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Contents Pages

1.0 Introduction 2

1.1 Aim 3

1.2 Scope 3

2.0 Conceptual Definition 4

2.1 Theory 4

2.2 Conflict 4

2.3 Social Conflict 5

3.0 Theories of Social Conflict 6

3.1 Structural Theory 6

3.2 Realist Theory 7

3.3 Biological Theory 7

3.4 Physiological Theory 9

3.5 Economic Theory 10

3.6 Psycho-cultural Theory 10

3.7 Human Needs Theory 11

3.8 Systemic Theory 12

3.9 Relational Theory 13

4.0 Ideological Similarities and Differences among Social Conflict Theories 15

5.0 Conclusion 17


1.0 Introduction
Conflict is a phenomenon that is an important part of human existence (Isard, 1992:1) and a

natural part of our daily lives. (Weeks, 1992: ix) Conflict that takes place within a society

may be the result of several factors. In the same way that it is difficult to point to a single

factor as being responsible for order within society, it is as difficult to point to a single

explanation for the emergence, escalation, or protraction of conflict whether violent or


Conflict is mostly depicted as if it is totally negative. This is not always the case. Depending

on how it is being handled, it can either be constructive (positive) or destructive (negative).

There are suggestions that conflict could be used constructively to explore different solutions

to a problem, and stimulate creativity by recognizing and sensitively exposing conflicts as a

way of bringing emotive and non-rational argument into the open while deconstructing long-

standing tension.

Conflict has become an issue over which scholars find themselves in sharp disagreement with

their colleges. Divided opinions on the nature, causes and impact of conflict are reflected in

the fact that there is no single widely accepted theory on which scholars agree, though, it is

also possible to explain this as being a result of the multi-disciplinary nature of conflict


Even though the theories look many and different, each emphasizes a particular angle of

analysis, and they are not totally mutually exclusive. In fact, most of the theories overlap and

these categories provided are only for analytical arrangement rather than trying to draw steel

boundaries between these theories.

1.1 Aim
In this paper, we aim to capture some of the theories of conflict as expounded by conflict and

social scholars. We do so not in a critical way, but by simply presenting some of the key

tenets of each theory. The authors come from diverse backgrounds, and each background

presents something unique to the understanding of conflict.

1.2 Scope

The scope of this paper is restricted to highlighting the theories of social conflicts. These

theories are the lens which the various respective schools of thought view and analyze social

conflict. We explore into the nature, causes, and conditions under which conflicts occur with

respect to the various arguments and framework provided by different scholars for the

understanding of conflict. We would not try to take any position of preference or ratings

between these theories; neither would this paper try to make recommendations on how

conflict should be viewed.

This paper should be seen only to be an exposure to existing thoughts, and frameworks to aid

understanding and analyzing social conflict.

2.0 Conceptual Definitions

The key elements that make up the paper title are defined below. This would aid readers to

understand the concept of social conflict and its theories. These are;

2.1 Theory

A theory is a set of carefully and logically used laws that is used to classify, clarify,

explain, and predict phenomena. That is, a theory serves to order or give meaning to facts. A

theory is different from the law that has been carefully connected to make it. The laws cannot

be wrong, but how we interconnect them to produce a theory may be wrong. This is why one

of the defining characteristics of a theory is its refutability. (Mbachu, 2005:26)

A theory is also stated to be “an idea or belief about something arrived at through assumption

and in some cases a set of facts, propositions, or principles analyzed in their relation to one

another and used especially in science, to explain phenomena. (Encarta, 2004)

In line with the above, Cohen (1968:2) observed that “the goal of any theory is to explain

something which has occurred with a view of dealing with problems which arose or may

arise as a result”.

2.2 Conflict

The term conflict represents antagonism, hostility, disharmony that is caused as a result of

incompatibility of objectives or means adopted to achieve the objectives. In any social

formation, conflict is as unavoidable as cooperation. It is an outcome of clash of interest

between those engaged in this social formation or relation.

2.3 Social Conflict

Social conflict is defined as a struggle over values or claims to status, power, scares resources

in which the aim of the conflicting parties are not only to gain the desired values, but also to

neutralize, injure, or eliminate their rivals. Such conflicts may take place between individuals

and groups. (Coser; 1968)


The nature, causes and the impact of conflicts have been extensively written on by scholars.

Depending on the school of thought to which they represent, such explanations have tended

to place a lot of emphasis on one particular or a set of related theories while diminishing the

importance or explanatory relevance of other competing theories. The various social conflict

theories are attempts by scholars to provide frameworks for the understanding of conflict,

especially causes of conflict, the condition under which conflicts occur, and sometimes the

condition for their resolution. These theories are explained below;

3.1 Structural Conflict Theory

This theory has two main sub-orientations; the first is the radical structural theory represented

by the Marxist dialectical school with exponents like Mark and Engels, V.I Lenin etc, the

second is the liberal structuralism represent by Ross (1993), Scarborough (1998) and the

famous Johan Garltung (1990) on structural violence. Structuralists thus sees incompatible

interests based on competition for resources which in most cases are assumed to be scarce, as

being responsible for social conflicts (Collier, 2002:2)

The main argument of the structural conflict theory is that conflict is built into the particular

ways societies are structured and organized. Social problems like political and economic

exclusion, injustice, poverty, inequity etc are sources of conflict. Structuralists maintain that

conflicts occur because of the exploitative and unjust nature of human societies, domination

of one class by another etc. Radicals like Friedrich Engle, Karl Marx, Joseph Lenin and Mao

Tse Tung blame capitalism for being an exploitative system based on its relations of

production and the division of society into the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The

exploitation of the proletariat and lower classes under capitalism creates conflict. The

solution to these types of conflict to the Marxists is that the contradictions will end in a

revolution-civil war, or some form of violence leading to the overthrow of the exploitation

system. Liberal structuralists call for the elimination of structural defects with policy reforms.

3.2 Realist Theory

Realist theory originates from classical political theory and shares both theological and

biological doctrines about an apparent weakness and individual inherent in human nature. It

thus traces the roots of conflict to a flaw in human nature which is seen to be selfish and

engaging in the pursuit of personalized self interest defined as power.

Morgenthau (1973:4) and realist after him like Walt, argue that the imperfection in the world,

namely conflict, has its roots in forces that are inherent in human nature, that human nature is

selfish, individualistic and naturally conflictive, that states will always pursue their national

interests defined as power, and that such interest will come into conflict with those of others

leading to the inevitability of conflict.

Actors hence should prepare to deal with the outcome and consequences of conflict since it is

inevitable, rather than wish there were none. This theory greatly justified the militarization of

international relations and the arms race. The theory has been accused of elevating power and

the state to the status of an ideology, hence has had tremendous impact on conflict at the

international level.

3.3 Biological Theory

Biological theories has given rise to what may be referred to as the innate theory of conflict

which contends that conflict is innate in all social interactions, and among all animals,

including human beings. It argue that humans are animals, albeit higher species of animals,

and would fight naturally over things they cherish. John Dollard (1939). The thinking is that

since our ancestors were instructively violent beings, and since we evolved from them, we

too must bear destructive impulses in our generic make up. Thomas Hobbes, St Augustine,

Malthus and Freud are all classical biological theorists.

In other words, it is believed that conflict is inherent in man, and this can be explained from

man’s inner properties and attributes, hormonal composition. That aggressive instinct will be

provoked when man is threatened and challenged.

Sigmond Freud described the destructive tendencies in human beings as a product of a

dialectical struggle between the instincts associated with life and survival (Eros) and the

instinct associated with death (Thanatos), and suggests that societies had to learn to control

the expression of both the life and death instinct. In his view, both instincts are always

seeking release and it is the one that win the contest of domination that is released. Thus,

aggression against others is released whenever the Eros overcomes the Thanatos and as he

puts it, war and conflict is necessary periodic release that helps men preserve themselves by

diverting their destructive tendencies to others.

Further alienation to biological theories are shown in the difference between “expected need

satisfaction “and “actual need satisfaction” (Davies,1962:6) , where expectation does not

meet attainment, the tendency is for people to confront those they hold responsible for

frustrating their ambition. This is the central argument that Ted Robert Gurr’s Relative

Deprivation thesis addressed stating that “the greater the discrepancy, however marginal

between what is sought and what seem attainable, the greater will be the chances that anger

and violence will result (1970:24)

The Frustration-Aggression theory which John Dollard and his research associates initially

developed in 1939 and has been expanded and modified by scholars like Leonard

Berkowitz(1962) and Aubrey Yates (1962) appears to be the most common explanation for
violent behavior stemming from inability to fulfill needs. A good example of the way which

frustration leads to aggression can be seen in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. After waiting

and peacefully agitating for what the people of the region considered a fair share of the oil

wealth that is exploited from their land, youths now take the law into their own hands by

vandalizing oil pipelines, kidnapping oil workers for fat ransoms and generally creating

problems for those they believe are responsible for their predicaments

3.4 Physiological Theory

Physiologists share the biological and hormonal origins of aggression and conflict in

individuals with realists, but add by providing the conditions under which this happens. Scott

(1978) noted that the physiological sources of aggressive behavior are a function of several

factors including human nature and environment.

Physiologist like Paul Maclean (1978) and Lorcuz (1966) have sought to understand how the

human brain reacts when people are under stress and threat. They noted that it is possible for

a person to experience conflict between what he is feeling and what he is thinking. This then

determines whether such a person feels strongly about something or not and whether they act

on such feelings or decide to ignore the feelings.

In essence, humans are naturally capable of being aggressive but do not display violent

behavior as an instinct. When violence occurs, there is the possibility that it is being

manipulated by a combination of factors within and outside the individual’s control.

3.5 Economic Theory

Economists largely assume people in conflict to be fighting over, not about, something that is

material. The question then becomes; is the conflict a result of greed (intention to ‘corner’

something) or of grievance (anger arising over feelings of injustice). Collier (2003:4) printed

out that some people (commonly referred to as “conflict entrepreneurs”) actually benefit from

chaos; while overwhelming majority of the population are affected by the negative impacts of

conflicts. He also pointed out that while the prospect of pecuniary gains is seldom the

principal incentive for rebellion, it can become for some insurgent groups, a preferred state of


Economic theorist Bredal and Malone (2000:1) agree that social conflicts are generated by

many factors, some of which are deep – seated. For them, across the ages conflicts have come

to be seen as having a “functional utility “and are embedded in economic disparities. War, the

crisis stage of internal conflicts, has sometimes become a vast private and profit making

enterprise. They further contend that even though issues in conflict may later be packaged as

resulting from ideological, racial or even religious (value) differences; there represent at the

most basic level, a contest for control over economic assets resources or systems. Economic

theories highlight resources, and to that extent, are close to the radical structural theory of

conflict, except for emphasis of left wing structuralists on exploitative relationships between


3.6 Psycho-cultural Conflict Theory

The role of culturally induced conflict is emphasized by this theory. It contends, therefore

that even though there are different forms of identities, the one that is based on people’s

ethnic origin and the culture that is learned on the basis of that ethnic origin is one of the

most important ways of explaining violent conflict. Identity is thus seen to be the reason for

social conflicts that take long to resolve despite the belief that ethnicity is the biggest source

of identity-based conflicts , this school of thought agree that this does not mean that conflict

is unavoidable wherever there are ethnic differences.

Theorist from this school of thought argue that social conflicts that take long to resolve

become a possibility when some groups are discrimination against or deprived of satisfaction

of their basic (material) and psychological (non material) needs on the basic of their identity.

These needs are identified in Maslow’s theory of motivation (1970) and Burton’s (1990)

“Human Needs “theory, both of which describe the process by which an individual or group

seeks to satisfy a range of needs moving from the basic ones such as foods and sex to the

highest needs that they described as ‘self-actualization ‘- the fulfillment of one’s greatest

human potential.

Crighton (1991:127) building on Horowitz’s ‘fear of extinction” thesis, Volkan’s ‘fear of

dying off’ thesis, and Rothschild’s ‘fear of the future’s thesis’, noted that social conflicts that

take long to resolve are identity-driven and grow out of the feelings of powerlessness and

memories of past persecution. These experiences which wear away a person’s dignity, self-

esteem, and lead people to resort to vengeance, constitute part of what has been referred to as

the “ pathological dimensions of ethnicity” (Rothschild and Groth 1995)

3.7 Human Needs Theory

The position of human needs theory is similar to that of Frustration-Aggression and Relative

deprivation theory. Its main assumption is that all humans have basic human needs which

they seek to fulfill, and that the denial and frustration of these needs by other groups or

individuals could affect them immediately or later, thereby leading to conflict (Rosati et al.

1990). ‘Basic human needs” in this sense comprise physical, psychological, social and

spiritual needs. In essence, to provide access to one (e.g. food) and deny or hinder access to

another (e.g. freedom of worship) will amount to denial and could make people to resort to

violence in an effort to protect these needs.

Burton identified a link between frustration which forces humans into acts of aggression and

the need on the part of such individuals to satisfy their basic needs. According to him,

individuals cannot be taught to accept practices that destroy their identity and other goals that

are attached to their needs and because of this, they are forced to react against the factors,

groups and institutions that they see as being responsible for threatening such needs.

Burton also stated that human needs have components (needs for recognition, identity,

security, autonomy, and bonding with others) that are not easy to give up. No matter how

much a political or social system tries to frustrate or suppress these needs, it will either fail or

cause far more damage on the long run.

Even though needs scholars identity a wide range of human needs, some of which they

consider to be basic human needs, they are agreed on the fact that the frustration of these

needs hampers the actualization of the potentials of groups and individuals, subsequently

leading to conflict.

3.8 Systemic Theory

Systemic theories provide a socio-structural explanation for the emergence of violent social

conflicts. The position of this theory is that reason(s) for any social conflict lie in the social

context within which it occurs. As Johnson (1966:12-13) noted in the case of political

violence, “any analytical penetration of the behavior characterized as ‘purposive political

violence’ must utilize as its tool a conception of the social context in which it occurs.” This

paradigm turns our focus to social factors and the effects of large scale (usually sudden)

changes in social, political and economic processes that would usually guide against


Systemic theories also seek to explain the relationship between modernization and political

disorder and see movements between different periods of economic and political history as

containing large amounts of “pull factors”, tension and crisis that create conditions of internal

conflict and instability.

In trying to cope with the different challenges and crises of modernization, most governments

that find it difficult to gain the legitimacy needed to attract support from the people usually

resort to unconstitutional means and force rather than processes that are in line with the rule

of law, in an effort to surpass the legitimate demands of the people, prevent opposition and

civil society groups from criticizing policies that they do not agree with, and generally

attempt to dictate the terms on which peace will be attained.

3.9 Relational Theory

Relational Theories attempt to provide explanations for the violent conflicts between groups

by exploring sociological, political, economic and historical relationships between such

groups. Thus, the belief here is that cultural and value differences are as well as group

interests all influence relationships between individuals and groups in different ways.

A number of conflicts grow out of a past history of conflict between groups that has led to the

development of negative stereotypes, racial intolerance and discrimination. Such a history of

negative exchanges between groups may make it difficult for efforts to integrate different

ethnic and religious groups within the society to succeed because their past interactions make

it difficult for them to trust one another. Within the West African sub-region for instance, it

has been difficult to get groups like the Hausa/Fulani, Igbo and the Yoruba in Nigeria; the

Krio and Mende in Sierra Leone; the Bassa, Gio, Mano, Krahn and Kpelle in Liberia; the

Akan, Ewe, Fante, Ashanti, etc in Ghana; to see themselves as partners in progress because

they have a past history of conflict woven around control of resources (including political

power) within their territories.

The fact that ‘others’ are perceived as different make us feel they are entitled to less or are

inferior by reason of cultural values or skin colour. This disrupts the flow of communication

between us and them and to that extent, twist perceptions that we have about each other.



Having looked through each tenet of the theories of social conflict, it is of importance to draw

out their shared ideological characteristics, and their part of disagreement.

The Structural conflict theory and Economic theory share the same view about the nature of

conflict as being rooted in the competition of fight over scarce resources. They however
deviate in their notion on the causes of conflict. The structural theory hold the notion that

conflict is built into the particular way societies are structured, domination of one class by

another. The economic theorists hold the notion that some people whom they call ‘conflict

entrepreneurs’ packages, and propagates conflict because they profit from a state of chaos.

The Realist and Biological theory share the same view about the nature of conflict as being

inherent in human nature. They both concur to the individualism inherent in human nature;

hence human beings would fight to protect their interests or what they cherish. They both

believe that conflict is inevitable in all social interactions. They however deviate in their

notions on the conditions which this conflict thrives and/or violence displayed. Realists hold

that people and states would strive to protect their selfish personal and national interest which

is defined by power, and would fight all perceived threats to it. The Biological theorists hold

that the destructive impulses in man’s genetic make up would trigger his aggressive instinct

once threatened or challenged.

The Physiological theory and Psycho-cultural theory share the same view about the nature of

conflict being psychological and hence, it is as a choice that people display violence. They

both agree that even though humans are naturally capable of being aggressive, they do not

display violence as an instinct. They have and make the choice on whether or not to display

violence. Conflict hence could be avoidable. They do differ however on their causes and

conditions under which long lasting conflict thrives when it occurs. Physiological theory hold

that lasting conflict and violence occurs due to manipulation of factors within and outside the

individuals control, while Psycho-cultural theory hold that lasting conflict and violence is

identity based (people’s ethic origin and culture).

The Systemic theory and Relational theory stand isolated, and have no clear-cut similarities

with other theories of social conflicts.

5.0 Conclusion

It should be noted that these theories of conflict are not without their shortcomings. Despite

the shortcomings in each of these theories however, they offer some useful perspective to the

understanding of conflict. Those who wish to go deeper into the theories of conflict are

encouraged to do so.

The overlapping nature of the theories of conflict is further emphasized by Ross (1993:194)

who pointed out in his assessment of the structural theory and its explanatory value that

“although the identification of structural factors in severe conflicts is rarely wrong, Mono-

causal explanations based on these considerations alone are incomplete, and (to that extent)


In explaining a social reality like conflict, structural(objective) factors that lead to differences

in access to power and threaten the ability of people to satisfy their basic needs do not tell the

whole story; neither do cultural (subjective) factors which show that people and nations bring

different values which determine how they interpret their daily interactions with others.

Deutsch (1991:28) also observed that “any comprehensive approach to understanding conflict

will necessarily include consideration of both objective and subjective factors”. In other

words, while competition for the so-called “real interest” (resource) serves to explain most

conflicts, other non-objective factors, such as psychological needs, values, and issues of

perception, systemic factors, the link between formal and informal relationships, or the nature

of changes taking place within the political system are all equally important.

Despite the strong arguments of those who developed the different theories with which we try

to make sense of conflict as a multi-dimension fact of life, the ways of explaining it are also

in several dimensions.

There are however similarities among the social theories which the various theorists agree.

One of such areas is that all of them recommend approaches that recognize the needs and

interests of both sides, hence strategies that are non-confrontational and those that remove

feelings of bitterness in the process of settling disputes between individuals, groups or


In conclusion, Kelman (1993:3) shows the way forward in his observation that each

perspective only adds to the pool of available knowledge on conflict resolution processes:

“Although (they are) analytically distinct as static points of departure, there is sufficient

overlap among…conflict orientations to blur their fine points of distinction”.

Conflict scholars can thus combine one or more points of view in the process of analyzing

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