Projects [faculty/students]

This page contains descriptions of the research of University of Chicago faculty and students currently being sponsored by JTAC.

Faculty Projects

"Suicide Terrorism Target Selection Analysis"
Robert A. Pape, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science

This project consists of researching the strategic, economic, religious, and cultural factors that influence the causes, conduct, and consequences of suicide terrorism and responses to it. Suicide terrorism is rising around the world, but the most common explanations do not help us understand why. Religious fanaticism alone does not explain suicide terrorism, while existing psychological explanations have been contradicted by the wide range of socio-economic backgrounds of suicide terrorists. This project will develop and test robust models focused on understanding the causes, conduct, and consequences of suicide terrorism. The approach must be highly collaborative and multidimensional for analyzing suicide terrorism events.

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"Poverty, Inequality and Terrorism: Southern Thailand Case Study"
Robert Townsend, Professor, Department of Economics

This project consists of the construction of a data base research archive, analysis of spatial patterns pertaining to persistence of poverty and the dynamics of inequality. These models and data must be combined at the micro (household) level to study the impact of formal and informal financial systems for credit and insurance on the well being of Thai households. Of particular interest are those living in the Islamic provinces in the South. The basic question is whether policy interventions could help alleviate poverty and inequality, which seem to be fueling the recent problems with separatism and violence. Related Links:

"Automatic Machine Translation from Poorly Studied Languages"
John Goldsmith, Professor, Departments of Linguistics and Computer Science

This project seeks to leverage the area of automatic machine translation from poorly studied languages (such as many of the modern dialects of Arabic) into English. Recently, there has been an explosion of activity in computational linguistics in the area of automatic translation based on systems that learn the principles of translation of one language to another when given a sample of a document that has been translated by a bilingual human being. It is of considerable interest to government agencies that oversee international terrorism threats. Research progress can be made in understanding poorly-studied languages through automatic translation and in understanding meaning through creative approaches. A critical need exists for improved translation and understanding of Arabic languages. Language research is useful in its own right but also could feed directly into supporting text processing tools that are being developed.

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"Emotive Dictionary of Conflict Terms"
Ilai Alon, Visiting Scholar, Human Development (Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations)

The project aims at the compilation of a dictionary that would address an often-ignored, but critical topic, the emotional contents of words. Ignoring the emotional value of words in Arabic is a recipe for dangerous misunderstanding. Research will focus on Israeli/Palestinian Arabic in the area of conflict and conflict management terms. Dictionary entries will consist of "traditional" cognitive definition of words; the emotions that are aroused when using them, their connotations, common associations, common metaphors, idioms, and the non-verbal elements (such as intonation and gestures) which are associated with them. The material gathered will form a database that will provide a wide range of means of transmission (verbal, audio, and visual), and a high degree of organization (search by word, concepts, expressions or any combination). The research method combines quantitative and qualitative tools. Questionnaires to native speakers will be distributed, interviews conducted, texts of literature and speeches will be analyzed, and pieces of performing art and rituals will be studied. A part of the work will be dedicated to theorizing on emotive dictionaries. The possible significance of the research is both academic (Islamic and Arab studies; linguistics and lexicography; psychology; theory of negotiations; theory of culture; philosophy of language; foreign language acquisition), but also political and practical, in helping to bridge the culture gap between Arab and non-Arab societies.

Student Projects

"Patterns of State Breakdown Following Invasion: Elite Consolidation in Malaya and Sectarian Fragmentation in Iraq"
Mark D. Smith, PhD Candidate, Political Science

It is somewhat predictable that an invasion and occupation that topples a government and leaves a power vacuum will result in chaos. This project explores why in some cases the result is nationalist insurgency and in others it is sectarian fragmentation and civil war. Ethnic plurality is not a sufficient explanation. In order to get at this question, this project compares Iraq and Malaya, and then constructs an agent-based model to further elaborate on the mechanisms.

The twentieth century history of Malaya offers an intriguing parallel with modern Iraq. In both cases, an outside invader Japan in Malaya and the United States in Iraq -- inflamed sectarian tension. Despite the presence of an outside occupying power in both cases, no broad nationalist front emerged and nationalism never became important enough to drive either resistance or consolidation. Instead, the occupations caused communal tensions to morph into full-fledged sectarian war. Dan Slater mentions this puzzle in his forthcoming book on state formation:

"While Japanese conquest intensified nationalism in Indonesia, Burma, the Philippines, and Vietnam (as well as China and Korea), it inflamed communalism in Malaya..." (Slater 221)

The same phenomenon has occurred in Iraq, where the Coalition occupation transformed inter-sectarian relations from relatively benign dissatisfaction into full-fledged sectarian war. In Malaya, after years of unrest and a Communist insurgency, the violence was eventually brought to an end by a program of state-building made possible by cross-sectarian consolidation among Malaya's elites. Sectarian violence in Iraq has had a centrifugal effect on its elites, tearing them apart by sectarian affiliation, while the violence in Malaya eventually pushed elites together across sectarian lines and forced them to cooperate out of fear of losing everything to a class-based revolt from below. In Iraq, such consolidation has failed to emerge. Iraqi elites remain as divided as the rest of society. In the analysis, it quickly becomes clear that there are multiple, competing identities in both Iraqi and Malayan society. As circumstances changed, different identities became more salient than others, with dramatic results.

This project proceeds in two sections. The first section is the story of communal violence in both Iraq and Malaya, tracing their similar experiences of prewar fragmentation, occupation, and communal violence. It explores why, despite the presence of a foreign occupier, a unified nationalist movement failed to emerge in either case. It uses detailed historical comparisons to identify the critical junctures that led to communal violence, and finds generalizable features that explain their strikingly similar outcomes. The second section picks up chronologically where the first leaves off, charting how Malaya moved away from sectarian violence toward class struggle, and how the Malayan state eventually consolidated power in the hands of non-sectarian political parties. In this analysis, certain implications for Iraq's future become clear.

In the end, Malaya managed to escape a lengthy sectarian war as elites consolidated along class lines to oppose a communist revolt that threatened those in power, regardless of their ethnicity. While it is too soon to tell whether Iraq will manage to avoid an extended civil war, the analysis in the second section makes it clear that it will probably not be able to do so in the way Malaya did. Class issues are no longer as salient in the post-Soviet era, class has never been as important in Iraq as it was in Malaya, and the ongoing sectarian violence continually reinforces sectarian identity in a vicious endogenous cycle. The comparison does, however, provides important implications for how we think about Iraq's future, and demonstrates what approaches probably will not work.

"Occupational Dynamics"
Keven Ruby, PhD Candidate, Political Science

Wartime and post-war occupations can generate counterproductive conflict dynamics with local resistance movements. The conventional wisdom is that winning hearts and minds is the key to the long-term success of an occupation, with both occupation forces and resistance movements employing a mix of coercive and non-coercive strategies (punishments and rewards) in a competitive effort to shape support within the occupied public. But the relationship between material incentives and hearts and minds is complicated by at least two factors. First, individuals do not make decisions purely based on economic considerations: emotional, social and psychological factors mediate the impact of sanctions and play a significant role in influencing individual decisions. Second, individuals may not be representing their true feelings in public, suggesting that sanction strategies may be affecting hearts differently than minds. The possibility of preference falsification means that the appearance of widespread public support may rest on fragile foundations vulnerable to tipping. In short, finding the optimal strategy for winning hearts and minds is therefore complicated by competing claims to authority and cross-cutting incentives and pressures, often leading to unintended or surprising outcomes. This task consists of researching (1) how agent-based simulation can be used to represent the complex interaction of occupation and resistance strategies on private emotions (valence) and public support (alignment) of individuals in a simulated occupied public, and (2) developing a baseline model for calibration and innovation. The model should be portable to contexts in which groups use sanctions to compete for public support and applicable to examples such as peace and stability operations more generally and conflict environments such as civil wars and insurgency.

"Secular Versus Religious Recruitment Appeals"
Sevag Kechichian, PhD Candidate, Political Science

This project explains the relationship between group conduct, the decision- making calculus of the group elite, and the process of mobilizing suicide bombers. By focusing on the Lebanese case, this paper will identify how the material and symbolic interests used to justify and propagate suicide bombings, affect the conduct and decision making calculus of the political groups. Evidence suggests that there is a significant group level variation in religious vs. secular affiliation that explains variation in conduct. Analyses of group discourse will be used to explain causes, conduct and consequences of suicide bombing. Statistical methods are used together with content analysis and interviews to identify the circumstances under which political groups use suicide-bombings.