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Extreme political violence, i.e., genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes, can be examined within three explanatory frameworks important to geographical thought: nature and society; spatial identities; and geopolitics. Extreme violence is often closely associated with humanity’s failure to overcome human nature. These are fundamentally geographical concerns in the sense that they relate to geography’s central interest in humans and their environment. Scholarly works abound with Hobbesian images, often presenting primitive violence as a pervasive social condition in the absence of an effective ruler. The literature on state failure presumes the same contradiction between nature and the social-political order, but in reverse: without a conventional sovereign, social conflict emerges over basic resources. These theories suggest that the causes of extreme political violence can be identified at the intersection of nature and society, where human behavior cannot be extricated from its biological and environmental condition. Identity is understood primarily as cultural difference. Identities are an important element in any explanation of extreme political violence given that it stems from conflict between sociopolitical groups that are defined by some degree of cultural difference. Classical geopolitical analysis of extreme political violence has retained environmental and biological factors as ultimate causes. They assume that scarcity of resources and population growth drive culture, territorialism, and conflict. In contrast, contemporary and critical approaches focus on the language and action of politics, such as statecraft, diplomacy, and popular mobilization.


Steven V. Miller, Jaroslav Tir, and John A. Vasquez

Traditional, structural theories of international relations may have eschewed the importance of geography and territory to understanding international conflict, but the past 50 years of quantitative scholarship have returned geography and territory to the fore of the discipline. The importance of geography and territory to the study of international conflict first emerged in the discipline of political geography and the early foundations of peace science. Subsequent empirical analyses demonstrated a robust connection between geography, particularly disputed territory, and all phases of inter-state conflict. Explanations for this robust relationship emerged concurrent to the empirical findings. The theoretical arguments are eclectic and focus on territoriality as human instinct, the tangible and intangible value of territory, and whether conflict over territory conforms well to implications from the bargaining framework. Though traditionally the domain of inter-state conflict scholars, civil conflict scholarship has greatly informed this research program on geography, territory, and conflict by expanding and enriching its theoretical arguments and empirical implications. The future of territorial conflict scholarship should focus on reconciling different theoretical arguments about the emergence of peace after World War II, wrestling with the future of territorial conflict as more territorial disputes are settled, providing richer data on territorial claims, and exploring the implications of global climate change for future conflict over scarce and changing waterways and maritime/river boundaries.