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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
26. Conflict
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 27

Conflict In
The Sociocultural Field*

By R.J. Rummel

It is evident ... that a conflict is always concerned with a distribution of power. Indeed, an exertion of power is prerequisite to the retention of a share in the determination of future relations--as well as for the acquiring or retaining of other benefits perceived as the "reasons" for conflict.
---- North, Koch, and Zinnes, 1960


Conflict is the confrontation of powers. But power takes many forms, as shown in Chapter 19 and Chapter 20. Power can be identive and assertive, altruistic and manipulative, coercive and physical, and so on. Some are intentionally directed, as are assertive and bargaining powers; one is directed wholly towards a person's body, as is force; and others are directed through another self, as are inductive and intellectual powers. All these powers may conflict; all can manifest conflict.

My concern here, however, is social conflict. By definition, social is intentionally taking into account other selves, power is a capability to produce effects, and social power is an intentionally directed capability to produce effects through another person. Social conflict is then the confrontation of social powers.

What does this view imply? First, social conflict is exclusively an aspect of social power. To understand such conflict we must deal at the level of social powers and their dialectics, as power or conflict social theorists have done.

Second, social conflict is not limited to hostile or antagonistic opposition; it is not wholly a clash of coercive powers as often is implied, but of any opposing social powers.1 Thus, the conflict of intellectual powers may be manifested through debating, arguing, or disputing; of bargaining powers through haggling, negotiating, dickering, bartering, or exchanging; of authoritative powers through adjudicating, appealing, or documenting; of altruistic powers through accommodating, obliging, or benefitting. We do not think of altruism (or love) and conflict as joined together, but clashing inductive vectors are a common experience among lovers. For example, consider the possible exchange of lovers over the last piece of cake. "You take it." "No, that's all right, it's yours." "No, I really don't want it." Each really desires it, knows that the other does also, and selflessly tries to give it to the other. Such altruistic conflicts are a common measure of social solidarity.

And third, the existence of violence does not presume an underlying social conflict. To clarify this, some analysis of the concept of violence is required.


In general, violence connotes an intense manifestation of strength, usually involving some severe physical effects as in the violence of a thunderstorm, earthquake, explosion, stampede, and so on. Clearly, it is a manifestation of nature's balancing of powers.

What about violence between people--killing, fighting, beating, rampaging, warring? Are all such manifestations reflections of social conflict--a balancing of social powers? No, and here lies a source of confusion in the literature. We may intentionally try to produce effects through either another's self or his body. We may use threats of force or apply actual deprivations such as torture or a beating to coerce another's will to do what we want. Or we may ignore the other's will and simply use physical force on his body, such as dragging him struggling into a jail cell. Whether it is a case of coercion or of physical force depends on the intent of the user. Violence directed towards coercing another's will comprises either a threat or deprivation, and is the application of coercive power.2 For example, twisting another's arm to make him reveal a secret is coercion, as is beating up another to show what will happen again if he does not yield to your demands. If violence, however, has some purpose aside from another's will, then it is physical power. Such is killing another to be rid of him, or a war of extermination between neighboring tribes.3

Physical force is not social, in that it is not oriented towards another self. Insofar as violence is involved in physical force, then, violence is not social and does not manifest social conflict.4 Violence, of course, may be the result of emotions engendered by conflict and constitute reflex behavior, as in the lover's slap or the family quarrel ending in wild shooting. Or violence can end social conflict, as when one impatient or unhappy with the balancing of social powers resolves the opposition through murder. Thus negotiations between political factions for national leadership may end in a coup d'état or assassination.

Social conflict is an engagement of selves. Violence directed only at objects or bodies is not social. Insofar as violence is a means towards coercing another, it is a manifestation of social conflict.5

As a phenomenon, therefore, human violence is fundamentally ambiguous; whether it constitutes a reflex behavior, physical force, or coercion, whether it manifests social or nonsocial conflict, can be determined only by reading the associated field of expressions, by assessing intentionality.


All social conflicts involve interests. A person's interest is a vector of power; it is his attitude plus its strength towards producing effects. A social power is a social interest, that is, one oriented towards other selves. And social conflict is the opposition and balancing of such interests.

With this understanding, I can relate more specifically my treatment of conflict to prevailing definitions in the literature. Within the psychological field an interest consists of situation, actor, goal and object--an "in this situation I want to do this with that." An interest is part of the dynamic motivational calculus.6 Its strength is generated by our needs, and its content and direction are partially learned from experience and culture, and partially rational.

Fundamentally, an interest is an "I want x," where x can refer to a positive good (I want to end poverty), which involves positive interests, or a negative good (I don't want to die), called negative interests. Coercion, for example, inextricably links two negative interests (I don't want the robber to kill me, but I don't want to give him my money).

Now, definitions of social conflict vary as to whether they emphasize antagonism, tests of power, competition, incompatibility of interests, or mutual awareness of incompatibility. Either part of or implicit in such definitions, however, is the idea of some mutually exclusive good for which two people are consciously competing against each other. The good may be a potential marriage partner, a choice piece of land, a position such as president, or the top grade in class.

There are three kinds of conflicts of interests and, recognizing conflicts as a balancing of powers, seven conditions for a balance. One kind of social conflict occurs when both individuals i and j want some x that is a mutually ungratifiable positive interest, that is, the satisfaction of the interest by one excludes the other (such as conflict over who will be mayor).7 Their vectors of power (interests) are opposing. Let me call this a conflict of congruent interests, in that both desire the same thing. This kind of conflict is often forgotten in the belief that similar interests and values help avoid conflict. This is hardly the case if interests and values involve mutually ungratifiable goods.

A second kind of social conflict consists of i wanting x and j wanting not x. A politician may want to increase social welfare payments, another to decrease them. A child may want candy; her mother may want her to have none. And a scientist may want to publish his findings in a particular journal; but the editor may want to reject them. I will call this a conflict of inverse interests, since the positive interest of one is the negative interest of another.

Finally, a third kind of social conflict occurs when i wants x, and j wants y, where x and y are incompatible. For example, one American may want the United States to remain capitalist while another may want it to become socialist; a husband may want to stay home and rest while his wife wants to go on a family picnic; a student wants to become a poet but his parents want him to be a lawyer. This is a conflict of incompatible interests.

The common ingredient of these three types is the opposition of interests, of capabilities to produce effects, and what discriminates between them is whether the interests involve the same, inverse, or incompatible goods or goals.

Table 27.1

How can conflict end in a balance? To use a more popular phrase, how is conflict resolved? Presented in Table 27.1 are seven ways to balance conflicts of interests. The table should be clear by itself, but some elaboration on Modes I, II, and VII will be useful, since these will be significant in later discussions of conflict in the social field. One way of bringing opposing vectors of interest into balance is if both parties connect these vectors to other interests which are in conflict. That is, some other opposing interests y may also be in conflict. Resolution, or balance, is obtained if the interests are then exchangeable: j gives x to i in exchange for y, or vice versa. Barter systems are based on this fundamental linkage between positive interests, and modern money market systems are exchange systems in this sense. Through any society there are innumerable conflicts of positive, inverse, and incompatible interests between individuals, crosscutting and segmenting individual motivations in diverse directions. The market system, in its ability through exchange to facilitate the easy resolution of individual conflicts, helps prevent their crystallization into system wide cleavages.

A second mode (II) of resolving conflict is through threats. One party links disjunctively the positive interest (such as "I want to keep my wallet") to some negative interest. If you don't let me have x, then I will kill you, burn your house down, or continue twisting your arm. The threat of imposed or continued deprivation, constituting the negative interest, also transforms the positive one ("I want to keep my wallet") into a negative one ("I do not want to give up my wallet"). For it is no longer a question of the power with which i wants x, but rather the power with which i does not want to give up x to j.

These two are not the same. A desire not to give up x upon demand may be quite stronger than the desire to have x to begin with. For one thing, our natural pugnacity and self-esteem are engaged by a threat, thus increasing the power of wanting not to yield x. Secondly, one realizes that giving up x under such circumstances is a sign of weakness which may encourage other such threats in the future. This strengthens the will to combat or endure the threat. Nonetheless, coercion is a time-honored way to resolve conflict, for if the threat of force is disproportionate to the negative interest of i in not giving up x, i will yield. It is thus that governments have always extorted taxes from their citizens.8

Coercion is a polarizing solution. In an exchange, however, both parties satisfy positive interests. The resolution is satisfactory to both, otherwise an exchange could not have been voluntarily concluded. The resulting balance of powers thus stable and specific in being limited to the interests and people immediately involved. With coercion, the resulting balance is unsatisfactory to one party, who continues to harbor an interest in overturning it, and is maintained only by the continued threat of the other. The use of this threat to win x now implies its possible use against other positive interests of i. Indeed, the successful use of coercion against i creates the potential for i to ally his interests with others similarly coerced to jointly oppose j. Of course, j is encouraged to increase his power to coerce this group, which would mean also aligning with others interested in opposing i's group. Thus, coercion carries within its use the tendency to divide, to polarize society. It is the agent of class struggle.

As Table 27.1 shows, there are many ways of resolving conflicts besides exchange and coercion. However, for one reason or another these may be undesirable or unworkable. One can then abdicate the interest. If success does not seem worth the cost, x may be left to the other person. On the other hand, one can resort to naked force. For example, if persuasion, negotiation, and threat of war do not settle a boundary dispute, then the territory may be militarily captured. While coercive power balancing and balances do not necessarily involve force (witness the complex everyday social behavior called driving, regulated by governmental coercive power, without force), the intentional use of force is usually9 the result of such balancing or a breakdown in a coercive balance.

I have classified the confrontation of interests--social conflicts--into those of positive interests, inverse interests, and incompatible interests. There are two other taxonomies of conflicts, aside from types of manifest conflict such as strikes, riots, arguments, and so on. One classifies conflict into the realistic and the unrealistic. Realistic conflict is that of interest, of power, between parties who are aware of the conflict and are intentionally trying to gratify their opposing interest. As I define it, all social conflict is realistic, involving an intentional orientation towards other selves.

Unrealistic conflict is antagonistic behavior resulting from individual frustration, aggression, or pugnacity. It is reflex behavior released along lines of antagonism, such as a family brawl, a race riot, or a wild shooting spree. Unrealistic conflict is not social, and I will have little concern about it in this book.

A second taxonomy divides conflicts by their subject. There are conflicts of facts, of practices, of goods, and of ideas.10 How do these fit into my view? A disagreement over a fact, such as whether a person committed a crime on April 13, 1972, or whether Newton invented the calculus is not a conflict in my terms unless some conflict of interest is generated. It is possible for people to be jointly interested in the truth, as are the ideal scientist or scholar. And truth is not a scarce good, but can be shared without diminishing it by quality or quantity. However, a disagreement over a fact can engage opposite interests, can involve status or esteem. An arrogant style can invoke a desire to be right. Or facts can be crucial to deeply held ideas about what is right and wrong.

Conflicts of practices or rules, what is sometimes called conflicts of rights, concern the correctness or applicability of formal or informal norms. Do regulations governing television apply to cable TV? Are anti-pornography laws constitutional? Is a part-time worker eligible for unemployment compensation? Should a significance test be applied to a correlation coefficient based on a population of cases? Disagreements as to the answers to such questions also can be decided in a disinterested fashion. However, questions of practice often are imbedded in normative frameworks, such as whether government ought to be more involved in regulating society or whether a scientist ought to be governed by methodological rules. Thus, such disagreements become conflicts of interest--conflicts between the wants, desires, and needs of the opposing parties.

Conflicts of goods are conflicts of positive, inverse, or incompatible interests. Two people want the same office; two disagree over a debt; or one wants the Democrats to win an election while the other wants the Republicans to win.

Conflicts of ideas, or ideological conflict, concerns what is right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust. Often, what is meant here is conflict between systems of values or norms which underlie a person being Buddhist, communist, egalitarian, materialist, hedonist, and so on. Such conflicts are always conflicts of interest. They always involve needs, sentiments, the superego, and a person's superordinate goal--always engage a person's motivational calculus and his integrated personality. Conflicts of ideas are pure conflicts of social power. 


* Scanned from Chapter 27 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. "A distinction between conflict and hostile sentiments is essential. Conflict, as distinct from hostile attitudes or sentiments, always takes place in interaction between two or more persons. Hostile attitudes are predispositions to engage in conflict behavior; conflict, on the contrary, is always a trans-action" (Coser, 1956, p. 37). See also Bernard (1957, pp. 38-39).

2. "The threat of violence, and the occasional outbreak of real violence--which gives the threat credibility--are essential elements in peaceful social change not only in international, but also in national communities" (Nieburg, 1962, p. 865). See also Long (1965), who argues that violence is a means of establishing credibility and capability, and therefore communication.

3. This distinction between coercive violence and force is similar to Thornton's (1964, p. 77) distinction between symbolic and instrumental violence. Symbolic acts are directed at persons for their psychological effect, as is terrorism. "The symbolic concept of the terrorist act enables us to make two crucial distinctions: between terror and sabotage and between terror and assassination. Although sabotage is virtually always directed against objects rather than against people, while terrorism is generally directed against people, a distinction cannot be made solely along these lines--for terrorism is occasionally used against objects. The proper distinction--which coincides with the person versus objects distinction in most cases--is to be found in the psychological, rather than the physical objective of the act. If the objective is primarily the removal of a specific thing (or person) with a view towards depriving the enemy of its usefulness, then the act is one of sabotage. If, on the other hand, the objective is symbolic, we are dealing with terror.

"In distinguishing between terror and assassination, the contention again is the symbolic nature of the act. An assassination (or murder) may or may not be carried out publicly. If it is considered desirable merely to remove a certain public figure, a discreet poisoning win fulfill the requirement adequately, but it would not be terroristic."

4. Arendt (1969, p. 56) makes the same point, but in a different language. "To sum up: politically speaking, it is insufficient to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course it ends in power's disappearance. "

5. It is this understanding of violence that underlies Clausewitz's famous saying that "war is nothing but a continuation of political intercourse with an admixture of other means" (1962, p. 255).

Some, however, have interpreted war as force (in my terms) and therefore have taken him to task. For example Friedrich (1969, pp. 165-66) says: "And yet, Clausewitz's own most famous proposition, namely, that war is the continuation of politics by different means, is itself false, or, is not the continuation of politics but rather its abandonment in favor of violence. It would indeed be more correct to say that diplomacy (politics) is the continuation of war by other means. It is when men despair of finding political solutions that they take to arms. This aspect is particularly patent in civil war situations."

The problem here is that war like all violence has two faces. It can be either coercive or force, and which face is manifested depends on a specific war and one's perspective.

6. See Chapter 6.

7. Using a concept from game theory, this has been called zero-sum conflict, where one's gain is the other's loss.

8. Government as the central coercive Power in contemporary societies has thus become the center of conflicts of interest. As Truman (1951, p. 506) asserts, "The institution of government are centers of interest-based power; their connections with interest groups may be latent or overt and their activities range in political character from the routinized and widely accepted to the unstable and highly controversial. In order to make claims, political interest groups will seek access to the key points of decision within these institutions. Such points are scattered throughout the structure, including not only the formally established branches of government but also the political parties in their various units and other interest groups."

See also Key (1953, p. 174): "The principle driving forces in politics are class interests and group interests; they make themselves felt regardless of the kind of government or social organization that exists."

9. At the individual level force may occur in an exchange relationship. A person, frustrated over his inability to work out an acceptable exchange of his x for the other's y, may simply grab y and run.

10. Some, such as Aubert (1963), consider conflicts of interests as different from conflicts of values or facts. It should be clear from my definition that in my terms values and facts infuse interests, and some interests (such as those involving the superego and self-esteem) are pure value-interests. Thus, for me conflicts of interests are of value and facts as well. This is not to deny an important distinction between conflicts over scarce resources, values, and facts but to assert that the distinction is not between interests and values or facts, but between types of interests.

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

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