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Volume 2

Expanded Contents


1. Introduction and Summary
2. The Concept of Field
3. Reality and the Intentional Field
4. Freedom and Intentional Humanism
5. Perceiving Another
6. Intentions, Attitudes, and Interests
7. Perceiving and Behaving
8. Behavior
9. Social Behavior and Interaction
10. Types of Social Interaction
11. The Equation of Social Behavior
12. The Transition to a Sociocultural Field
13. The Sociocultural Space
14. The Field of Social Forces
15. The Sociocultural Field
16. Distances
17. Status Distance
18. Status Distance and Behavior
19. The Fundamental Nature of Power
20. Social Power
21. The Family of Power
22. Social Fields and Antifields
23. Groups and Antifields
24. Class
25. Social Class And the Class-Literature
27. Conflict in the Sociocultural Field
28. The Elements of Social Conflict
29. The Process of Conflict
30. Social Fields and Types of Societies
31. The State and Political System
32. Societies, Politics, and Conflict
33. Societies in Empirical Perspective
34. Testing for the Existence of Exchange, Authoritative, and Coercive Societies
35. Is Conflict Manifest as Theorized?

Other Volumes

Vol. 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field
Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective
Vol. 4: War, Power, Peace
Vol. 5: The Just Peace

Other Related Work

The Conflict Helix: Principles and Practices...

Conflict And Violence page

Democratic Peace page


Chapter 26


By R.J. Rummel

Contradiction is universal, absolute, existing in all processes of the development of things and running through all processes from beginning to end.
---- Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Vol. 2
Being and non-being interdepend in growth;
Difficult and easy interdepend in completion;
Long and short interdepend in contrast;
High and low interdepend in position;
Tones and voice interdepend in harmony;
Front and behind interdepend in company.
----Lin Yutang, The Wisdom of Laotse


The idea of conflict is basic to our understanding and appreciation of our exchange with reality--of human action. Conflict can be treated broadly as a philosophical category denoting the clash of power against power in the striving of all things to become manifest. Or, conflict can be seen simply as a distinct category of social behavior--as two parties trying to get something they both cannot have. Moreover, conflict can be apprehended as a potentiality or a situation, as a structure or a manifestation, as an event or a process.

The concept of conflict is multidimensional; it envelops a family of forms. We select one depending on our analytical purposes and practical problem. Because my concern is to understand conflict as a social field phenomena, I must first consider conflict as a general category. From this most general conception I can work towards comprehending social conflict, and its empirical manifestations.

Reality comprises multiform and interwoven potentialities, dispositions, and powers. What aspect becomes manifest depends on the dialectical confrontation between this reality and our perspective, which is a power, an outward directed vector. What we perceive is the result of the conflict between this vector and reality's inward bearing vector of power (e.g., between a baby's cry and what we are focusing on at the moment).

Such is the view of reality provided by the field approach of this book. What then is conflict? Conflict is a balancing of vectors of powers, of capabilities to produce effects. It is a clash of powers. But note. Conflict is not a balance, an equilibrium, of powers. It is not a stable resultant. Conflict is the pushing and pulling, the giving and taking, the process of finding the balance between powers. Thus, I have favored the term dialectical--the moving back and forth in a field of confrontation--to describe perception. For perception is seldom determinate. It is a continual balancing of outward directed and inward bearing vectors of power, a perpetual conflict.

Most fundamentally, therefore, conflict is correlative to power. Power, simply, is the capability to produce effects; conflict is the process of powers meeting and balancing. To understand what powers become succeed requires comprehending their conflicts; to understand conflict involves untangling the powers involved.

Conflict is therefore universal, as Heracleitus pointed out. Our very experience presupposes conflict in its generation, and our knowledge, apart from its apriori categories, is based on such conflict. Our learning about ourselves, others, and reality, our growth and development, and our increasing ability to create our own heaven or hell, comes through conflict. The desire to eradicate conflict, the hope for harmony and universal cooperation, is the wish for a frozen, unchanging world with all relationships fixed in their patterns--with all in balance. One in which we cannot hope nor plan for a better tomorrow, but can only follow our inevitable course, with the determined ups and downs of a wooden horse on a merry-go-round.


As a balancing of powers, conflict embodies the levels of potentiality, dispositions, or manifestations. Potentiality is what may become; it is the space of possibilities, as the space of a blackboard is the realm of all the two-dimensional figures and forms that may be drawn on it.

Conflict as potentiality is then the space of possible conflicts: the realm of potential opposing vectors of power.

For example, the space of our interests (where interests are vectors of power)1 is a space of potential conflicts; this page of text is a space of potential conflict between the power of these words and the meaning you project onto them; the two-dimensional space of a landscape painting is a potential conflict between the vectors of action in the painting which stand in dynamic tension and the viewer's perspective. Let me call such conflict-potentials a conflict-space. It is the space within which conflict can occur, although at any moment there may be no ongoing conflict.

Our reality, then, is a conflict-space. Even our perception presupposes a conflict between inward directed vectors and our active reaching out to sense and comprehend such reality.

Are all spaces of potentials, then, conflict spaces? Yes, for all potentials may be opposed; all potentialities have inherent in their space the possibility of conflict. Even a one-dimensional space contains the possibility of opposing vectors, as trains headed for collision on a straight railroad track.

But potentiality is only one level of reality. A second is that of dispositions and powers: of potentialities transformed into tendencies toward specificity and their strength to be so manifest. At this level we can discriminate between two facets of conflict: a conflict-structure of those dispositions opposing each other within the conflict space; and the conflict-situation consisting of opposing powers, and their indeterminate balancing. Clearly, some clarification is required.

Reality is a multidimensional space of potentialities and multifold, divergent, congruent, intersecting, and opposing dispositions. Two such dispositions are oxygen and hydrogen, which have the tendency to form a dynamic balance called water. Water itself has the opposing dispositions to become steam or ice. Normally, in water these dispositions form a structure; they exist with little strength towards conflict. Neither heating the water to boiling nor freezing it alters the structure of conflict, although the disposition of water to become steam or ice is manifested. The structure merely indicates the existence of dispositions which have a tendency to conflict. Thus, slaves and masters, proletariat and bourgeoisie, and peasant and landowner comprise structures of conflict, regardless of the strength of their opposing dispositions.

Within a conflict-structure, however, may exist a conflict-situation. This is a situation in which the opposing tendencies are activated--opposing powers are manifest. Consider water again. If water is contained in a pipe ten meters long with one end heated by a torch and the other packed in dry ice, the opposing dispositions to become steam or ice are activated. That is, they have become opposing powers towards manifestation. Similarly, if both slaves and masters share a normative system legitimizing slavery, as was true in classical Greece, then there exists a structure of conflict, but no conflict-situation. However, let a religion spread which emphasizes the equality and freedom of all people and the evils of slavery, and slaves become conscious of their exploitation and the masters become aware of the need to protect their interests. Dispositions have become actual opposing powers: a conflict-situation exists.

The final level of reality is of manifestations. This is the level of manifest conflict, of conflict behavior, where the opposition of powers is specific. For water enclosed in a pipe, the simultaneous heating and freezing of the two ends--the situation of conflict--manifests a rapid circulation of water. This circulation reflects the balancing of powers--the struggle of opposite tendencies--within the water. Likewise, secret meetings among slaves and the organization of an escape route manifest the conflict-situation.

On this we must be careful, however. This process has three facets: opposing attempts to produce effects, that is, opposing powers; the balancing of these powers; and the actual balance of powers. Now the opposing powers create a conflict-situation at the level of dispositions and powers. On this plane the actual balancing, the process of their clashing, may be partially indeterminate, like the unconscious cognitive balancing in a psychological field which partially underlies our perception, or the movement of molecules in the circulating water. However, aspects of this process may become manifest. We perceive the rapidly circulating water in the pipe (assume the pipe is made of a special glass), slaves may riot or demonstrate against their masters.

Consequently, the balancing process occurs both at the level of dispositions and powers and of manifest effects; the process may involve both the conflict situation and manifest conflict. The thunderstorm which manifests the conflict between hot and cold air systems is but the determinate aspect of the balancing of these two systems.

Finally, there is the balance of powers, the momentary equilibrium established between the opposing powers. This balance is manifest, determinate. Much of our perception constitutes such a balance between outward and inward directed powers (as a child's cry may overcome one's absorption in a TV drama). Although water may be a balancing between tendencies to become steam or ice, there is still sufficient balance to manifest the qualities of a liquid. Although there may be a situation of conflict between slaves and masters, a sufficient balance of the opposing powers may exist to manifest the patterns of dominance and subordination.

A balance of powers is no longer a conflict. It is neither a conflict nor manifest conflict. It is a system of manifest effects.

Manifest reality therefore has two forms. Manifestations are either a balancing of powers or a balance of powers. Thus, manifest roles, norms, or practices in society evidence a balance among social powers. A court case, however, involving the legality of a particular rule, say of a regulatory agency, manifests a balancing of powers.

Figure 26.1

To conclude, conflict is a balancing of powers which can be correlated to potentiality, dispositions, and manifestations as shown in Figure 26.1. The levels of reality shown are the categories of being discussed in Chapter 3. The levels of conflict are shown correlative to these, and the dynamics of each level are shown above. Then the ideas of latent and manifest conflict, much used in the contemporary literature on conflict, are shown in their relationship to these levels. Note that the balance of powers is manifest, but not all manifestations reflect a balance of powers. Some comprise a balancing of powers, i.e., manifest conflict.

Figure 26.2

Figure 26.2 shows the logical relationship between the levels of conflict and of reality. The space of potentiality and of conflict are different conceptualizations of the same space. A conflict-structure and conflict-situation are subregions on the level of dispositions and powers. And manifest conflict is a subset of manifestations.

Although these various levels in the two figures appear to be divided into discrete boxes or regions, the lines function only to discriminate concepts. In reality, there is a shading from one level to another, a continuity. Potentiality merges into dispositions and powers. What is manifest may be focused and sharp, specific and determinate at the center, but become gradually hazy and indistinct at the edges such that where manifestation leaves off and disposition begins is unclear. 


* Scanned from Chapter 26 in R.J. Rummel, The Conflict Helix, 1976. 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 Section 19.6 of Chapter 19.

For citations see the Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix REFERENCES

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