Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: conflict from Collins English Dictionary

n (ˈkɒnflɪkt)

1 a struggle or clash between opposing forces; battle

2 a state of opposition between ideas, interests, etc; disagreement or controversy

3 a clash, as between two appointments made for the same time

4 psychol opposition between two simultaneous but incompatible wishes or drives, sometimes leading to a state of emotional tension and thought to be responsible for neuroses ▷vb (kənˈflɪkt) (intr)

5 to come into opposition; clash

6 to fight

[C15: from Latin conflictus, from conflīgere to combat, from flīgere to strike]

› conˈfliction n

› conˈflictive or conˈflictory adj

Summary Article: Conflict
From Encyclopedia of Identity

The word conflict, in its capacities both as a noun and as a verb, is pressed into service ubiquitously in the world of human affairs. The conditions and dynamics of conflict attract scholarly attention from the humanities; the social, behavioral, and military sciences; the performing arts; and the fine arts. These collections of academic disciplines intersect where individual and collective bodies of identities and forces (persons, families, groups, communities, organizations, institutions, and nation-states) clash and compete for resources (anything of value). This entry provides an overview of conflict, characterizes its most prominent models, describes the models’ core concepts, sketches a critique of those models, and provides a brief overview of the development of an emerging theoretical orientation.


Conflict takes place in a world of positioned identities and interested differences that shape the values of resources. That which is of value is desirable, and that which is desirable is in demand, that is, scarce by definition. Demand breeds competition, which, under certain conditions, results in conflict. The relations between competition and conflict are variable; they are intimately related in several important respects, but the two are not isomorphic. Conflict is understood conventionally as intense competition for valuable resources in a world of scarcity and demand. Desire and value are driven by variable interests and represented by positioned identities.

Developing alongside the study of conflict has been the study of how best to manage it rather than to exacerbate it. A variety of academic disciplines investigate forms of communication, such as dialogue, diplomacy, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and litigation, as methods for dealing constructively with conflict on different scales of analysis. Other disciplines focus on ways of intervening in resistance, revolution, war, and terrorism when conflict escalates. Which methods are to be used and under what conditions depends on the particular ways conflict is theorized.

Models of Conflict

Given the immanence of conflict in daily life, it is not surprising that conflict is explained so many different ways. Most, but certainly not all, of these explanations depict conflict in negative terms, as a failure, a problem, or a threat of some sort. For example, conflict is understood as a failure of rationality that causes problems that threaten civilized forms of life. Or the problems may stem from a failure of social organization in ways that threaten basic human needs. Or the failure of government institutions may threaten the basic human rights of its citizenry. Or the moral integrity of a culture or nation-state may fail, causing problems that threaten identity itself. These depictions of the causes of conflict share certain assumptions about processes and properties of conflict even though they focus on quite different manifestations of conflict. Four of the more prominent ways of understanding conflict are discussed in this section.

Rationality Models

In keeping with long-standing Enlightenment values and principles, conflict often is assumed to be a failure of economic, scientific, or legal rationality, resulting in a loss of rationality to irrationality, a loss of objectivity to subjectivity, a loss of emotional control, and a loss of logic to desire. The resource assumed to be scarce here is the resource of rationality itself. Proponents of rationality models assume that even though appeals to rationality may not work to avoid conflict altogether, approximations of rationality, objectivity, control, and logic can contain or minimize, if not resolve, conflict in ways that produce the most civilized, balanced, and progressive solutions possible.

Rational human nature dictates that loss and risk are to be minimized and that profit and value are to be maximized. Conflict models are framed as strategic games to be played, interactional puzzles to be solved. The underlying question is usually whether it is possible for both or all players to maximize their individual outcomes without framing the game in competitive terms. For example, if Party A can maximize his or her outcomes only by assisting Party B to maximize his or her outcomes, under what conditions is Party A willing to do so? And the same question is at stake for Party B. Or is it more important for Parties A and B to frame the game in competitive, zero-sum, win-lose terms? Or perhaps Parties A and B are so habituated to competitive zero-sum games that neither recognizes the opportunity to do otherwise, even though it would be in their best interests to do so.

What counts as risk and benefit, however, remains open to question. Debates persist over how to determine the necessary and sufficient conditions for rationality. The objective of these games is to find the most rational and thereby profitable solution to dilemmas that present themselves as competitive, zero-sum games but that in fact are variable-sum games of cooperation. Microeconomics and game theory are the theoretical parents for these models of conflict; prisoner's dilemma and games of strategy and tactics provide its research questions.

Social-Psychological Models

Models more in keeping with the social psychology of human growth and development assume that conflict is universal because unmet human needs are universal. The scarce resources here are first and foremost the material resources necessary for survival itself. For humans to become fully human and thereby to minimize unnecessary conflict, they must have their basic human needs met. Once survival needs are met, higher-order needs can be addressed, for example, the need for social relationships and for self-actualization. Beyond the basic biological requirements for organic life to sustain itself, however, debate continues regarding what constitutes the list of universal human needs.

The universal problem from which universal human needs derive, it is argued, is that the world has insufficient resources to meet the basic human needs of everyone. Some of the scarcity of valuable resources, it is argued, could be remedied by finding different ways of redistributing resources. Others contend that there simply aren't enough resources for everyone if the competition necessary for the liberty that provides for higher-order needs is to be maintained. This argument over how best to meet basic human needs, of course, is pivotal to the integrity of democratic forms of governance.

The argument that must remain open for democracy to remain viable is the argument over the values of equality as opposed to the values of liberty. In this respect, conflict is assumed to be an integral part of social psychological life. Within reason (and those parameters are themselves debatable), some humans acquire more than others, and different forms of governance are designed in different ways to address the problems of uneven and unequal distribution of valuable resources, including ways of engaging with the conflict that is an inevitable by-product of these forms of governance.

Governmentality Models

Other models identify conflict not as a function of irrationality or of unmet universal human needs, but rather as a function of political organization, the distribution of rights and responsibilities, and the consequences of those functions. The scarce resources here are power and control. There is never enough of either for anyone. Power and control, it is assumed, make order and efficiency possible, and both are necessary for civilized forms of life to be maintained. And of course power and control also make repression and exploitation not only possible but inevitable. The dynamics that produce conflict are the struggles for power and control.

Monarchical, dictatorial, fascistic, totalitarian, autocratic, oligarchic, authoritarian, democratic, socialistic, and communistic forms of political organization are formulae for governing with a minimum expenditure of power and a maximum realization of control, without generating ungovernable amounts of resistance. Each form of governmentality generates its own characteristic forms of conflict, and no form of governance is capable of doing away with conflict, no matter how permissive or oppressive the regime may be. Systemically engendered conflict in each of these forms of governance exercises power and control at the same time it produces resistance and opposition.

Morality Models

Other models assume that conflict arises from transgressions of moral values that are cultural, national, or religious in origin. The scarce resource here is the moral rectitude to adhere to the unquestioned superiority of a particular set of moral values. These models assume the existence of universal moral principles that distinguish between good and evil. Transgressing this moral code constitutes evil and demands retribution in the name of the law of the unquestioned source of those values.

There are also ethical principles that distinguish between good and bad, but ethical principles are assumed to be inferior to moral principles. Ethical principles are authored by mere mortals. Moral principles are above question and reproach insofar as they are authored by an unimpeachable deity. Morality-driven conflict, then, is assumed to be justified without question by adherence to its moral code. It trumps ethically driven conflict on moral grounds. Ethically driven conflict is secular and ideological in nature. Adherents to different moral codes may hold each other in profane contempt, framing each other as evil rather than as bad, and may assume that communicative contact with evil is beyond reason and imagination.

The scarce resources here are morality and sacrality; profanity and evil are in abundance. Feeding the problem of scarce resources, many argue, is the universal presence of desire. No matter how much adherence to a given moral code there may be at any moment, that adherence is never universal. And moral codes are universal in reach and validity. There is always intense competition with the forces of immorality. The struggles that produce conflict are struggles to protect against the forces of profanation and to acquire ever more universal adherence.

Core Concepts

Models of conflict are built from a core set of concepts, and within each model are unique concepts that give each approach its characteristic features and explanatory reach. What follows is a brief description of seven pairs of concepts that figure prominently in the four models of conflict discussed in this entry. These pairings do not constitute an exhaustive list of important concepts, but they go a long way in explaining the conflict dynamics of the four models discussed here.

Identity and Difference

Conflict presupposes the existence of at least one difference and two identities, one on either side of a difference. The identity us, for example, can only exist on the other side of one or more lines of difference that separate us from them. There can be no identity in and of itself; identity is by definition a relational, doubled concept. A difference dividing an entity into two or more parts, then, is required for the emergence of two or more identities. When those differences become vested with interests, they acquire value and serve to buttress the positions of identities.

Reciprocity and Turn-Taking

Models of conflict assume the existence of a norm of reciprocity and a turn-taking procedure. Given at least one difference and two identities, relations between identities across difference are created and maintained by adhering to some form of reciprocity, some exchange process that is operationalized by means of a procedure for taking turns. Reciprocity and turn-taking are the bases for establishing the minimal trust necessary for even the most primitive covenant of sociality to be established.

Resources and Values

Models of conflict also assume the existence of resources and values. Resources are the contents of desire that are exchanged, and in the process of being exchanged, they create value. Resources that are desirable, by whatever measure, are by definition in short supply; hence the motivation to exchange them for other desirable resources. Of course there is also strong motivation to stockpile desirable resources that have been acquired. But if exchange of desirable resources were to cease, value would collapse. There is an inherent tension, then, to stockpile desirable resources without causing the circuits of exchange to freeze and value to plummet.

Scarcity and Abundance

Most models of conflict are constructed on the assumption that valuable resources are scarce; that scarcity is what explains the resource's value. If the resource were abundant, the demand for it that is driven by desire would collapse. It is scarcity that drives up the value of, and desire for, resources. And demand and desire drive their circulation. That which is abundant is by definition of little value; it is plentiful to all and thereby not in demand.

Competition and Cooperation

That which is scarce and in demand by virtue of its value and desirability fuels competition for its possession, whether it is subsequently stockpiled or exchanged. And competition requires a certain amount of ingenuity and guile. Competition assumes only one of the competing identities can acquire the greatest quantity of a valued resource. Sole ownership is assumed to be the valued condition; it trumps joint ownership or shared ownership, even if that ownership is temporary, owned only to be exchanged.

Power and Control

All models of conflict assume the existence and operation of power and control. Some models make no distinction between power and control, equating both with the exercise of force. Others differentiate them in important ways along the lines of the expansive and self-generative capacities of power and the repressive and limiting capacities of control. Models predicated on the former are interested in multiplying possibilities and exercising forces; those predicated on the latter are concerned with subtracting possibilities and regulating forces. Both types of models are used in attempts to explain the ways in which attempts to manage potential conflict actually promotes it.

Strategy and Tactic

Whether by these terms or by the terms structure and process, most models of conflict assume an overarching strategic logic for its structural properties that accounts for its tactical maneuvering in the process of its unfolding. To the extent that conflict can be comprehended in terms of its strategic intelligence as well as its tactical ingenuity, it can be both waged and managed more productively. By the same token, understanding conflict in terms of its strategies and tactics creates possibilities for diminishing conflict, if not resolving it altogether.

Emerging Models of Conflict

A seemingly unshakable assumption on which most models of conflict rest is the assumption that conflict is a negative condition or process that threatens order and stability, which are assumed to be preferable to chaos and revolution. But very little of life is orderly and stable for any lengthy duration, and conflict rarely appears as full-blown chaos and absolute revolution. It is not so much a matter of such models of conflict being wrong as it is a matter of their being limited in different ways. Current critiques of conventional conflict theories argue for specifying the boundaries and limitations of each of the models and then thinking beyond those limitations.

The most intransigent and poorly understood contemporary conflicts revolve around identities, and identity-driven conflicts seem to be impervious to rational, psychological, and governmental ways of understanding and engaging them. The most challenging current conflicts we face are morality-driven conflicts revolving around moral identities, issues of good and evil, of retaliation and redemption. Identities grounded in moralities are not formulated rationally; they are outside the bounds of being imaginable by opposing identities and moralities, and they are beyond most contemporary understandings of emotionality and normality.

It doesn't appear to be productive simply to assume that those with morality-based identities who engage in conflict are somehow crazy, lacking in rationality and normal psychological sophistication. When others are placed outside of our understanding, they readily become something less than fully human. And that opens the door for violent forms of conflict. Assuming that violence is a less desirable form of conflict than are other forms it takes on (and that assumption of course is very arguable), how is it possible to identify with identities lying far beyond our capabilities to understand them?

One approach is to turn the assumptions of failure and scarcity on their heads and to think instead in terms of the abundant and even excessive resources that make conflict not only possible but inevitable. Rather than assuming from the outset that conflict is reprehensible and needs to be eradicated, assume instead that conflict is produced very successfully on a near-universal scale. What do we know about the most productive, that is, the most efficient and effective, ways of producing and nurturing conflict? Rather than eradicating it, why not learn more about it in self-generative and mechanistic terms rather than insisting on understanding it only in negative and moralistic terms in order to modify it internally in ways that alter its consequences? This has been the approach of governmental intelligence agencies, and most of that work is classified.

Some cutting-edge work in ethics has turned conventional assumptions about conflict upside down. Rather than assume that conflict is the given condition of the world and that our ethical task is to do good in order to counter the effects of conflict, this work is assuming that conflict is the result of attempts to do good, in terms of helping those we assume are victims and the downtrodden of the world. The argument is that trying to help can only produce conflict, that we then assume the responsibility for resolving, which further exacerbates conflict. This approach to the study of conflict is controversial and is meeting with considerable resistance. It does, however, represent a radically new orientation for trying to understand conflict.

See also

Articulation Theory, Collective/Social Identity, Discourse, Hegemony, Mediation, Terrorism, Values, War

Further Readings
  • Badiou, A. (2001). Ethics: An essay on the understanding of evil (P. Hallward, Trans.). London: Verso.
  • Kimball, C. (2003). When religion becomes evil. New York: HarperCollins.
  • Maalouf, A. (2000). In the name of identity: Violence and the need to belong. New York: Arcade.
  • Schelling, T. C. (1963). The strategy of conflict. New York: Galaxy Books.
  • Sen, A. (2006). Identity and violence: The illusion of destiny. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Simmel, G. (1955). Conflict and the web of group-affiliations. New York: Free Press.
  • Hawes, Leonard C.
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Conflict
    Encyclopedia of Human Development

    Conflict and development are bound together: Conflict both fosters maturation and is a product of it. Two distinct forms of conflict may be...

    Full text Article Conflict
    Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology

    Conflict is a disagreement between two or more interdependent parties about goals and/or methods for achieving goals. Although some scholars...

    Full text Article Conflict
    Encyclopedia of Identity

    The word conflict, in its capacities both as a noun and as a verb, is pressed into service ubiquitously in the world of human affairs. The...

    See more from Credo