New database designed to aid study of ethnic, religious strife worldwide

May 01, 2014 by Craig Chamberlain

The power of ethnic hatred was on full display in the Rwandan genocide that began 20 years ago this month, but it's only the most extreme example of ethnic and religious strife that continues around the world.

Today's examples can be found in Afghanistan, Egypt and Iraq, among many others.

Those trying to understand these "sociocultural" animosities and conflicts – whether academics, journalists or nongovernmental organizations – now have a new tool at their disposal: a public database that pulls together multiple sources on trends in the composition of ethnic and religious groups in 165 countries, going back seven decades, to the end of World War II.

The database is called CREG, for Composition of Religious and Ethnic Groups.

It's a project of the Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois.

Data already existed for some of these groups and countries, but the data were incomplete and uneven, says Peter F. Nardulli, the center's director and a professor of political science and of law.

"No one could provide a clear picture of the trends in religious and ethnic group populations worldwide," Nardulli said. "No one ever took the time to put it together."

The project pulled information from three widely used sources – the "Britannica Book of the Year," the "CIA World Factbook" and the "World Almanac Book of Facts" – but also sought out extensive additional data from dozens of other sources. Researchers then "triangulated," comparing different sources of data from different points in time, Nardulli said.

The goal was not only to nail down the data, but to specify trend lines and projections for the future, Nardulli said. "Our database is so much more valuable than the raw data because you can not only see where the numbers are now, but where they've been and where they're going."

The center chose to pursue the CREG project as part of its larger goal of addressing civil strife, especially violent strife, Nardulli said.

When the center began, "we were concerned with societal development, with understanding why some nations prosper over time and others don't," he said. "It became clear that civil strife was a big part of that story, and it was very poorly studied."

To understand the causes of civil strife and violence in the post-war world, the center created a project called SPEED, or the Social, Political and Economic Event Database project.

The raw material for SPEED comes from a global news archive that contains tens of millions of stories from a variety of sources; the archive begins in 1946 and is updated daily. Identifying and analyzing the news stories about civil strife is accomplished through a combination of computer algorithms and computer-aided human coding of stories, Nardulli said.

Campus partners in the project include the Cognitive Computation Group in the department of computer science and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

"This is about the most advanced type of global analysis that's been done on this topic, and it's taken seven years" Nardulli said.

One key finding from the SPEED data is that religious and ethnic (or
sociocultural) animosities clearly are the leading, and growing, cause of violent civil unrest in the world – outpacing other causes such as anti-government sentiments, socioeconomic factors or political desires or beliefs.

That finding led to the need for the CREG project and the database that it produced, Nardulli said.

"We're investing our energies in what looks like the most important driver of the most important type of civil strife, which is violent strife," Nardulli said.

But the Cline Center also wants others to make use of the data, since "no one center or group is going to exhaust the potential of these data," he said.

"Throughout the world, we've got increasing occurrences of sociocultural strife," Nardulli said, "and we hope this is going to be a small step toward understanding and dealing with that strife."

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