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Unearthing the Potential of Social Conflict

By Hala Abu-Maizer



Instances of high uncertainty caused by a shock to our economic and social system create a state of heightened uncertainty and fear. Heightened emotions decrease people’s capacity to absorb and adapt to more stressors and become more sensitive to change taking place around them. This is also true for nations and societies in the context of international development. The COVID-19 pandemic, like many other times of uncertainty has highlighted numerous inefficiencies in our economic and political governance systems, and brought to our attention many unethical medical, political and trade practices at a global scale.


The perceived imminent threat to people’s mortality, general health and livelihoods exacerbated pre-existing tensions and presented a fertile environment for creating new ones. This wave of discontent and social conflict requires us to do a substantial re-examination of the systems we put in place and the modus operandi, in order to undergo a much-needed culture change. It is worth noting that contrast is a constant in our human experience. Wherever there is a pull there will always be a push.


"What enables conflict to become either functional or dysfunctional is the way in which individuals, groups or the collective society choose to approach it and interact with it"

When we recognise that it is in this context of contrast in which our preferences are born, we are more receptive to the idea that conflict can be an agent for positive and harmonious social change. A. Hirschman states that it becomes unlikely for a society to rest in a state of permanent harmony and order. This is especially true when social change challenges consensus based on socially constructed norms and practices that inherently discriminates, marginalise and work on segregating groups of people either directly or indirectly. In this instance, conflict behaviour becomes an integral element operating at the heart of the development and evolution of ideas and norms. When these ideas gather enough consensus within groups and societies, they transform what was once deemed unacceptable or rejected by society, to acceptable and quite normal. What enables conflict to become either functional or dysfunctional is the way in which individuals, groups or the collective society choose to approach it and interact with it.


L. Coser describes the functionality of conflict as keeping the (social or political) system we live in in check and in a state of equilibrium. And that rigid systems harbour a level of inflexibility that could lead to very destructive violent conflict. C.R Mitchell identifies three distinct possibilities in which the benefits can be portrayed as having cohesive and integrative functions. The first framework considers conflict to be functional if the outcomes benefit some or all the parties involved, the second is if it benefits the collective society or global society as a whole, and the third is if it benefits some groups and individuals within the system. Hence, some types of conflict can initiate societal change and redefine the terms of our engagement with certain features of

that system, hence allowing transformations and development to occur within it.


Looking at social conflicts of the past, the Women’s Suffrage Movement (WSM) and subsequently the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) did just that. Social movements born out of conflict, tension and contrast can substantially challenge the global and collective culture and pose a threat to normalised tradition. In hindsight, the WSM had not only granted women in western societies the right to vote, but it also challenged the overall culture around how women are perceived and treated in their societies.


"Economic development and growth usually precede social development because culture, social and behaviour change within society happen at a slower pace"


Palczewski, C.H. (1893-1918). Catherine H. Postcard Archive. University of Northern Iowa. Cedar Falls, IA.

The case made by the WSM and era highlighted the plight of women and called for gender equality and representation from those who hoard power and privilege in society. this is very similar to other social movements that seek to level the playing field like the black lives matter (BLM) movement and the LGBTQ+ equality act amongst others, all taking place in the United States at varying points in time to tackle injustice, inequality and the marginalisation of a group of people within society and the infringement on their most basic rights.Economic development and growth usually precede social development because culture, social and behaviour change within society happen at a slower pace.


R. Siegel stresses this and explains that only through sustained accounts of conflict that new interpretation of the constitution’s meaning arose in the USA. This was facilitated by the amount of resistance that countered it, which perceived this change as a potential threat to aspects of the social life at the time. She highlights that conflict is the main ingredient in constitutional change and represents a feature of change that is central in constitutional development.Hence, this demonstrates that social conflict behaviour through social movements can bring about necessary and needed social change through revising prejudiced laws.


"We need to remember that all the rights we enjoy today on an individual and collective level, and might take for granted, is a direct result of that very ebb and flow of conflict, compromise and change"

The tension between groups of people within society manifested through social movements has the potential of bringing issues to the surface and forcing the collective to acknowledge their exitance and address them. It paves a different way forward through a better approach to problem solving, enhancing communication through finding more clarity in defining shared values, and harbouring a stronger sense of solidarity. We need to remember that all the rights we enjoy today on an individual and collective level, and might take for granted, is a direct result of that very ebb and flow of conflict, compromise and change.


It stands true that we owe our countless privileges and blessings to our predecessors that had fought to establish and keep them at some point in time. Conflict has the potential to be functional as well as productive and serve people on an individual, societal and a global level, when presented through contrast. It can also be central driving element to the development of humanity – economically, socially, politically, technologically and even spiritually. I see that the study of conflict can capture both interpretations and variations of the way humans respond when faced with adversity.




 

References

  • Coser, L. (1957). Social Conflict and the Theory of Social Change. The British Journal of Sociology. 8 (3), 197-207.

  • Hirschman, A. (1994). Social Conflicts as Pillars of Democratic Market Society. Political Theory. 22 (2), 203-218.

  • Mitchell, C.R. (1980). Evaluating Conflict. Journal of Peace Research. 17 (1), 61-75.

  • Siegel, R. (2006). Constitutional Culture, Social Movement Conflict and Constitutional Change: The Case of the de facto ERA. California Law Review. 94 , 1323-1420.


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