Methodological Approach

Since 1991, quantitative conflict research at the HIIK has analyzed political conflicts by focusing on conflict processes rather than e.g. purely quantitative thresholds of casualties of war. Thus, the HIIK is particularly concerned with the concrete actions and communications between conflict parties. Such a process-oriented approach gives the analysis of political conflicts, especially regarding intensities, a broader and more detailed empirical foundation.

Beginning in 2011, the HIIK in cooperation with Heidelberg University has taken steps to further elaborate its methodological approach. In particular, the institute has revised its definition of political conflicts and restructured its conflict intensity assessment. The latter now not only takes into account the intensity for a given conflict area in a given year, but determines the intensity of a conflict for first-level subnational political units and months as well. As such, it allows for a much more detailed measurement of conflict dynamics. Furthermore, the conflict actions and communications, on which the assessment of violent conflict episodes is based are now evaluated by combining qualitative and quantitative indicators of the means and consequences of violence. This is intended to further enhance the exactitude, reliability, and reproducibility of the conflict information provided.

The concept of political conflict

political conflict
conflict actors conflict measures conflict items

According to the Heidelberg approach, a political conflict is a perceived incompatibility of intentions between individuals or social groups. Such an incompatibility emerges from the presence of actors who communicate and act with regard to certain objects. These actions and communications are known as measures, while the objects form the issues of positional differences. Actors, measures, and issues are the constitutive attributes of political conflict.

Conflict actors

Conflict actors are individuals or collectives that are relevant because they are taken into account by other conflict actors in their decision-making processes. Collective actors are characterized by their high degree of internal cohesion manifesting in a coherent structure of preferences. They include states, international organizations and non-state actors.

Conflict measures

Conflict measures are actions and communications carried out by a conflict actor in the context of a political conflict. They are constitutive for an identifiable conflict if they lie outside established procedures of conflict regulations and – possibly in conjunction with other measures – if they threaten the international order or a core function of the state. Established regulatory procedures are defined as those mechanisms of conflict management that are accepted by the conflict actors. Examples include elections and court proceedings. Established procedures of regulation must be performed without resorting to the use or threat of physical violence. Core state functions encompass providing security of a population, integrity of a territory and of a specific political, socioeconomic or cultural order. A state function or the international order is threatened if its fulfilment and persistence, respectively, becomes unlikely in a conflict actor’s point of view.

Conflict issues

Conflict issues are material or immaterial goods pursued by conflict actors via conflict measures. Due to the character of conflict measures, conflict issues attain relevance for the society as a whole – either for the coexistence within a given state or between states. Conflict issues are classified on the basis of ten items representing common goals of conflict actors: System/Ideology is encoded if a conflict actor aspires a change of the ideological, religious, socioeconomic or judicial orientation of the political system or changing the regime type itself. National power means the power to govern a state. Whereas Autonomy refers to attaining or extending political self-rule of a population within a state or of a dependent territory without striving for independence, Secession refers to the aspired separation of a part of a territory of a state aiming to establish a new state or to merge with another state. Furthermore, Decolonization aims at the independence of a dependent territory. Subnational Predominance focuses on the attainment of the de-facto control by a government, a non-state organization or a population over a territory or a population. The item Resources is encoded if the possession of natural resources or raw materials, or the profits gained thereof, is pursued. Territory means a change of the course of an international border, while International Power as an item describes the change aspired in the power constellation in the international system or a regional system therein, especially by changing military capabilities or the political or economic influence of a state. The item Other is used as residual category.

The concept of conflict intensity

intensity level terminology level of violence intensity class
1 dispute non-violent
low intensity
2 non-violent
3 violent
medium intensity
4 limited
high intensity
5 war

In addition to the three constituting elements – conflict actors, measures, and items – conflict intensity is an essential feature of political conflicts. Conflict intensity is an attribute of the sum of conflict measures in a specific political conflict in a geographical area and a given space of time. The primary units of analysis are the calendar month and the ‘region,’ i.e. the first-level subnational administrative unit of a country. The basic conflict intensity is therefore determined for a ‘region-month.’ Since 2003, the HIIK has been using a five-level model of conflict intensity. Under its revised methodology, the intensity levels are now known as dispute, non-violent crisis, violent crisis, limited war, and war.

The last three levels constitute the category of violent conflicts, in contrast to the non-violent conflicts (dispute and non-violent crisis). Whereas a dispute is a political conflict carried out without resorting to violence, in a non-violent crisis one of the actors threatens to use violence. This includes violence against objects without taking the risk to harm persons, the refusal of arms surrender, pointing weapon systems against each other and sanctions.

Assessing the intensities of violent conflicts

When measuring the three levels of violent conflict, five proxies are used indicating the means and consequences of violent conflict measures. The dimension of means encompasses the use of weapons and personnel, the dimension of consequences the number of casualties, destruction, and refugees/internally displaced persons.

weapons personnel casualties refugees
& IDPs
threat to existence
conflict means conflict consequences
conflict intensity

Each indicator is scored on a ternary scale. Aggregating the five individual scores results in the total intensity of a region-month.

conflict means
0 points 1 point 2 points
0 points violent crisis violent crisis limited war
1 point violent crisis limited war war
2 points limited war war war


weapons employment
light heavy
light 0 points
heavy 1 point 2 points

The weapons indicator determines whether light or heavy arms are used (e.g. handguns or hand grenades vs. artillery or heavy bombs). Regarding the extent to which the fighting capacity of heavy arms is exploited, we differentiate restrictive and extensive use.


low medium high
≤ 50 > 50 ≤ 400 > 400
0 points 1 point 2 points

The personnel indicator measures the highest number of participants in an individual measure. Counted are all persons who, by their actions, collectively represent a conflict actor in the context of a violent measure. Low, medium, and high numbers of personnel are distinguished, based on two thresholds: 50 and 400 persons.


low medium high
≤ 20 > 20 ≤ 60 > 60
0 points 1 point 2 points

Third, the overall number of casualties in the conflict in a region-month is evaluated, comprising the number of deaths from violent measures or their direct consequences. Persons dying due to indirect effects, e.g. starvation or disease, are not counted. The thresholds employed here are 20 and 60 persons killed.

Refugees & IDPs

low medium high
≤ 1000 > 1000 ≤ 20,000 > 20,000
0 points 1 point 2 points

Evaluated is the overall number of cross-border refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in a region-month. Displacement is the migration of human beings provoked by conflict measures, e.g. by creating inhumane living conditions. Taken into account is flow, not stock data. The thresholds employed here are 1,000 and 20,000 refugees.


The amount of destruction resulting from the conflict during the whole month and within the subnational unit is determined in four dimensions considered essential for civil populations: infrastructure, accommodation, economy, and culture.

low medium high
within 0
within 1 - 2
within 3 - 4
0 points 1 point 2 points

The region-month intensities can be aggregated to inform about the conflict intensity in a given calendar year for a specific conflict area. A conflict area is the sum of all subnational units affected by the violent conflict in question. The area-year intensity is basically equal to the maximum region-month intensity in a given area-year. Furthermore, the exact area-year intensity is fine-tuned by looking at the annual and area-wide numbers of casualties and refugees as the two core indicators of conflict assessment. A violent crisis can thereby be upgraded to limited war level if there were more than 360 casualties or more than 18,000 refugees in the whole year in the conflict area. A limited war can be upgraded to war level if there were more than 1,080 fatalities or more than 360,000 refugees. In contrast, a limited war can be downgraded to a violent crisis if there were less than 120 casualties and less than 6,000 refugees. Likewise, a war can be downgraded to limited war level if there were less than 360 casualties and less than 120,000 refugees. The area-year intensity is both displayed above each conflict description in this publication as well as in the regional conflict overviews.

Conflict types

The methodology of HIIK distinguishes between interstate, intrastate, and substate conflicts. Whereas interstate conflicts only involve internationally recognized state actors, intrastate conflicts involve both state actors and non-state actors. Sub-state conflicts are carried out solely among non-state actors.

Nicolas Schwank, Christoph Trinn, Thomas Wencker, Lotta Mayer, Natalie Hoffmann, Stephan Giersdorf, Mark Gombert, Jens Hofmann, Gregor Pawlowski