Understanding Conflict Dynamics and Violence


By Rajkumar Bobichand
We know that conflict is a relationship between two or more parties (individuals or groups) who have, or think they have, incompatible goals. Conflict is inevitable and part of life. It is fundamental to social change. Conflict must be constructively and creative used.

Accordingly, there is No Conflict in the relation of two or more parties of individuals or groups if their goals and behaviour are compatible. A common perception is that No Conflict is preferable. If this is the situation of a society, the society will not be lively and dynamic. Surely, the society must be a stagnant one, which no one wants. Without conflict, there cannot be change, development and progress in the society. Only when the conflicts of behaviour and goals are incorporated and creatively addressed, a group or society will endure.

When two or more parties of individuals or groups have compatible goals but incompatible behaviours, there is Surface Conflict. It has swallow or not roots and may be only a misunderstanding of goals. The misunderstanding of the goals can be addressed by means of improved communications and the conscious effort of opposing groups to understand each other’s needs and opinions.

Although the goals of two or more parties of individuals or groups are incompatible but they have the same compatible but non-violent behaviour, they have Latent Conflict. In this situation, the individuals or parties do not want to express their feelings outwardly due to some reasons. Most probably both the parties do not want confrontations or may not want to be enemies, or are too weak to express their feelings or rights or they may be subjugated by the power that rules over them or may be due to other reasons which cannot be easily identified. Latent Conflict is below the surface and it cannot be visible easily. The conflict may need to be brought into the open and intensified before it can be effectively addressed. If the conflict was not brought out into open and suppressed, it may wrongly be addressed and the conflict will recur more dangerously.

When the goals and behaviours of the two or more parties of individuals or groups are incompatible, there is an Open Conflict. It is both deep-rooted and very visible. It may be rooted over several generations. Open conflict can cause more physical, social, psychological and environmental damage than the other types. It affects people who are not directly involved in the conflict as well as those who are.

Each conflict is embedded in a wider system of relationships and structures – including those in the global system – that together form the wider context of the conflict. Sometimes the conditions that create conflict are directly linked to this wider context, yet the conflict is not openly expressed in conflict behaviour. All the parties either are not aware of them or are not pursuing an overt strategy to achieve their goals. Latent conflict typically exists when there is systematic inequality and injustice. A triggering event can occur that brings the conflict to the surface – sometimes through outbursts of violence.

We can take the analogy of an iceberg to have a better understanding of the structure of conflict dynamics. Only violent and open conflicts are visible as we can see just tip of the iceberg above the surface of the water. We cannot see the Latent Conflict beneath the surface as we cannot see the parts of the iceberg beneath the surface of the water.

Manifest Violent/Open conflicts are Warfare, Riots, Torture, Rape, Terror, Oppression, Abuse and Family violence etc. Examples of Latent Conflicts beneath the surface on one side – Attitude, Values and Feelings – are Hatred, Dehumanisation, Fear, Mistrust and Intolerance. Examples of Latent Conflicts beneath the surface of on another side – Context, Systems and Structures – are Systems of power based on Inequities (e.g., Racism, Sexism, Exclusionary nationalism; Denial of rights and liberties; Structural violence.

Conflict often emerges in situations where the power relationship between the main parties is unequal. Conflicts that occur both because of power imbalances are often called ‘Asymmetric’ Conflicts in contrast to a ‘symmetrical’ conflict situation where the parties are seen as roughly equal in their access to power and other resources, and attach similar levels of importance to the conflict situation.

Conflict is dynamic and it has its own life cycle, almost like something organic. It appears, reaches an emotional, even violent climax, then tapers off, disappears – and often reappears.  Johan Galtung describes the life-cycle of a conflict into three phases, before violence, during violence and after violence, separated by outbreak and ceasefire.

The logic is that – individuals and groups (such as Nations and States) have goals. Goals may be incompatible, exclude each other, like two states wanting the same land, or tow nations wanting the same state. When goals are incompatible a Contradiction, an issue, is born. Any actor/party with unrealized goals feels frustrated and more so the more basic the goal, like basic needs and basic interests (which will be discussed later). Frustration may lead to aggression, turning inward as attitudes of hatred, or outward as behaviour of verbal or physical violence. Hatred and violence may be directed toward the holders of the goals standing in the way, but it is not always that “rational”. Violence is intended to harm and hurt (including oneself), and may breed a spiral of counter-violence as defense and /or revenge.

Violence consists of actions, words, attitudes, structures or systems that cause physical, psychological, social or environmental damage and/or prevent people from reaching their full human potential (Fisher et al. 2000). Violence can be deeply structured into the system of relationships, within socio-economic and political arrangements, and even in the culture of a society and of a global system. Therefore, systemic violence can in turn be a root causes of conflict, as well a behavioural response to a specific conflict situation.

Johan Galtung (1969), a former Norwegian mathematician and one of the founding figures in the academic discipline of peace studies, made a clear distinction between Direct Violence, Structural Violence and Cultural Violence. These ideas are connected to his distinction depending on how it operates between three inter-related forms of violence (Direct-Structural-Cultural).

Galtung established the relationship among these three inter-related forms of violence: direct violence, structural violence and cultural violence. Direct violence is due to the conditions created by structural and cultural violence. Direct violence is often used in order to maintain a system characterised by structural violence. Cultural violence legitimises both structural and direct violence. It is therefore a crucial factor in generating and reproducing both. This implies the need to end direct violence by changing conflict behaviours, to end structural violence by addressing systems of injustice, and to end cultural violence by changing attitudes and the institutions that reproduce them. Processes aimed at conflict transformation recognise the significance of these related forms of violence and seek to change all of them to generate positive peace (which will be discussed later).

Violence is misunderstood by many people including public leaders and opinion makers, as conflict. But Violence is one of the possible responses to specific conflict situations. This does not imply that violence is unavoidable. Violence is inevitable and it must not be confused with conflict.


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