Uncovering meanings and underpinnings of conflict


Although 'conflict' is a word used frequently, its hidden meanings and underpinnings are not easily uncovered. This video, produced by Xchange Perspectives, outlays the thoughts of the 2008 EPU students on conflict, its forms, ways to transform it and the role of each one of us in turning conflict into opportunity.

Watch the 'What is conflict?' video.



Individuals are the outcome of their experiences shaping each and everyone in a unique manner, making each individual hold different and diverse views on all kinds of socio-political situations. Our backgrounds lead us to see things in different ways. Hence different viewpoints are inevitable. On top of those ‘natural differences’ there are also differences brought about by a range of other dimensions. Status, power, wealth, age, the role assigned to our gender, belonging to a specific social group, etc. These positions in society often mean that people want different things, even though they are in the same situation. Hence goals clash, are incompatible, or seemingly incompatible, and thus conflict can be born. The way conflict is viewed as well differs: Conflict is either a problem to overcome or a resource, leading to a wider understanding of problems and improvement of situations. The important thing to remember is that conflicts are not inherently violent. Conflicts happen when people’s goals either clash, or seem to clash.
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For a media professional to have a positive impact on violent conflict, he or she has to understand it properly first. A sophisticated understanding of conflict is available but few media people know much about it. Journalists make news reports on violent conflict as it happens often without an appreciation of the root causes, knowledge of the different kinds of conflict, or awareness of how it can end. As the conflict analyst Johan Galtung observes, it is like describing an illness without reporting on what causes it and without reporting on the medicines that can cure it. A widely accepted definition of ‘Conflict’: “Conflict is the relationship between at least two parties (individuals or groups) who have, or who think they have, incompatible objectives, needs and interests.” 

Conflict is a widespread phenomenon, and comes in many different types (political, social, economic, religious etc.) all of which may or may not result in violence. They can also be categorised according to the groups or individuals involved (generations, castes, ethnicities, nationalities, etc.). Equally, some specialists describe conflicts according to different phases, distinguishing, for example, ‘pre-conflict’, ‘confrontation’, ‘crisis’, ‘resolution’ and ‘post-conflict’. These categories can be useful because they allow us to analyse a situation, but we must not forget that conflicts evolve; conflicts are not static, they transform and even superimpose themselves one on top of another, altering over time depending on events.

Conflicts are often caused by more than one of the factors mentioned above. Indeed it is important for the media to remember and to recognise that conflicts are usually the result of a combination of impulses, desires, needs, beliefs and perceptions. In violent conflicts, there are often multiple perceptions of causes; they are almost never simple tugs-of-war between two groups. Most violent conflicts result from a whole collection of sometimes widely differing and incompatible views, ideas, ideals and perceptions. Conflicts can also result from the clash of beliefs with facts. Female circumcision or female genital mutilation is one such example – even the different ways of describing the practice demonstrate that it is a conflict issue. In this case the clash is between cultural traditions (values), and the physical consequences of the practice (facts).

Presenting practitioners with the facts of its physical impact has convinced many that the practice needs to be changed, and/or eradicated. Another view of conflict introduces this latter as a failure of connection and collaboration, an inability to understand our essential interconnectedness and the universal beauty of our human spirit. This view is particularly insightful as it goes beyond blaming the occurrence of the conflict on one or the other, and instead, sees conflict as an expression of a need: The need to reconnect with humanity. Most lasting changes in a society are brought about by questioning and exchanging perspectives on the merits of the changes, which inherently expose a difference in opinions, a perception of clashing in goals and desires. Thus, this disagreement or conflict is an integral part of everyone’s lives. If a conflict is approached from a healthy and peaceful perspective, the parties will develop a common approach about the speed and dimension of the changes they want. If the conflict is viewed negatively and acted upon with anger, mistrust or hate, it has greater chances of turning violent.


Text by: Dominik Lehnert 2010 (This is an excerpt of 'Media for Peace - a holistic framework for action'. For more information please contact us.)

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