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Deteriorating Economic Condition and the Emergence of Social Instability

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Political protests and civil conflicts are episodic in nature, often stemming from localized conditions. Most quantitative research on these problems, however, has used large, country-level data sets that can shed little light on the evolving dynamics of protest, revolt, and rebellion. Researchers’ inability to agree about the relative importance of different economic, political, and social factors has led to calls for additional data collection at sufficient granularity to capture localized conditions prior to and during outbreaks of civil conflict. Collecting high-quality data on local conditions at frequent intervals in countries at high risk for civil violence would be difficult, expensive, and dangerous. The first step in understanding the local dynamics of political protest and civil violence must be conceptual exploration that illustrates the potential utility of high-resolution data collection and helps identify the types of data and relationships that could be most useful for subsequent analysis.

This brief demonstrates how an agent-based modeling approach could allow researchers to explore the effects of changes to individual economic conditions on social stability, especially how deteriorating economic conditions and differing degrees of economic inequality in a community impact the size, frequency, and onset of civil protest. While previous studies using country-level data have not found that economic inequality has a significant effect on civil violence, the agent-based modeling approach suggests that inequality can have significant effects, but that the magnitude and direction of these effects depend on local conditions. The analysis on which this brief is based also highlights the delicate balance between implementing economic reforms (e.g. fuel subsidy reform) to generate long-term growth and minimizing social instability that can ensue in the short-run due to deteriorating economic conditions of the most vulnerable.

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