Repressed Productive Potential and Revolt: Insights from an Insurgency in Burundi


When inequality between groups is maintained through repression, it can induce sentiments of relative deprivation in the repressed group. Among the repressed, it is those with high productive potential that press hardest against the “glass ceiling” that repression enforces. Given the resulting discrepancy between productive and realized potential, such individuals may have the strongest motivation to revolt. We use original survey data to examine the relevance of such motivations for participation in the 1993-2003 Burundian insurgency. We leverage a 1972 shock to levels of repression to provide a compelling test. Participation in insurgency was increasing in individuals’ own and their fathers’ education levels. High attainment individuals also chafed especially hard under repressive barriers to mobility. The “glass ceiling” logic explains the patterns of participation, which are anomalous for theories focusing on opportunity costs. This logic also provides micro-foundations for the cross-national correlation between horizontal inequality and revolt.