Understanding Conflict, part 2: The Social Dimension

When considering social conflict, one must surely acknowledge the work of Edward Azar, who put forward the notion of protracted social conflict, defining it as

“the prolonged and often violent struggle by communal groups for such basic needs as security, recognition and acceptance, fair access to political institutions an economic participation.” (Qtd. in Ramsbotham, et al, 99)

For Azar, contemporary social conflicts revolve primarily around communal identity and the deprivation of human needs. Some, though, contest or supplement Azar’s theory. Homer-Dixon, for example, looks at conflicts over resource scarcity. Collier claims that greed rather than grievance, as Azar believed, is a more common player in major contemporary violent conflict. Essentially, Collier’s argument asserts that economic incentives and the desire for power and control lie at the root of violent conflict far more often than do people’s unmet needs. Yet, whether through greed or grievance, the result is often the same: social disparity.

Dialogue for Peaceful Change (DPC) has developed a model it calls FEARS, which attempts to highlight humanity’s most dominant and influential cultural trends. The model identifies five major forces of societal orientation: Freedom, Economics, Alienation, Rivalry, and Scapegoating. Particularly in Western societies where capitalism rules, success is measured by markers like large paychecks, nice cars, beautiful houses, letters after a name, expensive fashion choices, etc. The freedom and economic possibilities to do as one wishes places one on the top of the social hierarchy. As DPC aptly observes, “the deep cultural myth about the nature of this form of success … is that it is something that everyone not only can aspire to but also achieve” (DPC, 26).[1] Not only is this indeed a falsehood, but it creates a culture of competition that fosters alienation and rivalry in which “I win when you lose.”

In his book From Violence to Blessing, Vern Redekop relates such rivalry to Rene Girard’s notion of mimesis, or imitation. We model and define ourselves in relation to others. When we perceive the other (or the Model) desiring something, then we desire that something as well. Take for instance a child who did not want to play with a toy until his sister picked it up. Redekop writes: “If the object of desire is a zero-sum commodity – the more one has the less the other has – mimetic desire leads to frustration as the Model becomes the Obstacle to acquiring what is desired” (See Redekop, 61-83). In societies with strong social hierarchy, like the U.S., this often produces violence as the Obstacle is removed or becomes a scapegoat (see more below).

Within this culture of competition, life becomes a race, but not one of equals. Some are crippled before the race begins; others start numerous laps behind. To say that everyone can succeed equally, for example, in competitive Western societies is akin to saying that everyone should finish a twelve-lap race simultaneously, even if some start the contest ten laps behind. In short, with competition comes disparity, and with disparity comes conflict.

Economic Inequality and Homicide Rate

In their international bestseller The Spirit Level, researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate the costs of social inequality, looking at such aspects of society as community life, mental health, drug abuse, life expectancy, obesity, teenage pregnancy, incarceration, and violence. In their chapter on violence, they illustrate the strong correlation between violence and income equality, both worldwide and in U.S. states. With very few exceptions, as inequality increases so does violent crime (135). The reason, psychiatrist James Gilligan claims, is “shame.”

Gilligan concludes, after extensive experience directing psychiatric services in Massachusetts prisons, that

“the basic psychological motive, or cause, of violent behavior is the wish to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame and humiliation … and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride” (Gilligan, 29).

In societies of social hierarchy, the “lower” classes tend to be seen as inferior in some way.[2] The feelings of shame and unwilled inferiority can compel people to violence. When violence occurs, it is often directed toward a scapegoat – that is, an outsider, the other, who is perceived to be responsible for the problems plaguing the victimized group. Gilligan notes how adults who were abused as children often use their own children as a type of scapegoat:

“…my colleagues and I found that  … [even prisoners who were not physically abused as children] had experienced a degree of emotional abuse that had been just as damaging: being focused on as the parents’ emotional ‘whipping boy,’ in which they served as the scapegoat for whatever feelings of shame and humiliation their parents had suffered and then attempted to rid themselves of by transferring them onto their child” (36).

Whether an accurate perception or not, the scapegoat function is powerful as – in a social conflict, for instance – the perception of a common enemy can unify a people. Mindfulness of the reality and prevalence of scapegoating, whether micro- or macrocosmically, is crucial in understating appropriate responses to conflict. The next post, I will look at a few conflict responses.

Works Cited

Dialogue for Peaceful Change. Training of Facilitators, 3rd ed. Belfast and Ballycastle: Unpublished, 2011.

Gilligan, James. Preventing Violence. New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc., 2001.

Redekop, Vern Neufold. From Violence to Blessing: How an Understanding of Deep-Rooted Conflict Can Open Paths to Reconciliation. Ottawa: Novalis, 2002.

Wilkinson, Richard, and Kate Pickett. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, 2nd ed. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

[1] See also Gilligan, Preventing Violence, 44ff.

[2] Gilligan writes, “…the Latin for lower is inferior, and the word for the lower classes in Roman law was the humiliores. Even in English, the poor are sometimes referred to as the humbler classes. Our language itself tells us that to be poor is to be humiliated and inferior, which makes it more difficult not to feel inferior” (45).


  1. Neil Christy says:

    The Franciscan Richard Rohr, a prolific author and lecturer, often speaks of the “us vs. them” mentality which so permeates today’s society. It appears early and often: sports (team and individual), religion (“we’re righht, everyone else is a heretic and going to Hell”), political (“right” vs. “left” – at it’s conflict peak now), national (USA – God’s elect nation vs. the rest of the world), and the list goes on and on. Rohr attributes this to a “lower state of consciousness” which see’s everything as black and white. In a “higher state of conscious” “everything belongs” (the title of one of his early books) and life is viewed as “grey.” In his recent book “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life” he states that the “first half of life” is to develop/create the “container” or structure – “ego identity.” The second half of life (not speaking chronologically rather spiritually) fills the “container” with “content.” He quotes the Dalai Lama, “Know and obey the rules very well, so you will then know how to break them properly.” And finally, he quotes Ken Wilbur, “The classic spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian. Always!” I guess you can say there is a spiritual dimension to conflict as well.

    • Thanks for sharing this Neil. I really like Rohr’s stuff. I’m reading one of his books right now. And I am intrigued with the ideal of a spiritual dimension to conflict. Perhaps I can do a later blog post on that…

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