Conflict Theory, ‘Cause We Need It

People in the U.S. are not very good at being in conflict.

This is because, among other reasons, we are not taught about conflict. One of the consistent comments in the evaluations for my undergraduate Religion and Conflict course is “why don’t we all get taught this, and earlier in our educations?” In the spirit of the question, and for the sake of our collective future, I offer some key insights from conflict and peace studies.

  • “[C]onflict is normal in human relationships, and conflict is a motor of change.”[1] Because of the diversity of human living, conflict is inevitable. But conflict is not inevitably a negative phenomenon. Tension, contrast, and struggle can be catalysts for opportunity and growth. Unlike violence, which is always destructive, conflict is a motor that can drive us toward creativity or destruction; it depends on how we fuel it.
  • Different types of response are appropriate for different conflicts. There are at least five types of conflict responses, each of which may be appropriate depending on the issues and relationships involved: forcing (“my way”), collaborating (“our way”), avoiding (“no way”), accommodating (“your way”), and compromising (“half way”).[2] While collaboration and compromise are crucial to long-term processes, like say democracy, all five types have a place in the proverbial toolbox.
  • Asymmetrical conflicts require conscientization and confrontation. The conflict responses above presume some awareness that a conflict exists. This may not be the case when the imbalance of power is great. Those benefiting from the status quo have little interest, and perhaps little occasion, to learn about the conflict. Not only that, those suffering from the conflict may have internalized oppression to such an extent that they too need conscientization and confrontation. In this way of understanding conflict, oppression is static and seeking peace requires a dynamic situation.[3] Peace is not the absence of conflict.  Rather, peace is a state characterized by awareness and constructive approaches to conflict.
  • Positions can be distinguished from underlying interests and needs. If people are not necessarily focused on survival, that is, if there is some balance of power, then they can use strategies honed by mediators. People usually enter mediation with established, if not rigid, positions on the issues at hand. Focusing on irreconcilable positions gets them nowhere. To shift attitudes and behaviors, they need to ask themselves questions like “what do I (we) really care about?” and “what is really at stake?” This conversation may make it evident that there are several positions that might satisfy one’s interests. Once begun, this excavation may uncover shared basic human needs, like security and belonging, that are mutually reinforcing, instead of relatively scarce.
  • Ultimately, shared living (as opposed to oppression or mutual destruction) requires active humanization. It can be easy to mock, dismiss, revile, or scorn those with whom we are in conflict. To counter this temptation (which is too often presented as a necessity), we have to work to maintain images of adversaries and enemies as three-dimensional human beings. As satisfying as the caricatures and memes may be, we have to curb those images, if we plan to live together. One way to break free from a totalizing us-versus-them mentality is to relativize the present moment. We can situate ourselves in the “200-year present,” a social time and space that incorporates the lives of the very old and the very young around us.[4]
  • Identities are at the heart of most substantial conflicts. Whatever the content of a conflict, wherever we stand on the issues, an escalation of tension can disturb “the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.” Being in conflict can result in disquieting questions like: “Am I competent?” “Am I a good person?” “Am I worthy of love?”[5] When such self-reflection arises, we are invited to affirm or discover our own three-dimensional humanity: the sheer complexity of our intentions, behaviors, and histories.

In addition to this conflict theory, I leave you with two reminders.

  1. The arts are often more powerful than theory. Indirect modes of aesthetically-charged communication can convey meaning more effectively than prose. This is true for us and for those with whom we are in conflict. The arts can mobilize our base and theirs to be antagonistic. It is also possible that the arts can help us to relate to one another despite our respective rationales and soundbites.
  2. We cannot do any of this alone, despite some conflict theory’s tendency to use first-person pronouns. Manifesting these insights in our lives involves supportive relationships of one kind or another. Unfortunately, this proactive conflict stuff is hardest to do within our own social and familial groups. The theory does not give us a way to overcome this predicament; but, perhaps we can take courage from the fact that we are not alone in it.

Together these reminders bring to my mind a parody that I share with my Religion and Conflict course called “A Thanksgiving Miracle.” Since it’s about that time of year:

Heather M. DuBois is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College. She has a PhD in Theology and Peace Studies from the University of Notre Dame. She is writing a book, called Moving through Impasse, about intrapersonal transformation in situations characterized by constraint and incomprehension. 

Editor’s Note: This post is part of Daily Theology’s Symposium on Racism, White Supremacy, & the Church. Click here for more information or sign up for our email list below to be notified of new posts!

[1] John Paul Lederach, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (Good Books: 2003), 5.

[2] Ron Kraybill, “Personal Conflict Inventory,” Mennonite Conciliation Service (1986, 2000), drawing from the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument and David Augsberger. I made the image in this section by excerpting elements from an image in Kraybill’s inventory.

[3] Image: “The Progression of Conflict.” In Adam Curle, Making Peace (Tavistock Press, 1971).

[4] Elise Boulding developed practices related to the “200-year present” in her work on “imaging the future.” See, for example, Building a Global Civic Culture: Education for an Interdependent World (Syracuse University Press, 1990) and Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History (Syracuse University Press, 2000).

[5] Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (Penguin Books, 1999, 2010), 112.