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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
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 32

Societies, Politics,

By R.J. Rummel

The use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment; but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again: and a nation is not governed, which is perpetually to be conquered
---- Edmund Burke, "The Thirteen Resolutions," Second Speech on Conciliation with America

The conflict helix is a process of conflict which originates in the sociocultural space of meanings, values, norms, status, and class. It is at one time a structure, the opposition of attitudes, at another a situation, the opposition and awareness of different interests. It may be latent until the will initiates action, or resolved through abnegation or resignation of interests. Or it may be manifest as opposing interests strive to overcome and balance each other. In any case, conflict eventuates in a balance of interests, capabilities, and wills--in a structure of expectations enabling solidary and contractual interactions, producing order, and ensuring correct social predictions. But eventually such structures and changes in the underlying balance become incongruent, leading to disruption by some trigger event. A new process of conflict then ensues, resolving in a new balance that is built on the previous ones.

Thus is the conflict helix. All societies are the outcome of such a conflict process, all consist of structures of expectations, all are built on multiple and overlapping balances of powers among individuals. What general conclusions can we then draw for societal level conflict and violence?


Societies comprise a general structure of expectations, which is divided into many different structures, some overlapping, some nested, some independent. Religion, family culture, educational institutions, economic and political systems are such different structures. Each is formed through conflict and may be disrupted through conflict. Moreover, each is itself a complex of substructures of expectations, some being formed or dissolved (as in an East Coast shipping strike within the maritime substructure, which is within the transportation substructure, which is within the economic structure). Thus, conflict and violence may occur in any structure at any level; it may be absent from any structure at any level. Such has been our experience. As social animals we find conflict in the home, in our church, in our job, in our club. But we also find periods of accord, harmony, order.

Structures of expectations may be general sets of understandings and behavior which remain fairly stable while substructures are being formed. Thus, the balance of powers constituting the American political system held firm during the subordinate power struggle called Watergate, which resulted in a new subbalance symbolized in Nixon's resignation and the swearing in of Ford as the new President of the United States. Manifest conflicts can occur randomly with regard to general structures of expectations, in that they involve at separate times separate substructures.

Moreover, conflict is specific to a particular structure of expectations (as a riot over food distribution procedures or tax collections). Its manifest occurrence, however, is a function of the proper trigger event. Trigger events, from the perspective of a specific structure of expectations, are random events (as the arrest of a black by a white policeman may spark a neighborhood riot).1 Their probability of occurrence depends on the gap between the structure and the underlying balance (Section 29.5 of Chapter 29), but their actual occurrence at a specific time is in general unpredictable.2

Finally, when we consider conflict manifestations for society as a whole, in fact, we are aggregating many different manifestations for many different structures of expectations. Thus, a large number of riots for the United States will reflect the process of disruption and formation of a variety of structures of expectations. Some structures may be similar, such as the racial, social, and political structures in large and separate Northern urban areas, but many riots will relate to quite different structures (as concerning the military draft, industrial anti-strike activities, or anti-religious textbooks in primary schools). The aggregation of conflict data for a society randomizes manifest conflict in a society with respect to any specific structure of expectations. This is true also for aggregate conflict manifestations across societies.


Societies and their environment are always changing, whether expectations are in a state of harmony or disruption. Most crucial to the probability of conflict is that change influencing and affecting the interests, capabilities, or wills underlying a structure of expectations. Change in technology, economic development, education, communications, and so on can intensify and alter interests, produce differences in capability, and enhance or weaken will. They widen the gap between these elements and expectations, and increase the likelihood that some trigger will disrupt its structure. Simply put, change in the premises of a structure of expectations increases the probability of conflict. Change which alters power relationships promotes conflict.

A balance of powers may be altered without manifest conflict. No trigger event may have disrupted the structure of expectations, or the structure may be sufficiently integrated to withstand considerable imbalance or shocks. However, if change continues, eventually even small events can cause participants to reorder the status quo. There is no one to one relationship between change and manifest conflict, only a probabilistic one. And this relationship depends on what is changing.

There are three kinds of change of interest. The first is in the type of society. A transformation from traditional to exchange societies, or from traditional to coercive, vastly alters the configuration of power across society--the very basis of power and the central status quo of society. This is then the period of greatest conflict and violence for societies as their individuals reorder their statuses and class memberships.

Shifts in type of society also produce different values, meanings, and norms, a different culture. Basic philosophical principles are modified, the view of truth and ethics shifts, and the legal basis of society is altered in a breakdown of the crystallized cultural system and the formation of a new system. Through history, the change of a society from one type to another has involved the most violence.

A second kind of change occurs in the social consciousness of individuals. Education, travel, military duty, communication (radio, television, newspapers), and so on increase an individual's awareness of other places and people, other statuses and life styles, other interests. Expanding consciousness may lead to new aspirations and create a sense of personal, group, and class injustice. And such consciousness may also increase an awareness of other individuals similarly placed and of one's own capabilities and the weakness and strength of opponents.

For society as a whole, therefore, if education, communication, and so on are relatively little, we should expect that as the rate of education and communication increase, so should the probability of conflict as people's new interests strain structures of expectations. Manifest conflict may not occur because of the strength of opposing forces, such as government repression, but if such coercion is held constant, manifest conflict should increase with the rate of education. For those already educated and conscious of the world, however, additional education and communication should have only a marginal effect, unless they have been indoctrinated into one ideology and all communications stress one perspective, as in communist societies. Then newly available alternative views and facts should have tremendous impact. For this reason, among others, totalitarian societies maintain tight control over the content of education and all communication media.

A third change is in the economy of a society. Economic development--a multifold increase in society's complexity and diversity of labor, its productive and consumptive capacity, in its wealth--forms a multitude of structures of expectation, diverse, overlapping, and crosscutting. This multitude and potentiality for easy creation and disruption with minimal conflict (such as quitting a job), allows us to satisfy more easily our many interests and to be cross-pressured by our different class-positions in many groups.

We therefore should expect that the faster the rate of increase in economic development, the less the probability of conflict. The reason is that a variety of capabilities and potential structures of expectations are being created, and interests actualized. This diversity should make the balancing and compromise among specific interests easier.

Only when changing interests are blocked, that is, when a growing social consciousness in society is not adjusted to, will the probability of manifest conflict increase. Thus, the ratio of the growth in social consciousness in society to its growing development provides a measure of the likelihood of conflict. This is a measure of the rigidity of the status quo.


Conflict is of power, and the over-all structure of expectations constituting a state shapes the nature and direction of manifest conflict. While independent of the separate structures of expectations across societies (Section 32.1), conflict is closely related to the type of society. For whether a society is authoritative, coercive, or exchange will fundamentally determine the causes and conditions affecting our interests and capabilities, and our will. That which shapes our interests and power will pattern our conflict. "Behind every quarrel, hidden deep within the issues of every dispute, lies a fundamental authority issue" (Nieburg, 1969).

Especially important in this regard is the coercive power that the elite are willing to employ. In modern states where the political system keeps and enforces the general structure of expectations, conflict is often between the political elite and those attacking their policies or the status quo. The more dominant the political system in social affairs, the more social conflict swirls around the extensions of government control. Even everyday questions about the price of bread or gasoline, whether to change one's job, or hiring a baby-sitter become matters of government policy. All modem state-societies are antifields to some extent, and the front between antifield and social field is the region of potential social storms.

Whether in fact conflict will be manifest is another question. This depends on the force and terror3 the elite are willing to employ. Repression raises the costs of opposing the elite. However across societies there is a curvilinear relationship between elite force and manifest conflict.

Where force is little used, the elite have high legitimacy and conflicts can be adjusted through traditional institutions. The increase in the use of force signals a decrease in legitimacy or a blockage of the demands of those seeking a change in policies or status quo. As legitimacy decreases, the political system increasingly is seen as the source of social ills and a change in elite or system as the solution. Thus, manifest conflict and repression will at first be positively related. However, if repression becomes extensive, elite terror widespread, and force systematically applied, then overt opposition becomes suppressed. Total repression is effective in establishing a conflict-free structure of expectations, as the surface harmony of the Soviet and Communist Chinese systems show, and as is clear from the harmony of concentration camps, slave labor camps, and prisons.


Since conflict is shaped by power, and we can distinguish three main types of power balances within states--exchange, authoritative and coercive--then statelevel conflict manifestations should be three dimensional. Each type of power should generate a distinct range of conflict behavior.

Moreover, each dimension of conflict should be associated with a particular type of state. The following sections will briefly describe what these types of conflict should be.


In exchange societies, conflict should be pluralistic. That is, each conflict should concern a relatively isolated group, event, or issue. Since structures of expectations are overlapping and diverse, their formation or disruption should present a multiple spectrum of conflict manifestations, such as strikes, protests, demonstrations, riots, attacks on property, and so on. Issues may occasionally reach societal proportions, but the freedom to remove political elite and veto or influence public policy, and the conflict aggregating and defusing function of competitive political parties, provide mechanisms for conflict bargaining and compromise far short of revolutionary violence. Moreover, multiple group and class membership create cross-pressures inhibiting the formation of a societal wide conflict front.

Pluralistic conflict is therefore intrinsic to the interactions and change within exchange societies. It is the normal friction associated with the multiple building and dissolution of implicit and formal contracts and groups in a free society. In an exchange society, conflict manifestations over-all will be at a constant but low level. If one measures the intensity of conflict from one state to the next, where such a measure takes into account the number of killed in domestic violence, the number of revolutions, coups, riots, assassinations, and so on, then this measure of societal strife should be inversely related to the degree to which a society is based on exchange power.


Authoritative societies are governed by the weight of tradition. Elite are granted the right to govern on the basis of widely shared religious or ethical principles. The political system is based on a consensus, on a legitimacy. Conflict behavior may occur between groups, bandit groups may prey on outlying villages, food riots may occur in time of scarcity, and peasants may revolt against exploitive landlords, even in an authoritative society isolated from external sources of change. Moreover, coups or palace revolutions may settle ambiguities in elite succession, or replace a ruler who has lost his legitimacy or "mandate from heaven."

Indeed, authoritarian political systems seem to undergo a cycle of revolts which settle successional disputes. These may become quite violent, without attacking or bringing into question the legitimacy of the over-all order (Gluckman, 1963).

A problem for many authoritative states is that they are not one consensual society, but often two or more different subsocieties balanced against each other within a common political system. Such is the case with many African states, such as Nigeria.

These divisions are communal, often based on racial, language, and tribal homogeneity and territorial separation. Where activities within communal divisions are left alone by the state, conflict will not occur. But where authoritarian rulers try to extend their legitimacy over such communities, violence is often the result. This conflict is acerbated if class and racial-language-tribal cleavages are the line of class division. If one communal division comprises the elite and the others the ruled, then violence is highly probable.

Thus, authoritarian states will manifest communal and traditional conflict. This conflict behavior will comprise coups, revolutions, and successional revolts of communal subsocieties as well as apolitical banditry, family or class feuds, guild confrontations, and the like.


In coercive societies, repression is thorough and total. Possible leaders of political opposition are jailed or disappear, and subjects who voice or hint at dissent may be tortured and sent off to a slave labor camp for many years. Under these conditions, conflict manifest in exchange or authoritative systems will not occur. When the elite use overwhelming coercive power arbitrarily and effectively, overt opposition by its subjects cannot build up. But two varieties of conflict do occur. First, there is the violence of the elite (or government) against the masses. Execution, torture, jailing, and forced labor camps are endemic and widespread. Here, the number involved and the number killed will exceed those affected by all forms of strife in authoritative or exchange systems.4

A second variety of conflict occurs among the elite themselves. Instability is common and elite executions, purges, and demotions are the standard way of maintaining power and policies. Within totalitarian political systems, the balance of political power comprises different elite factions, among which conflict is settled through eliminating or disarming the opposing elite.

Conflict in coercive societies is manifested by class terror and repression, and elite purges.


In summary, following through on the implications of the conflict helix for states, I have made seven empirical generalizations. To wit:

(1)Conflict manifestations are random regarding specific societal structures of expectations.

(2)Change produces societal conflict.

(3)Power shapes conflict.

(4)Overt conflict has three manifest dimensions.

(5)Exchange societies manifest pluralistic conflict.

(6)Authoritative societies manifest communal/traditional conflict.

(7)Coercive societies manifest elite repression /purges.

These are very broad, bereft of much detail at this point, and on the order of directional propositions.

They emphasize the power basis of conflict, the role of interests and expectations, and the importance of the societal context. The next chapters (beginning with Chapter 33) will subject these propositions to empirical test, and in the process flesh out their bones.

Note that these eight propositions ignore frustration, deprivation, poverty, anomie as conditions or causes of conflict, which are the social science folk beliefs of our time. The next volume, Vol. 3: Conflict In Perspective, will consider these popular explanations of social conflict, and relate their arguments to the conflict helix and propositions. 


* Scanned from Chapter 32 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. Simply consider the randomness of the Watergate exposure, ranging from the happenstances associated with the break-in procedures and discovery by the guard, to the digging by two Washington Post reporters, to a President who tape recorded his conversations.

2. Given the gap between Nixon on the one hand and the Congress-media-intellectual balance, a serious anti-Nixon event was bound to be explosive (a similar affair would probably have had little impact on Kennedy's presidency). But who could have predicted a Watergate?

3. I am using the term force as I previously defined it (Section 19.7 of Chapter 19). By terror I mean the killing, torturing, and jailing of thousands as a way of coercively controlling the rest.

4. Students of comparative conflict are inclined to focus on anti-regime, government, or state violence, to the exclusion of violence by the elite against their subjects. Thus, for example, data on conflict behavior showed the Soviet Union to be relatively free of violence in spite of the fact that minimal estimates for the period from 1930 to 1950 suggest that at least 20 million were executed, or died in prison, slave labor camps, and directly from elite decrees (Conquest, 1968). And such is continuing, albeit on a smaller scale since Stalin's death (Solzhenitsyn, 1973). Compare this with the total number of 750,000 estimated deaths for all civil strife for 114 nations, from 1961 to 1965, or 187,500 average per year (Gurr, 1969). This is far less than the average deaths of at least a million per year for the Soviet Union alone.

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

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