Conflict involves antagonistic relations of ideas, interests, and persons. It occurs at different levels, including internal, interpersonal, small groups, large-scale sectors, organizations (such as states), and broad social principles. Furthermore, conflict takes many forms, from sullen silence to verbal debate, from interpersonal violence to organized warfare. Important forms of conflict are tacit rather than open, involving differences in concepts and interests buried in the flow of social life. Paying attention to these distinctions is important, for a typical and troubling confusion is explaining organized violence, such as warfare, as a simple extension of interpersonal aggression without attention to the different causes, scales, and activities involved. Anthropology, with its wide comparative scope, is suited to distinguishing among kinds of conflict and exploring each one as part of a complex whole.
Conflict and consensus form a principal axis of theories in the social sciences. Conflict theories explore patterned conflict forming the architecture of social relations. Some conflict theories stress individual actors engaged in competition and maneuvering, out of which social patterns emerge; market and transaction models are typical ones. Other conflict theories emphasize broad social groups acting on profoundly different interests and ideals; Marxist class struggle models exemplify these. Consensus theories, on the other hand, emphasize shared ideas and interests, resulting in coordinated social activity. Social functionalist and cultural pattern approaches are major consensus theories in anthropology. Conflict and consensus are not, however, mutually exclusive—a good example being the enormous level of coordination required for large-scale warfare—and key conflict theories draw on consensual phenomena, and vice versa.
Humans have a biological capacity for conflict, including vertical relations of domination and resistance and horizontal relations of rivalry, broadly shared with other primates. There are important elements of antagonism within the most intimate of relationships, such as between mates or parents and children. But these conflicts are arranged, expressed, and suppressed in highly varied ways, and models that attribute to humans a singular drive to dominance, for example, miss the remarkable flexibility that characterizes the human adaptation. One of the richest—if most debated—biosocial case studies of conflict concerns ritualized violent fighting and extensive intervillage raiding among the Yanomami peoples of the Guinea Highlands of South America. Napoleon Chagnon argues that increased mating and thus reproductive fitness drives violence among men. Others dispute this biosocial interpretation, however. Marvin Harris emphasized group-level conflicts over scarce protein in the rain forest, while Brian Ferguson questioned the context of the ethnographic evidence, pointing to the direct and indirect effects of frontiers of state-level societies on “tribal” peoples. Also, other ethnographers of small-scale societies, such as Robert Dentan, documented alternative cases in which public expression of conflict (especially violence) is highly repressed.
Indeed, the flexible human relation to conflict is most evident in the widespread mechanisms designed to avoid or attenuate it. These include the recourse of splitting groups rather than fighting, and the extensive networks of gift friendships and marriages, which Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested was instrumental in the emergence of human culture. Classic consensus theories, such as British structural functionalism, often found their evidence in mechanisms for resolving public disputes, but otherwise they ignored open and suppressed conflicts. Developed as a reaction to structural functionalism, the Manchester school explored conflict theory approaches to social structure. Their “extended case” method started with an open-conflict situation and traced outward the connections, group alignments, and ideas surrounding the specific case. Max Gluckman argued for a cyclical view, in which rituals first opened up and then reunified social cleavages (for example, between women and men), but his students explored transformative conflicts, such as the struggles against colonialism and racial hierarchy in southern Africa. An important analytical transition thus took place: from conflict as needing control within an overall emphasis on static culture/society to conflict as a basis for the construction and reconstruction of society/ culture over time.
War and class relations are two of the main grounds for the social scientific study of conflict. Although it is heavily debated, many anthropologists today reserve “war” for organized violence in stratified societies and thus distinguish it from general aggression and interpersonal violence (such as intervillage raiding). The question then becomes: What is the social context for war? War sometimes (but not always) involves strategic geography and control over resources, but its most fundamental association seems to be with centralization of political power. For example, the modern democratic nation-state, including its key status of “citizen,” comes into being (in part) through taxation for and recruitment of mass militaries.
Class relations are part of a set of conflicts based on differentiated and unequal social relations (gender is another one, though it involves different dynamics). Karl Marx saw class struggles as the driving force of social arrangement and change over time. But his notion of struggle was inherent in the unequal nature of the relationship and only periodically emerged in open conflicts, such as revolution (also, Marx saw conflict not just as a matter to be resolved, but as a driving force of change to new relationships). To anthropologists, orthodox Marxism has serious flaws, such as an insufficiently cultural conceptualization of interests and social groups, but neo-Marxist social science provides us important insights into conflict.
James Greenberg, for example, delineates alternative explanations of violent feuding in indigenous rural Mexico, concluding that it principally stemmed from struggles over different concepts of the morality of capitalist accumulation and exchange upon the advent of commercial coffee production. James Scott likewise explores conflicts beneath the seemingly placid surface of Malaysian village life. Rural class relations were undergoing rapid change, due to new varieties of rice and mechanization of former hand labor jobs (the “green revolution”). Poor peasants could not afford to rebel openly, but they struggled against rich peasants and landlords in subtle ways— insults, gossip, malingering, feigned incompetence, theft, and petty vandalism—what Scott memorably terms “weapons of the weak.” In each case, a level of normality and consensus reigned on the surface, and the analytical task was to show the hidden cleavages and struggles in a process of fundamental social change.
- Greenberg, J. B. (1989). Blood ties: Life and violence in rural Mexico. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
- Haas, J. (Ed.). (1990). The anthropology of war. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Vincent, J. (1990). Anthropology and politics: Visions, traditions, and trends. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.