Through an empirical focus on hostage taking, my research explores the causes and consequences of political violence. From rebel guerrillas to authoritarian states, hostage takers use human captivity to coerce monetary, diplomatic, and political concessions from state and non-state targets. Hostages suffer significant and symbolic violence with implications for policy, governance, and peace.
This page includes abstracts of my current projects and links to my published scholarship. Links to my policy writing can be found here.
Book Project: Ransom and Rebellion: The Logic of Kidnapping in Colombia and Beyond
Based on my PhD dissertation, "The Logic of Coercive Kidnapping," winner of the American Political Science Association's 2021 Merze Tate Award for the Best Dissertation in International Relations, Law, and Politics.
Global kidnapping has spiked dramatically over the last several decades, as armed groups abduct civilians in war. While hostage-takers ravage communities and confound policymakers, there has been limited scholarly examination of this tool of coercion. Why do some armed groups kidnap for ransom, whereas others do not? How do armed groups kidnap? And, does kidnapping "work" for perpetrators? In Ransom and Rebellion, I explain the causes, conduct, and consequences of kidnapping by armed groups. Bringing together insights on state building, civilian victimization, and coercion, I argue that ransom kidnapping is used to enforce rebel taxation. Kidnapping serves both as the most efficient, lucrative way to punish those who refuse to comply with group taxes and a means of threatening the population with violence if they fail to pay. However, kidnapping presents a temporal trade-off for armed groups: While it increases tax compliance in the short term, it presents long-term legitimacy costs to perpetrators. To test my argument, I draw on evidence from more than 100 interviews with ex-combatants and former hostages from the Colombian civil war, as well as secondary evidence about armed-group kidnapping in India and the Middle East. My book highlights an unexplored way that selective violence bolsters insurgency, offering a novel explanation for a persistent and perplexing form of violence against civilians worldwide.
Instruction over Incentives: Assessing Reading Strategies for International Security Studies (with Paul Bezerra and Karin Becker) Discussion-based courses in international relations rely on students’ careful reading of complex texts in advance of class. However, instructors face a perennial problem: many students do not read effectively, or at all. We argue that students often want to, but do not always know how to, read such material effectively. With instruction and guidance on effective reading strategies, students can improve reading comprehension. To test our hypotheses, we measure the effects of (1) receiving course-preparation assignment worksheets (CPAs), (2) receiving critical/active reading strategies instruction, or (3) receiving both interventions (1) and (2) on students’ consumption of reading assignments and reading comprehension. Across four sections of an “International Security Studies” course, we tested our hypotheses using student self-assessment. Results indicate that both CPAs and reading strategies instruction increase student consumption and self-assessed comprehension of assigned material, but with intriguing nuance across the range of possible responses. Generally, no added benefit upon comprehension is realized by offering both treatments together. These effective reading strategies offer benefits beyond our classroom, imparting students with long-lasting skills and offering instructors easily adaptable activities for use in other courses.
Forthcoming in International Studies Perspectives. Paper available here.
Promoting College Reading Completion and Comprehension with Reading Guides: Lessons Learned Regarding the Role of Form, Function, and Frequency (with Karin Becker and Paul Bezerra)
College faculty often struggle with getting their students to read assigned materials. Even if students do read, they may not read closely or critically. Not only does the lack of effective reading undermine understanding, but it also hampers class discussions and engagement. To promote close and critical reading in a required, upper-division International Security Studies course, we offered optional reading guide worksheets as tools to increase students’ reading comprehension and completion. While our reading guides helped students focus on key terms and lesson objectives, flaws in our implementation produced a lack of perceptual value and extrinsic motivation in using the reading guides. In this article, we offer our lessons learned from the use of reading guides, focusing on their form, function, and frequency. These findings equip faculty with useful guidance in how to design and implement effective reading guides across the disciplines.
Forthcoming in the Journal of Political Science Education. Paper available here | PDF available here.
The Oxygen of Publicity: Explaining U.S. Media Coverage of International Kidnapping
What explains U.S. media coverage of Americans kidnapped abroad? While some hostages receive national media attention, others hardly make the local news. Using an original, event count dataset of newspaper stories about Americans kidnapped abroad since 2001, this article tests the oft-cited, under-measured assumption that “terrorism” receives more media attention than other violence. Controlling for variation across kidnapping, I show that those framed as “terrorism” receive more coverage. Challenging existing literature, I also demonstrate that incidents with more victims receive less coverage than those incidents with fewer victims, and that there is no “missing white woman syndrome” in international kidnapping.
Published in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol 46, No. 5 (2023): 618-639. Paper available here | PDF available here | Online appendix available here | Dataset available here | Codebook available here.
The Logic of Kidnapping in Civil War: Evidence from Colombia
Winner, 2024 Best Article Award, International Security Studies Section of the International Studies Association. Honorable mention for the 2023 Alexander L. George Article Award for the best article or chapter developing or applying qualitative methods, American Political Science Association's Qualitative and Multi-Method Research section.
Why do some armed groups kidnap for ransom? Despite a dramatic spike in kidnappings by political groups over the last several decades, there are scant existing explanations for why groups use this tool of coercion. Leveraging evidence from extensive interviews with former combatants from Colombia’s civil war, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), as well as military and security personnel, I show that ransom kidnapping is used to enforce groups’ protection rackets, their main source of funding. Kidnapping is both the most lucrative way to punish tax evasion and an effective means of deterring future shirking. Thus, groups that tax local populations are more likely to kidnap; groups relying on external or voluntary forms of funding are less likely to take hostages. This article explains when we should see kidnapping in armed conflict, describing an underexplored way that selective violence bolsters insurgency.
Published in American Political Science Review, Vol 116, No. 4 (2022): 1226-1241. Paper available here | PDF available here | Online appendix available here | Full supplementary materials available here.
Caught Between Giants: Hostage Negotiation Strategy for Middle Powers (with Gaëlle Rivard Piché)
Semi-finalist for the 2021 Janne Nolan Prize for the Best Article on National Security/ International Affairs.
What is hostage diplomacy, and how can U.S. allies respond to China’s use of this coercive tool of foreign policy? We conceptualize “hostage diplomacy” — the taking of hostages under the guise of law for use as foreign policy leverage — to explain an underexamined form of international coercion. Exploring an international crisis over three prisoners — China’s Meng Wanzhou and Canada’s Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — we illustrate the turn toward hostage diplomacy by China and other authoritarian states. Drawing on the principles of negotiation, we analyze the creative negotiation strategies that middle powers might adopt to bring their captive citizens home. In doing so, we show how the fate of these three individuals had implications for policy concerns ranging from Iran’s nuclear program, to the adoption of 5G technology, to the future of the liberal international order.
Published in Texas National Security Review, Vol 5, Issue 1 (Winter 2021/2022). Paper available here | PDF available here | Coverage in The New York Times here.
The Politics and Pedagogy of Nationalism: Authentic Learning on Identity and Conflict
In recent decades, nationalism has emerged from the distant purview of history to become the primary driver of some of the world’s biggest news. Given the prominence of nationalist conflict, students in political science increasingly study the subject with modern references in mind. This article describes the design for a timely undergraduate political science course on the causes and consequences of nationalism, with a focus on four central learning objectives: understanding theories and concepts in the study of nations and nationalism; applying theories to contemporary events; exploring issues of identity among a community of learners; and developing analytical and professional skills. I describe in detail two course assignments that exemplify these pedagogical objectives. In the “nationalism in the news” assignment, students give an in-class oral presentation on a current news story, interpreting the event through the lens of course themes. In the “national anthems analysis” paper, students analyze the lyrics of the national anthem of their choosing, linking symbols to interpretations of different nationalism types. I conclude by offering suggestions for adapting these and other course assignments to a range of classrooms and students.
Published in the Journal of Political Science Education, Vol 17, No 1 (2021): 926-937. Paper available here. | PDF available here.
Partners in Crime: Comparative Advantage and Kidnapping Cooperation (under review)
What explains cooperation between armed groups? Existing scholarship highlights groups' similarities -- such as shared ideology or goals -- to underwrite cooperation. But armed groups frequently cooperate without such shared values or traits. In this paper, I show that it is precisely groups' differences, not their similarities, that open up avenues to cooperation. To do so, I focus on kidnapping, an underexplored but common form of non-state actor violence against civilians, to explain cooperation across different types of armed actors. I apply the economics concepts of comparative advantage and vertical and horizontal integration to demonstrate that rebels and criminal gangs -- organizations that typically eschew collaboration -- cooperate in producing violence. Specifically, rebels outsource part of the kidnapping process to criminal gangs as part of their drive to expand their market territory, much as a firm might. Drawing on extensive interviews with armed groups and security personnel from Colombia, I theorize the conditions under which rebels are likely to "outsource" violence to criminal gangs or produce kidnapping violence "in house." This paper explains the organizational dynamics of armed group cooperation, as both sides exercise their specialization to achieve mutual benefits -- and commit systematic violence against civilians.
No Man Left Behind? Hostage Deservingness and the Politics of Hostage Recovery (with Lauren Prather, under review)
Kidnappings of soldiers, journalists, aid workers, and other civilians by armed groups happen every day. Yet, the politics of hostage recovery remains relatively understudied. Whether and how governments choose to recover their citizens varies widely, as does public sentiment about bringing hostages home. To explain this variation, we develop a theory of hostage deservingness. We argue that deservingness is determined by the circumstance of capture—particularly whether hostages are perceived to be to blame for their capture—and that more deserving hostages receive more public support for risky rescue operations. Our multi-method approach to hypothesis testing includes the use of survey experiments embedded in two different nationally representative surveys of Americans and 22 elite interviews with current and former senior hostage recovery personnel. Across our experiments, we find that when hostages are described as not to blame for their capture, support for recovery is at its highest. However, when capture occurs under circumstances that suggest the hostage bears responsibility, support for recovery decreases. Despite official U.S. government policy that the circumstances of capture are irrelevant to recovery decisions, our interviews show that notions of deservingness (and the public’s approval of hostages) matter a great deal in the hostage recovery process. We demonstrate that policymakers are similarly susceptible to notions of deservingness, yielding substantial internal debate about recovery options. Moreover, policymakers adapt their messaging to avoid backlash from recovering less sympathetic hostages or failing to recover those seen as more deserving.
Working paper available here. | Appendix available here.
"Trust a Few: The Political Consequences of Wartime Violence" (with Elsa Voytas)
How does wartime violence affect trust? Existing research on the political consequences of violence is remarkably split: while some scholars argue that political violence generates prosocial behaviors and beliefs (like increased political participation and sentiments of reconciliation), others argue that violence generates antisocial behaviors (like decreased political participation and feelings of revenge). In particular, while most studies on the consequences of war demonstrate an increase in prosocial behavior, studies that focus on social trust show contradictory or null results. We argue that these mixed findings derive from a conflation in much of the literature of in-group trust, out-group trust, generalized trust, and trust in the government -- types of trust that we expect to diverge during conflict. Moreover, we expect that the effects of war on trust will differ by the relationship of research subjects to violence -- whether subjects experienced violence personally and directly, or whether their experience of violence was indirect, experienced by their family, community, or society. In this paper, we conduct a meta-analysis of existing studies on the effects of violence on trust. Understanding the variation in the political consequences of wartime violence has important implications for broader societal phenomena, including durable peace, reconciliation, and democratic consolidation.
"Prisoner Dilemmas: Conceptualizing Captivity in Conflict"
Hostage taking, detention, and abduction are pervasive in armed conflict. How are these forms of captivity related, and what do they achieve? This paper brings together disparate literatures on forms of detention and abduction to explore the interconnections between forms of captivity often classified as "kidnapping'' and consider the role of captivity in international security. To do so, I introduce a conceptual typology of captivity to show how variation in abduction and coercion in captivity -- where, and why captives are held -- condition dynamics of violence and the possibility of release. Then, I identify promising new avenues for a research agenda on captivity in conflict, examining the causes, consequences, and responses to captivity. In doing so, this paper uncovers relevant similarities and differences across forms of captivity, crucial for scholarly exploration and policymakers' response.