Social Psychology

Collaborative Research: An Organizational Approach to State Repression

  • CPS

Project Summary

For nearly 50 years, research in political science and sociology has systematically attempted to understand why governments repress their citizens. While useful in establishing a baseline for understanding the topic of interest, to date the bulk of attention has been given to exploring the influence of diverse political, economic and demographic characteristics of nation-states as these are believed to influence the decision-making processes employed by those choosing to repress. Comparatively, much less is known about the relationship between "principals" (those who order repressive acts) and "agents" (the individuals committing such activities). When considering this relationship, the literature offers three very different approaches: 1) the principal-agent argument, 2) the theory of organizational pathology and, 3) the "Blue" approach. This project maintains that each captures only parts of the relevant process. We draw the different approaches together to generate a more encompassing theory of repressive agency. Our argument accounts for the use of political repression by focusing on three factors: how principals and agents interpret challenger threats; how event reporting determines the information available to principals and their agents; and how the repressive apparatus is organized.
To empirically evaluate our argument, this project proposes a collection of new micro-level event data on the repressive activity of the United Kingdom and Northern Irish governments that took place during the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland from 1968 through 1998. Specifically, this dataset will use British Army files from the Brigade, Battalion and British Cabinet levels to determine the degree of knowledge and reporting across these levels and to assess the role of principals and agents in this conflict across time (by day), space (by neighborhood) and actor (by battalion).

Statement of Intellectual Merit. The proposed effort is unique in both its level of disaggregation and in the diversity of sources brought to bear to generate knowledge on the subject. It breaks new ground in its interest in not simply documenting the events as they occurred, but also the manner in which events were reported at different levels of the British Army and how these events were interpreted by the principal actors involved (e.g., the generals, lieutenants, and cadets who were active in the Troubles).
This project will greatly improve our understanding of state repression/human rights violation and the circumstances involved with their use as it steps away from the largely invariant structural characteristics highlighted within the existing literature. The potential impacts of the findings are immense in that almost all studies of the topic have assumed that agents do what they are told and that principals have some idea
of what is taking place on the ground. If neither of these assumptions is true, this calls into question many of the findings and conclusions on the topic to date. Understanding the interaction between the agents of coercion and those who give the orders will fundamentally advance our knowledge of state violence against it citizens leading to greater accountability and ultimately prevention measures.

Broader Impacts to Society at Large. Understanding the motivations and actions of repressive principals (i.e., politicians) and their agents (i.e., military and police) is essential for developing a better understanding of when and how repression occurs. At few points of time has this been a more important topic of study for scholars in the United States. In light of actions in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and communities around the country, there is a growing need to understand the persistence of coercive
behavior as well as how the behaviors of agents can be understood and potentially controlled. Accordingly, this study has implications for understanding and ultimately preventing human rights violations. By increasing knowledge


National Science Foundation


  • Christian Davenport

Project Period

2015-08-01 - 2019-08-31