Violence and Conflict

Heather Eaton discusses how the difference between violence and conflict fuels many discussions in Conflict Studies.
What's the difference between conflict and violence, and just how many types of violence are there?
Conflict studies, says professor Heather Eaton, is a bit of a mongrel field.

It's traditionally been seen as looking at war and violence, and so theories have often revolved around military and strategic studies. But that's not entirely the case anymore, and it's not studied exclusively through that lens. In this program, a range of theories are considered, and these include identity, ethnicity, socio-political factors, structural factors, oppression.

But more than that, conflict studies is also about how societies are structured, even before conflicts break out.

This means you'll be looking at different disciplines: sociology, social biology, military-strategic studies, power structures and more. Heather is particularly interested in power structures, and says that you can analyze, say, the 2020 California wildfires (and the conflicts surrounding them) in the context of how power works in the United States. Or how, if looking at legacies of violence in Africa, you should do this while keeping colonialism in mind, or how economic extraction (export economies combined with subsistence living) works.

Looking at state structures is also important. Is the government involved a dictatorship, a royal family, a democracy, a 'functioning' democracy, a religious state, a state that extracts money to bolster its wealth, a state whose government is representative of its people?

Then there are terms like weak states, frail states and failed states. Somalia is typically considered a failed state, but its structure is something unique. South Africa has solid governance, but there are deeply-rooted corruption issues. The same could be said about Brazil. How can these factors impact conflict?

Is the conflict at hand fuelled by government issues? Structural issues? Mercenaries? Is there an oligarchy involved?

Just a brief glance at the questions might be enough to give a sense that conflicts are complicated. And, unfortunately, the media often presents them in too simplistic a light.

Take Syria as an example. It's in a dreadful conflict but the news has a short memory span. There were a lot of countries involved, with internal issues, external issues and alliances to keep track of. It's difficult to understand even if you've been paying attention. Heather comes from the social justice side of conflict studies, but you can ask other key questions as well: how can the country be rebuilt? What goes into understanding the depths and costs of the conflict? What happens when education shuts down for an entire generation?
Russell Watkins | wikicommons
There are plenty of terms and paradigms to keep in mind, but one important one here is the difference between violence and conflict. They mean different things in the field, and many researchers use them in slightly different ways, but it's generally accepted that there are conflicts without violence but there can be no violence without conflict.

Take racism. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is particularly relevant in 2020, and there have been episodes of violence associated with them (though that's not what she's here to unpack today). She tells us, though, that when we look at the violence involved, it is in part a response to systemic racism. This is a conflict.

When you look at a factor like systemic racism, you're looking at the ways conflicts can manifest themselves in subtle things. For example, with how racism can be expressed in how you're spoken to, how you're treated, how society is structured. What kind of inequities or inequalities can be said to be systemic (reproduced in systems/behaviours and not necessarily conscious actions, although those can be involved too)? Is there a lack of education? Limited access to food?
[note: I recognize that some people find the concept of structural issues (particularly racism) contentious or problematic. These classes work with the above definition of structural violence & racism, and I'll be reproducing the content as the professor expresses it. Whatever your thoughts are on the issue, my hope is that you can approach the concepts here with an open mind and understand the context in which this material has developed]
Another of Heather's research interests is religion – what happens when certain injustices are seen as being supported by a particular religion or religious group? For example, many classical religions are accused of being patriarchal (giving more power or influence to men over women). In cases like these, when religions model attitudes like this then they can easily become structural and built into a given society.

Then there are economic issues. You can take a look at how a society's economy is organized, what resources it has, how these are distributed, what happens when resources are extracted and exported, making the country benefit potentially less than if they had total control over the process. She claims that the International Monetary Fund (IFM) and the World Bank structure the way money works globally, but they don't do this equally.

These are things that we can call conflict, which Johan Galtung says is what happens when two or more parties push incompatible goals (or strategies to achieve their goals) in ways that aren't immediately resolved.

Galtung is considered the major pioneer of peace & conflict studies (we'll be looking at him more next week), and for him the key to resolution involves asking about interests. What is it that you want? What is it that you need? Is this related to your identity?

Identity has emerged to be a huge factor in the field, with many conflicts in the second half of the 20th century being classified as identity-based. People, the research goes, can feel incredibly threatened when their identities are threatened. There can be a wide number of factors that influence your identity, including culture, context, religion, gender, politics. So when thinking about identity conflicts, we ask what comprises a person's (or group's) identity and why might someone feel threatened?

Generally speaking, identity-based conflicts are group conflicts but they can be exacerbated by individuals. Bosnia and Rwanda are two examples of identity/ethnic conflicts where groups were mobilized by what's known as belligerent leaders. These leaders are often public figures (politicians or otherwise) who can wake conflicts that are otherwise dormant.

Analyzing these conflicts means looking at the values that are at state. Take an issue like reproduction – what are the values hidden here, ones that can cause anger? Think values like choice, life, control (and who has control). These are important values and looking at them can help us unravel certain conflicts and the choices of people involved in them.

Then there's also the issue of human rights, and conflicts that can rise from those. Think of whether human rights are violated, or if there are competing visions of human rights, or who decides which rights are more important. We only have one week to look at human rights, and Heather says that this is unfortunate because the topic is so huge.

All the above are different examples of how you can define or analyze conflict – but what about this idea of 'structural violence' that we hear so much about? How can we analyze that?

Again we go back to Galtung, who uses a model known as the Conflict Triangle. There are three different points/corners that correspond to three separate (though connected) dimensions of violence, and he says that they can be in play at different moments in a single conflict. We need to learn now to look at a situation and tell which of the three is stronger or weaker at a given time. Like with anything, these terms are slippery and are the subject of ongoing discussion.
The first one is called Direct Violence, and it's probably the one we think of when we hear the word 'violence' generally. So, like, hitting someone, verbal or physical assault, war.

The second is known as Structural Violence. Meaning how societies or cultures are structured, and whether these structures oppress or do violence to certain groups and not others, thus making it more difficult to meet their basic needs. Obvious examples include racism, sexism and classism, and also what kind of economic system is involved, or how different ethnicities or regions are treated. Every society is structured in some way, and most have gender or racial structures.It might not be a direct manifestation of violence (no arms), it might not be overt but it's often still there.

Take the issue of Indigenous peoples in Canada – practically speaking, Heather says, there is a strong history of oppression but not a strong history of direct violence. There are some moments of violence, like with certain protests or the Oka Crisis, but for the most part the violence here is structural.

For example, in Ontario there's less education-allocated money spent per child when living on a reservation rather than in a typical Canadian city. This, for Heather, is an example of structural violence that affects an ethnic and cultural group. That's not to mention the history of residential schools or early white-settler/Indigenous contact.

The third point to the triangle is Cultural Violence, which often relates to the different (and in this case violent) narratives that produce themselves in a society. Think of the media, but also about art, jokes, films, literature, advertisement and so on – what kinds of people are presented, what do they look like, are they presented as the norm in this society, who isn't presented (think of disabled people, for example). Cultural violence can also take the form of essays that people write that confront or marginalize particular groups, with or without intending to. There can be a lot of overlap with structural violence here. In fact, all three can be said to be part of a spectrum – a continuum.

There's a lot of debate about what should or should not be seen as violence. Heather brings up how some people call malnutrition and undernourishment as violence, especially in cases where people can't afford food or if there's an extractive economic system.

Then there are another three categories, this time corresponding to stages of a conflict: pre-conflict, conflict and post-conflict.

In pre-conflict stages, it's about what's bubbling to the surface in a society that's not actively in an armed conflict (yet).

Societies that are within a conflict are awfully hard to theorize about because we don't have enough distance or data to be able to draw conclusions with. If we take everything that's orbiting BLM as a conflict, for example, it's hard to analyze what's happening. Are the protesters thugs, making BLM a violent movement? Is it for the most part a peaceful movement with certain people using it as an opportunity for violence.

This is a hot debate right now, but how do we analyze something like this? It's far too easy to walk away with an interpretation that you like, but one look at the news (if you look at multiple sources of news) is enough to be reminded that the debate is still going strong. When trying to find data, the question of how we know what's happening (and how can we be sure of our data) are constantly wrestled with.

The third stage, post-conflict, opens up the whole world of conflict resolution. It's a big subject, and it's also difficult to pronounce judgements on certain things. When is a conflict 'resolved', for example? There are strategies like mediation, diplomacy, victory or invasion, and there can be violent or non-violent means of resolving.

When referring to diplomacy, there are also three tracks we can talk about (three being the magic number). Negotiations, meetings and discussions can take place at:
Top-Level Leadership
Track I usually involves leaders in suits signing papers around a table. There are plenty of pictures taken, and is the fruit of a long process involving the other tracks. Gender-focused scholars point out that these often involve men more than women.
National & Regional Leadership
Track II involves influential leaders at the regional, religious, social, cultural and academic level involved in backroom meetings and preparation. This can also involve preparing parties for negotiation, suggesting concessions, unofficial dialogue, or social networking.
Grassroots Leadership
Track III involves local and civil society groups trying to build peace from the ground up. These can involve unofficial third parties working to build peace among ordinary citizens, or trying to build social cohesion. Organizations like Search for Common Ground are a good example of this.
There are a number of other terms we need to start getting used to:

Conflict cessation: stopping the conflict, perhaps violently or abruptly. It is sometimes achievable, but it might not be sustainable if underlying issues are not addressed .

Conflict management: not necessarily stopping it so much as trying to maximize the positives while minimizing the negatives.

Conflict resolution: trying to look at the underlying issues (mentioned above) and seeing what deal can be struck that will help these issues not erupt again.

Conflict transformation: restructuring society to prevent these underlying issues from emerging in the first place.

When we look at the research on conflicts, how we answer the question of why conflicts occur will depend on what field we're coming from.

Anthropologists may look at humans as social animals that are highly aggressive. Socio-biologists (or evolutionary biologists) may take a similar stance. If you go to the War Museum in Ottawa, you'll see a plack saying that 'war is inevitable.' Heather takes issue with this, as from a peace & conflict studies perspective it's *conflicts* that are inevitable, with violence being a choice.

Psychological theories that tackle the issues of human violence (and whether humans are naturally violent) can look at people who engage in extreme violence as suffering from some pathology or another.

People who study identity might claim that conflicts come out of group behaviour, rather than individual behaviour. It might rise not from a sick mind so much as from poverty or deprivation.

Sociologists might step in when there isn't just one person doing the shooting, but ten. They'll ask about what bound these people together, or what brought them here. What social structures allowed for this to happen. There's also the question concerning the use of force in a society – who gets to use it? In the Western world, there's a commitment to having armed forces in society, people who have not just the right to bear arms, but to use them too. Often we're talking about the police here, and in certain situations they are allowed to kill. Not under ANY circumstances, but they are allowed sometimes to kill when we are not allowed to kill – we give up that power as part of what's known in philosophy as the social contract.

For philosophers, the social contract is a major lens through which to look at conflict. This is particularly true about *who* precisely is allowed to use legal force, and in what circumstances. They may also look at who is not allowed to use force, and whether or not they will want to.

In many cases, the disciplines mentioned above will be looking at the actors in a conflict. As in, the ones who are doing the fighting, or the leaders, diplomats and mediators who negotiate peace. But there's also the victims of conflict to think about: what about the elderly, what about the people who don't make the news cycle but who have to live with the consequences? What about the people who are not visible? They're hard to theorize about because we don't have enough data, or we might not even notice them.

For Heather, this last group is of particular interest. The thought of Syrian teens and children who will not be educated because of the war goes back to this. How do we begin to analyze something like this?

Then there are the conflicts orbiting the wildfires in California. The president has said they are due to fire suppression policies, while others have said they're due to climate change. How do you analyze that?

With the fires, while people are blaming each other, the people left are the ones without homes or insurance. Then there's the kids who are bereft of security. Or, if you want to look beyond the species, the animals affected. There's so much cost to a conflict that doesn't get discussed formally or even theorized about.

When we analyze conflicts we usually like clarity and coherence, we try to make a good theory. But the repercussions of conflict are often larger or more complex than we can take in at first. Take for example how the publicity we give to an attack can make other groups more likely to do similar attacks for the sake of attention. Or how statue-toppling can be about both oppression and vandalism. Even an act done by one person (toppling one statue) can play into huge cultural questions and cause a firestorm of debate, protests or even violence.

A small discussion in class starts about Boko Haram, an Islamic State-aligned insurgency in northern Nigeria that has engaged in terorrism and kidnappings. It's mentioned how this case is complicated because there are economic as well as religious reasons involved – many Muslims in the north of the country feel marginalized by Christian elites in the south. There have also been some mercenaries involved, and suspicions of international funding (perhaps from the Islamic State or their patrons).
Many of them fight from the jungle, which has made it hard for the government to dislodge them, and they have been known to target schoolgirls due to their resistance to secular models of education. It can be tempting to classify this as religious terorrism, but there are plenty of social and cultural reasons for something like this. Sometimes it's done under the guise of religion. In places like Iran, Iraq and Nigeria there are different contexts and subtleties – saying it's all 'just Islam' makes it harder to understand or intervene.

We also need to pay attention to the way that groups work or encourage acts of violence. Recently there was news of two deputies getting shot in the United States, with nearby protesters standing outside the hospital and shouting how they hope they had died. Or how an American terrorist killed an abortion procurer and was able to escape through a crowd, possibly one that was sympathetic to his cause (even if not his methods). Boko Haram might also be protected by certain, less-radical northern communities who feel marginalized by the south.

It's hard to resist the temptation to simplify. When it comes to religious factors, the word 'fundamentalism' was thrown around for years as if it was an answer to everything. But not everyone, even in a radical religious terrorist cell, can be said to be a fundamentalist – some may not even believe in the entire religion. They might have other reasons for being there. There could be ignorance masquerading as fundamentalism, or a lack of education, or polarization making middle ground difficult to find. Or a threatened sense of identity or ethnicity.

The urge to simplify complex conflicts can take on the desire to find a 'first cause,' a factor that everything else derived from. But the thing is that there are often many factors playing off of each other. Deprivation (poverty, education, health care) can be a powerful motivation for conflict, but not every deprived region picks up arms. Imperialism (cultural, religious, linguistic) is also a tempting first cause, but not every oppressed or colonial society started a war.

There's also the issue of where we're getting our information from. From statistics, from cultural narratives? When we talk about narratives, we're often talking about how a group experiences the conflict and then talks about it. Looking at truth and reconciliation issues, this is an important thing. What's the story people tell themselves about what happened? How do their values get reproduced in these stories? Are these narratives influenced by leaders, or by cohesive value systems?

Then there's the question of *whose* stories are told. History is told by the victors, the cliche goes. But how is a conflict experienced by the people? By the perpetrators? By the victims? By the people who will never be at the table during peace talks? Rwanda did an interesting experiment of bringing perpetrators and victims together, trying to find modalities of forgiveness, modalities of reconciliation, listening to each other.

This was an attempt to get people to hear each other in spite of atrocity, and often dialogue practices are used to achieve this. It also helps to resist a single side of the story being told, and this is helpful because conflicts have many perspectives. It's hard, however, not to make a judgement.

Heather mentions this is something that's difficult for everyone, herself included. There's a constant tension between using one's own values to make sense of a situation but also getting critical distance. This can be particularly true when you have a researcher who is also a practitioner, theorists (like Galtung) who are also activists.

Even when multiple stories are brought together, it doesn't mean that they will be memorialized together. Truth and reconciliation commissions try to keep memory in the public eye, and often use memorials to that effect, and in some places (like South Africa or El Salvador) the names of different victim groups are placed together or separately.
Then there's the issue of memory (along with narratives and storytelling) being politicized or used for gain. Rwanda has seen issues like these, as has Bosnia. The political use of memory is something to keep watch for.
A seminar at the 2018 Viadrincum PeaceLab (also on Summerpax) on the ways that memory can be politicized to serve contemporary interests. This is particularly true in the countries of the former USSR.
Often questions of morality (especially through idealization or demonization) get tied up with stories and storytelling, with some groups being romanticized while others are villainized. This is another way that complex situations become simplified, and it's hard to gain the distance necessary to see through strategies like these.

While the idea of an objective moral code (and an objective sense of what's right or wrong) is seen as problematic these days, Heather says that most of us can agree that there's a moral impulse, and that we can start there. This can help us look at violent movements and understand how, in many cases, they started as responses to legitimate grievances. Even when it comes to groups like Boko Haram or the Taliban – if we take every person who participated in those groups and asked us to tell us their stories, we may find it hard to judge them all as entirely evil.

And, to close, she comes back to the word "violence."

We use the word in incredibly different ways: it escalates, it comes in cycles, it is memetic, we can mirror it, it's on a continuum. It can be non-linear, destructive, occasionally productive or a social tool. Some say structural violence will beget physical violence, often along lines of race, glass, gender, ethnicity, land allocation (often itself ideological) or some other thing structural factor in society that people accept as normal. And because it's normalized it's invisible – an element of structural violence is its invisibility and we have to train ourselves to see it. Which can be hard if we're a member of privileged groups.

They say that violence spawns fear, and that fear can spark the capacity or potential for violence. Many people fear violence along with the death and destruction it can bring. It can be held together by symbols, ideologies and belief systems. Violence can be said to be legitimate or illegitimate, and fighters can be called rebels or rogues or belligerents. Violence can be deemed necessary, unnecessary, visible, gratuitous, senseless, planned, strategic. And each of these words has its own connotation and we need to be aware of how people will perceive them.

For Heather there's also the category of 'everyday violence,' a kind of violence that expresses itself in malnutrition, poverty, diseases that could be eradicated, maternal death rates, systemic economic oppression, humiliation, invisible or cultural genocide. Extending definitions of violence to include these is controversial, but for her they allow us to look at these issues in a new light. And, hopefully, find creative solutions to deal with them.
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 Tim Pierce on mioromag
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