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Volume 3

Expanded Contents


1. Introduction and Summary
2. Aggression and the Conflict Helix
3. Frustration, Deprivation, Aggression, and the Conflict Helix
4. Misperception, Cognitive Dissonance, Righteousness, and Conflict
5. Marxism, Class Conflict, and the Conflict Helix
6. Same and Other; Similarity and Difference
7. Cross-Pressures, Overpopulation, Anomie, and Conflict
9. Opposition, Determinism, Inevitability, and Conflict
10. Intentional Humanism

Other Volumes

Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field
Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

Conflict And Violence page

Democratic Peace page


Chapter 8

Conflict As A Process
The Conflict Helix*

By R.J. Rummel

The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
----Tennyson, The Passing of Arthur

In my view conflict is a field process of interacting forces moving through time toward a balance of powers--a momentary equilibrium, a curve on the helix. Although the particular helix form I give it is unusual, the idea of conflict as part of a social process is not. This chapter relates the conflict helix more explicitly to alternative process conceptions.

I treat process broadly as, alternatively, social change, cyclic movement, and stages of conflict. In the latter case, I deal with the theories of Sorokin, Marx, Johnson, and Richardson. The choices are not meant to be exhaustive, but exemplary. By linking the conflict helix and these theories, I hope to show that the helix in its different aspects integrates a variety of alternative views.

After considering these process theories, I turn to the social change and cyclic approaches.


For Sorokin, extreme conflict is part of the process of rapidly changing social relationships. Sorokin saw social systems as causal-functional unities--as an integrated set of meanings, values, and norms; of social interaction; of official law-norms.

All societies change and the official law-norms of a group (such as a state) make provision for new law through legislatures, decrees, judicial interpretations, or constitutional revisions. These means of adjustment may not suffice, however, and a widening discrepancy between official law-norms and unofficial law convictions can develop. This can cause a growing and irreconcilable antagonism between two parts of the group, asone part supports official law and another feels that it is obsolete, unjust, exploitative, and so on.

The eventual consequence is a breakdown in organized relations--in the social equilibrium. The crystallized system of values and norms is disrupted; order and peace disappear. The result of this breakdown is conflict.

Any organized intragroup or intergroup system of social relationships experiences change in the process of its existence.

The change may be orderly, brought about by the constituted authorities of the group, according to its written or unwritten laws and constitution, or according to the desires and mores of its members.

In other cases, the change proceeds along different paths. The organized network of relationships of a given group, or the system of intergroup relationships, breaks down, contrary to, and regardless of, the laws, constitution, mores, and authorities.

When this crystallized system is broken, the organized group becomes disorganized, the organized relationships between the groups cease to be such. Order and peace (equilibrium) disappear either in the life of the group, or in the relationship between interacting groups.

Such a confusion leads generally to a growth of conflicts between the members (in the group) and between interacting groups. Increase of conflict means coercive antagonism in its open form, in the form of sheer violence applied by one party to another.
---- Sorokin, 1957:5351

With this perspective, Sorokin set out in the 1930s to determine the historical trends in war and internal disturbances. He developed a scale of the intensity, duration, scope, and importance of these conflicts, which he plotted over quarter-centuries for classical Greece, for Rome, and separately for the major European nations.2 He found the following trends:

  • No upward or downward periodicity or trend to war or internal disturbances exist--they just fluctuate through time.
  • War and internal disturbances occur for all societies and cultures-sensate and ideational supercultural systems are neither more nor less peaceful or belligerent.
  • War and internal disturbances show no positive or inverse association.3
  • Wars and revolutions tend to increase during periods of transition from sensate to ideational culture and vice versa.
  • The peak of internal disturbances are periods of transition in social relations--the historical turning points.

From this empirical-historical survey, Sorokin concludes that the cause of inter-and intragroup peace is a well-integrated system of values. The values must be in harmony and mutually compatible. The cause of war or internal disturbances is then a disruption of this integration, and any factors that contribute to the disintegration contribute to war and revolution.

The "main and the indispensable condition for an eruption of internal disturbance is that the social system or the cultural system or both shall be unsettled" (Sorokin, 1957:602, italics omitted).

Briefly, this is Sorokin's view of conflict.4 First, conflict is a manifestation of rapid transition between different systems of organized relationships. As such, conflict and violence appear to be "permanently working forces, inherently connected with the essence of social life itself, which do not permit either a complete elimination or the unlimited growth of disturbances" (Sorokin, 1957:592).5

Second, manifest conflict is a resultant, an effect, of this breakdown, as are the sore throat and running nose of a sick person; these effects play no role in curing the disease that causes them. Third, Sorokin has no conception of latent conflict or conflict situations. Values or official and unofficial law-norms become incongruent, and disruption causes unrest and conflict. The idea of incipient or latent conflict groups or classes, of a situation or structure of conflict, is not an explicit part of his perspective, although implicit within it.

Fourth, he ignores the mechanism by which the disruption or breakdown occurs. The idea of trigger events is not mentioned in this context. There is simply incongruence and incompatibility of values; then disruption.

Finally, his view provides no role for power or a power balance.6 Somehow, disruption occurs and causes violence, and during the violence (say, in the constructive phase of a revolution) old social institutions that were washed away in blood are reconstructed much as they were before, but with new elite and new justification for them. Power, manifested through coercive violence, enters only during periods of transition. With no role during periods of crystallized values, conflict is abnormal--deviational. Thus the notion of conflict serving society is uncongenial to Sorokin. Harmony and compatibility in values and norms integrate society, not conflict.

How does Sorokin's view relate to the conflict helix? Clearly, much is reflected in the helix. The idea of conflict being most intense during a system transformation in values or norms, as well as the ideas of violence being caused by disruption, and of crystallized values and norms, are part of the helix perspective. Moreover, the helix is within a field of meanings, values, and norms, which is also the stuff of Sorokin's society. There are, however, the following differences.

First, the conflict within the helix has explicit latent phases. Sorokin articulated no such phases. He does not have a concept of the latent movement from conflict structure to manifestations, thus cannot explain how groups or individuals move from harmony and equilibrium to conflict.

Second, he has no coherent notion of status quo or class conflict, thus has no orienting concept for understanding the actual lines of conflict--the conflict front--in society.

Third, the helix conflict contains a mechanism for change, for balancing incompatible interests. Thus like a fever to a disease, conflict serves as both symptom and cure.

Fourth, the resulting equilibrium or structure of expectations is founded on a balance of power and can become incongruent not only as values or norms become incompatible, but as the power balance itself becomes increasingly unbalanced.

Fifth, the structure of expectations is not necessarily a consensus or agreement on values, or a compatibility. It may be based almost wholly on coercive power, as in slave labor camps or prisons.

Finally, random events or triggers initiate conflict once the situation is ripe or can disrupt an incongruent structure of expectations.

Sorokin's deep insight into the process of conflict and his historical documentation of this process was a great contribution to our knowledge. The conflict helix does not contradict his insights or evidence, and this construct should be seen as an elaboration and extension of his conclusions, as a completion of the spiral picture whose portions he saw so well.

8.2 MARX

In Section 5.1 of Chapter 5 I summarized Marx's class theory and described its relationship to my conception of class. Clearly, I accept class struggle as the engine of conflict and violence throughout a society, but I define class difference as between ruled and rulers. Classes ultimately form around the right of command, not private property, as for Marx.

I also outlined the process of class conflict as Marx saw it: the creation of three great classes based on property (land, capital, labor); the exploitation of labor power; the utilization of state power by capitalists to support this exploitation; the growing homogeneity of each class, as capitalists eliminate one another and gain in wealth and workers sink into extreme poverty; the generalization and organization of the class struggle; the absorption of the landowning class into the bourgeoisie, the growth of class consciousness and overt struggle; and the breakdown of capitalist society and success of the working class. The process begins with capitalist society and ends with its revolutionary transformation to a classless, proletarian society.

Within the helix, antagonistic classes exist in all societies. Moreover, there is no inevitable movement from the latent class structure to overt struggle and revolution. The resolution of class conflicts depends on crosscutting class memberships and the segmentation of interests and power. Moreover, within the helix revolution does not end class conflict; instead it leads to a new class configuration based on a balance of powers between the new rulers and ruled. A new latent class conflict is thus created.

Moreover, if we understand class to be organized around the status quo supported by and reflected in authoritarian roles, we can apply the conflict helix to modern industrial societies, whether socialist or capitalist, and develop thereby a better understanding of the process of conflict between workers and managers, bureaucracies and citizens.

Then how does the conflict helix relate to the process of conflict spelled out by Marx? First, it reflects his insight into conflict as a generator of social, structural change. Second, it reflects his focus on class conflict as basic to this change at the societal level. Third, it reflects his belief in ideology, values, and norms as a mirror of class relationships (in the helix view, as a mirror of the balance of powers). Fourth, it supports Marx's belief that power is a basic ingredient in the process, and conflict of power, a basic mechanism. Finally, it reflects his view that conflict structures exist underneath social phenomena, and to understand the process of manifest conflict requires beginning with the organization of latent conflicts in society.


In Revolutionary Change (1966) Chalmers Johnson presents a dynamic theory of revolution7 that marries the consensus-equilibrium perspective on society and the conflict or coercive view. He sees revolution as occurring within a social fabric, a social context.

Johnson views society as a system of roles and status-oriented behavior guided by norms. Roles, statuses, and norms are his major social elements, and values, his social medium. Values are behavioral expectations or social gestalts (1966:24), which coordinate the social system. They enable individuals to orient their behavior.

A harmonious society is an equilibrium between values and the division of labor (environment). There is a "synchronization" between values and the division of scarce resources and labor. However in all societies changes occur in both values and environment, such as through global communication, rise of external reference groups, intellectual innovations and new ideas, and technological developments, creating a constant need for adjustment between values and environment to maintain equilibrium.

All societies contain homeostatic devices for sustaining value equilibria, such as the control of deviancy, avoidance and routinization of conflict (e.g., collective bargaining laws), and legal sanctions. Moreover, there are ways of incrementally altering the structure of society--for example, through an accumulation of legislation (as under Roosevelt, 1932-1944) or a series of judicial reinterpretations of a constitution. These may be either unconscious adjustments without intent to change the system, or policies that deliberately alter the system to maintain or reinstate synchronization between values and environment, such as racial integration and affirmative action legislation in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States.

If homeostatic devices fail, a growing value-environment disequilibration creates a revolutionary situation. According to Johnson, the process of revolution is then the following:

  • Change in values or environment or both creates a disequilibration between them.
  • Homeostatic devices, including incremental adjustment and structural change policies, fail to reinstate synchronization; or the elite may resist making the required changes.
  • Power deflation occurs, which means the elite must rely increasingly on force to maintain order.
  • Loss of authority follows, which means that the elite's use of force is seen as illegitimate, and the threat of sanctions becomes the means of regulating society.
  • Personal tensions are heightened.
  • Latent interests associated with the superordinate-subordinate divisions in society polarize into manifest interest groups supporting or opposing the status quo.
  • The development of a revolutionary ideology overcomes the conflict retarding effects of multiple role playing and polarizes society into two groups: one seeking to maintain the status quo, and one seeking to overthrow it.

The process just described leads to a situation ripe for revolution. There is a manifest cleavage in society between supporters and opponents of the status quo. This situation is characterized as follows:

  • The final sufficient cause of revolution is a trigger event ("accelerator") that deprives the elite of force (e.g., mutiny by a military division) or proves to the revolutionaries that they stand a chance of success (e.g., a show of weakness by the elite, such as inability to stop a demonstration).

Schematically, then, dissynchronization + power deflation + loss of authority + accelerator = revolution.

In relation to the conflict helix, several differences and similarities can be noted. First, Johnson's starting point is the value-coordinated society. He begins with order and asks why disorder (revolution) occurs. This is the wrong starting point, for it neglects the important matter of how the original order came into being. In the conflict helix, societies grow out of individual interests, conflict of interests, and balances of powers. Order is then an arc of the spiral, the structure of expectations based on a congruence between interests (thus values and wants), capabilities, and wills. Johnson begins with the congruent structure of expectations, without specifying its origin in conflicts of interests and its base as a balance of powers.

Second, Johnson is perceptive in stating that increasing incongruence between values and environment creates a situation ripe for revolution, and his concepts of power deflation and loss of authority further our understanding. In the helix view, an established structure of expectations represents a value consensus in that the parties have worked out an implicit contract governing their interactions and the distribution of rights and privileges--that is, the status quo--which they are willing to live with. This structure, as in Johnson's theory, may become incongruent with changes in the underlying power balance as interests, power, or the perceived capability of one or another party are altered. Moreover, adjustments to this incongruence may be incremental or through policies that result in a change in the status quo (such as income redistribution tax laws). As the incongruence between expectations and power balance increases, however, so does the likelihood of a revolutionary outbreak.

Third, the dissynchronization between values and environment is accompanied by a consistent cleavage of society into those supporting and opposing the status quo. The members of these opposing groups come from subordinate versus superordinate statuses. In the helix also, societal conflict is manifested by such a polarization into opposing class interests, which is an aspect of the developing incongruence in expectations and power balance. Johnson, however, avoids defining classes and authoritarian role hierarchies. He defines opposing groups in terms of statuses, therefore losing the analytical and empirical strength of the Marx-Dahrendorf approach.

Fourth, as the incongruent structure of expectations is disrupted by a trigger, Johnson's dissynchronized and polarized society erupts into violence, catalyzed by certain events. Such events both in the helix and for Johnson work on our will. They stimulate our decision to act, either by displaying the other's weakness or encouraging our belief in success. Moreover, the trigger may be random, a chance happening.

Fifth, for Johnson the process ends with revolution. Thus he begins with order and ends with disorder. He does not deal with the order-creating function of revolution, its violent balancing of interests and power that eventuates in a new elite, a new status quo, and a new structure of expectations undergirded by a new balance of interests, capabilities, and credibility.

Sixth, Johnson develops a process view of revolution that could be generalized to all levels of conflict. The ideas of power deflation, loss of authority, dissynchronization of values with environment, and so on can apply to family conflict, university unrest, strikes, and international relations. Johnson implied this when he used his theory to explain the Berkeley student rebellion in 1964 (1966: xiii). But he does not make this explicit. The conflict helix is explicitly general. It is meant to explain the process of conflict at all levels. It is a view of cooperation-conflict-cooperation, of order-disorder-order, stability-disruption-stability no matter what the context.

Finally, Johnson views society as a system of elements and functions. His revolutionary process is part of the functioning of society and serves to bring about structural change. There are roles, statuses and norms, and values and the division of labor that are the interconnected parts of the social system. The notion of a field of forces--of a gestalt, a balance, a medium of values, meanings, and norms, a causal-functional unity-is inconsistent with Johnson's view. Like a watch, his system is a well-ordered organization of parts. Thus revolution occurs when these pieces are out of "synchronization." For the helix, however, societies are balances of forces, a momentary gestalt among a variety of pulling and pushing powers. They are fields and antifields, crosscutting conflicts and cleavages, latents and manifestations, potentialities and dispositions.


Among the many attempts to model social processes,8 the most scientifically influential have been Richardson's arms race models (1960). The conflict process reflected in them has been called by Rapoport (1960) the Richardson processes.

Briefly, Richardson conceives of arms races as mutual aggravating processes, where the rate of change in the armaments of each party is dependent on the other's threat, plus one's own level of defense, the restraining cost of defense, and one's grievances. Whether an arms race ends in equilibrium, disarmament, or war depends on the mutual balance between threats, defenses, costs, and grievances.

In equation form, let x stand for the defense of nation i, and y the threat of nation j to i. Then, as a first approximation, the leaders of nation i will adjust their defenses to this threat such that

Equation 8.1: dx/dt = ky

Similarly, the leaders of nation j will adjust their behavior to the threat of i such that

Equation 8.2: dy/dt = cx

The equations say that the rate of change in the defenses of each party is a function of the threat of the other. The constants k and c then represent the fear and insecurity associated with this threat. The larger the fear, the greater the positive rate of change in one's defenses as a consequence of the other's threat.

This first approximation is not altogether satisfactory because the defined process is unstable: it must continuously escalate to war, unless neither side threatens the other (x = y = 0). A threat from either inevitably leads to war.

This is unrealistic, claims Richardson. Therefore, as a second approximation, assume that the cost of defense is a restraining influence, where cost should be understood in terms of alienating domestic support as well as budgetary cost. Then we can rewrite the equations as

Equation 8.3: dx/dt = ky - ax

Equation 8.4: dy/dt = cx - by,

where a and b are coefficients representing the restraining influences of defense costs.

Yet these revised models are not complete. They say that war or stability is a consequence only of a threat-insecurity-defense-costs nexus--a pure threat and response system. But other elements must be involved. Surely, threat and response reflect desires and ideals that should be incorporated. To accommodate them, Richardson uses the constants g and h for the aggregate interests of each side. Then we have

Equation 8.5: dx/dt = ky - ax + g

Equation 8.6: dy/dt = cx - by + h

These are the final models. It should be recognized that they are general social conflict process equations, where the result can be war, revolution, violence, murder, divorce, or a fight. They describe any mutually aggravating process of social interaction. Most important for our purposes, they describe the formation and disruption of structures of expectation.

In this light and relating now Richardson's process equations to the conflict helix, let me draw out the implications of these models.

First, the models display a mutual balancing between threats (x, y), perception and resulting insecurity (k, c), defense costs (ax, by), interests (g, h), and behavior (dx/dt, dy/dt). That is, the conflict interaction between parties is a mutual balancing of threats, capabilities (costs), and credibility (i.e., insecurity). This is precisely the balancing of powers in the conflict helix. Richardson's models particularize to arms races the general balancing of power phase of all conflict processes.

Second, Richardson's models also reflect the psychological field underlying the conflict process, the field of situation (perception), personality, expectations, and behavioral disposition. In his models, the situation is the threat (x, y) of the other; the personality is bound up in two sets of interests (motivations), which are those associated with defense costs (ax, by) and grievances (g, h) against the other party; the expectations are the credibility or, in his terms, insecurity (k, c) associated with the other's threat; and the behavioral disposition is the rate of change (dx/dt, dy/dt). My model for the conflict helix ("A Catastrophe Theory Model Of The Conflict Helix, With Tests") and Richardson's models are mathematically different animals. The discrepancy reflects differences in ontology and epistemology, but it should not obscure the basic conceptual similarities in psychological and social perspectives.

Third, and moving more specifically to the formal implications of Richardson's models and treating them as general conflict process models, if g, h, x, and y are zero, there will be continuous peace. That is, if there are no mutual threats and no opposing interests, there will be no conflict, thus no violence or war. As for the conflict helix, a condition for the initiation of the conflict process is the creation of opposing interests (the conflict situation) or threats, which by their nature create opposing interests.

Fourth, if one party does not defend against the other's threat (thus x or y = 0, but not both) even though he has opposing interests (g and h are positive), in this case of "unilateral disarmament" the situation will not be stable. The other's threat will force one to increase defenses, which will in turn push the other's defenses (threat) to higher levels. The threat of one's capability in a situation of opposing interests leads to defensive reactions. For Richardson, turning the other cheek does not assure a stable relationship when one's interests oppose those of another. Similarly in the conflict helix, opposing interests are the necessary condition for the conflict to be manifest. In the helix view, however, one may elect not to defend, one may not manifest conflict. The other party may be too powerful and too credible. Submission may be the only route to protect some interests, if only personal survival. But Richardson does not make explicit provision for this.

Fifth, if both parties simultaneously eliminate their threats and defenses, the situation will continue to be unstable if opposing interests exist. This is because dx/dt = g and dy/dt = h. Again, opposing interests are the key, as in the helix. A situation of conflict is bound to turn into a mutual threat-defense reaction system.

Sixth, if the defense and insecurity (cx, ky) terms predominate, the system will escalate to overt conflict (war, for Richardson). The same is true in the helix, where the intensity of threat (capability) and insecurity weight opposing interests. The greater this weight, the more likely a trigger will precipitate overt conflict.

Finally, by setting dx/dt = dy/dt = 0, a point of intersection between the lines representing equations 8.5 and 8.6 may be found. This would be a balance of power, an equilibrium point. It is where both sides feel that their insecurity, interests, defenses, and costs are balanced against the other's threats. The existence of such an equilibrium depends on the balance between these elements (i.e., that a/k> d/b or ab> kc). This equilibrium is comparable to the structure of expectations in the helix; it is where interests, capabilities, and wills balance. Moreover, for Richardson as in the helix, the balance can drift toward conflict as it becomes unstable because of underlying change in its supporting elements.

The Richardson process equations are very close to modeling the conflict helix. The rhetoric is different, and Richardson deals with only a portion of the process--conflict situation to conflict balancing or to equilibrium and disruption--and only in the context of arms races and war. Moreover, in the interest of scientific parsimony, Richardson ignores the many distinctions made in elaborating the conflict helix (triggers, congruence, structure of conflict, distances, etc.). Nonetheless, his models reflect remarkably well the process of social conflict.


One of the more popular explanations for the occurrence of conflict and violence is change. Change works to upset the social equilibrium, to alter roles and expectations, to transform values. It creates a cultural lag, a gap between the material conditions of society and the sociocultural complex of values and norms. It is difficult to untangle the precise meaning of change in such explanations and to determine what the independent change-as-cause may be. Without embedding it in some qualifying phrase, such as "change in material conditions," "change in available land," "change in property values," or "religious change," the idea of change producing conflict seems to be more a philosophic perspective than a sociological theory.

One way of qualifying change has been a strong motif in the literature: as technological change. Technology can be defined as the means of production, transport, communication, and violence (e.g., weapons); or industrial level, character of dwellings, and the development of writing, mathematics, and science. And in search of a commonality to all these elements, technology may be defined by the total energy available or that produced by such prime movers as the water wheel, the steam engine, and the gas turbine. However defined, the fundamental idea is that technological change creates the conditions for conflict.

The effect of technological change is usually discussed in one of two ways. First, such change can be seen as occurring more rapidly than society can adjust. This creates a maladjustment--a cultural lag--which leads to instability and conflict. Thus if changes in the environment make possible the realization of values not being satisfied by an existing cultural complex of norms and mores, attitudes, and institutions, this disparity is defined as cultural lag. The basic normative aspect of this idea is clear: cultural lag is the difference between what is and what some segments of society think ought to be. Technology creates the means for satisfying certain values, while existing norms, attitudes, or institutions inhibit or block such satisfaction.

The effect of technological change can also be considered through the notion of an equilibrium of values--the complex of desires and attitudes. Values are seen to eventually balance each other in society such that there is a general equilibrium between wants and costs, investments and rewards, capabilities and power. The balance of power systems among states are seen as such equilibria.

This equilibrium is based on certain realities, such as resources, abilities, physical barriers, and distance, which limit desires and attitudes. Realities may gradually change, however, and the value equilibrium can slowly adjust, as happens in a free market system.

Technology then affects the realities of value equilibria. Change in technology alters these realities, and if this change is too rapid, the equilibrium in values becomes increasingly unstable. Maladjustment becomes more severe, the balance is disrupted, and conflict occurs. Conflict then serves to establish a new equilibrium in line with changed realities.

The similarity between these ideas and the helix perspective can be clarified by reference to Sections 32.2 and 35.2 in Chapters 32 and 35 of Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix. The theories that point to technological change as the villain are focusing on the causes of increasing incongruence in the structure of expectations. A balance of powers is formed (in my terms) among interests, capabilities, and wills. This is a working arrangement, an implicit or explicit contract, enabling people to interact without conflict regarding their individual interests. It is an equilibrium of values, to be sure. But technological innovations, such as machine guns, the steam engine, the assembly line production of items made from interchangeable parts, and the telephone, alter the conditions of the balance. Capabilities are changed; interests are transformed or created; credibility is newly perceived. The is, can, and oughts become incongruent with this balance, and increasingly the status quo is unacceptable. Whether called cultural lag or disequilibrium in values, the fundamental idea is of incongruence, disruption, and conflict. Conflict then is the means through which is formed a new balance more in line with the technologically altered elements.

Technological change not only influences the balance underlying the structure of expectations, but also the creation of a structure and situation of conflict. Developments, such as the automobile, radio, movie, and television create new attitudes and transform the old. Thus where there is differential development, attitudes can be brought into opposition, such as between urban and rural regions or developed and undeveloped societies. Technology can also transform a structure of conflict into a conflict situation. By increasing contacts between different and opposing cultures and groups, it creates awareness of differences. Moreover, technology provides the means for extensive communication, propaganda, and organization, which can rapidly actualize class consciousness and marshal class antagonisms.

Clearly, technological change is a disturbing element in society. But it is unsettling only insofar as it brings attitudes into opposition, increases the awareness of this opposition, transforms these attitudes into opposing interests, and changes the balance underlying the structure of expectations.

Change has been interpreted as technological. Let me now broaden the idea of change to comprise any alteration, transformation, or modification of a social relationship or any new event, condition, or rule affecting that relationship. A new baby, a marriage, a job, or a law; fire, earthquake, or flood; hospitalization, injury, or death; maturation, graduation, or retirement: all are changes, and all affect social relations.

Change so conceived occurs constantly. Nonetheless, there are periods in human affairs when changes come fast and furious, as in times of revolution, war, depression or hyperinflation, or natural disasters. And there are periods of quiescence and little change.

The conflict helix is the process of adjustment to all such change. New events require new adjustment. Although a structure of expectations can absorb change through incremental reinterpretation of rules and understandings, changes in behavior, and piecemeal accommodations, a rebalancing of power is necessitated by a rapid pace of change or by radically new events. All that is needed then is a trigger, a catalyst, for conflict to ensue.


The notion that conflict and violence are cyclic in human affairs is reflected in the literature on conflict. War and revolution are seen as periodic occurrences, and conflict as a swing in the pendulum of social life. Cycles exist in all kinds of natural phenomena; that they appear in human affairs is a reasonable hypothesis.

Through his principle of limits, Sorokin provides a good explanation of how cycles can occur in sociocultural systems. Sociocultural systems are divisible into two opposing types: sensate and ideational. Each flowers and develops its potential, which is then exhausted as the system moves to extremes. Opposing system elements accumulate until the system breaks down and is transformed into its opposite. Although Sorokin feels that his historical, empirical results show only fluctuation and not cyclic periodicity, his theory is fundamentally cyclic.

Is the conflict helix a cyclic theory? The balancing, balance, disruption, rebalancing phases of the helix indeed appear to be cyclic. For people or groups in continuous contact, the interactions they experience seem to move through cycles of conflict and equilibrium, of which the helix appears to be an excellent explanation.

But we are dealing with a spiral, not a periodic process. All other things constant, as people move through the conflict, balance, conflict, balance process, they are learning. Each balance is not de nova but is partially based on the experience of previous balances and conflicts. Thus if a marriage withstands the stresses of new children or in-laws moving in, or such crises as severe sickness or loss of job, it moves toward more stable and durable structures of expectations. In other words, the amplitude of the cycle decreases while the period increases in time.

To be sure, few interactions are isolated. Exogenous events constantly influence the balance underlying a structure of expectations. Inflation, unemployment, an invention, or the rise of an unusually gifted leader may disrupt a balance of powers. Nonetheless, through experience people learn to adjust, their expectations stabilize, and they are less prone to conflict.

But generations die. And with them go personal structures of expectations. New ones come into being with new interests, new perspectives, and a need to balance anew. Surely new generations inherit the expectations of the older through culture and social institutions. However each generation must reinterpret these structures through its own perspectives, thus initiating new social processes and determining new balances through conflict.

It is thus that the life of an individual reflects a helix, but the long-term life of a social system may be more periodic.

This is pure conjecture, however, and we need more analyses of historical change to establish what generational cycles exist. At the manifest societal level some generations are blessed with periods of relative peace and harmony, while others are condemned to continuous troubles, strife, unrest, and violence. Beneath this surface, cyclic patterns may tie into the generational turn over and the initiation of societal conflict processes by newly mature individuals.9 An historical birdseye view shows the fluctuation of sensate and ideational cultures, of peace and war, revolution and integration, democracy and tyranny, and, above all, the to and fro of the incessant class war between the ins and outs, the rich and poor. In this macro-, cross-generational view, the conflict process seems to be cyclic. 


* Scanned from Chapter 8 in R.J. Rummel, Conflict In Perspective, 1977. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.

1. See also Sorokin (1969:481-482).

2. The empirical evidence is given in Sorokin (1937-1941, Vol. III). It is abridged in Sorokin (1957, Chapters 32-35) and summarized and supplemented with additional corroboration in Sorokin (1969, Chapters 31-33).

3. This holds also for successful versus unsuccessful wars (Sorokin, 1957:597).

4. Sorokin also attributes murder and the fluctuation in severity of criminal punishment to the breakdown of social relations and transition periods (1969:513-514).

5. Sorokin is talking here about internal disturbances, but the essence of his overall conclusions leaves no doubt that this would apply to war as wen.

6. Sorokin consistently ignores the dynamics of power. The active use of social power to achieve one's ends, the balancing of different interests through the assertion of power, the role of capability and credibility, and the support and implementation of social values and norms given by a particular configuration of powers between ruled and rulers, find little reflection in his work. He takes a consensual or equilibrium view of society. Consensus over values and norms develops, somehow, and unifies society.

7. Many of the elements of Johnson's theory can be seen in Gurr's (1970) model of violence and its underlying frustration-aggression assumption discussed in Section 3.2 of Chapter 3. Johnson assumes no such psychological basis and treats the root causes as sociological, as we see later.

8. See, for example, Simon (1957), Coleman (1964), and Rashevsky (1949).

9. From data that do not appear cyclic, one cannot assume that cycles are lacking. Underlying cycles, in their joint effects, can produce noncyclic movements and even a linear trend.

For citations see the Vol. 3: Conflict in Perspective REFERENCES

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