Dondena Interviews

Just because you’re part of the elite doesn’t mean you agree with the rest of the elite, according to Jordi Vidal-Robert, who spoke to the Dondena Centre in October about conflict, specifically within the Papal States. His research suggests that the elite, too, break down just like any other group—they split, and then revolt.

Work on institutions and how they run provides an interesting vantage point from which to evaluate events today, Vidal-Robert says, even though it seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Tell us a little bit about your talk today.

My talk today is about the Papal States. We’re framing it in the polarization and conflict literature. There is a lot of literature that tries to explain why more divided societies lead to more conflict, internal conflict, but as well to external conflict like wars between states. Usually this literature focuses on two groups within a society, one that is the ruling elite, and one that is the rest of the population. Usually they say that the population cannot get together because they are a very heterogeneous group, so they cannot fight cohesively against the elite. Instead, they assume that the elite is always homogenous. What we are asking in this paper is what happens if the elite is divided? What happens if they are a heterogeneous group, and they have some division inside that would lead to more conflict and if so, why that would be the case?


We tried to identify an elite, and identify possible divisions within the elite, and try to find measures of this division, like polarization and fractionalization. So we thought about the Papal States immediately. It’s very clear that the elite of the Papal States would be the College of Cardinals. Within the College of Cardinals we could identify different groups that could create differences and deep-down divisions within them. So we constructed polarization and fractionalization measures within the College of Cardinals based on the nationality of the Cardinals, and then we linked that to internal and external conflict.


We find that polarization is linked to more internal conflict, so that’s more or less what the literature was saying, but it’s interesting that even if you find polarization within the elite you also find this result. And then the next question is to answer, Why is that the case? So we think that if there are two groups within the elite, what’s going to happen is that if they lose, they’re going to split, or we think that one of them would lose and then would join the rest of the population and create a revolt against the winner.


Tell me what your data are like. How did you go about finding all this information?

We found an historian who has collected information on all the Cardinals of the Papal States since its beginnings until the unification of Italy. So what we’ve done is go through the biographies of these Cardinals and took the information we needed for our study—where they were born, where they were working before they were made Cardinals, the year of their death, and so on.


How does this fit into the larger picture of your research?

In the large picture, in my research I’m always trying to identify institutions and trying to explain why they exist and how they work. That will help me to try to understand how they would influence economic development in the long run.


What do you see going on right now in your field that you think is really terrific, and what kinds of things would you like to see a little bit more of?

I think the field is growing exponentially. It is amazing to see, since I started my PhD in 2006, how this field has grown. It’s not only economic historians, it joins economic historians and economic development, even political economy, and all these people that try to understand how institutions affect their own or the persistence of some institutions in economic development. I think it’s fascinating that you can connect different views even though some of us are economists, some of us are political scientists, and some of us are historians. All of them can create a good interrelationship and connection to create and improve this literature.


Are you able to take what you do and apply it to certain institutions today? I mean, can you watch the news and say, I know what’s going to happen to them?

I would love to predict the future, but I wouldn’t dare to do that. But you do see some behaviors that keep repeating over time.


Like what?

For example, the Spanish Inquisition, how they persecuted not only different religions but also different ideas. So you see that from the point of view of some governments and you can see also some institutions that are linked to the past and they do not want new ideas to come out. In that sense you can see behaviors that keep repeating and you could say, Clearly that’s not going to be good in the future. It’s amazing how history keeps repeating, even now. But this example is an extreme.


Maybe, but today it seems we may have equal extremes going on.

Exactly. But in a more general sense, you have not an extreme, but you have an institution that is interested in not having these ideas come out.


In social science research more broadly speaking, what kinds of things are you looking forward to seeing in the near future?

I think we still have to learn a lot from history. I think that historians have done a really good job of going to the past and trying to explain or get good data, and now it’s time for economic historians, or people who have the tools, the mathematical tools or economic models, to analyze that and test different theories and explain some of the past, just to learn something for the future. I would like to see more of that.
















Last updated 06 February 2014 - 12:19:23