my goal was to bring it back to economics – so I ended up exploring the violence premium, where violence could be considered as having a positive or negative externality on other groups, depending on how they were networked. Based on the data I put together to do this, I also ended up writing about some of the longer-term legacies of the conflict and on the effectiveness of EU-led efforts to deal with these legacies.

My doctoral research ended up falling somewhere between economics and political science, and that has been good for my career in the long term because my work still sits between those two disciplines. I think there is a lot of value in bringing new ways of thinking to the understanding of these sorts of topics, although I know not everyone agrees. There is also, I think, value in thinking about how post violence landscapes – economically and socially – are shaped by the patterns of violence that took place and individual exposure to violence, particularly within small geographic concentrations. That realization has shaped my career ever since.

Can you tell me more about what you are working on now, and how your research career has evolved since the completion of your PhD studentship?

My PhD work cemented the importance for me of patterns of violence and what causes those. I feel I am slowly learning that these micro-dynamics have a lot to say about what shapes post-conflict societies, too. I do work that now straddles conflict types and that takes place in different phases of the conflict cycle. It is interesting to me that I have begun to see glimpses of conflict micro-dynamics come through in a range of projects across multiple topics. Consequently, I am starting to explore how one can trace the micro-dynamics of violence through pro-social behavior, intergroup interactions, attitudes towards violence and so on; as well as to the functioning of post-conflict reconstruction, development and peacebuilding programming.

In terms of my research interests, I remain interested in what happens after violence. For example, individuals who experience conflict have different behavioral responses when it comes to community engagement and other “pro-social” behaviors. I have recently done some work on those topics, that I hope will make it into the public arena sooner or later. I am also interested in peace processes and am doing some work on coding what is relevant for their functioning – particularly on how they are financed. I also do a lot of work on impact evaluations and behavioral games, with a lot of focus on how theories of change of development programs might break down in fragile, violent or potentially violent contexts. So for example, I’ve recently done an impact evaluation in Niger, where we examined a nutrition program which focuses on child health. I’m also interested in how this breakdown in theories of change might mean programs have impacts beyond the narrow outcomes they’re designed to have. I am presently doing work on a job training program where we’ve found that even though graduates of the job training program are emerging into the context of Lebanon’s economic collapse, the training impacted positively on their intergroup behaviors. This builds on a wider body of research where we look into the notion that employment can be an effective peacebuilding strategy.

I now work at a not-for-profit institute in Berlin called the International Security and Development Centre, which focuses on evidence-based, empirical approaches at the nexus of economic development and political violence, and increasingly, on broader humanitarian emergencies, too. I’d previously worked at the German Institute of Economic Research and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, but I learned during my PhD that I wanted to do work which sits between economics and political science, and which straddles the divide between the high-level theoretical work associated with academia and evidence-based policy research. This job gives me the opportunity to both publish in journals and write policy reports and briefs, and to work directly on the topics that interest me. ISDC is a very good fit for my interests.