Chris Blattman

Resources for Teaching the Book

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. This page provides sample syllabi, slides, assignment ideas, problems sets, and other materials.

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Undergraduate and Master’s classes

2–4 Week Unit

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

For example, I’ve taught the bulk of the material in 7–8 classes as part of a broader class on international development (syllabus). Here is a zip file with PDF lectures, and here is a zip file with PowerPoint slides for 8 lectures over 4 weeks:

  1. Introductory discussion: Pre-conceptions
  2. The incentives for peace [pdf]
  3. Unchecked leaders (agency problems) and uncertainty [pdf]
  4. Commitment problems [pdf]
  5. Intangible incentives [pdf]
  6. Misperceptions [pdf]
  7. Paths to peace I [pdf]
  8. Paths to peace II [pdf]

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.
  • 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