Monday, 14 September 2009

toolkit: conflict theory

The theory of how an individual can exert influence and control over others, therefore affecting the social order by attempts to maximise the benefits of being them.  It proposes ongoing conflict between different classes of individual and different levels of society.  It assumes the following is true...
  • Competition over scarce resources (money, land, goods, leisure activities, attractive partners) is at the heart of all social interactions within a society.
  • Structural inequalities (variation in levels of power and reward) within a social structure and those who have more power or resources desire to maintain things as they are (keeping the status quo).
  • Conflict instead of adaptation occurs between competing social classes rather than adaptation; revolution rather than evolution.
  • War can unify a society and that conflict is perceived as a source of power by those motivated by self-interest rather than altruistic means.
Conflict theory proposes the following arenas where conflicts take place and these conflicts are often about using power to reshape a society so that it is more to an individual or group's liking.
  • Class.  The primary disparity is between ownership of property although those in power will enforce their authority by other means including affiliation, alliances and if necessary by the sword.
  • Race/Ethnicity.  Where structural inequality (see above) exists between diverse groups then conflict follows, particularly where one group has an educational advantage, greater prestige or power.
  • Gender.  Even within a culture stratification of status may be applied to a specific gender leading to patriarchal or matriarchal societies such as the mythical Amazons.
  • Regional.  Drawn from assumptions made by one regional group about another, this is xenophobia; regions may be as small as neighbourhoods or as large as nations.
  • Religious.  The stratified nature of religion makes it an obvious choice, ranging from crusades against unbelievers to inquisitions of heretics and persecution of minorities who do not conform to orthodoxy.
The conflict within these arenas may take various forms.
  • War.  The ultimate expression of conflict theory; violent revolutions and genocide are two examples of the extremity of conflict theory.  While Karl Marx argued that any system generates the seeds of it's own destruction it is also true such seeds need ground in which to flourish; failure leads to domination of the subordinate class.  Or annihilation.
  • Dispute.  Ranging from industrial action to protest marches to dumping tea in the harbour over taxation, dispute is a renegotiation of an existing arrangement between different classes.  Sometimes the renegotiation is successful; other times it can escalate to war or lead to persecution and domination as seen in the backlash against The Pilgrimage of Grace.
  • Domination.  No, not like that!  More along the lines of post-Culloden Scottish Highlands, where the dominant group penalise behaviours of a subordinate group to discourage them (be it by law or force if need be).  An example is the deracination of Indian nations in the 19th century, previously mentioned here.
Why do we care about this?  The desire for self-advancement is a core theme in games and certain stories.  Conflict is a key driver in any drama and social dynamics are nearly universal in story settings and provide both context and motivation for any character.


  1. More than that... conflict is the engine of progress.

    There was one comic book series in particular that changed my whole belief system. It answered the classic question for me of “Why Do Bad Things Happen?”

    It was Deadpool's "Dead Reckoning" series.

    It revolved around an alien entity named “Mithras” who was going from planet to planet throughout the universe bringing perfect peace and harmony to the inhabitants of those planets. As it approached Earth it was revealed to Deadpool that the way Mithras was achieving this “perfect peace and harmony” was by robbing all living beings on the planet of their free will. Any decision that Mithras made everyone on the planet automatically accepted. Nobody thought for themselves. This ended all indecision, conflict, war, and strife among everyone. Mithras called all the shots and everyone obeyed.

  2. Deadpool is then confronted with an important decision. By killing Mithras he potentially robs humanity of this peace and harmony, but if he doesn’t everyone becomes mindless robot slaves. He ultimately chooses to kill Mithras and save humanity’s free will because without it things can never get any better for anyone. He saves free will because without it progress is impossible.

    The logic in the story works like this…

    We all suffer from conflict with one another because we have free will. We all work at cross purposes with one another on some level. The result of this conflict (apart from suffering) is change – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse – but however it comes out the situation is always different on the other end. Things can’t ever get better for anyone – progress can’t occur – without change. Progress by definition IS change. Therefore progress requires conflict to occur and ultimately requires free will as its primogenitor.

    Without free will everyone is a slave, everything is static, everything is death. While conflict is painful, and conflict for conflict’s sake is destruction, it is necessary for better things to happen.

  3. Typically, in the morally "Gray" popular culture we tend to mill around in, it is morally wrong to engage in conflict because you hold on too strongly to your own beliefs. That is to say when it comes to differences between people the only real “Evil” is conflict between those people and the only real “Good” is peace. The truth is that’s not true at all. One might think they're being open minded in order to stay flexible and adapt to any given situation, but it's really just a long term commitment to ideological pacifism.

    It’s like the lyrics to that song “Freewill” by Rush – “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice”. Even if you want to you can never get away from your own ability to decide for yourself.

    On the contrary it can be argued more rightly that the only good that has ever come to this world was the result of people holding tightly to their beliefs and forging ahead regardless of the risk to themselves. Think of the expansion of Greece and Rome into a dark and uncivilized world; think of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the age of Enlightenment in Europe; think of the American Revolution and the American Civil War; think of The End of Nazism, the End of Segregation, and the rollback of Communism in recent times – there are countless examples of this all throughout history and it will go on and on long after we’re gone.

    While conflict is painful, and conflict for conflict’s sake is destruction, it is necessary for better things to happen.

  4. Thanks - you put some work into that! I'm presenting conflict theory here as a tool to provide fuel for stories or RPGs. Each list item has implications on a character, location or scene.

    Sometimes people are unwilling to engage in conflict driven by one of those list items because it takes them outside their comfort level. Yet you can't stay insulated from these issues because they're pervasive, everywhere.

    I'm not entirely convinced by your argument all progress leads to better things. Those things you hail as being the consequences of progress had problems whose origins were also driven by progress and conflict theory.

    Concentration camps, species extinction, slavery, medieval witch hunts, the Crusades - driven by conflict theory and by progress. I agree progress and conflict are inevitable but won't say it's always been for the best.

    There is a price to progress. It's not always right or fair. It just is.

  5. I think that depends on your perception of perfection. Is it something that stands still, or something that constantly improves upon itself?

    Here's a more eloquent interpretation of my take on things.


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