About the Author - Dara Kay Cohen

Dara Kay Cohen is Professor of Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Her research and teaching interests span the field of international relations, including international security, civil war and the dynamics of violence, and gender and conflict.

Her first book, Rape During Civil War (Cornell University Press, 2016), examines the variation in the use of rape during recent civil conflicts; the research for the book draws on extensive fieldwork in Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste and El Salvador. The book received the 2017 Theodore J. Lowi First Book Award from the American Political Science Association, the 2018 Best Book Awards from the International Security Studies Section (ISSS) and the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies (FTGS) Section of the International Studies Association, and was a finalist for the Woodrow Wilson Book Award of the American Political Science Association. 

Cohens second book, Lynching and Local Justice: Legitimacy and Accountability in Weak States, was published in 2020 with Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Elements: Political Economy series.) The book, coauthored with Danielle F. Jung, draws on original survey and focus group data collected during fieldwork in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. 

Her research has appeared or is forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, Annual Review of Political Science, International OrganizationInternational Security, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Journal of Global Security StudiesJournal of Peace Research, Political Behavior, PS: Political Science & Politics, Quarterly Journal of Political ScienceStanford Law ReviewThird World Quarterly, and World Politics, and has been funded by the National Science Foundation, Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS), the United States Institute of Peace, Folke Bernadotte Academy (Sweden) and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), among others.

Cohen was the recipient of the 2019 Emerging Scholar Award from the International Security Studies Section (ISSS) of the International Studies Association. In 2014, Cohen received the Heinz I. Eulau Award for the best article published in the American Political Science Review in the previous year, and in 2011, Cohen was awarded the American Political Science Associations Award for Best Dissertation in Women and Politics.

Cohen is also an award-winning teacher; her courses have received the HKS Teaching Excellence Award (“Dinner on the Dean”) multiple times. 

Cohen received her Ph.D. in political science from Stanford University and an A.B. in political science and philosophy from Brown University. Cohen served as a paralegal in the Outstanding Scholars Program in the Counterterrorism Section of the U.S. Department of Justice from 2001-2003. Prior to joining the Kennedy School, she was an assistant professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

About the Author - Danielle F. Jung

Danielle F. Jung is an international relations scholar with interests in international cooperation, terrorist and insurgent organizations, and elections in the developing world. She uses agent-based models to study how social organizations promote cooperation, specifically within rebel groups, amongst states, and voters. She also uses field experiments and conducts impact evaluations to study social and political mobilization in emerging democracies. Her work has been published in journals including the American Journal of Political Science and Terrorism and Political Violence. Prior to Emory, she was a Postdoctoral Researcher on the Empirical Studies of Conflict Project at Princeton University. 

Book Description

What are the social and political consequences of poor state governance and low state legitimacy? Under what conditions does lynching – lethal, extralegal group violence to punish offenses to the community – become an acceptable practice? In Lynching and Local Justice: Legitimacy and Accountability in Weak States, Cohen and Jung argue lynching emerges when neither the state nor its challengers have a monopoly over legitimate authority. When authority is contested or ambiguous, mass punishment for transgressions can emerge that is public, brutal, and requires broad participation. Using new cross-national data, the authors demonstrate lynching is a persistent problem in dozens of countries over the last four decades. Drawing on original survey and interview data from Haiti and South Africa, the authors show how lynching emerges and becomes accepted. Specifically, support for lynching most likely occurs in one of three conditions: when states fail to provide governance, when non-state actors provide social services, or when neighbors must rely on self-help.

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Alessandra Seiter: Content warning: This video contains discussions and symbolic representations of racial identity-based and political violence.

Collective vigilantism is a global phenomenon. On every continent, in both wealthy and poor countries, large groups of people use violence to enact their own versions of justice. Since the early 2010's, dozens of vigilante killings have been reported on an abandoned soccer field in South Africa known as the "Field of Death." Since 2015, hundreds of Muslims in India have been victims of violence, primarily by "cow vigilantes": devout Hindus independently enforcing the beef bans implemented by the country's Hindu nationalist party. In recent years, high crime rates in many South American countries have led some citizens to turn to mob violence to seek justice.

Why is collective vigilantism so widespread? What conditions make it more likely to happen? What needs to be done to eradicate it? To parse out the answers to these difficult question, professors Dara Kay Cohen of Harvard Kennedy School and Danielle F. Jung of Emory University collected detailed quantitative and qualitative data, focusing especially on two places: Port-Au-Prince, Haiti and Khayelitsha, South Africa. Their findings paint a complex picture of the nature of extrajudicial violence and draw attention to a key issue: the legitimacy of the state in the eyes of local residents.

On this episode of Behind the Book, we'll learn about the context and character of current day collective vigilantism, what distinguishes it from other kinds of political violence, and why it continues to be a major problem for countries around the world.

What is collective vigilantism in the United States? Collective vigilantism is commonly called lynching and has primarily taken the form of mob violence used to terrorize Black communities and maintain a racial social order. But in the contemporary global context, collective vigilantism has a broader definition. It can take a variety of forms and may be used as a response to a range of perceived social and political problems, from managing crime to enforcing social norms.

Danielle F. Jung: We follow Regina Bates' definition of vigilantism, which is the extralegal prevention, investigation, or punishment of offenses.

Seiter: Professors Cohen and Zhang delve into the study of collective vigilantism during their fieldwork in Port au Prince, Haiti, where they conducted what is believed to be the largest survey ever fielded on crime and gang governance. In the city. When they found popular support for collective vigilantism, they decided to dig further to try to understand why such horrific violence had accumulated widespread support in some communities.

Cohen and Jung's research has two major components. One is a cross-national dataset, the first of its kind, that seeks to quantify the scope and scale of the problem. Sifting through hundreds of reports from the U.S. State Department, which were sourced from human rights organizations and newspaper sources, their efforts paint a vivid and disturbing picture.

Dara Kay Cohen: First and foremost, I think it's important to say that lynching is reported all over the world, right? It's not limited to certain regions, to certain countries, to certain cultures. It's really a global phenomenon. We collected data on who is targeted for lynching and other forms of collective vigilantism. Our data there suggests that the vast majority of the targets are men.

Another thing we looked at was the precipitating crime. We found that the kind of largest categories for the precipitating crime were property crimes, theft, murder, kidnapping and rape.

Seiter: As this chart demonstrates, Cohen and Jung found that reports of collective vigilantism between 1976 and 2013 appear to have increased. Though it's important to note that this trend could be attributed to what Harvard scholar Kathryn Sikkink calls an "information paradox," in which the process of exposing harms makes them appear to be getting more severe. But Cohen and Jung wanted to know more.

They wanted to better understand the relationship between governance, political legitimacy and collective vigilantism. How does a community that already has a legal process and judicial system get to a point where mob violence seems like the most effective way to enact justice? The authors hypothesized that the prevalence of collective vigilantism had something to do with who was or wasn't providing basic services to the community - basic services like trash collection, road repair and water supply.

Cohen and Jung's hypothesis departed from conventional wisdom in social science, which tends to attribute collective vigilantism to poverty and the absence of law enforcement.

Cohen: We really, I think, consider and respond to three powerful conventional wisdoms about lynching and collective vigilantism. The first is that poverty is the main driver of lynching and collective vigilantism. But we were able to show that lynching is not a problem that's limited only to the poorest countries.

The second conventional wisdom has to do with state capacity, right? And here the argument often goes that lynching and collective vigilantism is most likely to happen in places where the state is absent. We find some support for that argument, but we do find that lynching actually happens in a variety of governance settings, not only in the lowest capacity, most poorly governed states or pockets of states.

The third relates back to the study of the United States. In the case of the U.S., the lynching of Black and Brown people in the U.S. was an act clearly rooted in racism, in white supremacy, and itself was an act of racial terror. But those patterns, we argue in the book, are not widely generalizeable to other countries, other contexts, and to the contemporary world.

Seiter: To test their hypothesis, Cohen and Jung embarked on the second component of their research: focus groups and surveys. Over the course of several years, the authors spoke with ordinary people living in two communities that had experienced collective vigilantism and related activities. The first was Khayelitsha, a township on the eastern edge of Cape Town, South Africa.

In Khayelitsha, the authors surveyed 516 adult residents and found that 63% of respondents thought it "might be" or "definitely is" appropriate for neighbors to kill a thief as punishment. That number climbed to 75% for murderers. Cohen and Jung also found a correlation between a respondent's confidence in a well-performing government and their support or disapproval of collective vigilantism. In general, those respondents who voted for or otherwise approved of their local councilor were less likely to approve of collective vigilantism.

Cohen and Jung also conducted a series of focus groups with dozens of adult participants in Port-au-Prince. From these focus groups, the authors were able to gather granular data about local people's attitudes regarding the legitimacy of local governments and about their support or opposition to collective vigilantism. Similar to their survey in Khayelitsha, Cohen and Jung found that approval of collective vigilantism correlated with a lack of confidence in local governance and judicial systems. Those who indicated that they either "might be" or "definitely are" supportive of collective vigilantism tended to receive fewer public goods from the state like trash collection and road repair.

Jung: What we see is that in neighborhoods that are underserved and receiving basic services from non-state actors or from no one, lynching may be most likely and most likely to be accepted.

Cohen: One of the most depressing parts of the book was the census that we did of basic social services. Again, just kind of asking people from where do you get, if anywhere, access to clean water? Are you able to have your roads repaired? We were both really surprised in some ways by what people responded because, particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, when so much money flowed into Haiti, I think we were both expecting to see that a range of actors are providing these types of services because we know the Haitian state is very weak and is not able to provide some of these basic services. But also maybe expected that more of those services would be provided by local NGOs, by international NGOs, by religious organizations. And really very few people reported receiving anything.

Seiter: Professors Cohen and Jung's findings have profound implications for policymakers, activists and journalists who want to curb collective vigilantism, while the authors think anti-lynching legislation is an important first step. The main solutions they offer are to ensure that states are set up to provide for the basic needs of their populations, including the consistent provision of justice and accountability.

Cohen: Our findings suggest that actually something as simple as increasing the provision of basic social services, including those that have nothing to do with security whatsoever, are really essential in terms of developing legitimacy in the eyes of the public. And that's a really important first step to kind of rebuilding what has eroded.

Seiter: The book is Lynching and Local Justice, Legitimacy and Accountability in Weak States. Written by Dara Kay Cohen, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and Danielle F. Jung, Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University. It's published by Cambridge University Press.

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