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Understanding Conflict


Underlying causes of conflict
The way a society is organised can create both the root causes of conflict and the conditions in which it's likely to occur. Any society which is organised so that some people are treated unequally and unjustly is likely to erupt into conflict, especially if its leaders don't represent all the members of that society. If an unequal and unjust society is reformed, then conflicts will be rare.

DISCUSSION/Q. Talk about the society you know best - your community, your neighbourhood, your school, your college, your workplace - and how it is organised. Can you see likely causes for conflict? Or can you see how the chance of conflict has been lessened by any particular arrangement?

Human beings have basic needs. Everyone needs to be recognised as an individual with a personal identity; everyone needs to be able to feel safe. If these needs aren't met, people protest, and protesting can lead to rebellion and violence. Many people find their identity and security in their cultural group and its particular point of view - so clashes between different cultural groups also lead to disputes that can easily turn violent. If people learn to understand that differing cultures are not inevitably a threat to each other, they will also learn how to manage their differences co-operatively and peacefully.

DISCUSSION/Q. How does your particular cultural group help you have a sense of self and safety? Does this mean being hostile to people of other cultural groups? When people of one group have friends in another, are they made to feel that their loyalty is divided?

One aspect of culture is particularly important: it can create language and behaviour that excludes people, creating 'us/them', 'insider/outsider' situations and using language of discrimination, intolerance and hate. If people create a society that doesn't see 'difference' and 'diversity' as problems but as valuable for social growth, many causes of conflict disappear.

DISCUSSION. Talk about the language and behaviour that people use to reject and insult others - the language of prejudice. Has your part of society welcomed 'difference and diversity'?

The issues of conflict
NOTE: Because we are concentrating on conflict that is expressed in group violence and war, the issues we mention will mostly be those that arise between peoples and nations. But they can all be translated into local terms, to match the conflicts that you may know about personally.

1. Conflicts arise when people are competing for the same resources (such as territory, jobs and income, housing) when they aren't fairly distributed or when there aren't enough to go round. The same applies to natural resources (cultivable land, fresh water).

2. Conflicts arise when the people are unhappy with how they are governed. The most common conflicts occur when a particular group wants to be independent from a central government, or when their viewpoint isn't represented in the government, or when the government oppresses them and doesn't respect or meet their basic needs.

3. Conflicts arise when people's beliefs clash. Religious and political views are particularly sensitive, because people often depend on these for a sense of identity and belonging. Sometimes the conflict is caused by a religious/political group being attacked; sometimes it is because the group is eager to spread a particular belief and even enforce it on others. Some leaders may aggravate religious and political differences as part of their tactics for keeping or gaining power.

4. In the same way ethnic differences can cause conflict, or be made to cause it. Again, people's ethnicity gives them a sense of identity and belonging, and it is threats to this sense which can cause violent responses, just as individuals may lash out with angry words or gestures when they feel threatened.

Indeed, conflicts of all kinds most frequently arise when people feel threatened - regardless of whether the threat is real. It is harder to soothe and reassure people when they are frightened or angry.

Q. What examples of conflicts, local or national, can you think of which
(a) seem to have arisen from issues to do with resources?
(b) seem to have arisen from issues to do with management/authority/government?
(c) seem to have arisen from differences of belief?
(d) seem to have arisen from ethnic differences

Can you pick out from your list any examples where conflict has arisen because people feel, rather than think, that their identity is threatened? Are there any differences between this sort of conflict and the kind in which people deliberately organise themselves to struggle for resources or independence?

One particular sort of social and cultural conflict needs a paragraph to itself. This takes place within or across the boundaries of a community, nation or state, and is deep-rooted and long-lasting. It is most often the result of poverty, bad management, insecurity, injustice and a failure to meet the people's basic human needs. The groups in conflict see each other as a threat to society and culture, and as their aggression grows so does a cycle of violence that is particularly difficult to stop. Everyone mistrusts everyone else, and crime and lawlessness increase rapidly.

DISCUSSION/Q. What examples of this kind of conflict can you think of, local and national? (Perhaps you have experienced it yourself, and can tell your own story.) Try to work out the different points of view in one or more conflict that you have found out about or experienced, as fairly and impartially as you can.

NEXT: life-cycle of a conflict



underlying causes of conflict
life-cycle of a conflict
understanding peace
handling conflict short term
handling conflict long term


see also:
- nonviolence
- pacifism



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