Analyzing Conflict:
Identity, Power & Rational Choice

Different perspectives lead to more comprehensive understandings of how conflict works.
Does group identity cause people to fight? What about power structures? Or individual interests?

No one theory can explain violence away – drawing on several approaches can provide more tools to
analyze conflict.

"We have three different perspectives today to reflect on," says professor Heather Eaton. The first two were developed by the researchers who wrote this week's readings: Henri Tajfel and John Turner's social identity theory and Ralf Dahrendorf's social (or class) conflict theory. We're also looking at a set of ideas known as rational choice theory, as described in the literature by John Scott.

It's good to clarify what's meant here by theory: Heather reminds us that each of these perspectives is incomplete. They're all good at detecting certain dynamics leading to conflict onset, but they're best used as one tool in the toolbox rather than as an exclusive mindset.

Each of the theories discussed today incorporates the perspectives of the people who developed it. They all collect or analyze data differently. They all have a different viewpoint, or even a bias – but bias isn't always negative. It just means they look at things in a certain way and ask particular questions. It also means each theory has its own particular blind spot, but that's why we supplement it with other ones. We study them in order to get a feel for what they can or cannot do, and so that we can use them more effectively in our own research or in the field.

We go through each one by one.

Social Identity Theory

Tajfel and Turner describe their theory in the article as 'an integrative theory of intergroup conflict,' but they eventually went on to use their insights to develop what's known as social identity theory. Much of their pioneering work was done in the late 1970's and early 1980's, so they were relatively ahead of their time – they asked questions of how social identity impacts group decisions (like group conflicts) long before violence in Rwanda or Bosnia dragged ethnic conflict onto the world stage.

The main studies up until that point had been done in the context of military and strategic studies, so identity as a source of conflict wasn't a big part of the conversation. Johan Galtung, who was the focus of our lecture last week, had already started laying the foundations of peace and conflict studies but it hadn't blossomed into a comprehensive field in its own right yet. He did, however, make a plea for transdisciplinarity, which he understands as an approach that uses all sorts of disciplines, each with their own way of thinking about or measuring behaviour, to analyze conflicts in hopes of finding ways to build sustainable peace.

For Tajfel and Turner, their preferred unit of measurement is intergroup behaviour. For them, groups form the base unit of society, and they place a huge emphasis on the human need for group identity and a sense of belonging. Groups are significant for them because everyone belongs to one, and we're not only talking about class structures (which was the main thing Karl Marx, one of the major influences on any kind of conflict studies, was concerned with) but also groups defined by religion, language, political affiliation, race and more.

Meaning that the conflicts they find interesting are the ones motivated by group membership or identity. Ethnic cleansing? Group identity. Identity politics? Group identity. Mass protests? Group identity. Individuals are less important for them as a unit and so they don't study lone shooters, heroic figures or sociopaths. What's more relevant to them are the group dynamics that promote shootings (extremist movements) or how historical heroes are used to incite people to violence (ethnic nationalism) or whether or not a sociopath will be defended by his clan (mafia networks).

"Think for a moment," she asks. "What groups do you identify with?" Or to take the question a step further: what groups do you feel loyal to? If you were to fight or defend something, which group identity might fuel your behaviour? Tajfel and Turner say that group conflict emerges when group loyalty is activated, often in the context of oppression, comparison or competition with other groups. When was the last time you felt group loyalties override your usual interests?
There are a couple major factors, other than identity or a sense of belonging, that can impact whether or not this happens.

One that Tajfel and Turner discuss is positive social identity. Once an individual meets their need for belonging, they might want to make sure their group identity isn't dragging them down. This is an internal factor – your group might be perceived negatively by other groups (immigrants, anarchists, Roma, intelligentsia), but so long as the group sees itself positively then this need is met.

People try to leave their groups when their social identity is negative, the hypothesis goes. This usually means that a group has no positive self-image of itself, or that its members try to identify with some other group marker (playing down one's race in favour of nationality, or minimizing religion while emphasizing education). This can happen if the group is oppressed or downtrodden and these attitudes become internalized. Or when someone feels threatened.

Whether or not you have a positive or negative social identity is important because a negative identity can lead to an inferiority complex, and if you see your group as inferior then you might try to escape it instead of empowering it. When a group has a positive group identity but sees itself as oppressed, that identity could become the basis for group action that tries to change the power structure oppressing it – sometimes through violence.

Intergroup conflict doesn't have to be violent, though. You see different groups promoting their interests (sometimes aggressively) against other groups in the media, through protests or on social networks. You get different ingroups criticising outgroups that have a different immigration status, political loyalty, religious beliefs or historical interpretation.

Another factor that can increase the likelihood of intergroup violence is social mobility. What's meant here is the ability to go from one group to another, and one hypothesis is that if you're a member of an oppressed group, but have the option to switch to a different group, then it's far easier to pick up your family and leave. Interpersonal factors (connected to individual needs and perspectives) might become more important than intergroup factors like structural oppression, discrimination or collective threat. Low social mobility often correlates to being motivated by group concerns, and if you add a positive group identity to the mix (and a sense that your group is being given the short end of the stick) these factors can lead to conflict or even violence.

A key factor here, Tajfel and Turner add, is that the group perceives themselves as in conflict or competition with other groups. An oppressed group that's internalized their negative social identity might have a legitimate grievance, but they've accepted their inferior status and don't recognize any reason to resist. Think learned helplessness. Paolo Friere describes this in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, naming the process by which a group becomes aware of their grievances (and willing to promote their interests) as conscientization. Once a group has been conscientized, they might start making noise.
They noted another interesting factor: not all groups compare themselves to other groups, and this comparison is often a crucial part of seeing oneself as being in conflict. They remark that comparison, for whatever reason, happens more often when the groups are relatively similar (Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda, Croats and Serbs in the former Yugoslavia).

So their three conditions for seeing your group as differentiated (treated different enough to cause serious thought) are as follows:
Internalizing Your Group Status
You see yourself as a group and not only
as an individual.
Social Context
Social structures have to encourage, facilitate or enable comparisons between groups, particularly through producing discrepancies in how they are treated.
Comparing with the Outgroup
The outgroup in question has to be an appropriate object for comparison. They might be similar, living in the same region, receiving the same benefits, etc.
So if you want to uncover group-based roots of conflict, you have to pay attention to identity. But this can be difficult because people cycle through different identities all the time. A person can be female, conservative, hispanic, Catholic, English-speaking or Canadian, and activating any of these identities will make her join up with certain people (often against a specific outgroup). She doesn't have to think of the outgroup as a threat – she just might suddenly start thinking of them as fundamentally different from her.

The process of emphasizing one identity over another is called coalescing, and different positive social identities coalesce for different reasons. If another country starts threatening you, your national identity could coalesce. If a scary political party becomes powerful, your political-orientation identity coalesces. If legislation is passed that regulates what languages are spoken and where, your linguistic identity rises to the top. One major coalescing factor is the presence of threat, and another could be the sense that you are being oppressed and you can change this.

This course looks in particular at conflicts emerging from contexts of structural oppression (as compared to emerging threats), and so we discuss the ways oppressed groups can even shift how their identity is perceived so that things flip from negative to positive. Being a rebel, or downtrodden, can become cool when looked at from the right angle. Given enough confidence or resources, they might try to confront those in power or try to delegitimize that power, or their identity, status or hold on the culture. If it goes far enough, they can try to take power through a revolution or a coup and restructure the balance of power.

For Heather, the focus on ethnic identity in Tajfel and Turner's work doesn't go far enough – you can look at your neighbourhood as an identity, or your taste in culture. These can prove just as relevant in cases of structural violence, but they're harder to see.

Identity-based conflict theories exploded after the conflicts in Rwanda and Bosnia, and continue to prove relevant when dealing with cases of terrorist cells or political polarization. For Tajfel and Turner, they ask us to look at a conflict and ask: what are the group identities involved? How do they provide their members with a sense of belonging? What might people do for the sake of that belonging?

Social Conflict Theory

Ralf Dahrendorf was a sociologist who looked at conflict not through a lens of group identities, but of official power structures. For him, society is often structured along lines of authority, meaning that there are those who command and those who obey. And you can find explanations to various conflicts when you pay attention to who gives commands and why..

For him, conflict stems from three sources: individual psychological factors (lone shooters), historical events (Africans being brought to America as slaves) or by the structural arrangements built into a society. He thought that studying the third type was the most useful, and the dominant structural arrangement he saw was the unequal distribution of power.

This means looking at legal structures, governance, norms and rules. Who has power and who doesn't? Do people feel disenfranchised? Who has the ability to use force? Who is justified when they use force? Do people feel empowered to make positive social changes in their lives, or do they feel trapped by the system?

The focus on structure rather than individual bosses, oppressors or tyrants is important for him – if you try to change a massive corporation from the inside, it's the structure you run up against more than any one person. The rules and the bureaucracy that serve to maintain the status quo. This can also apply to the different mechanisms at work in the state, or the social norms that keep gender relations in check.

This way of looking at power, as a source of conflict and oppression, is very different from, say, the opinion of philosopher Thomas Hobbes – in his book Leviathan (mentioned in our discussions on just war and archaic societies), he made the argument that oppressive power is what keeps us from tearing each other apart. For Dahrendorf, power just gives us a reason to rebel.

His model for how oppressed groups form coalitions to make change through social conflict goes like this:
The first state is one of quasi-groups, where people share interests or vulnerabilities or histories of oppression but might not be aware of it yet.
The quasi-groups start forming conscious interest groups that advocate for their needs.
Interest groups engage in social conflict, usually in order to change or maintain
the status quo.
If social change comes, it happens through changes in the dominant social structure.
There are different factors that he identifies as impacting this process and allowing for the formation of interest groups, social conflict or social change:
The Formation of Interest Groups
1. The social conditions allowing
quasi-groups to form;

2. The political conditions (freedom of assembly) that allow interest groups to emerge;

3. Technical conditions, like resources, a leader
or an ideology.
The Emergence of Social Conflict
1. The degree of social mobility available to individuals and their families;

2. The presence of effective mechanisms for regulating social conflict.
The Possibility of Social Change
1. The probable link between the intensity of a conflict and the intensity of the resulting change;

2. The capacity of a ruler/ruling class to stay in power;

3. The pressure potential of the dominated group.
So, when analyzing a conflict that you suspect is influenced by power structures, you can look at the way the military is organized, how governments present themselves as legitimate (or claim others as illegitimate), the ways power structures make people feel helpless or enraged and whether or not people can escape through social mobility.

You wouldn't be able to analyze cultural or ideological conflicts with this kind of lens, but it does help when looking at totalitarian or authoritarian structures.

Rational Choice Theory

Rational choice theory originally emerged in economics and it tries to break all social behaviour down to the individual actions that people make. This makes it quite the contrast to Tajfel and Turner's theories, because here group actions are reduced to merely the sum of individual choices.

The main questions here are: what do individuals have to gain from a given action? How does this behaviour serve to further their interests? How does conflict emerge from individual needs and the strategies people use to meet them? What is the hidden logic behind what someone does?

This issue of hidden logic is important here, because rational in this context doesn't mean not irrational so much as following one's inner logic. It's completely conceivable that someone's rational choice might seem irrational to you, but that's because we might not have access to their decision-making process. The theory assumes that no one ever makes a choice without thinking it benefits them – they can have bad information, or be looped into bad habits, but the impression of benefit is there.

So, in the context of this theory, you're going to try to understand conflict as the consequence of numerous choices generated from peoples' inner logic, a logic driven not by group needs but by the self. If a person conforms themself to a social code or a religion or an ideology, it's still done with their own needs in mind.

This can turn people off because it apparently reduces everything to selfishness or calculation, but it's good here to separate selfishness from the pursuit of interests. Your interests can include protecting or helping other people – a parent can sacrifice their life for their kid and still be acting according to their interests. All that's meant here is that all decisions come down to a cost-benefit analysis where we weigh the pros against the cons.

So if someone makes a choice to attack another group in the media, or pick up a gun against the state, they can be understood as having made a choice based on benefits. It's good here to point out that the options can be bleak: someone can be coerced into becoming a soldier, or they may be responding to poverty, or their families could be held hostage. A coerced choice is still coercion. But it's also still a choice.
ArmyAmber on needpix.com
So if you're wanting to manage (or prevent) a conflict using this framework, your tools are going to be deterrents and rewards. If you want someone to go along with you, you're going to need to convince them its in their best interest. You can make an ideological case for a ceasefire, but unless you understand what the different parties actually need, and how they benefit from the fighting, then any solutions you propose are unlikely to be relevant.

This is an approach that's used at high levels, like at UN negotiation tables, where the threat of sanctions can carry more weight than an appeal to international law. Or deals can be sweetened by promises of increased trade, political representation or some other factor. For a rational choice theorist, you have to learn to make offers that make ending a conflict more attractive than continuing. Appealing to ideals (unless they have reason to hold to them) isn't going get you far. Rational theory doesn't make room for strictly moral judgements.

"It sounds crass, but it's not." Heather says. If you spend time thinking of all the choices you make in a day, and if you try to get some objective distance, how many choices did you make that you didn't think would benefit you in some way?

This kind of framework has proved relevant in a lot of fields. In politics it's used by realists, or with social contract theory. All the game theorists love it to bits, and it's used by economists and strategists. Psychologists use it, and sociologists can turn to it to understand personal motivations behind power and what people will do to get it. Or the choices they make to deal with threat.

It may not be useful when speaking about mental illness, or what happens when violence occurs under the influence of some kind of substance. Plus it doesn't explore the difference between an apathetic decision, an informed decision and an uninformed decision, or the ways that certain structures may limit the information people have at their disposal – all that matters for rational choice theory is that people work with what they got. It doesn't go into why certain choices are limited. But every theory has a blind spot.

Theories don't pretend to solve every last question, however – or at least they don't work well when they do. They take one facet of a complex conflict situation and try to make it understandable, try to uncover the nuances and mechanisms of what's happening and why. Social identity theory suggests how individual actions start giving way to group decision making. Social conflict theory maps how authority structures apply pressure or are overturned. Rational choice theory can help us empathise with unemployed, poorly educated young men who get recruited into rebel cells because they don't have any other options.
When you let go of a single approach and learn how to cycle through different theories, you have more tools at your disposal to understand why something happens. Often our conversations turn to the racial protests prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement – look on social media and you can see one group of people claiming some protesters are taking advantage of the situation to cause violence, and another group of people focusing on how larger structural forces have caused a group identity to form and take to the streets. They both might be right, and they argue with each other as if each claim is an attack on the other.

The moral seems to be: don't get stuck in one theory or one approach. Otherwise you'll miss out on most of the picture.
Heather Eaton is a full professor at St. Paul University; her research interests include conflict and gender, religion, ecology and nonviolence.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied theories of conflict at St. Paul University in 2020.

Banner photo by Mstyslav Chernov on wikicommons
Be the first to hear about new content!
Peace research, activism, facilitation - it's all coming.
Sign up to receive an email whenever new Summerpax content becomes available.
Further Reading
An Integrated Theory of Intergroup Conflict
Henri Tajfel and John Turner.
in The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, W. C. Austin and S. Worchel (eds). Monterey, CA: BrooksCole, 1979, pp. 33-47.
Toward a Theory
of Social Conflict
Ralf Dahrendorf.
The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 2, No. 2 (June, 1958),
pp. 170-183.
Rational Choice Theory
John Scott.
From Understanding Contemporary Society: Theories of The Present, edited by G. Browning, 2012.