State Capacity and Support for Mob Violence: A theory with quantitative evidence from Africa and Melanesia

Research Method

Survey and field experiments, withover 10,000 respondents in Uganda and Papua New Guinea. Qualitative evidence from South Africa.


Uganda, Papua New Guinea, South Africa


Anna Wilke


Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA Uganda)

Research Question

Under what conditions do people prefer mob violence to policing by the state?


Throughout the developing world, groups punish perceived wrongdoers through extrajudicial beatings and killings. Such mob violence is common, and constitutes both a symptom and cause of weak state capacity, insofar as it is at once a response to and a signal of the state's failure to enforce rule of law. Despite the importance of mob violence to our understanding of state capacity, however, the sparse research into the phenomenon comprises mainly qualitative monographies. Very little is known about the determinants of support for mob violence. We present a theory of support for mob violence, and evaluate the empirical content of our conjectures using quanitative evidence from survey and field experiments in Uganda, South Africa and Papua New Guinea. Our theory focuses on the strategic tradeoffs made by potential plaintiffs, potential defendants, and an electorally accountable elite. Actors are faced with the choice to institutionalize an enforcement mechanism with a high type I and low type II error rate (mob violence), versus a mechanism that is less likely to punish those falsely or truly accused of crimes (courts). We explore in particular how the interaction between social inequality, exposure to false accusation and the importance of protecting property rights influence these tradeoffs.