Conflicts today abound which demand explanation. Understanding the roots of conflict is especially true now given the rise of populism which catapulted controversial leaders like President Donald Trump of the United States and President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, each of their own right riding onto the wave of either anti-immigration or anti-crime sentiment. Trump has sparked numerous protests due to his contentious Muslim travel ban (Thrush, 2017) while Duterte has earned international condemnation for the spate of extrajudicial killings arising from his all-out war on drugs and criminality (Al Jazeera, 2017). Each of these leaders claim to be resolving root causes of conflict in their respective countries – Trump, restricting immigration in order to address the imminent security threat that the liberal immigration policies of erstwhile US administrations have posed, while Duterte, clamping down on the drug trade which he considers to be a top cause of underdevelopment and national degeneration.
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The theories on conflict discussed and learned over the course of three weeks helped me frame a deeper understanding as to why both Trump and Duterte’s analysis may be critically attacked and in what instances, they are either correct or fall short. A school of theories under the systems theory consider how the roots of violence are all interconnected and are products of social, political and economic interactions. New emerging theories such as the human needs theory consider the deprivation of basic human needs to be a direct cause of conflict and suggest that addressing the same would eradicate conflict. Lastly, various social theories from Karl Marx to Franz Fanon provide me with lenses to be used in studying social disruption for these theories really enunciate what causes societal fractures and what can be done about it. This paper is a critical reflection of the following body of conflicts theories.
Discussion of Conflict and Social Theories
Simply stated, the systems theory considers conflict to be the whole of many problematic parts of society which are inextricably linked. Conflict therefore arises not due to individual or micro-level differences and contradictions but of a general system. Systems theories seek to understand conflict by looking at how several elements located in a social system interact with one another. Violence, according to systems theorists, should be viewed from the level of (1) individuals (2) dyads; (3) subsystems (family, community, religious groups and general society). Subsystems are organized in a manner which could either encourage or deter or regulate violence. Direct efforts at changing elements of the system will not prosper since the system will immediately provide a replacement for the missing element. Hence, ending violence, which is a systematic problem requires a coordinated and comprehensive approach. The general systems theory is useful in uncovering relationships and interactions which contribute to violence from different levels. However, its weakness lies in the fact that it is a “value-free” theory which requires theoretical directions.
Structural violence, according to John Galtung, pertains to a form of violence arising from a social structure or institution which harms people by deliberately depriving them of capacity to satisfy their immediate human needs. This kind of violence does not take a physical form or image but consists of “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs” (Galtung,Â 1969, p. 32). The notion of structural violence impels one to look for inequalities within social structures – may it be inequalities in wealth, power, privilege, access and opportunity which breed injustice. In the same light, structural violence also compels one to look at the connections between what might be falsely considered as mutually exclusive worlds. In essence, the theory of structural violence as a way of addressing conflict encourages people to proceed with moral outrage and critical participation where previously our reflexive response would be passive acceptance of these inequalities. Institutionalized racism, classism and sexism are forms of structural violence which are usually considered as inherent characteristics of society. Galtung however encourages to look beyond these inequalities and to find connections in order to dismantle structures which permit these injustices. In my view, structural violence is a timely method of deconstructing conflict in today’s world. For instance, the notion of viewing refugees as a potential source of conflict is a worldview tacitly accepted in global policy. Acceptance of refugees is viewed to potentially open the floodgates for terrorism, crime, and other degenerate activities that threaten national security. However, when viewed from perspective of structural violence, we can proceed to view the refugee crisis more critically and conclude that instead of treating refugees as potential threats, they should instead be viewed as people who deserve to be treated with dignity.
Relative Deprivation Theory
This theory assumes that social conflict arises due to people’s perceptions of inequality. When people perceive that there exists a disparity from what they deserve to enjoy from what they currently enjoy, they became discontented with their situation (Walker & Pettigrew, 1984). The relative deprivation theory hypothesizes that conflict arises when the gap between two groups within a particular population is too wide, the possibility of rebellion becomes more likely. The assumption is that people are bound to perceive that they enjoy certain entitlements from society and when they are deprived of this while a number of other people belonging to the same population enjoy the same, dissent comes into being. Relative deprivation theory focuses on value expectations which need to be met within a certain society. Thus, when a society has a relatively high rate of economic inequality, the more likely it is that people will rebel. While the origin of the deprivation is economic, a state of poverty does not necessarily translate to violence. However, when individual expectations of poor people become transformed as a group identity, they become a political force that will not hesitate to use violence in order to combat their perceived discrimination. In other words, relative deprivation theory considers that violence stems from a person’s judgment of his or her economic circumstances in the community. To a certain extent, an individual’s subjective evaluation of his or her community status is essential to their conduct.
Theory of cooperation
The theory of cooperation proceeds from the notion that conflicts are generally characterized by cooperation and cooperation as twin motives. Deutsch (1949, 1985) formulated this theory in order to comprehend the conflict process better and how to come up with more effective conflict resolution methods.
Deutsch’s primary thesis is that in order to resolve conflict, it is a key step to understand the nature of interdependence of both parties in conflict. Interdependence could be negative or positive. When the goals of both parties are negatively interdependent, a party’s success automatically means the other’s failure. Upon the other hand, when the goals of both parties are positively interdependent, one party’s success is correlated with the other party’s success while one party’s failure is also correlated with the other party’ failure. In the latter form of interdependence, cooperative relationships can be had in order to secure a win-win outcome for both parties to a conflict.
Cooperative relationships are considered to demonstrate several positive features such as effective communication, openness, a friendly atmosphere and commitment to mutuality. In contrast, competitive relationships bring about the opposite results such as closed communication, lack of coordinated activities, an atmosphere of suspicion and a sense of domination. Based on Deutsch’s research, constructive conflict resolution is more linked to cooperative processes rather than competitive processes which he considered destructive.
In order to foster cooperative relationships towards constructive conflict resolution, Deutsch likened it to friendly social relations. This is marked by empowering gestures and a reframing of attitudes. Thus, he recommends that both parties agree to commit to adherence to norms in the conduct of talks and negotiations. Among these norms include respect, honesty, responsiveness, forgiveness, and acknowledgment of responsibility. These values, due to their universal value and acceptance, can pose as common grounds for both parties to stand on.
Emerging Conflict Theories: Human Needs Theory
An emerging trend in conflict theory shifts the focus from the political economy to basic human needs. This perspective is anchored on the fact that human beings need to acquire essentials in order to live with dignity. Human needs theorists place the cause of conflict to unmet human needs. In this light, they argue that violence happens when certain groups or individuals are deprived of basic human needs (Burton, 1979).
Theorists however have disagreed on what “human needs” means. In Burton’s (1979) view, human needs that need to be addressed in the context of conflict go beyond the basic biological or subsistence needs. Instead, unmet needs related to social conflict include identifiy, recognition, security and development. As Burton’s human needs theory progressed, he highlighted how existing state systems have miserably failed to provide a sense of identity thereby fueling ethno-linguistic separatist movements. If certain ethnic groups are deprived of their freedom to express their own national identities within the status quo, they will tend to establish parallel “revolutionary” systems in order to achieve the same. Burton provides as concrete examples the ethnic nationalist struggle in Kosovo in 1989 as well as various gang subcultures. Burton opined that human need theory can help explain conflict and pave the way for better conflict resolution because
Rubenstein (2010) considers the human needs theory as providing a better explanation to social conflict compared to theories which focus only on the errors of a few manipulative leaders or institutions, as embodied in Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory. Echoing Burton’s view, Rubenstein views the human needs theory to provide the study of conflict with a more objective basis which goes beyond local or cultural differences. The needs-based approach to understanding social conflict defies traditional notions of conflict and instead uses unsatisfied human needs as the independent variable to explain why elite dominance or cultural differences lead to conflict.
However, Park (2010) critiqued Burton’s positivist framework of needs theory and encouraged a more critical definition of “needs” to mean “that there are needs that do not directly bear upon material sustenance like recognition and freedom from coercion that must also not be obstructed lest there be undesirable consequences” (p. 1). Park took issue with Burton’s reliance on the biological explanation for Needs Theory to support protection of rights and universal freedoms. Instead, she advocates for a psychoanalytic view to suggest that not needs are not universal. According to her, needs are essentially socially constructed. The needs which people pursue are socially engineered and they may even pursue “false” pleasures. In sum, Park considers with caution the use of the “black box” that is human needs. The definition of human needs is not simple but very complex and difficult to understand.
Conflict from the Lens of Social Theory
Equally relevant to the study of conflict is the development of social theory arising from social disruption. In Charles Lemert’s (2016) book, multiple social theorists and their viewpoints on conflict are critically discussed. From the classical “Great White Men” theories arose alternative views on social relationships and social conflict which can be applied to the contemporary context.
Among the most notable of these social theorists include of course, Karl Marx, publicly voted as the world’s greatest philosopher (BBC News, 2015). Marx wrote Das Kapital as well as the Manifesto together with Friedrich Engels at a time of extreme economic discontent. Marx focused on his critique of political economy which obscures the internal relationships of labor and capital and discussed a pivotal feature which is the worker’s alienation and estrangement. What is the most striking and palpable among these types of alienation is what fuels labor unrest: that of labor commodification and the reduction of the worker to a mere object. Simply stated, the more a worker produces out of his labour power, the cheaper he or she becomes as a commodity. Because the worker is paid at a fixed rate, more and more profit is being gained by the capitalist due to his work but unfortunately the worker does not earn additional wages for it. Marxist thought has gained traction especially with the crisis of global capitalism, environmental destruction, and global poverty. Until, his theory of class as the root cause of contradiction in society remains very relevant. However, many theorists developed a more expansive construction of his view on social classes. Max Weber, another classical theorist, came up with an alternative approach to the study of classes. For Marx, one’s class is defined and determined by one’s ownership of the means of production. Thus, Marx considered historical class antagonisms and identified these two groups in contemporary capitalist society as the proletariat and bourgeoisie. The contradictory relationship that the classes have pushes social development forward. Weber considers social groups and classes as determined through the distribution of power. Social stratification then, occurs through overlapping means and not only through economic differentiation.
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Other social theorists also focus on micro-level analysis to understand conflict. Sigmund Freud uses psychoanalytic theory to understand inner conflict among human beings. Freud’s treatise laid down the anatomy of the self as made up of the interaction between three components dynamically interacting: the id, ego, and superego. All of these components of the self develop with socialization hence constructing the “social self.” Biology interacting with socialization shapes a human being’s personality. When one of the three elements is allowed to dominate the other two, social problems may arise.
Also developing Marx’s theory of alienation, Horkheimer and Adorno criticized the use of cultural goods in order to project “false consciousness”. Cultural goods are appropriated into transforming humans as passive and docile objects of a system which was actually oppressing them. Aside from creating a “false consciousness”, they also suggested that popular culture is geared at creating “false needs” in order to engineer human beings into consuming in a massive scale. This cultural appropriation in turn heightens human’s alienation and creates possible sources of conflict.
The readings also tell us that social theories do not stay static. Even among key capitalist thinkers, there have been different approaches to address economic problems. For instance, John Maynard Keynes challenged the neoclassical economic paradigm advanced by Adam Smith and disciples which advocated for minimal to no government interference in favor of full-out control of the “invisible hand of the market” to attain equilibrium.Â Instead, Keynes suggested implementing government regulation and intervention in order to arrest the economic recession.
Social theories also help us understand racial conflict. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for an end to racial discrimination which he considered a ghastly reality America must face as a nation. In describing the horrendous social conditions which African Americans and other colored peoples are subjected to, King claimed that America had “manacles of segregation” and “chains of discrimination” which breed chronic poverty and injustice for certain segments of the population. Franz Fanon provides a stirring account of decolonization as a form of liberation. His work remains relevant especially in light of the fact that many of today’s underdeveloped countries are former colonies of imperialist nations which have not completely been unshackled from their former masters economically, politically and culturally. It is only through liberation, which is necessarily violent that the colonized “thing” becomes fully a man.
C. Wright Mills teaches the student to develop the sociological imagination which is a way of looking at themselves as the result of both biology and history and in always looking at the world through fresh eyes. One is challenged to go beyond looking at one’s self as well and instead consider one’s development as product of several processes occurring within a system.
Given the reality of global conflict today, conflict theories and social theories enable one to look at the phenomenon with renewed understanding and critical outlook. There are classical and alternative approaches of looking at conflict and conflict resolution processes. There are also classical and alternative ways of interpreting social conflict throughout history. Having a steady grasp of these theories assist the student thoroughly by providing him with several lenses to look at the problem and identify solutions.
Al Jazeera (2017). Thousands march against Duterte’s war on drugs. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/02/thousands-march-duterte-war-drugs-170218034827033.html
Deutsch, M. (1985). Distributive justice: A social psychological perspective. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research, 6 (3), 167-191.
Lemert, C. (2016). Social Theory: The Multicultural, Global and Classic Readings (6th ed.) Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Park, L. (2010). Opening the black box: reconsidering needs theory through psychoanalysis and critical theory. International Journal of Peace Studies. Retrieved from https://www.gmu.edu/programs/icar/ijps/vol15_1/PARK15n1-IJPS.pdf
Rubenstein, R. E. (2010). Basic Human Needs: The Next Steps in Theory Development. The International Journal of Peace Studies, 6 (1), 51-58.
Thrush, G. (2017). Trump’s travel ban blocks migrant from six nations, sparing Iraq. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/06/us/politics/travel-ban-muslim-trump.html?_r=0Deutsch, M. (1949). A theory of cooperation and competition. Human Relations, 2, 129-151.
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