Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Structural Theory of Conflict

The structural basis of conflict is a theory that attempts to explain conflict as product of the tension that arises when groups must compete for scarce recourses. On first glance, this theory would seem self-evident. We use group affiliations as evocative short hand when we describe some of the most intractable conflicts in history. Bourgeoisie vs proletariat, North vs South, Hatfields and McCoys, and blacks and whites. Lately, many commentators have explained that the suffering of those left behind during the flooding of New Orleans that accompanied hurricane Katrina were feeling the effects of “structural racism.” (Kid Oakland) Yet while this theory may seem self evident, it does not explain conflict universally, but actually only finds expression when certain environmental conditions are met. The structural theory of conflict fails to explain why some societies have rigid group identities and animosities, but no inter-group conflict; why other societies have seemingly homogenous groups who intermarry and share economic opportunities but seem to partition randomly and clash violently; and why other societies have groups which clash, but whose members flow between them over time. The structural theory of conflict is a snapshot that describes the condition of a society, but does not explain why conflict occurs within that society.

The theorists of structural conflict built their theories on their observations of societies. The theorists saw conflict, observed that conflict occurred among groups, and that groups have structures which define the groups. Karl Marx sees rigidly structured economies that had to be overthrow forcefully for the sake of fairer, yet differently structured societies. Weber believes that structures had to evolve peacefully to retain their legitimacy, or conflict would result. Darhrendorf sees structures causing conflict, but discerned substructures within society that could exert influence, or be influenced in ways that might vary from the reactions of society as a whole. Plato and the Founding Fathers of the United States also assert that societal structures caused conflicts and could resolve conflicts based on the traits of the structures. The common theme for these theorists is that the structure of society results in conflict.

Structural theory does have it usefulness. The theory provides a stark, clear explanation for conflict between groups which is always welcome when trying to make sense of chaotic events. It also provides a plausible explanation for a large agglomeration of social, economic and political vectors that influence groups that eventually collide in conflict. Simply put structural theory explains that group selection under primitive conditions may have led to the evolution of instincts favoring in-group cooperation and out-group hostility among humans (Field, p 5) and how that instinct has stayed intact even as man has layered “culture” on top of those primitive urges. Both these traits make structural conflict a good place to start more finely detailed studies of conflict.

The theory of structural conflict differs from the other theories of conflict causation in a couple of significant respects. Structural conflict denies the possibility that individual personalities in opposition cause conflicts. According to one commentator, Marx focused on relationships and not the individuals who have the relations: “The problems of individuals as such is not present in Marx, but they do appear as personifications, bearers of economic categories.” (Lee, p 87) Marx’s focus on relationships and as people only for their economic actions is in direct contradiction of the theories of Sigmund Freud. Freud argues that the individual, with his attendant psychology and psychoses, wants and desires, is the basis for all conflict in and between societies. Conflict is the result of individual behaviors. Some Freudians go even farther to argue that all conflict finds root inside the individual: “Psychoanalysis turns its back on social conflict; or more accurately, it brackets off social conflict, conflict between individuals, to highlight conflict within individuals.” (Forrester, p 72.)

The social process theory is something of a synthesis of the structural theory and the individual theory of conflict. Many criminologists seem particularly drawn to this theory. “[Some criminologists] believe criminality is a function of individual socialization and the interaction people have with the various organizations, institutions and processes of society…this view of crime is referred to the social process theory.” (Siegel, p 156.) The social process theory argues that good socialization and good behavior equates to low likelihood of conflict, bad behavior brings individuals into conflict with organizations within and without society.

The clarity and general applicability of the theory cannot obscure a fissure in structural conflict theory. The theory that “structure causes conflicts” begs the question; why do some groups with similar structures not have conflict with their neighbors?

A current example, and a historic example provide some insight into this question. Currently in Iraq, we see great animosity between two Islamic sects, the Shi’ite and the Sunni. The conflict between these two groups’ proximate cause is a “differing Sunni and Shiite conception of religious leadership.” (Zaloga, p. 178.) The differences between Sunni and Shiite in the current day are too legion to catalog. The violence resulting from these differences fills television news programs throughout the world; bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, murder. One group spawns killers to revenge those actions of the other group.

Yet as intractable and long standing as this conflict seems, there have been long periods of calm, albeit tense calm, between these groups. The calm cannot be attributed to leaders of the separate groups reaching some kind of d├ętente, rather, this calm was forced upon the parties by a stronger, outside force, Saddam Hussein. With Saddam ruthlessly enforcing his rule, any conflicts of which he did not personally approve, were not tolerated. He imprisoned, tortured and killed those who violated his mandates. Saddam’s ruthlessness had the effect of damping inter-group conflict.

There is nothing particularly unusual about a stronger force outside of two or more groups in conflict having the effect of ending the conflict Saddam is but the highest profile and most recent example of this trend. One need not look far to find other examples: Coalition forces ended sectional war in the former Yugoslavia. Southern whites violently opposed black children integrating Little Rock schools until President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to quash the conflict. In perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon, the states in the thrall of the Roman Empire around the time of Christ enjoyed the Pax Romana, a time when Rome forcefully put down not only uprisings against the power of the Empire, but also any squabbles between nations within the Empire. Given these examples, structural conflict can only occur when the competing groups have license in the absence of a dominant power.

But ignoring the role of a dominant power is not the only flaw in the structural theory. Identical groups with seemingly mutually intractable interests in one epoch can be observed peacefully coexisting in another. “Peace is the inertial or natural state to which societies revert when essential material needs can be cheaply supplied by non-violent means.” (Keeley, p. 15) What goes unsaid in that line is the point that Keeley makes later in the book, that material needs encompass a wide range of concerns, so as to mean effectively, anything that the group wants. Stephen LeBlanc, in his book, Constant Battles, observes that regardless of the climate, or what was being contested, “Australian Aborigines of the desert and the Eskimo of the Arctic had lots of war. Or the lush climate of Hawaii, warfare was endemic soon after it was settled.” (LeBlanc, p. 8.) But these wars were not necessarily wars between disparate groups, in fact, there is often little way to tell the competing groups apart. The Hawaiian people have the genes of people from cultures all over the world since the islands have been used for millennia as a stopping place during explorations. Haiwaiians are a melting pot for the whole world. Nonetheless, groups of Hawaiians have battle fiercely throughout history to satisfy the group’s own definition of “material interest.”

Structural theory also ignores the influence that powerful individuals have over the actions of the group. Freud enunciated the concept of the id and how the ego attempts to satisfy the needs of the id by directing aggression outward. Some individuals combine powerful drives with charismatic personality to which others are drawn. These individuals became what LeBlanc calls “the chiefs.” Chiefs competed personally to increase prestige, to capture more women, to have more material goods, and to defend their holdings from other ambitious, charismatic would-be chiefs. History is filled with examples of peacefully coexisting groups who suddenly erupt into conflict because of the ambitions of the “chief.” The Norman Invasion of 1066, Pizarro’s conquests, and the County Seat Wars cannot readily be explained by the structural theory, but fit neatly inside Freud’s analysis of the individual and LeBlanc’s observation of the influence of chiefs on the actions of the group.

Structural theory lacks a way to readily test its precepts. Structural theory argues that the individual identifies so strongly with the group, that his personality is sublimated to fulfill the desires of the collective. It would be a challenge to construct an ethical scientific test that includes a pair of groups with authentic structures that are testable and observable and which exist in opposition to one another. Structural theory, as enunciated by Marx, makes testing even more problematic. The theory, if expressed, would result in violence between the groups as one attempted to subjugate the other.

The structural theory of conflict makes sense, but only when conflicts are viewed from the broadest possible perspective, and only if the observer insists on ignoring alternate causes to the conflict. Once the observer catalogues real conflicts of real groups, compelling additional reasons for the conflict rapidly come to light. The unobservant, or the someone who only sees what he is predisposed to see, like Kid Oakland who could only blame the structures of racism for the plight of those left behind in New Orleans’ in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, ignoring alternate causes like poor planning and performance by government officials, unexpected levee failure and just bad luck. Kid Oakland and those who share is point of view might argue that animus arising from groups structured on racial lines caused the mayhem in New Orleans, but the truth seems to be more prosaic.

Field, Alexander J. Why Multilevel Selection Matters. Jena, Germany: Max Planck
Institute for Research into Economic Systems, 2004.
Forrester, John. The Seductions of Psychoanalysis. Cambridge, England: Cambridge
University Press, 1991.
Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization. Oxford, England: Oxford University
Press, 1996.
Kid Oakland, “Race and Racism.” Daily Kos. Saturday Sep 3rd, 2005 at 09:51:18 PDT.
LeBlanc, Stephen. Constant Battles. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2003.
Lee, Richard E. Life and Times of Cultural Studies: The Politics and Transformation of the Structures of Knowledge. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2003.
Siegel, Larry J. Criminology. Belmont, California: Thomas Wadsworth, 2005.
Zaloga, Steve Wayne. Histories of the Modern Middle East: New Directions. Boulder,
Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers Incorporated.

UPDATE: The professor graded this paper. He gave me a 33/33 and said the paper is first rate work.