Chris Blattman

Teaching Why We Fight

I love teaching, and I really want these ideas to get out there. Why We Fight is my attempt to boil down decades of social science and create an accessible and readable way to engage students on conflict theory—all the teachers and books I learned from. 

This page provides sample syllabi, slides, assignment ideas, problems sets, and other materials for high school, undergraduate, Master’s and PhD level classes.

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High School

For high school students who are encountering a complex topic for the first time, clarity is incredibly important. That’s why I tried to make Why We Fight as simple and accessible and story-driven as possible.

I plan to develop more high school materials, and would love to hear from teachers. I met with Matt Cone and his class at Carrboro High School in Carrboro, North Carolina, and here were some suggestions from Matt and his students.

  • Ask students to videotape themselves answering basic questions at the start of a unit, to transcribe their answers, and to reflect upon these answers at the end of the unit. Alternatively, they could work these out in small groups. Reflecting on their early answers can help students become more aware of how much their thinking has sharpened over the course of a unit. Here are some sample questions:
    • Round #1 (5 seconds): In the last 50 years, do you think that the total number of wars in the world have decreased by a little, decreased by a lot, kept the same, increased by a little, or increased by a lot?
    • Round #2 (45 seconds): What are the main reasons groups who don’t like each other fight?
    • Round #3 (45 seconds): Why do you think [insert war here]? (e.g. Russia invaded Ukraine? The United States invaded Iraq?)
    • Round #4 (45 seconds): On a 0-10 scale, where 0 represents impossible and 10 represents utterly certain, how likely is it that the US will experience a second Civil War in the next 20 years AND how did you arrive at that prediction?
  • After reading the book, ask students to research a situation that is not covered in the book, speak with people who know that situation, and apply the framework to this situation. What works and what doesn’t?
  • And a final idea from Matt:

Sometimes I ask students to draw a problem as precisely as possible at the start of the unit and to critique that drawing at the end of the unit. So, before we read a chapter from Extreme Economies about the Zaatari refugee camp, I asked the students to brainstorm all of the wants, needs, talents, and struggles that they imagined that refugees coming from Syria would have. Next, I asked them to design a refugee camp (on butcher paper) that responded to these wants, needs, talents, and struggles. After we read the chapter, we explored what the groups got right, what they got wrong, and why they were right or wrong.

So, in the case of Why We Fight, I might give the students a little bit of information about groups who oppose each other in Chicago or Medellin and ask the students to draw a realistic image of how disputes between these groups are settled in these neighborhoods. At the end of the book, my hope is that the students would be able to draw a more nuanced portrait and that they would be able to explain this portrait to folks at our school and in our community.

Undergraduate and Master’s classes

Blattman’s aim is to provide a general framework for analyzing the problem of war (whether between countries, political factions within a country, or gangs) with the intention of informing the design of policies, institutions, or other interventions.
I think the primary audiences for the book are undergraduates or masters-level students, journalists, policymakers, practitioners, and general readers trying to inform themselves about why war happens and what we can do about it. Blattman is quite successful in executing this task.
Graduate students and scholars would also benefit from the way that Blattman organizes a vast literature.
I would wholeheartedly recommend this as *the* book for those either starting war studies or working in relevant fields.

Why We Fight can work as a short unit on conflict within a longer class on economic development, international relations, political economy, comparative politics, or conflict studies. Here are some ideas and resources to do so.

1 week Unit

I’d recommend having students engage with Part I of the book only, especially chapters 1–5. This will give them a good overview of the causes of  war literature. 

You could use a selection of the slides below to walk students through the strategic concepts in lectures. Alternatively, students have enjoyed small group work, where they met in or out of class to apply the concepts to a familiar case (e.g. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine, or tensions between China and Taiwan) and then present back ideas to the class.

2–4 Week Unit

I’ve taught the bulk of the material in 7–8 classes as part of a broader class on international development (syllabus). 

Lecture slides:

Introduction: Pre-conceptions ♦ The incentives for peace ♦ Unchecked leaders & uncertainty ♦ Commitment problems ♦ Intangible incentives ♦ Misperceptions ♦ Paths to peace I ♦ Paths to peace II ♦ All PDF ♦ All PPTX

I like to run the first class as an activity and discussion, where I pick a few contemporary conflicts (not covered in the book), break the class up into groups, and then have them work together to list commonly-described causes of that conflict, then each group summarizes their discussion to the rest. Then we return to these conflicts throughout the next few weeks, examining, refining, discarding, and classifying some of these preconceptions.

There are a variety of possible assignments:

  • Here is an online appendix for the “pie-splitting” examples in the book, in case you want to work through them in class or as a problem set.
  • Here is an example problem set with solutions, to help students work through some of the examples in the book.
  • If I am teaching this material as a longer unit or full class, I have students work through a contemporary conflict in small groups, and then report back to the class with presentations. See weeks 4–6 of this
  • See weeks 4–6 of this syllabus for an example.
  • Or I ask students to read and critique policy reports or contemporary books on dealing with violence, from UN reports to US plans for tackling gang violence.
  • See weeks 8–9 of this syllabus for an example.

Full course

Recently I did all of the above and taught the book over 9 weeks to a class of second year Master’s students (syllabus), though I think this would have worked well with high school and undergraduate students.

Advanced graduate and PhD seminars

2–3 Week Unit

Why We Fight fits well as a unit within a graduate seminar on conflict, international relations, economic development, political economy, or comparative politics.

For example, I teach conflict theory and empirics in 3–4 lectures of a longer seminar for economics PhD students called Political Economy of Development, with James Robinson (syllabus). I like to teach a mix of classic theory and very current (often unpublished) papers to give students a feel for both the canon and the frontier.

Here are the lecture slides I used in Spring 2021:

  1. Rationalist warfare [pdf] [tex] picks up on the material in Chapters 1, 2, 4 and 5
  2. Non-standard theories of fighting [pdf] [tex] picks up on material in Chapters 2, 3, and 6
  3. Frontiers of violence research [pdf] [tex] picks up on some of the papers highlighted in Chapters 7-11 of the book

Other non-conflict lectures and slides from this class are here.

I also taught conflict as a 2–3 week unit within a longer political science PhD seminar at Columbia in 2012–15 (syllabus). In addition to the above three lectures, Chapter 10 (Interventions) is a nice accompaniment to the academic literature on sanctions, peacekeeping, mediation, and other interventions commonly covered in comparative politics and international relations classes.

In both cases, Why We Fight is useful a readable and non-technical accompaniment to the academic material. It gives PhD students a better sense of how to apply the theory to historical and contemporary conflicts—something individual academic papers seldom do, and something that can get lost in the game theoretic

Longer more technical courses with models

For a longer and more technical class, I recommend looking to Sandeep Baliga’s Conflict and Cooperation syllabus at Northwestern. A great way to teach the class is to walk through the models in his article with Tomas Sjostrom, Bargaining and War: A Review of Some Formal Models.

Why We Fight - Book Cover