What causes conflict
Trying to make sense of conflict means that we need to look at root causes of conflict. Each conflict situation is complex and unique but there is broad agreement among researchers that there are a number of factors that can cause or drive conflict. Getting to grips to these broad causes is important as they will provide us with an additional lens to analyse conflict situations where we may be asked to play Third Side Roles, giving us confidence to look beyond what is immediately in front of us and take a step back to see what other factors are involved (see iceberg diagram)
Conflict researchers often feel that the “presenting problem” (the issue at hand, possibly a recent flash point) are rarely the real problem and tend to look at the following as causes of conflict:
Conflict can occur when people’s needs, values, status or identity are threatened, compromised or are in competition with others (especially for limited resources to meet those needs or competing value bases).
Humans need a number of essentials to survive. According to the renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow and the conflict scholar John Burton, these essentials go beyond just food, water, and shelter. They include both physical and non-physical elements needed for human growth and development, as well as all those things humans are innately driven to attain.
Maslow’s initial theory is that people have different needs which can be ranked in a hierarchy from basic to higher aims. His theory is that basic needs motivate people to take action when they are unmet (and hence can be a cause of conflict as people use their power to try and meet these needs). The longer these needs go unmet, the stronger the drive- so the longer someone goes without food, the greater the hunger and drive to seek food.
Work on Maslow’s theory has expanded a list of human needs from five to eight, which are:
- Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep, etc.
- Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, etc.
- Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, affection and love, – from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.
- Esteem needs – self-esteem, achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, managerial responsibility, etc.
- Cognitive needs – knowledge, meaning, etc.
- Aesthetic needs – appreciation and search for beauty, balance, form, etc.
- Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.
- Transcendence needs – helping others to achieve self actualization.
Studies show that universal human needs appear to exist regardless of cultural differences; however, the concept of a hierarchy of needs has been disputed, or that people can only look to meet “higher” needs once basic needs have been met.
Values are deeply held beliefs-usually based on cultural traditions, long-held family and religious teachings and long-lasting memories of personal experiences. Values are often something we feel and know but find it hard to describe what they are or where they came from, and are often deeply-rooted in the unconscious part of our brain.
Given that non-conscious emotions are not directly controlled by our “rational selves” (or be even aware of where they come from) they are rarely open to change or persuasion. Asking someone to change their value-base doesn’t happen easily (or readily- unless a person is willing to examine their values and be open to change).
If conflict occurs based on values, for example on different concepts of good/bad, right/wrong, they are often very difficult to negotiate. Persuasive arguments in other conflicts are often based on shared values: if the parties in conflict don’t even agree on what is right or wrong, it makes it impossible for those parties to reason with each other.
Conflicts based on values (such as religious conflicts) often escalate and can become intractable. This is because there is not only a disagreement about the substance of a dispute, but they will often disagree about the appropriate method of dispute resolution or dispute management as well. Given the lack of agreement on both process and substance, parties involved in value conflicts tend to turn to force-based conflict options more often than negotiation or persuasive approaches, because force seems to be the only common language that both sides understand and honor.
Status is a social attribute, which is the standing or rank of a person in a social system. It can be earned (achieved status) or it can be inherited (ascribed status). Status is linked with stratification and hierarchy, and there is significant research to suggest that power, and specifically power over, relates to developing structures which perpetuate hierarchy.
Stratified organisations (communities, families, society) place people in positions based on their power to and power over. Conflict often occurs when people resist their place in this hierarchy (which could be based on class, gender or ethnicity).
Having a high status in an organisation means power and from that, privilege. A person of high status has greater access to resources to pursue their needs, which are seen as more important. A person of high status opinions, values, cultural norms and feelings are seen as of higher value due to the position they occupy in a stratified society. On a simplistic level, politicians’ opinions are constantly sought as they are assumed to have opinions “that matter”, regardless of their competence on the subject.
In highly stratified societies, depending on your gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age or ability your status is determined not by ability but on your identity or belonging to a specific dominant group. Many instances of conflict are matters of one group trying to promote equality in deeply unequal societies.
Identity describes who we are as a person and gives us a sense of place and belonging. When individuals’ identities are threatened or challenged through conflict, they respond in ways that reinforce their allegiance to these affiliations.
Identity is one of several fundamental human needs that underlie many intractable conflicts. Human needs theorists argue that conflicts over needs are fundamentally different from conflicts over interests, because interests are negotiable, whereas identities are not.
These conflicts triggered by identity occur when a person or a group feels that his or her sense of self–who one is–is threatened, or denied legitimacy or respect. One’s sense of self is so fundamental and so important, not only to one’s self-esteem but also to how one interprets the rest of the world, that any threat to identity is likely to produce a strong response. Typically, this response is both aggressive and defensive, and can escalate quickly into an intractable conflict.
Identity is the primary issue in most racial and ethnic conflicts. It is also a key issue in many gender and family conflicts, when men and women disagree on the proper role or “place” of the other, or children disagree with their parents about who is in control of their lives and how they present themselves to the outside world.
Identity conflicts can be especially difficult to resolve. The opponent is often viewed as evil–even nonhuman–and their views and feelings not worthy of attention. In addition, sitting down with the opponent can be seen as a threat to one’s own identity, so even beginning efforts at reconciliation can be extremely difficult. Nevertheless, identity conflicts can be moderated, or even reconciled if the parties want such an outcome and are willing to work for it over a long period of time.
Identity is one of the most important frames that influence how people frame conflict. This framing, in turn, influences how the individual will consider the merits of opposing arguments and positions on the conflict. When people view themselves as a part of a larger group, position, institution, or set of values, they will behave in ways that protect these markers of identity. Members of a particular cultural group with a strong shared identity are likely to operate from a frame that evaluates how a particular conflict will affect members of the larger group.