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Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Societal Conflicts and How They Can be Resolved

Article by: Nicole Deitelhoff and Cord Schmelzle with edits by Release Peace

This article was published as part of a cooperation with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), one of Europe’s leading peace & security think tanks. It is based on this article by Nicole Deitelhoff and Cord Schmelzle.

The Images we Associate with Conflict

The very notion of conflict conjures images of hostility, heated arguments, and societal fracture. In a world striving for peace and unity, conflict often seems like the enemy. However, a closer look reveals a surprising truth.

According to this article by Nicole Deitelhoff from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF) and Cord Schmelzle from the Research Institute Social Cohesion (RISC), conflict, when managed effectively, can be a powerful tool for social integration and progress. This article will look at how conflict, even as it creates tension, can strengthen a society’s fabric and be a surprisingly powerful force for social integration.

What Do Conflicts Tell us About Society?

Social integration can be defined as the acceptance of and conformity with a social order by members of a larger society. This definition does not assume that everyone agrees strongly on what is right or shares deep trust or identity. Instead, it is about people generally observing established rules that enable social coordination and cooperation. If we understand social integration as the acceptance of and conformity with social order, then conflict becomes a disruptive force. Conflict, understood as situations in which the attitudes and behaviour of two or more social entities towards each other are altered, seems more likely to disrupt rather than maintain the current order.

Conflicts can be interpreted as an indicator that the current distribution of resources, rights and recognition is not met with universal approval. They show that the corresponding interests, ideologies, and identities of the conflicting parties are, at least at present, mutually exclusive. For others, conflicts are also causes of social disintegration. They change the emotional and cognitive attitudes between parties, challenge the validity of shared norms and institutions, and entail a considerable risk of escalating into intergroup violence.

Rethinking Conflict

This sceptical perspective towards the integrative power of conflict may be misleading for two reasons. First, it ignores the productive potential of conflicts, highlighted in the sociology of conflict. In this tradition, conflict is seen as a force that, under the right conditions, has the potential to create and stabilise social bonds rather than one that impedes or threatens them. Even adversarial conflicts create social relations by compelling the actors to relate to one another and thus perceive themselves and others as part of a common social world. Conflict can contribute to social integration by constituting a shared social space and providing the means of shaping it. According to this view, social orders can be stabilised by a series of necessary provisional agreements about the conditions of co-existence that can and will be regularly contested and updated through conflicts.

Intragroup Integration Through Conflict

When social groups enter into conflict with one another, the confrontation between them usually increases the social integration within each respective groups (intragroup integration). A number of interlocked mechanisms are responsible for this integrative function of conflicts at the intragroup level. Conflicts help to create groups by causing agents to adopt group identities. For many people, conflicts can establish a subjective awareness of group membership or at least reinforce it.

The Role of Group Identity in Conflict Dynamics

This identification with a group can generate a desire in its members to raise the group’s status. This way, the self-esteem of group members is linked to the success of the group as a whole. Groups that feel they are in competition or threatened by others are more likely to establish strong leadership and enforce rules more strictly among their members. This suggests that conflicts have themselves a remarkable potential for generating group cohesion, at least in part irrespective of the underlying reasons for conflict.

Intergroup Integration Through Conflict

The positive impact of conflict does not only concern how different groups are in opposition to each other, like workers vis-à-vis employers or neighbours vis-à-vis each other. It is more about how conflicts affect everyone’s overall acceptance of society’s rules. While intense conflicts like labour negotiations might strain relationships between workers and employers, they could still make people overall more accepting of society’s rules. However, this raises the question: If conflict strengthens group identity and fosters competition between groups, does it not ultimately lead to societal fragmentation?

Managing Conflict: Mechanism 1

The answer lies not in eliminating conflict altogether, but in managing it effectively. Democracies offer a framework for achieving this balance. The first mechanism is conflict dilution through the pluralisation of conflicts. The idea is that in deeply divided conflicts, the real problem is not too much conflict but too little of it: Society is at risk because two strongly united sides are battling each other on every issue. If we introduce smaller conflicts that are limited in scope and involve different groups, it can reduce the threat to the overall social order.

Managing Conflict: Mechanism 2

The second mechanism is conflict embedding. By creating systems where conflicts can be addressed, societies allow people to express their different interests, ideas, and identities. This way political activism, protests, and public debates are not seen as tearing society apart, but rather as important parts of democracy and valuable contributions to society.

Managing Conflict: Mechanism 3

The third mechanism describes conflict as the ability to adjust social norms to the needs of the members of society, either by reforming or transforming them. Sociologist Lewis Coser in particular has pointed out this function. Norm appropriation is when regular people, without official power, change what norms mean or create new ones through their actions. This shows how conflicts can lead to new political ideas and social changes in societies.

Embracing Conflict for Integration

Conflicts are an unavoidable part of any open society. The integration of societies can therefore only succeed if we learn to use and regulate conflicts in a socially productive way. Despite its disruptive nature, conflict, when managed effectively, can be a powerful tool for social integration. By embracing conflict, it is possible to foster a stronger, more adaptable society.

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