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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
8. Conflict as a Process and the Conflict Helix
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 7

Cross-Pressures, Overpopulation,
Anomie, And Conflict*

By R.J. Rummel

I would... argue that it is useful to look at our own national life in these terms. If we examine the smaller groups which make up our vast and complex society, it is easy to see that divisions of interest and loyalties within any one group prevent it from standing in absolute opposition to other groups and to the society at large.
---- Gluckman, 1955:23-24

This chapter examines a few additional sociocultural hypotheses about the basis or causes of social conflict. My purpose is not to provide a comprehensive examination of the literature dealing with them, but to characterize each hypothesis and show its relationship to the conflict helix. The hypotheses concern cross-pressures, population, and anomie.


A favored hypothesis that emerges in many guises is that we can be cross-pressured by our varied interests.1 The interests may be contrasting or even antagonistic, as when I want to work on this book and go to the beach. They may be latent in unbalanced statuses (low wealth and high power), in contradictory roles (a superordinate in one group and a subordinate in another), in multiple group memberships (being a Catholic, a physicist, and a Republican), in multiple relationships (friends, family), or in personal dilemmas (being a husband and a homosexual). The essence of the cross-pressures notion is that interests pushing in opposite and diverse directions weaken our strength of purpose, undercut firm conviction or resolve, and facilitate compromise or concession.

This basically psychological view is carried to the level of societies by arguing that societies that enable a variety of conflicting and contrasting groups and interests to coexist drain off conflict through the fragmentation and segmentation of individual interests. Conflicts cannot polarize factions, oppositions do not become intense. Individuals do not become engaged in a battle over particular interests, simply because their social interests are segmented, confused, and contradictory. On the other hand, if interests begin to coalesce into one societal cleavage, forming a conflict front that traverses society and divides groups and individuals into opposing clusters of homogeneous interests, conflict will be intense, violent, and possibly revolutionary.

This notion is central to my perspective. Where interests freely form and conflict, structures of expectations are based on mutual adjustments; there is a hubbub of continuous conflict in society as diverse and contradictory interests balance, work out differences, and establish a momentary modus vivendi for their coexistence. In the field of diversity lies conflict, but a unifying conflict. Cross-pressures operate at their maximum when field processes are given the widest scope. We then are buyers and sellers, workers and consumers, bureaucrats and citizens, superordinates and subordinates. We are dominant and subordinate; we win and lose.

But let antifields (coercive organizations) form, which weaken and eliminate cross-pressures, consistently placing the same people in the same dominant and subordinate relationships, and there is the making of class domination and eventual class struggle, dividing society. For interests will begin to polarize around support or opposition to the status quo. Interests previously fragmented, such as religion, career, party, and family, begin to divide along the we-they dichotomy. Such is the case in totalitarian societies, where all important social issues are a matter of state control and regulation, where all society is one clearly structured antifield, a coercive organization. All interests are a matter of supporting or opposing the status quo--the authoritative structure. Cross-pressures certainly exist within the segmented and isolated regions left to field processes, but at the societal level a totalitarian society is divided by antagonistic class interests whose intensity would destroy it--disrupt its one sovereign structure of expectations--if not held in check by countervailing coercion and force, by terror, mass execution, and pervasive concentration and "work" camps.

The fluidity of balances, the multiplicity of structures of expectations, the diversity and separation of antifields, attest to cross-pressures; the singularity of an antifield and the carving up of field processes within it shows the struggle of two interests: to rule versus to overcome.


A favored hypothesis is that conflict is a result of population pressure. Too many people make too many demands on each other and create intolerable frustrations, thus provoking social conflict. A solution is to halt population growth and better distribute existing populations. The attractiveness of this belief is a mystery, since history provides a profusion of counterevidence. Violence, civil war and war, revolutions and pogroms all appear at one time or another among both densely and sparsely populated peoples. Nomads of the empty desert, horsemen of the wide steppes, traders on the limitless ocean have been involved in intense conflict no less than people in the most populous areas of the world. The most extreme acts of social violence--the extermination of whole populations, races, religions, or classes of cities and regions--cannot be localized by population density. Modern Russia and China, as well as ancient Greece, Gaul, Assyria, Persia, and Mongolia, Japan and the United States, Mexico and France, the British Isles and Italy--virtually no society in the broad sweep of history has escaped the most intense social cleavages and violence.

Surely, variation in population density cannot account for this.2 But without recourse to history, and on purely theoretical grounds, population density can have no consistent force. Population number is an objective, quantitative variable. Its importance in human affairs stems not from pure numbers alone, but from the meaning, values, and norms involved in the number of people. Crucial is the subjective significance of people, and this is a matter of culture and associated structures of expectations. As people grow in number, social needs and demands change. An increasing division of labor accommodates larger numbers, and multiple groups reflect and regulate their interests. All this is evolutionary, a matter of continual conflict, balancing, and a multiplicity of structures of expectations. But nothing inherent in the numbers argues for more, or less, intense or violent conflict. A city of ten million may have more, or less, intense conflict than a city of ten thousand. Societies like those in Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, or the United Kingdom may be theoretically more or less internally violent than societies like those in Laos, Venezuela, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Canada, or Libya. What matters is whether the multiple expectations merge into one dominating antifield with a class structure of ins and outs. This defines the lines of intense struggle that can occur in sparsely settled or densely peopled territories.

The focus on population density as a cause of conflict is but a manifestation of an attitude prevalent in contemporary life. It is a belief in material, objective causes of human action, whether they be population, technology, poverty, climate, or urban blight. My argument is that such objective conditions are important insofar as they have meaning and values for us within our culture and individual perspectives. Moreover, even if important to us, such conditions are not causes of conflict but are particular aspects of our conflict structures, situations, balancing of powers, and structures of expectations with others. In short, the role of population density is an empirical and not a theoretical matter. It involves a specific case, not the general conflict process.

We conflict by virtue of our interests opposing those of others. No objectification of these interests is implied. Indeed, no objective conditions or facts may correspond to these interests. They may be wholly idealistic or imaginary as in conflicts over utopian futures; wholly normative, as in conflicts over how society should be run; wholly theological, as in conflicts over the number of angels in heaven.

Even the most dangerous of social conflicts, that of classes, is of authority, of power. And this is a particularly psychological and social question of legitimacy and the normative order, of the right to command. There are no general objective conditions here. Class is a normative relationship, not a matter of objective wealth, poverty, resources, or the like. Even property, often considered to be objective or material, is a normative right. The social meaning of property is as a right of control and command, and major conflict is found to occur where this right has been called into question.


Another hypothesis, developed to its fullest in the work of Durkheim (Suicide, 1951) and part of the contemporary consensual-equilibrium perspective on society, is that conflict results from a lack of normative integration into society. Criminals, delinquents, and radical groups have not been properly socialized or have lost their normative compass. Because of high family and personal mobility or rapid change in aspects of society, some individuals do not share the dominant norms, and they lack a sense of community, of belonging. Unguided by socially shared norms, they are uncertain and confused, prone to frustration and insecurity. Social conflict is then a manifestation of unintegrated individuals, of anomie.

There ismuch substance to this view, which on the sociocultural level provides understanding of the historical movement of revolution and war, as shown by Sorokin (1937-1941).3 We commonly experience the problems of orienting ourselves when immersed in a strange culture, either by traveling to another country or by participating in a different group. Without a knowledge of or sense for the prevailing meanings, values, and norms, we are uncertain, hesitant, insecure, and plagued with misunderstandings and misperceptions. We find it difficult to satisfy our interests, and this can lead to a feeling of opposition, of being put upon unjustly or irrationally. This feeling is heightened when we are members of groups or societies whose fundamental norms and values oppose our own, as a Protestant in a dominant Catholic culture, a leftist at a business convention, or a conservative in an American political science department. Normative isolation and loss of bearing is certainly a source of conflict.

How is anomie, then, related to the conflict helix? Under conditions of anomie, the relevant structure of expectations within which people interact is strained; it no longer represents a balance of capabilities, interests, and wills. In anomie there is an incongruent structure of expectations, primed for a trigger provoking a balancing of powers and the creation of a new structure. Extensive crime and disorder, extensive disobedience and "immoral" behavior are signs that the societal consensus--the societal structure of expectations--is inadequate. It is doubtful whether incremental adjustments can save such a structure. Social breakdown and violence is the more likely mechanism for forcing norms and expectations into line with contending interests and their powers.

Through our conflict signal dissatisfaction with existing rights and privileges. Through our social conflict we develop a working relationship with others and establishes our own rights. Through suicide or reflexive violence (an emotional lashing out), we express our powerlessness to alter the status quo.4 Through all our social conflicts, dominating social groups are altered, and what was anomie at one moment becomes consensus with a new structure of expectations. 


* Scanned from Chapter 7 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. For an excellent empirical analysis and overview of the literature, see Sperlich (1971).

2. Population density was included in many of the empirical studies described in Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix (Part IX) and generally was statistically independent of conflict manifestations. Empirical research provides no consistent basis for the belief that population pressure causes social conflict.

3. Sorokin's view is considered in more detail in Section 8.1 of Chapter 8.

4. See Rollo May (1972), who argues that powerlessness is the source of personal violence.

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

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