Military Conflict as a Public Health Problem

Year Awarded: 2000

This Initiative has concluded its research.

The Weatherhead Center awarded the first Weatherhead Initiative in International Affairs faculty grant in March 2000 to Harvard professors Gary King of the Department of Government and Chris Murray of the School of Public Health. Their project, “Military Conflict as a Public Health Problem,” was launched in the 2000–2001 academic year.

The goal of the project was to convince the public health, international relations and statistical methodology communities of the benefits of treating military conflict as a public health problem. Some work on this problem had occurred in all three fields, but with few exceptions the fields had generally operated in isolation. Studies of war typically focus on the political decision to go to war. Studying war as a public health problem leads political scientists and security-studies researchers to ask new questions about military conflict, to look at the world differently, and to define and explain different dependent variables. The decision to go to war is an important political behavior, but from a public health perspective the ultimate dependent variable is not war but human misery.

At the broadest level, “Military Conflict as a Public Health Problem” integrated the ideas and concerns of the public health, international relations, and statistical-methodology communities in order to reorient several scholarly literatures, public policies, and action agendas. Some of the project’s research results give scholars and public-policy analysts the ability to forecast, analyze, and in part ameliorate the consequences of a major cause of death and human misery.

The goal of the project was to change the direction of research in several scholarly fields, not necessarily to produce a single scholarly product. Professors King and Murray centered their work on the field of international affairs because that is the substantive field most relevant to the research, and it is the field that they hoped most to influence. The field of statistical methods provided the tools for the project, and in the process new areas of application were brought to the field. The field of public health also benefited from the study because it enabled the field to accomplish its ultimate goal by including military conflict as one of the important risks to human health. During the course of the project, public-health scholars provided the critical expertise necessary to measure the new outcome variable of human misery. King and Murray discovered synergies among the three fields, including the extension of “case-control methodology” from public health to international relations. Collaboration between scholars in these areas has also resulted in better conceptualizations of “human security” and better forecasts of global mortality levels.

Principal Investigators

Gary King

Faculty Associate. David Florence Professor of Government, Department of Government, and Director, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University.

Christopher Murray

University of Washington.

See also: Initiatives