Journal Article - Perspectives on Politics

Syria, Productive Antinomy, and the Study of Civil War

| December 2018

Review Essay: Civil War in Syria: Mobilization and Competing Social Orders. By Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro, and Arthur Quesnay. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 336p. $84.99 cloth, $27.99 paper.

The horrors of the ongoing Syrian civil war have never been far from the front pages of the news. Social scientists who wish to study it soon confront the awkward reality that the war’s ferocity precludes field research on its central military and political dynamics. Scholars have made important advances in studying mechanisms behind protest activity and the mobilization of armed opposition to the al-Assad regime, but much work is confined to studying the conflict through the lens of refugees. Adam Baczko, Gilles Dorronsoro, and Arthur Quesnay’s research is all the more indispensable for that context. Scholars of civil war and of autocracies, researchers investigating the 2011 Arab uprisings, and Syria specialists all will find value in their book’s rich pairing of theoretically-driven analysis and empirical material gathered through field research in Syria.

The book investigates three broad topic areas: the onset of large-scale anti-regime protests and their transformation into violent contention; the emergence of territorial entities governed by separate armed actors and the institutions therein; and war-driven changes in the value of economic, social, cultural, and identity capitals. The main text covers each topic (Parts I, III, and IV) and details the opposition’s structure and means of sustenance, particularly the development, organization, and maintenance of armed groups (Part II). A brief concluding chapter reflects on the course of events in Syria in light of the authors’ arguments.

The Bourdieusian sociological approach of Baczko, Dorronsoro, and Quesnay stands apart from the dominant paradigm of civil war studies yet still maintains a productive dialogue between extant arguments and the authors’ accounts of the phenomena in question. The chapter on anti-regime protest, for example, contrasts relative deprivation, resource mobilization, moral shock, and rational choice–based explanations with the authors’ own model of “mobilization through deliberation” (pp. 73–83). Here, three factors are seen as having enabled the mass protests: the opportunity that the “Arab Spring” context afforded Syrians to discuss and generate meaning surrounding anticipated anti-regime actions; the narrowing effect of regime repression on protestors’ options, which paradoxically reinforced continued participation; and the ability to coordinate using varied modes of communication, from the Internet to strong face-to-face ties facilitated by imprisonment or shared participation in risky protest activity.

The book’s power lies in the “more than 250” semistructured interviews that the authors conducted, mostly during two trips to opposition-controlled territory in north and northeastern Syria (December 2012–January 2013 and August 2013), and during research in Turkey, France, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt (p. 30). 162 of these are cited in the book and helpfully catalogued in an appendix. The relevant table (pp. 272–84) provides the location and date of the interview, and the gender, sect, ethnicity, place of origin, prewar profession or social status, and wartime activities of the respondent. The interviews are notable for the authors’ adroit use of a team methodology, unusual given the typical single researcher model in interview-based studies of civil war. All three scholars participated but in different roles, which they rotated across interviews. In addition to standard note-taking and questioning tasks, these included observation. In a final stage, the authors deliberated as a team regarding their interpretation of the interview’s content (p. 32).

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For Academic Citation:

Schulhofer-Wohl, Jonah. “Syria, Productive Antinomy, and the Study of Civil War.” Perspectives on Politics 16(4): 1085-1091 (December 2018).