Macro-historical processes and conflict

Macro-historical processes and conflict

Complementing the subnational focus on inequality among ethnic groups, the ICR Group also retains a strong interest in how collective actors, such as states and nations, emerge from macro-historical processes, including state formation, nationalism and democratization. Inspired by Simmel’s sociological theory (Cederman and Daase 2003), this research stream relies on computational modeling.

State formation

Starting with Cederman’s original dissertation research at the University of Michigan, which resulted in the book Emergent Actors (Princeton University Press 1997), this research endogenizes states’ borders as a way of showing how states’ shapes emerge as a part of dynamic processes involving war and conquest. Based on this approach, it is possible to rerun history [ref. to Cederman 1996 book section] in an artificial world populated by state-like entities with endogenous borders.

While mostly theoretical and based on empirical cases, Cederman (2003) takes a step in the direction of systematic empirical validation by attempting to reconstruct Richardson’s power-law distributions of war intensities resulting from such processes of combat and conquest.

In a follow-up study, Cederman and Girardin (2010) extend the effort to model state formation by analyzing the shift from indirect to direct rule with formal modeling tools, including an agent-based model that not only endogenizes the states’ outer borders but also their internal structures.


Following the French Revolution, nationalism transformed the world in a profound way by redefining the principle of political legitimacy. This long-term process continues to change the units of governance, both internally and externally (see Cederman 2013 [handbook chapter]). The ICR Group aspires to invent innovative models to support theory-building on nationalism in order to evaluate the underlying/associated causal mechanisms with systematic data, including data on ethnic groups’ access to political power.

Focusing mostly on theory-building, the second part of Cederman’s Emergent Actors book is devoted to nationalism. Inspired by Gellner’s classical perspective on the phenomenon, the book studies nationalist assimilation and separatist nationalism with simple mathematical and computational models. The possibilities of capturing processes involving state and national boundaries with agent-based modeling are discussed in Cederman (2002) and Cederman (2004).

In a separate study, Cederman (2001) investigates the relationship between nationalism and European integration, coming to the conclusion that political integration is severely limited as long as no common “demos” can be established. This article anticipates many of the problems that the European Union would confront in the years following the study’s publication.

Applying statistical tools to war-size distributions “to test Clausewitz,” Cederman, Warren and Sornette (2011) find that “nationalist systems change” increased the intensity of interstate war, and that the breaking point occurred in the years following the French Revolution.


In a series of quantitative and computational studies, Cederman and colleagues explored the impact of democratization on interstate warfare in the international system. Arguing that much of the research on the democratic peace fails to draw on Kant’s insights, Cederman (2001) re-conceptualized the democratic peace as a “macro-historical learning process,” showing that the pacifying effect of mutual democracy has increased over the past two centuries (see also Cederman and Rao 2001). These insights were further deepened with computational modeling by Cederman (2001) and Cederman and Gleditsch (2004).

More recently, the ICR Group has conducted empirical research on the link between democratization and civil war with funding from the projects “Democratizing Divided Societies in Bad Neighborhoods” and “Institutional Strategies for Post-Conflict Democratizations.” The results of these efforts indicate that democratization is likely to trigger civil war (Cederman, Hug and Krebs 2010) and that such conflicts are especially likely after competitive elections (Cederman, Gleditsch and Hug 2013).

Computational Modeling

The ICR group also has a long-standing interest in computational modeling. Following the publication of Emergent Actors in World Politics, Cederman developed the Geosim system, which was applied to a series of topics in international relations, including the state formation, democratic peace, war size, territorial state size, nationalism and ethnic conflict. A version of the system called GeoContest has been used in teaching, allowing students to submit geopolitical strategies that compete against each other. Members of the ICR group have also produced GROWLab, a computational toolkit for agent-based modeling of geopolitical systems.