An alternative to conflict


Conflict is a major paradigm for all fields of contemporary social studies. It is a topic whose citation index is among the highest. It is also mass media’s daily bread, and a persisting headache for politicians and diplom ats. Its definition is a challe nge for academics. Its incarnation is often a tragedy comparable to black plague for millions of people worldwide. One will hardly succeed trying to explain them the theories that a “constructive violence” also exists, and that every war eventually accelerates progress. Yet, li ke it or not, conflict belo ngs to the few issues that “make the world go round”. In our age it al so makes the news of the day. “Conflict is a growth industry”, assure us conflict experts1.

The art and science of conflict resolution ha s already generated the amount of literature comparable to religious. Various handbooks teach us how to avoid, forecast, de-escalate, settle, transform, use, or just live in peace with c onflicts. Most people would like to develop these skills, but real-lif e situations, unlike those in the books, are usually elusive and subjectively disguised, and the tips often di sagree. One way to overcome this Babel was sought in creating a comprehensive and well substantiated conflict theory.

What is normally meant by conflict theory in scien tific writings, is either its partly or fully formalized version, or even an abstract mathem atical theory often derived from, or based on John von Neumann’s theory of games, to a limited exte nt applicable to signif icant fields of social life, or would rather represent a summarized acc ount of various conceptions pertaining to major types of conflict. Fully comprehensive conflict th eory is hardly expectable to emerge, but the already discovered regularities s hould make for more precise and unified definitions, and more adequate interpretation and use of terms. Still, neither of the existing theories has managed to sufficiently clarify the basic issu es that brought them to life, to the extent of making them applicable to people’s lives and decision-making.

It is very easy to theoretically imagine the c onflict situations releva nt to non-zero-sum games where ‘win/win’ or ‘lose/lose’ outcomes are possible, but it is extremely hard to upgrade your living to this elementary truth. Why does it happe n that judgments and ge neralizations jeopardize conversation, interpretations en force “black/white” (binary) thinking, lack of communication creates “enemy”, and simple othern ess grows into intolerance? Do “true” and “false” pictures of conflict really exist, or can their antagonism be overcome? It turns out that these (already) traditional issues of conflict studies are closely linked with the problems of systems analysis, philosophical logic, political psychology, and other fields of modern academic research. Many of the frequently used terms do not necessarily have to be used on the intuitive basis, as they already have clarified and precise meanings in the relevant fields of theoretical knowledge. Yet there are many others that have to be used in all of their obscu rity, or to be proven as empty signifiers. ‘Tender is the night’, an d ‘life is just a walking shadow’, but we ‘poor players’ have to make it signify something.

Conflict studies are remarkable in comprising both practical and theoretical aspects of the problem. The most reasonable way appears not in seeking a unive rsal formalized version of conflict theory, but in raisi ng the already conceptualized empirical/intuitive knowledge on conflict and related problems to the methodologi cal level of thought, rele vantly and correctly engraving theoretical elements, whenever required, into the evol ving generalized conception. On the other hand, the already accumulated and conc eptualized knowledge on conflict, violence, intolerance, and their perception in human society can significan tly upgrade our basic views of human nature, thinking, percep tion, and communication process.

Another distinctive feature of conflict studies is in thei r indispensable human dimension. Conflict situations have been studied at interpersonal, inte r-group, inter-organizational and international levels2, the latter being understood as interstate level (including most wars and violent conflicts that took place before 1990s). Th e former two appeared interesting mostly to social psychologists, the third to organizational behaviorists/developmentalists, and the fourth to political scientists. It so happened that the type of conflict that was goi ng to become an all-time front-page news and a globally pressing issue si nce 1980s, had altogether slipped the conflict researchers’ attention. These were (inter)ethnic conflic ts, often intertwined with other, no less complicated types. This largely happened because of the ideologies of both global political poles which had determined centrality of issues for th e bipolar world, and saw the issue of ethnicity in the world processes as dying off and finally doomed. No one could envisage the nationalist boom in the later years, as well as the coming politic ization of interethnic intolerance. In view of the sudden and catastrophic collapse of the Soviet empire, it was too easy to start to believe in “the end of history” or the coming “clash of civilizati ons” . Hopefully, the world is now retrieving from the shock caused by the crush of empires, and a somewhat less apocalyptic vision of remaining and emerging disputes is expectable.

Ethnically and/or religio usly induced violent c onflicts are frequently understood as outbursts of irrational character. Lacking th e power of explanation, such an approach in itself creates a conceptual barrier both to conf lict resolution and conflict preventi on. As the problem is always practical and painful, the approaches to it, whether rationalized or not, should lead to an implementable solution. Another problem is how to transcend inco mpatibility of the pictures of conflict on different sides. Again, the easiest but not best way would be to state an impossibility of a unified objective picture of a conflict, which would subjectivel y justify each of the parties, and maybe even invite them to further escalate the existing intolerance.

Considering all the crises that people have to li ve through, investigate, in stigate or overcome, it becomes obvious that people in most cases canno t really prevent or avoid ethnically induced conflict situations, and th e crucial problem is how quickly a nd efficiently they can get out of them with minimized harm. What makes a fundament al importance in prac tical applications of any conflict theory is not what a conflict situation (at any stage of its development) is, but what the actors think it is, i.e. the problem of conflic t understanding largely de pends on the problem of conflict perception. Awareness of a common problem, which in most cases precedes progress in negotiations, does not erode rigidity of the pictures of conflict ex isting for the actors. One way to deal with this problem is through issue, act or, game rule, or (synergizing) structural transformation of conflict, in the course of public peace proce ss or intervention in ‘natural’ developments . However, Des Cartes’s “Cogito ergo sum” might be a universal motto for resolvers of the intolerance-breeding conflict, th is gravest challenge to homo sapiens sapiens.