ELISABETH JEAN WOOD. Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. 308. Paperback $39.99. ISBN: 9780521010504.

Summary. Insurgent Collective Action is the second book written by political scientist and international studies scholar, Elisabeth Jean Wood. The work is an analysis of rural, insurgent collective action among campesinos in “five case-study areas” of north-central and southeastern El Salvador before, during, and after that country’s brutal Civil War. In the text, Wood attempts to answer two main research questions: “Why did many poor people run extraordinarily high risks to support insurgency?” and “Why did others decline to do so?”[1]

Defining Concepts. Wood defines campesinos as “a person who engages in agricultural activities” but who is not the owner of a property responsible for hiring wage laborers. A campesino “may be a landless day laborer, a permanent wage employee, or a farmer working a small holding.” Wood defines “support for the insurgency” as “the provision to the insurgents of information and supplies beyond the contribution necessary to remain in contested areas, and the refusal to give information and supplies to government forces beyond the necessary contribution.” By “the insurgents,” Wood means the FMLN, a composite of five leftist guerilla factions that fought the Salvadoran Army.[2]

Sources (part one: interviews). The core of Insurgent Collective Action is a series of interviews “with approximately 200 campesinos…which [Wood] carried out in militarily contested areas of El Salvador between 1987 and 1996.” Wood conducted the interviews in “five case-study areas:” 1) the municipality of Tenancingo in the north-central Cuscatlán Department; 2) western Jiquilisco, 3) “the area around the town of San Fransciso Javier,” 4) “the municipality of Santiago de María,” “and 5) the area known as ‘Las Marías,” all in the Usulután Department of Southeastern El Salvador. This sample included areas home to small-scale agriculture and agro-export industries. The interviews were open-ended group interviews and individual interviews. Many of them were conducted over a period of several years and a series of multiple visits.[3]

Sources (part two: maps). Alongside these interviews, Wood relies upon twelve pairs of maps drawn for her study “in 1992 by a dozen teams of campesinos from across Usulután in three workshops [she] convened in 1992.” The maps allowed campesinos to indicate “property boundaries and land use” in their respective regions “before and after the civil war.” For Wood, the maps augment her interviews by revealing “the patterns of land occupation and use…and also the perceptions and values of their makers,” the campesinos, who are the principal subject of her book.[4]

Sources (part three: ancillary). In addition to interviews with, and maps drawn by, campesinos, Wood relies upon an enormous cache of sources. She employs interviews with U.N. staff of the Observer Mission; pastoral agents; representatives of the Salvadoran government; officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development; provincial landlords; military officers; NGO staff; and FMLN commanders. She sought corroboration for this testimony in a slew of written records produced by various human rights organizations like the ACLU, Americas Watch, El Rescate, Tutela Legal of the Archdiocese of San Salvador, and the Truth Commission. She consulted reports appearing in the press; and she analyzed a rural household survey, postwar elections, and databases documenting agrarian property rights throughout the years of her study. In short, there is very little that Wood did not claim to have consulted for Insurgent Collective Action.[5]

Sources (part four: historiography). Finally, Wood draws upon an extraordinary amount of historiography for her study. She mines secondary-source literature on peasant rebellion, collective action, social memory, social movements, revolution, liberation theology, and many other subjects. Insurgent Collective Action has too much historiography to be regurgitated here; however, Wood should be commended for her eagerness to go outside of the literature on El Salvador to find comparative sources that discuss the nature of collective action. Readers will encounter comparisons to places like Zimbabwe, Vietnam, the US South, Canada, Alaska, India, Italy, China, Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, and several more areas of the world.[6]

Audience. Insurgent Collection Action is written for an academic audience interested in studying the nature of social movements around the world. A few signs which indicate this audience. First, the book was published by a prestigious academic press (Cambridge University Press), rather than a trade press. Second, the emphasis on historiography suggests Wood is directing her work towards other scholars in the field; she is trying to make direct connections to their case studies and join in a larger conversation about what causes insurgent activity. Her thesis (which will be discussed in the arguments section of this review) is a nicely packaged, take-away conclusion about the nature of local support for insurgency in El Salvador. We can imagine Wood hoping that other scholars will cite her thesis for their case studies in the same way that she has cited theirs.

Third, Wood’s Insurgent Collective Action is bogged down with academic discussions about methodology, sources, and literature. In fact, this is the focus of the first three chapters, which comprise a third of the entire book! In a text aimed at a popular audience, just about all of this information would be excised by the editors. Fourth, some parts of Insurgent Collective Action are so spectacularly technical and boring that they will probably be ignored, even by scholars in Wood’s own field. The best example of this is Wood’s appendix, “A Model of High-Risk Collective Action by Subordinate Social Actors.” It strains the imagination to picture any real human being understanding this “formal model,” let alone deriving any kind of joy from reading it.[7]

Findings. During research, Wood concluded that “two thirds of the residents of the [four] Usulután case-study areas (other than the towns of Santiago de María and Jiquilisco) did not support the insurgency (beyond the coerced minimum), nor did three-quarters of those in [the first case-study area of] Tenancingo.” This means that roughly 66-75% of campesinos did not support insurgency; or, to invert those findings, 25-33% of campesinos did support the insurgency. Nonetheless, Wood finds this minority support to be exceptional considering the fact that supporters could not be guaranteed protection by insurgents, and they were able to “free-ride” on the movement if they wanted. This means supporters could receive material benefits, such as access to abandoned land, whether they supported the insurgents beyond the minimum or not.[8]

Arguments. Wood’s arguments are broken into three parts. First, she concludes campesinos were a necessary part of the insurgent movement. She states, “Insurgent military capacity rested in large part on the political support voluntarily provided by many campesinos.” Second, she argues campesino support depended on the creation of a new culture. “An emergent insurgent political culture was key to generating and sustaining the insurgency despite its high costs.”[9]

Thesis. Last, and most important, Wood concludes, although “material grievances” like starvation, poverty, and the unequal distribution of land “played a role in motivating rebellion,” it was actually “emotional and moral reasons [that] were essential to the emergence and consolidation of insurgent collective action.” In other words, campesinos generally invoked emotional and moral motives to explain their support of guerrilla activity. As an example, Wood cites a member of a Land Defense Committee as saying that the war was fought so the people would “not be seen as slaves.”[10]

This third argument bears repetition because it is the thesis of Insurgent Collective Action: material benefits like access to land, decreased working hours, better working conditions, and increased wages, “did not themselves motivate participation in insurgency.” Instead, state “repression forged insurgency because it” appealed to moral and emotional imperatives by reinforcing “the framing of the government as a profoundly unjust authority.” Wood also argues that assertions of pride, dignity, and joy are central qualities among those who did support the insurgency.[11]

Criticism. In arguing that campesinos supported armed rebellion because of moral and emotional imperatives, rather than material need, Wood sees herself as combating the “standard rational actor models” of scholars like Mancur Olson. Essentially, she is resurrecting the Marxist idea that people of the working class actually do have a collective consciousness, and they do not necessarily make decisions based on selfish, cost-benefit analyses. In pursuing this argument, Wood downplays half of her book. Readers get a lot of explanation as to why 25-33% of the population supported insurgency beyond the coerced minimum, but they get very little about why 66-75% refused to do so. The opinions of this larger group are often condensed in a couple of lines.[12] Here is an example:

“In contrast, those who did not support the insurgency emphasized the exercise of violence by both armies, and some particularly emphasized that of the FMLN. While a few noninsurgents claimed their staying on the land as an achievement, there were few expressions of collective pride or defiance or assertions of equality on their part.”[13]

In sporadic moments like the one cited here, Wood throws away the reasoning of non-supporters, who in fact make up the larger portion of campesinos in her case-studies. She even condescends, declaring that few of them experienced “collective pride” or “assertions of equality.” One may be tempted to chalk up the large numbers of non-supporters, beyond the coerced minimum, to the fact that it was dangerous to do so; however, Wood makes it clear throughout the book that repression had little to do with whether someone was actually affiliated with the insurgency or not.

More generally, Wood’s conclusions often get drowned in a sea of equivocation. There are several points where her desire to acknowledge differences obscures whatever conclusions she is supposedly making. Here is one example, with the equivocations bolded and italicized to make them obvious:

In some areas such as the northern cantones of Tenancingo, the Las Marías area, southwestern Jiquilisco, and north of San Francisco Javier, many campesinos supported insurgent organizations. In many other areas they did not, as in Santiago de María, the southern cantones of Tenancingo, and in much of the Usulután smallholding belt. In some areas, nonparticipation in the insurgency took the form of active support for the government, in others that of a studied neutrality. This diversity of political loyalties occurred across both smallholding areas and across agro-export areas. In some towns such as San Francisco Javier residents largely supported the FMLN; in others such as Santiago de María residents remained loyal to the government; in still others such as Tenancingo residents held widely divergent loyalties throughout the war; in yet others such as Tierra Blanca civilian supporters of either side maintained an easy truce.”[14]

While I understand that support among El Salvadoran campesinos was uneven, and we should not expect a high level of cohesion, paragraphs like this border on the absurd. What are readers to take away from such disjointed conclusions? That some people supported the FMLN and some did not?

This brings me to a critique of Wood’s thesis. It seems that her argument is predicated upon a false dichotomy between material need and moral imperative. While I have no doubt campesino support for the FMLN rested on the formation of a new culture—and Wood does an fantastic job of documenting that culture through bible study groups and reform cooperatives—I do not see a distinction between material need and moral imperative. Most importantly, I do not see why these ideas should be set against one another as opposing incentives. Cannot campesinos and their respective organizations be expressing material needs through a moral and emotional language? Unfortunately, if Wood’s distinction is useless, then her conclusions are potentially misleading.

Finally, many readers are likely to pick up Insurgent Collection Action and find themselves asking, “So, where are these 200 interviews?” Despite collecting extensive testimony, Wood seems reluctant, perhaps even unable, to step aside and let her witnesses speak for themselves. As a result, the book is mostly Wood explaining campesinos, rather than campesinos explaining themselves. The quotes from Wood’s interviews are chopped up in bites-sized excerpts and selectively placed, often only as epigraphs. Overall, it is hard to suppress the thought that Insurgent Collective Action would have been much better—more honest, revealing, and raw—had Wood exercised restraint of her own voice, confined her thoughts to a brief introduction and conclusion, and filled the body of the work with unedited or loosely edited excerpts from the interviews. This would have shown Wood’s trust in the sources’ ability to make her case without excessive commentary.


[1] Elisabeth Jean Wood, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2.

[2] Ibid. 5, 17.

[3] Ibid. 18-19, 32-33, 55-56, 59. Wood discusses her sources at length in chapter two, “Ethnographic Research in the Shadow of Civil War,” 31-50.

[4] Ibid. 45, 47-48.

[5] Ibid. 20, 49-50.

[6] Ibid. 19-20, 31, 34.

[7] Ibid. 267-274.

[8] Ibid. 158, 193.

[9] Ibid. 122, 225.

[10] Ibid. xii, 2, 50, 193, 228.

[11] Ibid. 119-120, 206, 235.

[12] Ibid. 224, 240.

[13] Ibid. 231.

[14] Ibid. 86.