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Understanding the Tipping Point of Urban Conflict


Principal Investigator: Caroline Moser

Co-Investigators: Dennis Rodgers


Urban violence is an increasingly significant global phenomenon. Over the past few years, a conventional wisdom has emerged within policy and research circles associating it with four key factors: (a) poverty, (b) youth bulges, (c) political exclusion and (d) gender-based insecurity. Underpinning this conventional wisdom is the notion that while cities are inherently conflictual spaces, conflict is generally managed more or less peacefully through a range of social, cultural and political mechanisms, but that this can be disrupted by the presence of one or more of these four key factors, all of which can lead to conflict spilling over into chronic, generalised violence.

Recent research has sought to determine the tipping point of urban conflict. This has generally been conceived in quantitative terms, with increases in poverty, the number of youth, levels of political exclusion, or gender-based insecurity beyond a certain threshold seen to lead to a sudden change in social conditions. Although recognising that quantitative factors are important, this project proposes that urban conflict can also tip over into violence as a result of qualitative factors, such as the particular articulation of two or more contextual factors, or the involvement of specific groups or individuals in violence-related processes. The project will therefore seek to understand the nature of both quantitative and qualitative tipping points, identifying how they can best be measured and the processes that generate them in order to determine the range of potential means to prevent urban conflict from tipping over into violence.

The project will also explore how different forms of violence that are generated by tipping points processes interact with each other and can form a violence chain. The ultimate aim of the research is to identify entry points in both tipping point processes and violence chains that would allow the implementation of policy initiatives to reduce the risk of violence, or break strategic linkages within violence chains. These changes might well be modest, and therefore more easily put in place both within poor urban communities and at the metropolitan level. Such initiatives contrast with efforts to address ‘macro-level’ structural issues such as poverty or demographic bulges.

The study will focus on four cities in: Asia (Patna, India and Dili, Timor Leste), Africa (Nairobi, Kenya) and Latin America (Santiago, Chile) - chosen because they are all paradigmatically associated with one of the factors conventionally identified as causing urban violence, although they do not all display high levels of violence. To this extent, the research sites will allow for an exploration of the reasons why urban conflict tips into violence as much as why it does not.

Funder: ESRC/DfID Joint Scheme for Research on International Development (Poverty Alleviation)

Budget: £496,000

Project duration: 1 September 2010 - 31 August 2012

Further information: Understanding the Tipping Point of Urban Conflict website