What is Conflict?

One typical habit in conflict is to give very high priority to defending one’s own interests. If Cain’s interests clash with Abel’s, Cain is inclined to ignore Abel’s interests or actively to damage them. Leaders of nations are expected to defend the national interest and to defeat the interests of others if they come into conflict. But this is not the only possible response.”

The above quote denotes that conflict is a state of affairs characterized by a clash of goals. Such goals might start as primary goals (needs, wants, values, and or, beliefs). When the primary goals of different entities clash, it inevitably creates a degree of insecurity that in turn leads to a further accentuation of these needs by transforming them to become “important interests”, hence creating secondary goals (the interests). This process of escalation often leads to the formation of tertiary goals (positions).

In this view, a conflict starts from simple differences, then develops into a subjective attitude of insecurity and antagonism, and finally matures into abnormal behavior (direct violence) or abnormal relationships (indirect violence).

This aforementioned theory of conflict was developed by Johan Vincent Galtung (born 24 October 1930), a Norwegian sociologist, and one of the principal founders of the discipline of peace and conflict studies. Galtung (1969; 1996, 72) came up with a model called the “Conflict Triangle Model” exploring the basic causes and the consequences of conflicts. He argued that the anatomy of a conflict phenomenon consists of three dimensions, namely, a contextual dimension, an attitudinal dimension, and finally, a behavioral dimension.

What is the “Conflict Triangle”?

Contradictions arise in the context dimension which entails an actual or perceived incompatibility of primary goals (needs, wants, values and beliefs). At the initial level of conflict, the contextual dimension of the conflict is characterized by the mismatch of the primary goals of the conflict actors (Individuals, organizations, or nations). At this basic level, the conflict is natural, latent, inevitable, and perfectly normal.

For example, if two neighboring farmers quarrel over the ownership of one tree at the boundary of the two farms, each one of them wants to get it. At this basic level, there is a contradiction of the goals of the two farmers.

A failure to address and transform the conflict at this basic level is predicted to escalate towards the attitudinal dimension of the conflict, and here is where the problems start to take root, but the conflict remains latent and passive.

At the personal level, this dimension of conflict might gestate as what Ramsbotham, et al. (2011) calls an emotive (feeling), cognitive (belief), and/or conative (desire/will) polarization involving hate, antagonism, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, envy, pity, contempt, conspiracy theorizing, demonizing, demeaning, othering, stereotyping, and condescending, etc. At the social level, conflict might gestate into cultural conflict, or even into structural conflict.

A double failure to address and resolve the latent conflict at this secondary level is further predicted to lead to an explosive eruption of violence. At this tertiary stage, the conflict escalates into an active manifestation of direct violence. This final stage is characterized by war and direct violence.

A triple failure to address and mitigate /manage the conflict at this extremely critical stage is predicted to lead to an unending cycle of self-causing violence or a chain reaction like wildfire. As Johan Galtung had rightly argued, “The killed are dead, the bereaved are traumatized. The trauma may be converted to hatred that may be converted into revenge addiction.” (Galtung, & Fischer, 2013, p.40).