Vayrynen, Raimo. "To Settle or to Transform? Perspectives on the Resolution of National and International Conflicts."

New Directions in Conflict Theory: Conflict Resolution and Conflict Transformation. Ed. Raimo Vayrynen. International Social Science Council, SAGE Publications: London, Newbury Park, New Delhi, 1991. Pp. 1-25.

Summary by Mariya Yevsyukova.

Copyright 1997 by the Conflict Research Consortium


The problem-solving approach to conflict resolution tries to eliminate the causes of violence by satisfying the needs and interests of the parties in conflict. It operates within the established structure of power relations, not challenging it. As a result, violence is managed by the means available to the authorities. The author offers a different approach to analyzing and handling violence. He suggests studying the functions of political violence. In this way the issues of social structure will be incorporated in the conflict resolution process.

Collective Violence and its Transformation

The author identifies violence "as a means of political collectivities to defend or expand their interests in a given social structure" (p. 3). With this definition he combines an instrumental concept of violence with structural perspectives. Tilly (1986) uses the same approach in his study of collective actions and violence: transformation of collective actions follows structural changes in the society, such as industrialization or urbanization; social groups use rational reasoning when they employ violence. Tilly distinguishes between reactive and proactive violence. Reactive violence is a response to a threat to the established power system. Proactive violence challenges the established power structure. These types of violence belong to hierarchical social systems. In horizontal relations, groups engage in competitive collective actions. There is a reciprocal relation between social structures and their transformation, and collective violence. These concepts cannot be examined separately from each other.

The problem-solving model often assumes conflict and its elements such as parties, issues and interests are static. Due to the changing nature of social reality, however, conflict and its components are continuously transforming. Transformation can bring resolution to intractable conflicts of values and interests. Transformation can happen in the following ways: actor transformation, issue transformation, rule transformation and structural transformation. Actor transformation means changes within the parties or the emergence of new players. Issue transformation implies finding common ground, which might require deep political changes within the parties. Rule transformation changes the norms of the parties' interactions. Structural transformation is the most significant way of altering the conflict. A new power distribution, increase in interdependence or isolation will bring changes in the structure of the relationships between the parties. Interdependence and isolation, in combination with the parties' interests, might create different patterns of conflict development. For example, a high level of interdependence, but with opposite interests, is a feature of unstability. Transformation of interests can be pursued as a way of improving the conflict structure: the potential of increasing commonality of interests in the context of nurturing the parties' interdependence. Conflict transformation can be intentional (the example of Anwar Sadat's visit to the Knesset) or unintentional. The author supports the idea that pluralism and interdependence, or a "civilizational process," to reduce violence and promote peace.

The Monopoly of Violence and its Erosion

The Third World is experiencing violence privatization due to civil wars. Civil war can be described as a military conflict where an opposition is fighting with the government for political power. In reality these conflicts are more complex: the opposition is internally divided and the issues cover a large range of social problems. In the example of Tokugawa (a peasant uprising against the authorities) in Japan, such complexity was present. But the peasants were able to structure their action due to the existence of a community system. This example suggests that traditional or new disorder limiting structures might exist within conflicts. However, those structures are often the targets of one party since their destruction will weaken the other party. This tendency causes the fragmentation of social structures and parties, and the privatization of violence. The warlord system is an example. In Afganistan this system emerged after the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from the country. The author suggests that Dahrendorf's three conflict regulation mechanisms can put this conflict on the path of constructive management. The parties should acknowledge that there is an actual conflict, become organized, and structure their relationships to interact peacefully. The important part of the process is mutual recognition of the parties. The intractability of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, where the PLO for a long time has not been accepted as a legitimate party is a good example. A similar situation existed in South Africa when the ANC was prohibited and its leaders were put in jail. The result of the PLO supporting Iraq in the Gulf War was its elimination from the negotiation process. New parties were introduced: non-PLO Palestinian organizations and Syria. These developments indicate actor transformation in the conflict dynamic. There was an attempt of rule transformtation in the Afghan conflict when Loya Jirga, the traditional grand assembly, was convened. Unfortunately it was not successful. Violence privatization happened in Argentina, Colombia, Chile and El Salvador. In Colombia, the death squads were linked with government branches and allied with local political leaders in their actions against peasants. Colombia presents an example of hierachical power organization. A similar situation exists in Brazil.

Based on these cases, the author concludes that violence cannot be controlled without regarding the social structure of the society and transforming its hierarchical power arrangement. Conflicts are not chaotic, but their complexity should not be underestimated.

Open and Closed Social Systems

Closed societies do not permit the moblility and space within their structures needed for the conflict resolution process. As a result, they either suppress conflicts or break down under the pressure of demands for change. The isolation of the society reveals itself not only in its social organization, but also in territorial strategy. There are three points in understanding territoriality: people are categorized (segregated) according to the geographical boundaries they live in; this categorization is made known to others; and access to the categorized geographical areas is controlled. The problem is in the decision-making structures. The author suggests that the authority can be imposed either from the inside or outside. Haiti is an example of closure from the inside. The Duvailier regime used repression to keep political power and economic priviliges under its personal control. With it gone, the concept of civil society, "people's power," was introduced in the country by religious groups, trade unions and nongovernmental organizations. This can bring transformation into the conflict dynamic, even though the oppressive institutions are still strong. The political changes in the society have not yet brought about structural transformation. Poland and Czechoslovakia examplify success stories of transition to civil society.

The Gaza Strip illustrates externally imposed territorial and political isolation. The classification of citizens that the Israeli government introduced into the region reinforces the system of inequality. Here the parties are internally divided. The Intifada that started in 1987 increased the polarization between them. It also started the process of conflict transformation: new parties emerged (Islamic Resistance Movement-Hamas); changes occured within Israel (it became more willing to talk to the opposition); a new Palestinian leadership was created; the actual territorial and political control in the occupied territories has been slowly transferring to Palestinian leaders. The main issue is whether the Palestinian leadership will be able to make the strategy of self-reliance and non-violent resistance a lasting mode of conduct.

Until Israel and Western leaders start seriously persuing peaceful resolution of the conflict, the conflict dynamics will be continuously changing - "transforming its nature and the preconditions for settlement" (p. 20). Negotiations can put conflict in the hands of the parties instead of the structural processes. If successful, they also can move the conflict toward resolution while the transformation's outcomes are quite unpredictable. However transformation becomes the only alternative in the case of the failure or absence of negotiations.

Toward a New Perspective

The modern state has the ability to contain violence. State formation is a progressive process, though it is often accompanied by violence. This is what is happenning now in the Third World. According to a liberal percpective, "civilizational process," which implies democratic government, market economy, and liberal values, will lead to the elimination of large-scale violence. The author argues with this perspective, saying that it does not take into account the changing nature of inter- and intra- state relations. Transformation of social institutions, and new economic conditions can raise old and new types of violence. For example, the process of industrialization and urbanization reintroduces private violence. Such types of violence, like civil wars or interstate wars, are features of the developing world. Local and private violence exists in both developed and Third World countries. This indicates that the process of worldwide restructuring is taking place.

The assumption of complete resolution of social conflict is ahistorical. Violence and conflict are rooted in the changing nature of social reality, and fulfill certain functions in the structural transformation of the society. The author suggests that the historical approach would be to contain violence by constructive conflict management in the present and study the development of socioeconomic changes that might reduce violence in the future