Abbey Steele, Ph.D.

University of Amsterdam

City: Amsterdam

Country: Netherlands

Research Interests

Conflict Processes & War

Political Violence


Research Methods & Research Design

Latin American And Caribbean Politics

Comparative Political Institutions



Journal Articles:

(2017) Constraining the Samurai: Rebellion and Taxation in Early Modern Japan, International Studies Quarterly

On the eve of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the nearly 300 semi-autonomous domains across Japan had widely varying tax rates. Some handed over 70 percent of their rice yield to the samurai ruler of the domain, while others provided 15 percent. This variation existed in spite of the similar fiscal demands that the domain rulers faced within the Tokugawa regime—the feudal system that governed Japan between 1603 and 1868. This period was remarkably stable; Japan saw no foreign or domestic wars. This allows us to focus on the impact of pressure from below on taxation. We study the extent to which peasant-led rebellions and collective desertion (“flight”) lowered the subsequent tax rate imposed by samurai rulers. Using newly compiled data on different types of peasant-led political mobilization—from petitions to insurrections—we find an association between, on the one hand, large-scale rebellions and flight and, on the other, lower tax rates. We interpret the results as evidence of rebellious or mobile peasants’ ability to constrain their rulers; the more complacent fail to win concessions. Our findings suggest that peasant mobilization played a role in restricting state growth in early modern Japan through tax concessions.

(2017) Subcontracting State-building, Small Wars & Insurgencies

Contemporary development assistance often takes the form of subcontracted statebuilding. Foreign donors hire for-profit firms to provide services and to improve or create institutions in developing countries, particularly those experiencing internal conflict. This arrangement creates two counterproductive dynamics: first, it introduces agency problems between donors, recipient states, subcontractors, and citizens; and second, it undermines the long-run development of domestic bureaucratic capacity by creating disincentives for the host government to invest. These dynamics hinder, rather than foster, the legitimacy of state institutions. This paper summarizes trends in external support to state-building since the 1970s and illustrates subcontracted state-building with examples from Colombia. (With Jacob N. Shapiro)

(2016) Warfare, Political Identities, and Displacement in Spain and Colombia, Political Geography

This paper explores the causes of displacement during civil wars. Recent scholarship has shown that conventional civil wars – those in which forces are relatively balanced – and irregular civil wars – those in which one side is substantially stronger than the other – exhibit different patterns of violence. We hypothesize that, while the mode of violence differs, the form of displacement should be consistent across the wars: displacement is a tactic of war that armed groups use to conquer new territories. By expelling civilians associated with rivals, armed groups improve their odds of gaining control of contested territory. This implies that members of a group are targeted for displacement because of their identity and presumed loyalties. We test the theory using two fine-grained datasets on individuals displaced during a conventional civil war, in Spain (1936–1939), and an irregular civil war, in Colombia (1964–). In both cases, the war cleavage was ideological and reflected in national elections: the locations where political parties received support indicated which populations were sympathetic to rivals. In both civil wars, we observe higher levels of displacement in locations where more sympathizers of rival armed groups reside. The article is the first comparison to our knowledge of the sub-national dynamics of displacement within two different civil wars and it shows that the microfoundations of displacement are similar across types. Finally, the article explains macro-level differences with a coherent micro-level framework.

(2011) Electing Displacement: Political Cleansing in Apartadó Colombia, Journal of Conflict Resolution

This article highlights a nefarious effect of elections during civil wars by demonstrating that they can facilitate the displacement of civilians. In contrast to the perception of displacement as haphazard, the author argues that armed groups displace strategically when they attempt to gain control over a territory, and where they have information about civilians’ loyalties. Although inferring preferences is difficult in the context of civil wars, elections conducted before or during a violent conflict are one way that armed groups can identify local cleavages and ‘‘disloyal’’ residents. The author tests implications of the argument with original, microlevel quantitative and qualitative data from northwest Colombia. Using voter files and disaggregated electoral returns, the author shows that residents in urban neighborhoods that supported the insurgent-backed political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), were more likely to leave the city of Apartadó than were neighbors in other districts. However, residents of the nearby rural communities that supported the UP were the least likely to leave. The author traces the patterns of violence across the communities using local archival materials and interviews to assess how well the argument accounts for the variation observed, and to explore the unexpected outcome in the rural area. While the author finds that counterinsurgents attempted strategic displacement in both the city and the mountains, they only succeeded in the urban areas because residents of the rural hamlets were uniquely able to overcome the collective action problem that strategic displacement generates. The findings demonstrate that political identities are relevant for patterns of violence, and that cleansing occurs even in nonethnic civil wars.

(2009) Seeking Safety: Avoiding Displacement and Choosing Destinations in Civil War, Journal of Peace Research

Despite civil war violence, some civilians stay in their communities. Those who leave choose one of many possible destinations. Drawing on fieldwork in Colombia, this article argues that the way armed groups target civilians explains households' decisions about displacement. When groups of civilians are targeted based on a shared characteristic — `collective' targeting — their best options for avoiding violence differ from those targeted selectively or indiscriminately. This article outlines conditions under which people can stay in contexts of collective targeting, and where they are likely to go if these conditions are not met. A civilian facing collective targeting could move to a rival group's stronghold, cluster with others similarly targeted, or seek anonymity in a city or different region. Community characteristics, such as whether it is urban or rural, as well as macro characteristics of the war, such as whether or not there is an ascriptive cleavage, shape which decisions are relatively safest, which in turn leads to implications for aggregate patterns. For example, clustering together has a perverse effect: even though hiding among others with similar characteristics may reduce an individual's likelihood of suffering direct violence, the community may be more endangered as it is perceived to be affiliated with an armed group. This then leads to a cycle of collective targeting and displacement, which has important implications for the development of warfare. In turn, this cycle and related cleavage formation may have long-term impacts on postwar stability and politics.

Books Written:

(2017) Democracy and Displacement in Colombia's Civil War, Cornell University Press

Democracy and Displacement in Colombia’s Civil War is one of few books available in English to provide an overview of the Colombian civil war and drug war. Abbey Steele draws on her own original field research as well as on Colombian scholars’ work in Spanish to provide an expansive view of the country’s political conflicts. Steele shows how political reforms in the context of Colombia’s ongoing civil war produced unexpected, dramatic consequences: democratic elections revealed Colombian citizens’ political loyalties and allowed counterinsurgent armed groups to implement political cleansing against civilians perceived as loyal to insurgents. Combining evidence collected from remote archives, more than two hundred interviews, and quantitative data from the government’s displacement registry, Steele connects Colombia’s political development and the course of its civil war to purposeful displacement. By introducing the concepts of collective targeting and political cleansing, Steele extends what we already know about patterns of ethnic cleansing to cases where expulsion of civilians from their communities is based on nonethnic traits.

Media Appearances:

Newspaper Quotes:

(2016) Christian Science Monitor

Colombia's new peace deal with FARC likely to bypass opponents After voters narrowly rejected the first peace deal with the guerrillas, President Santos is likely to send a revamped agreement to Congress for ratification. What will opponents do?

Blog Posts:

(2016) Washington Post's Monkey Cage

The cease-fire in Colombia’s long civil war starts today. Here’s what you need to know.

(2016) Washington Post's Monkey Cage

3 things you should know about the new Colombia peace agreement with its rebels

(2015) Political violence at a glance

Insurgent Defection in Civil War: Lessons from Colombia for Combating ISIS co-authored with Ben Oppenheim, Juan F. Vargas, and Michael Weintraub.

(2014) Washington Post's Monkey Cage

Electing Peace in Colombia? Analysis of former president Uribe's bid for Senate in Colombia.