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                    HEKIMA COLLEGE


Theory of Conflict

 Rev. Kifle Wansamo, sj

Subject: Understanding Causes of Conflict in Social Structure Theories

By Marius MUFUTA




            Conflict is a component of each society since the society itself is a field that grows up minorities’ general values, ideals and resources distribution. In assessing the causes of conflict, we may notice that the really organization of the society is the basis of conflict. By organisation we don’t firstly understand social classes which give the macro side of the society, but we see the fact that each individual is micro society in his own taking and in the interaction with others for common interests which can be political, economic, cultural, religious, ethnic differences, etc. The diversity of opinions, the self interest into group can create as well as a context of different perceptions which can lead to exclusion of one another. This can divide the society into classes and lead to social classes struggle. For some Scholars that social struggle has to be sometimes root causes of conflict. Jeong (2008, p. 43) argues that “managing and preventing conflict begin with understanding the sources of social struggle”.

      Social struggle emerges from social structure. To understand causes of conflict in the case of social structural theory, better is to realize the way the society is organized in terms of interests, understanding, ideology or beliefs, religious, racial, and ethnic differences (Schellenberg, 1996, p. 92). The Realistic point of view in this perspective include material scarcity, limited positions and objective situations which produce differences of interests and competing aspirations, (Jeong, 2008, p. 44). For non-realistic, “the sources of conflict have been relegated to either larger social structures (shaped by institutional relationships and value differences) or an internal psychological environment (Jeong, 2008, p. 44). For Mitchell, at an institutional, collective level, conflict is embedded in socio-economic conditions that put different groups in opposing positions (1981,  p. 44).

        Many theories analyse in different ways the causes of conflict based on social structure. That is why, before us moving to the consideration on the disadvantages and merits of the social structural theories, we want to have a look through some approaches. The first approach, which is psychologist, will try to understand the concepts of structure, perception and society. The second approach will focus on Marxism in order for us to provide a real example of social struggle classes. To complete this analysis, Max Weber’s approach should be considered as a holistic view of social struggle in healing limited Marxism’s approach.


“Conflict is an expressed struggle between at least two interdependent parties who perceive incompatible goals, scarce resources, and interference from others in achieving their goals” (Wilmot & Hocker, 2011, p. 11). The implementation of those goals can escalate conflict since parties are acting in diverse and different ways.

This may contribute to the breakdown of relationships among individuals and groups. The escalation of conflict is determined by deep (roots) causes or superficial causes divided in diverse areas and take into an account degrees and levels of conflict. Besides the intrapersonal level where the interaction is a struggle within the person, other degrees and levels consider the dimension of social interaction:  incompatibility of goals between two individuals, two groups, and two or more than two states. The grievances to lead in such misperception between two parties arise sometimes from the distribution of the resources, the position and values, social and political structures.

        In his theory of human needs, Burton has divided incompatibility of goals in three areas: Needs, values and Interests Those factors set up boundaries of the human activity and underline the component of social interactions. Needs are universal motivations as an integral part of the human being and can never be broken. They relate to growth and human development (Burton, 1990, p. 36).  According to him “the needs will be pursued by all means available because they are inherent to human being. In ontological terms, the individual is conditioned by biology or by a primordial influence and needs form the nature of being, inherent becoming and permanent existing. They are innate and universal since each individual want to protect them. By this fact, the misperception of needs is not trading because of the inherent stand for survival and development (Burton, 1990 p. 39). The intra-relation within the individual is sustained by the principle of being. During the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, some of those needs have been recognized as inalienable rights since they are inborn: the right of life, right to freedom and right to personal security (UDHR, Art. 3).

        The second area circumscribes values. Values are those ideas, habits, customs, beliefs and characteristic of particular social communities (Burton, 1990, p. 37). They are determined by the environment and social interactions in religious, cultural, political, and economical spheres. The interaction between individuals in those spheres is sustained by a specific conviction of belonging or being placed under the principle of reference or belonging to a tradition. This includes linguistic features, religious features, class, ethnic or other features that lead to separate cultures and identify groups (Burton, 1990, p. 37). Upon this area, the incompatibility of goals occurs in conditions of oppression, discrimination, under privilege and isolation of one identity or group. When a group is misplaced, without physical references or traditional heritage, conflict occurs in terms of recognition or replacement. In Galtung words, such fact is cultural violence. This is the case in some African States after the post-period of long war. The increasing of refugees who have lost their land and who want to rediscover them may lead to protracted conflicts (case of ethno-territorial conflict in the east of DRC, in Sudan, in Nigeria, even in Somalia).

        The third area is interests. They refer to the occupational, social, political and economic aspirations of the individual, and of groups of individuals within a social system. They are transitory and they are not in any way an inherent part of the individual since they are acquired. Somehow it relates to material goods in terms of incomes. Interests force individuals to find ways of implementing needs and values. As well as we shall see, interests constitute the driving force of the society when it means deeply economic interest. Individuals seek to possess and maximize their interest therefore the principle of possession constitutes the basis of this era. The three principles gave the wide board of the occurrence of the incompatibility of goals within the society in intergroup level and international or interstate level. Each individual, each group want to be, to belong to and to possess. Those principles are basic aims which form even if the structure of society individuals act and interact.


Social structure set of crystallized social relationships which its members have with each other which places them in groups and which relates them to the major institutional activities of the society, such as economic and occupational life, religion, marriage and the family, education, government, and recreation (Gordon, 1964,  p. 30). Social evolution and stagnation depend always on this structure.  Jeong (2008, p. 54) argues that “when structures fashion a situation of competition for power and status, conflict becomes cyclical, inherent, and endemic in social relations. The fragmentation and polarization of all interests reflect structural divisions, rooted in different social categories such as religion, language, and ethno-political affiliations. It refers to the interaction between individuals regardless of the principles that we have mentioned above.  


This approach assesses the concept of structure. It connects two main elements: the diversity of perception (i.e. the way each individual, each group create his own world) and ultimate structure (needs, interests, values) of this word (FLOYD, 1955). Structure is an organization of perceptions; an articulation in which once you remove an element within, all the structure is broken. The perception helps to form the reality. In the context of conflict,   the structure is what each individual try to put into order to form the reason of his existence and what’s necessary for him and become is basic needs. Then if you interfere to his perception a clash may occur. Perception is a fact our feelings. Feelings determine our attitude and behaviour. We have noticed in Galtung triangle that attitude and behaviour are key elements of the structure of conflict. The difference of perceptions which forms the individual word view is the main cause of conflict (FLOYD, 1955, p. 15). These perceptions are related to the whole factors in which human activity is driven.


Marxism refers to theory of Karl Marx. Marx is recognized as a social, an economic, and a political scholar. His ideas were influenced by the Hegelian idealist conception of history turned “up-side down” or “back upon its feet” (Tucker, 1969, pp. 6-9). According to Hegel, The history goes buy three steps of contradictions from thesis-antithesis-synthesis. This History is considered as man’s ‘’act of becoming”. Taking it in their account, Marx and Fredrick Engels have published in 1848 “The Manifesto of Communist Party” to blame the capitalism system in some states, particularly the Russian system of ruling. In his book, Capital, Marx underlines the assumption of history made by man and evolving through revolutions, the historical materialism. This revolution is within the structure of the society.  He understands by the structure of the society the relation between class forces or dynamics through history. “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Marx & Engels, 1842, p. 15). The bourgeoisie form the superstructure of the society and the proletarians, the lower class.  Classes are the central factor in historical and social change of the society, even the key to understanding contemporary society. For Marx, history is the growth-process of humanity from the primitive beginnings to complete maturity and self-realization in future communism (Tucker, 1969, p. 9). The history has moved from the primitive communism to slave society, from slave society feudalism, from feudalism to capitalism, and shall move from capitalism to socialism and the communism shall be last stage (www.marxists.org ). Each stage has been determined by its mode of production.  During the Slave society, classes have emerged thus struggle between classes became overt. In his words, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.  Freeman and slave [...] in a word, oppressor and oppressed, [...]now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx et al., 1842, p.  14). In relaying this statement to the historical context of class evolvement, for Marx, conflict is natural, part of the history and the society. “As long as these differences exist, conflict along class lines will continue” (Galtung, Jacobsen, & Brand-Jacobsen, 2002,  p. 81).

According to Marx, social classes are based on the general structure of economic relations. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society which is the real foundation, and within rise legal, religious, economic and political superstructures. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. The cause of conflict rises from the social structure based on socioeconomic injustice.  This socioeconomic injustice is a consequence of the history of class struggle (Schellenberg, 1996, p. 80). Conflict is the interaction of productive forces (the workmen and those who own the means of production) and production relations (the way that result of those production relations interacts). The productive activity (the material production) is the constitutive factor of the society. The basis of the society is the social relations of production which lead to conflict. Specifically, property relations between the immediate producers and those who, by virtue of their ownership and control of the means of production, have been able to appropriate the producers’ surplus product as private property: Slaves and owners in ancient society; serfs and landowning nobles in feudal society, proletarians and capitalists in modern bourgeois society.  Each set had a specific form of the division of labour in production (Marx & Engels, 1951, p. 363). For Marx there is unfair situation in the distribution of the income following the law of the division of labour which lies at the division into class. The labour constitutes the primary component of the material life of society. It is the activity which people devote to the production of the necessities and comforts of their life-hood, clothes, housing, etc. This activity is an eternal natural necessity, an essential condition on which the very existence of society depends (Dutt, 1961). The result of this labour is on the disadvantage for lower class which really is dominated. In quoting Galtung, Marx opens the way for understanding the systems and explaining social and economic inequalities as resulting from differences in control of the means of production (Galtung et Al., 2002, p. 81). The lower class is exploited and by the fact marginalized and des-socialized from the real economic activity of the society.

To stop this unfair situation, Marx has suggested a revolution to lead to the collapse of Capitalism system by overproduction with a greater period of economic chaos and the arising of the socialism (social ownership and control of the main means of production) by a political revolution. This revolution is a social, an economic, a technological, a political, and a legal and ideological phenomenon in order to breakdown the oppressed capitalist system. This revolution will give born to a new form of organisation, socialism which further stage is Communism.  The aim of this society is “to organize society in such a way that every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society” (Marx et al., 1842, p.  37). Marx with his fellows wants to move from unequal society to classless society when everyone can enjoy freely the income of the labour. This short analysis of Marxism targets the cause of conflict on scarcity of resources or gains. His perspective sees only the economic side as the basis of the struggle within the society; this fact can be a limit of Karl Marx philosophy.

Max Weber

Weber makes a great critic of capitalism system. He perceived capitalism as great individual understandings, involving the control of large financial resources, and yielding riches to their masters as result of speculation, money-lending, commercial enterprise, buccaneering and war, is old as history (Weber, 1930, p. I). In his task, Weber demonstrates the relationships between economic forces and the rest of society (Schellenberg, 1996, p. 75). The question in which Weber attempts to answer is simple and fundamental. It is that the psychological conditions which made possible the development of capitalist civilization? Weber noticed that the capitalism system emerged as social counterpart of Calvinist theology based on rational, spiritual and ethic activity, thus capitalism has an ethic and spirit. A really Fight against this system has to begin by denying all spiritualism into the system. For Marx conflict is more the value of economic relations than the spiritual word. By contrast, Weber gives a holistic view of the conflict. He agreed that conflict was based on distribution of resources but it is neither the total picture of conflict within society but nor the fundamental cause.

Weber tries to include noneconomic factors. In the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber offered a different understanding of the Labour. According to him, labour is not merely an economic means: it is a spiritual end, in the service of rational organisation for the provision of humanity with material goods (Weber, 1930,  p. 76). This is to say within capitalism, the economic factor is not the fundamental component for the social structure, but the social ethic (Weber, 1930, p.54). The social structure is composed by three elements (1) Economic wealth or power which formed the basis of classes. (2) Social reputation and prestige, which formed the basis of status groups. (3) Political power, which formed the basis of political groups parties and interest of groups. Only on the first part we can see similarity with Marx. According to Weber, there is a potential independence between noneconomic aspects and economic criteria. Those noneconomic factors contribute to the occurrence of conflict. Going in the same line with Marx, there is a need of revolution which may take in account all the factors mentioned.

Social structure theory in contemporary society

In the twenty first century emerged a wide type of social structure based principally on ideologies. We know that the ideology of modern society is discredited by an “awareness gap” established by our spiritual values as well as intellectual, political and economic which are conducted from a fight that soothes minorities. The situation did not positively change from Marx generation to nowadays society. The revolution suggested by Marx had failed and the spirit of capitalism has taken many forms. After the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet Union, Globalization has inaugurated a century of interstate relations founded in the relationship between states within the expansion of the global village. If the social structure of Marx and Weber was well-defined by the boundaries of micro-society (intra-society), those boundaries are broken today by the evolution of technology in the macrocosmic level (intersociety). The flow of such brokenness is affecting relations between nations. A new maxim of class struggle has risen based on the interests between superpowers states and weak states. Globalization covers another kind of economic colonialism in small countries or undeveloped. We see directly this deep hole hollowed out in the modern society by Western imperialism. The profound gap they have been created confirms this new configuration over the world: North countries – South countries; developed countries -underdeveloped countries; industrialized country – unindustrialized countries, and so one. There is a sort of mistreatment. Big economic lobbies are leading this conflict. As Jeong have argued that “many issues beneath structural tensions in the twentieth century signify antagonistic relationships between rival political and economic systems” (2008, p. 126).

The standpoint of the crisis in the contemporary society can be perceived like the problem of resources (the interest of superstructure) and the struggle of leaderships among weak countries (masterly in Africa). The new gap arises from the global system makes the relations between states asymmetric since weak states cannot ensure their own protection. Moreover, we know that this marginalization dates from the clash of civilizations. In assessing conflict within the social structure, we can also and critically refer on the different periods of African evolution.  Many cultures have been denied during the period of slavery, colonialism and today neo-colonialism with those effects of globalization.   That is to say that the fact of globalization and the possibility of cooperation in international system contrast with the expression of real needs and values of specific culture. In the same line with Burton, we may say that frustrations arising from the removal or non-recognition of needs or values in a specific culture are the core of contemporary domestic policy and international problems.



Regardless of the debate above, the causes of conflict in the social structure are sensitive. The management of such conflict needs more skills to handle otherwise they man turn on intractable or protracted conflicts.  All those different and analyzed approaches proposed a solution to handle such conflict. Most of them call upon revolution to set an equal society and to end the culture of discrimination. For Marx, the kingdom of communism after the reign of evil capitalism is perceived like the stage of a balanced society. In the contemporary society, the social change is led in international level towards but the win-win game. International corporations and superpowers dominate the underdog countries and make them entirely independent. The relation which is supposed to be symmetric in power and means is turned up on the benefits of some parties; it has created a structural violence which promotes marginalization, alienation, exploitation, and discrimination of weak states in the international level. To break this inequality there is need of a real revolution as violent action to break those established structures then to look for sustainable peace and eliminate class differences and found society on social, economic, civil and political equality allowing for freer development of a more human society (Galtung et al., 2002, p. 81).


By considering the respect of different perceptions and different goals, a question can be asked if it is possible to set an equal society. While the existence of a society is unity in diversity. By protecting individual perception or goals, the consequence is the settlement of relativism. Such society may suffer from of lacks of common ground, common interest, and common destiny since truth is relative, God is relative, wrong or right is relative; there is not any universal reference.

In relation to the de-escalation of a conflict, social structures promote the necessity of revolutions or some violent actions to change the structures. However by considering the destructive dimension of those actions, there is no way to go through revolutions in order to establish peace.  A peace settled by violence could no longer be a perpetual one. Violence creates some latent grievances. According to Kant peace is perpetual. Thus the hope of conflict resolution is a settlement of such “lasting peace”. We were wondering if a violent action is always by the way to bring a peace without new grievances to be manifested in the future. Because those who were hurt or molested by the first end, may look for an opportunity to revenge. In this case, the end of conflict is the beginning of another therefore today’s victims are tomorrow’s murderers.



  1. Burton, J. W. (1990). Conflict Resolution and Prevention.New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
  2.  Dutt, C. (Ed.). (1961). Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism: Manual. Moscow: Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing.
  3. FLOYD, H. A. (1955).  Theories of perception and the concept structure, JOHN WILEY & SONS, INC.
  4. Galtung, J., Jacobsen, C.G & Brand- Jacobsen, K. F. (Eds.). (2002). Searching for Peace. The Road to Transcend.  London: Pluto Press in association with TRANSCEND.
  5. Jeong, H-W. (2008). Understanding conflict and Conflict Analysis. Los Angeles: SAGE Publication Inc.
  6.  Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1842). The Manifesto of Communist Party.
  7. Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1951). Selected Works. Moscow  : Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing House.
  8. Mitchell, C.R. (1981). The Structure of International Conflict. London: McMillan.Schellenberg, J. A.  (1996). Conflict Resolution: Theory, Research, and Practice. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  9. TUCKER, R.C. (1969). The Marxian Revolutionary Idea. New York, NY:  W.W.NORTON & COMPAGNY. INC.
  10. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Retrieved from www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml.  2/10/2013.
  11. Weber, M. (1930). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  12. Wilmot, W. W. & Hocker, J. L. (1998).  Interpersonal Conflicts (5th ed.).  Boston: McGraw Hill.
  13. www.marxists.org


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