Conflict Theory

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Conflict Theory
A. Oberschall

This essay covers three broad topics. First, there has been renewed debate about human nature and the roots of intergroup violence and warfare in evolutionary biology, in psychology, and in anthropology. The “ordinary man” hypothesis explains why and how humans justify and participate in violence and atrocities. Second, in addition to interstate wars, political scientists have been studying insurgencies, ethnic cleansing, civil wars, genocide, ethnic riots, and other modes of violence called “new wars.” Based on hundreds of case studies, comparative research and large quantitative data sets, they have theorized about the root causes and dynamics of these conflicts, and about prevention, deterrence, conflict management, and peace making. Third, the social movement and collective action field in sociology developed a mobilization theory for explaining why and how relatively powerless groups confront regimes, how the dynamics of confrontations escalate to civil strife, what outcomes result, and whether violence was necessary for change. All three research traditions contribute insights and findings for conflict theory. In the conclusion, I argue that a theory of conflict should integrate group with state/regime centered analysis (micro with the macro), give more weight to dynamics than to root causes, and make conflict management an equal partner with violent conflict.

The psychologist Robert Hinde writes that (1997) “Certain behavioral propensities, including the capacity for aggression, are common to virtually all humans. This does not mean that they are genetically determined …humans have a capacity to be both aggressive and altruistic…the behavior shown depends on a host of developmental, experiential, social and circumstantial factors.” Although sociobiologists assume that genes exist for specific behavioral dispositions, like “self-sacrificial bravery in warfare” (Tiger and Fox 1971), no such genes have been identified, and behavior in warfare and group conflict situations has been explained in other terms. For example, Jews in Nazi Europe put up little resistance to the Holocaust. Were they genetically lacking in self-sacrificial bravery in warfare? The Jews who emigrated to Palestine belonged to the same gene pool, yet fought aggressively and successfully for the creation and defense of the state of Israel in 1946–1948 and in subsequent wars. Helen Fein (1979) has explained the lack of resistance during the Holocaust with a gradual entrapment model of the Jews by the Nazis. It started with the legal definition of Jew, followed by stigmatization, K.T. Leicht and J.C. Jenkins (eds.), Handbook of Politics: State and Society in Global Perspective, Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research, © Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010



A. Oberschall

stripping of citizenship and property, segregation from nonJews, isolation in ghettos, and ending in labor and extermination camps. These differences in the behavior of Jews cannot be explained by sociobiology. Controversy on the biological versus cultural dimensions of human nature compares primate social organization and behavior with those of preliterate, low technology human communities (Rodseth et al. 1991). Compared to primate mating, humans have marriage and kinship. In human bands, there is a relative absence of male dominance and hierarchy, and more equality among adult males on resource sharing, sex, and leadership. Systematic violence between closed social groups is rare. Avoidance is the dominant mode of conflict management among simple foragers. In summary, according to Bruce Knauft et al. (1991), “Simple human societies constitute a major anomaly for models which propose evolutionary similarity between great apes and prestate human patterns of violence.” There are differences among archeologists and anthropologists on human warfare in prehistory (Keeley 1996). According...
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