The cow typology of War: Defining and Categorizing Wars (Version 4 of the Data) by Meredith Reid Sarkees



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The COW Typology of War: Defining and Categorizing Wars (Version 4 of the Data) by Meredith Reid Sarkees

David Singer and Mel Small began the Correlates of War Project with an attempt to define war in a way that they hoped would be both discriminating and complex in order to differentiate war from other types of violence. Their starting point was a definition of war as sustained combat involving substantial fatalities: “We must define war in terms of violence. Not only is war impossible without violence (except of course in the metaphorical sense), but we consider the taking of human life the primary and dominant characteristic of war.” (Small, Melvin and J. David Singer. Resort to Arms: International and Civil War,1816–1980. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1982: 205-206.). From this point, their definition of war hinged on two primary criteria: the threshold of battle-related fatalities of troops in combat, and the status of the war participants. Singer and Small ultimately decided on a threshold of 1,000 battle-related deaths as the level of hostilities that differentiates war from other types of conflict. In terms of the second criterion, the status of the war participants, wars had to have participants on both sides that had organizations able to conduct combat (armed forces). Thus their overarching definition of war was: sustained combat, involving organized armed forces, resulting in a minimum of 1,000 battle-related fatalities (later specified as 1,000 battle-related fatalities within a twelve month period).

Singer and Small’s primary interest, however, was in developing a typology that differentiated the various types of war. This typology was based upon their classification of the war participants, and they focused their attention on the members of the interstate system, or states, which by definition had to have the means of exerting their independence and playing a role in international relations (see the dataset of the system membership list). Inter-state wars were those that were conducted between or among members of the interstate system. Extra-systemic wars were those that were conducted between a system member and a nonstate entity (not a system member). Civil wars were conducted between a state and a group within its borders.

Subsequent changes in some of the classifications were adopted in intermediary releases of the data (see Sarkees, Meredith Reid. “The Correlates of War Data on War: An Update to 1997.” Conflict Management and Peace Science 18, no. 1 (Fall 2000): 123–144.) This new version (#4) of the COW war datasets also has incorporated these changes from the initial Singer and Small classifications. Inter-state wars remain the same; extra-systemic wars are now referred to extra-state wars, and some former extra-systemic wars have been re-classified as intra-state wars; the category of civil wars has been expanded to intra-state wars (now including intercommunal wars); and a new category of non-state wars has been added. The remainder of this article will be devoted to summarizing the new typology of wars and defining the major variables used in describing these wars, including the temporal domain; battle-related deaths, or battle-deaths; the “bulk of the fighting”; the war’s duration; the initiator; the outcome; and the location of the wars. It is also possible for conflicts to change classifications, and the conditions under which such transformations take place will be enumerated. For a more complete description, see: Sarkees, Meredith Reid. “Defining and Categorizing Wars,” in Sarkees, Meredith Reid and Frank Whelon Wayman Resort to War: A Data Guide to Inter-State, Extra-State, Intra-State, and Non-State Wars, 1816–2007. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010: 39-73).


The Initial COW Classification

The classification of wars by J. David Singer and Mel Small originally appeared in 1972 in The Wages of War 1816-1965: A Statistical Handbook, which described the two types of international wars, inter-state and extra-systemic. Small and Singer updated the data on these wars in 1982 in Resort to Arms: International and Civil War, 1816-1980, which also included data on civil wars. Since this latter work not only represented an updating and expansion of the data but also included further clarification of some of the coding rules, it will be the primary source for the following discussion of the initial COW categorization of wars.


International War

Wars were classified into two major groupings: international wars and civil wars. International wars were further subdivided into two major types, inter-state and extra-systemic wars. Inter-state wars were defined as those in which a territorial state that qualifies as a member of the interstate system is engaged in a war with another system member. An inter-state war must have: sustained combat involving regular armed forces on both sides and 1,000 battle-related fatalities among all of the system members involved. Any individual member state qualified as a war participant through either of two alternative criteria: a minimum of 100 fatalities or a minimum of 1,000 armed personnel engaged in active combat (Resort to Arms, 56).

Extra-systemic wars were those in which the interstate system member engaged in a war with a political entity that was not a system member. Extra-systemic wars were initially defined as those in which the system member’s forces were engaged in sustained combat with forces (however irregular and disorganized) of a political entity that failed the requirements for system membership. Since Small and Singer were concerned with the war experience of system members, sustained combat required a minimum of 1,000 battle-related fatalities for the system member alone during each year of the war. Extra-systemic wars were further divided into two major subtypes, depending once more on the political status of the adversary. The first subtype, the “imperial war,” involved an adversary that was an independent political entity, that was seeking to maintain that independence, and that did not qualify as a member of the interstate system (because of limitations on its independence, insufficient population to meet the interstate system membership criteria, or a failure of other states to recognize it as a legitimate member). The war was classified as “colonial” if, on the other hand, the adversary was already a colony, a dependency, or a protectorate composed of ethnically different people and located at some geographical distance from the given system member, or at least peripheral to its center of government. Small and Singer indicated that internationalized civil wars should be considered international wars as well. In internationalized civil wars, a system member intervenes in a civil war that is ongoing within another state. A state’s involvement in a war outside its borders thus represents international warfare, though such wars were included in the Civil War dataset.

It should be noted that extra-systemic wars derived their identity from the involvement of a system member’s active participation in a war beyond its own “metropolitan” territory and against the forces of a political entity that was not a recognized member of the system (Resort to Arms, 56). This distinction of classifying wars on the basis of being peripheral to the center of government (or the “metropole”) is the key to understanding the initial differences between extra-systemic and civil wars. Within an empire, a distinction was sometimes made between a part of the core, called the metropole, and the peripheral area of the empire, often called the colonies. Hence, wars that took place between colonies and the mother country (or extra-systemic wars) were described as wars between the periphery and the metropole. Small and Singer utilized the metropole distinction not only in terms of describing extra-systemic wars but also in differentiating wars within the territory of system members as well. In their initial definition, civil wars were those that took place within a metropole of a state, while wars which took place within a state but between the government and an entity outside the metropole were classified as extra-systemic. It is critical to understand the initial emphasis on the metropole/periphery distinction because the elimination of this distinction was the one major change in the COW war typology (reflected in the 1997 release of the data and detailed in Sarkees, 2000) that is also reflected in the new expanded typology that will be described below.


Civil War

The classification of civil war was built on three dimensions: internality, types of participants, and the degree of effective resistance. In general, a civil war was defined as any armed conflict that involved; (1) military action internal to the metropole of the state system member; (2) the active participation of the national government; (3) effective resistance by both sides; and (4) a total of at least 1,000 battle-deaths during each year of the war.

One distinction made here (and conversely in the definition of extra-systemic wars above) was that significant military action had to occur between political entities within the boundaries of the metropole. However, unlike the distinction in extra-state wars, the metropole is not contrasted with distant colonies; here the metropole is the core of the system member itself. When examining civil wars (and adding them to the database), Small and Singer concluded that there were wars that took place within states having characteristics that resembled extra-state conflicts between a metropole and a periphery, particularly when there were areas within the state boundaries that were not well integrated into the central government, or had characteristics that were different from those of the metropole or the capital of the state. In such cases, wars between these distant areas (often seeking autonomy) were more like extra-systemic wars than they were like civil wars that frequently were urban conflicts for control of the capital city. Consequently, Small and Singer classified wars that took place between the metropole and a periphery within a state as extra-systemic wars as well. Civil wars were then specifically defined as involving military action internal to the metropole of the system member. Given this criterion, it was necessary to construct rules for distinguishing the metropole of a state from its nonintegrated areas, and this distinction between the metropole (or core) of a state and the periphery was reflective of the degree of the internal cohesion of a state. A territory was regarded as integrated (or part of the metropole) if all the following conditions were true: (1) there were no constitutional provisions denying the subjects the right to participate in the government; (2) there were no restrictive provisions based on ethnicity, race, or religion; and (3) districts included in the national capital or federal district were considered to be integrated, regardless of the manner in which they were administered (Resort to Arms, 211-212). To reiterate, in terms of wars that took place within the boundaries of a system member, wars that were fought by the central government against actors or territories not integrated into the metropole were considered extra-systemic wars, and wars within the metropole were civil wars. The extent to which this classification seemed to be in conflict with the COW Project’s emphasis on the territorial state as the basis of many of its datasets became one of the motivations for the endeavor to expand upon and revise the initial COW war typology.

The second criterion for civil wars was that the national government in power at the time hostilities begin had to be an active participant (Resort to Arms, 213). This requirement has made the COW discussion of civil wars more specific and limited than those in other research projects.

internal war, and rebellion as too broad, including conflicts of disparate types. However, in their overall typology of war, they did create space for the other types of internal war that involved other types of actors. Their category of internal war included three subcategories: civil wars (involving the national government); regional internal war (involving a subnational government); and communal violence (not involving government at any level). Small and Singer did not gather data on the latter two types of war, though this has been part of the recent progress within the COW Project.
An Expanded Typology of War

In 1994, the COW Project began a process of slightly modifying and updating its war typology and coding rules. The motivating factors for these changes included the desires to: expand the war typology to include additional types of armed conflict; modify a coding rule (the metropole distinction); change the coding of certain variables in order to make them more comparable across all the war types; and change some of the terminology and coding practices that had been perceived as Eurocentric. Descriptions of the initial stages of this process were presented by Meredith Reid Sarkees and J. David Singer at conferences in 1996 and 2001, and were published by as “Correlates of War Warsets: An Update” (Sarkees, 2000).

Furthermore, there appeared to be a growing number of armed conflicts and/or important combatants that did not fit comfortably within the existing COW categories. In particular, trends have signaled the importance in international interactions of other subnational (or intranational) and extranational entities alongside the territorial state. In the absence of effective institutions (domestic and/or international), many problems have led to the emergence of new actors and new types of conflict. For instance, the flourishing of nonstate actors has been related to, among other things, the increase in worldwide arms trade and the development of private armies; the growth of international drug trafficking; the expanding power of multinational corporations; and the fact that boundaries are increasingly permeable by people, weapons, drugs; and the formation of diverse coalitions that acquire weapons and form armies. Separately, and in combination, these forces have contributed to the increasing number of nonstate actors that have the motivation and capacity to engage in warfare both within traditional states and across state borders.

The expanded typology, presented below in Table 1 incorporates several additions and changes to the initial COW war typology. In terms of the additions, the primary one is the addition of wars conducted by nonstate actors. These can be found in four places on the chart. Subsection IV, Non-state Wars, includes those wars conducted by nonsystem member actors that take place beyond the confines of one state. Category IV-A contains those wars that take place in a nonstate territory, or generally the territory of autonomous entities, or territory in pre-state-formation areas (war type 8). Category IV-B includes wars by nonstate entities that take place within two or more states (war type 9). Wars between or among nonstate actors also appear within the category of Intra-state Wars as Regional Internal Wars (war type 6) and Intercommunal Wars (war type 7). Regional Internal Wars and Intercommunal Wars were categories mentioned by Small and Singer as elements of internal wars but were never included in their databases. Both categories take place within the territory of a state. Intercommunal wars involve at least two parties, none of which is a government, while regional internal wars have a local or regional government (not the national government) as one of the parties to the war.

As hinted at above, the expanded typology does contain one major change in the coding rules promulgated by Small and Singer. A consequence of the metropole distinction, which was utilized in both the extra-systemic and civil war categories, was that disparate conflicts were being grouped together, and, conversely, similar conflicts were placed in different classifications. In particular, some wars that took place within the territory of the system member (as identified by the datasets on entities, on territorial change, and on material capabilities) and which were often commonly referred to as civil wars, were categorized as extra-systemic wars because the area of the conflict was considered part of the periphery, which was not incorporated into the state’s metropole. The classification of these wars as extra-systemic wars and thus international wars appeared inconsistent with COW’s state-centric perspective in which emphasis is placed on territory as a defining characteristic of system members. Though COW’s initial typology highlighted the ways in which intra-state metropole-periphery wars are similar to extra-systemic metropole-periphery wars, it was decided that the metropole distinction would be eliminated in an attempt to maintain the consistency of the territorial focus of the growing number of COW datasets. Thus both the extra-systemic and civil war categories have been redefined (see below). Finally, in an attempt to rectify what some critics saw as the Eurocentric bias within the data, some of the terminology and variable descriptions have been changed. In particular, the variable of battle-related deaths has been redefined, and extra-systemic wars are now referred to as extra-state wars.

Maintaining the focus on the members of the state system, an elemental four-pronged grouping of wars emerged: wars between or among states, wars between a state and nonstate forces outside of the state, wars within states, and wars between or among nonstate actors taking place outside of states. This change involved the deemphasizing of the initial internationalcivil war distinction, and focusing instead on a quadripartite typology of: inter-state wars (definition remains the same); extra-state wars (redefined); intra-state wars (also redefined); and non-state wars (a new category). The new master typology, or expanded typology, of war (shown in Table 1) allows for an examination of the totality of modern war, including--to the limits of our ability to detect them--all the cases of sustained combat with substantial fatalities over the past 192 years.



Table 1 The COW Project’s Two Typologies of War


Traditional typology




Expanded typology





































I. International wars

























A. Inter-state wars




I. Inter-state wars (war type 1)










B. Extra-systemic wars




II. Extra-state wars













(1) Colonial







A. Colonial--conflict with colony (war type 2)







(2) Imperial







B. Imperial--state vs. nonstate (war type 3)










III. Intra-state wars







II. Civil wars










A. Civil wars

























1. for central control (war type 4)



















2. over local issues (war type 5)
















B. Regional internal (war type 6)



















C. Intercommunal (war type 7)
















IV. Non-state wars






















A. In nonstate territory (war type 8)



















B. Across state borders (war type 9)






The primary definitional change in the new typology was removing the distinction between the metropole and the periphery within both categories of extra-systemic (now extra-state) war and civil war. This change ensured that all wars that take place within the recognized territory of a state would fall under the intra-state war category and, conversely, that only wars between a state and a nonstate entity outside its borders would be included in the extra-state war category. This redefinition of terminology has resulted in the reclassification of thirty wars that were included as extra-systemic wars in the 1992 version of the data, so that they are now coded as intra-state wars. Of these thirty (see Table 2), fourteen had been included as extra-systemic in Resort to Arms (96-99) and sixteen had been included in subsequent data updates. Those familiar with the extra-systemic list in Resort to Arms may also note that two other wars have been removed. On the basis of additional information, war #427, First Kashmir, has been reclassified as an inter-state war and war #409, and Russian Nationalities, has been subdivided into three inter-state wars,.


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