Hilary Smith

Professor Leslie Dwyer

Conflict Resolution 601

16 December 2013


  1. “It doesn’t matter whether you are dealing with conflict at the interpersonal, organizational, national or global level: a good conflict theory will help you understand all of these types of conflicts, and will suggest methods of resolution.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why? Please illustrate your argument by describing two theories of social conflict and discussing a) what types of conflict each is best suited to explain and b) what are the implications of each theory for the process of conflict resolution?


I agree with the above quote because the basic elements of conflict or disagreement remain the same even as they play out in different settings, contexts, intensities, and between different parties. Differences can lead to disagreements, which if not resolved may emerge into conflict that needs to be handled in order for a resolution or de-escalation to be reached. Two theories of social conflict, Trust and Foucault’s repressive vs productive/disciplinary power, can illustrate my argument that good conflict resolution theories will help in understanding and resolving conflict at any level. I will describe what types of conflicts each theory is better suited for and what implications these theories have for the process of resolving conflict.


Briefly, trust, according to Putnam, helps lubricate society. It makes cooperation and coordination possible. Civic engagement is one example of trust in a society. Civic engagement is related to conflict resolution because with healthy engagement, conflict has an opportunity to be addressed in functional, civic forums (Putnam, 1995). Without trust that lubricates processes leading to civic engagement, conflict is more likely to arise through unresolved differences that have no forum for resolution.

Putnam and Fukiyama also say that trust is context based: you can trust someone with some things, like meeting a deadline, but not with others, like handling money (Putnam, 1995). Hardin, on the other hand, postulates that trustworthiness is more important than trust (Hardin, 2006). If someone is trustworthy in general, meaning they have the right intentions and are competent, then it is easier to interact with and resolve any conflicts with that person because you can predict they will fulfill agreements. Hardin also explains encapsulated trust, which is where one’s interests are encapsulated in or are a part of the trusted person’s interests (Hardin, 2006). You can trust someone more if your interests are encapsulated inside of the other person’s interests, so that it is in their interest to fulfill your interests as well. You can see this in the prisoner’s dilemma, where cooperation with Prisoner A is in the interest of Prisoner B if Prisoner A also cooperates. The only question is if each can trust the other to cooperate.

Trust is also important between institutions. Trust in a banking system’s sound practices encourages consumers to deposit their money or take out loans. Foreign investors’ ability to trust a country to support their business with infrastructure can lead to a business deal whereas without that trust, a deal might not be reached. These examples of institutional trust do not yet involve conflict, but, if trust is broken, a legal battle might be on the hands of the banking system or government. In short, trust is applicable on all levels of conflict, both institutional trust and interpersonal trust.

With an understanding of what trust means in conflict resolution, we will turn to what levels of conflict Trust theory may be applied. Trust is best suited to explain social, interpersonal conflict from the individual to societal level, but can also be applied to the international level. Trust gives a basis on which individuals can interact. When a counterpart’s actions may be predicted with some certainty, it means there is a level of trust and the substance of the conflict may be given full attention. Without trust, there is an unstable foundation that undermines reaching a resolution. These same principles apply to societal conflict. If labor can trust management to provide fair benefits or deliver on agreements, then the resolution process does not have to take time building a foundation of trust on which to build an agreement. On the international level, if there is not trust in a boardroom negotiation, it is hard to get countries to come together on an accord. Interpersonal trust, as seen in the Camp David I talks where both Sadat and Begin developed friendly trust with President Carter, is just as important to negotiations in international conflict as it is in interpersonal conflict.

Trust carries implications for the process of conflict resolution. Building trust is a long term process dependent on relationships. It is not opportunistic. When conflict breaks out, trust should already have been earned. This means that diplomacy, maintaining positive and vibrant relationships, donating aid, and engaging in other “peace time” activities will help build trust for times of conflict. It also means that tracking situations or countries that are conflict prone and working to build trust in those areas is of strategic importance. When and if conflict does break out, actors will be more equipped to resolve it because of the level of trust built.

However, trust and trustworthiness can be built during conflict as well. This was seen in the recent war in Iraq. As US commanders built relationships of trust and offered aid to fit the needs of Sunni tribal sheikhs, these sheikhs began pulling their support of Al Qaeda operatives in Anbar province and lent it to US forces (Ricks, 2009). The time it took the build this trust, however, cost lives and millions of dollars. This could have been avoided if trust was built beforehand and sheikhs did not have a reason trust Al Qaeda over US personnel. In short, trust theory does its best work pre- and post-conflict in mitigating conflict. However, trust can also be built during conflict and greatly reduce the cost of war, however, the time it takes to build it is measured in dollars and human lives. Though all practitioners would benefit from following this conflict method, diplomats, aid workers, and businesses would be in the best positions to apply this theory pre- or post-conflict.

Repressive vs Productive/Disciplinary Power

In addition to Trust, Foucault’s theory of repressive vs productive power is best suited to explain interpersonal conflict but can be applied to societal and international conflict if communication among parties is clear. A crude understanding of Foucault’s idea of using repressive or productive power is encapsulated in using a carrot or a stick to motivate another party. Using power to effect an internal change is loosely related to enticing an opponent with a carrot or a reward. As parties do things that are intended to discipline their opponent to give a certain response, or better yet, produce a desired internal change that will prompt the opponent to independently choose the desired response, a stick, or coercion, is not needed to force that response. Conversely, repressive or coercive power is very much related to the idea of persuading through a stick or weapon. Repressive power uses coercion to produce a desired effect, but does not necessarily lead to internal change in one’s opponent, and therefore, lasting results are not always made (Foucault, 1979).

Using this model in inter-personal conflict is easiest, where internal changes can be more easily understood, targeted, and evaluated. As the scale increases, however, information on one’s opponent becomes more generalized, harder to pinpoint accurately, and methods for disciplining those internal changes, so far, are more blunt and harder to evaluate within a responsive timeframe. For example, interpersonal compared with sanctions on the large scale.

Foucault’s ideas of using productive or repressive power implies that relationship-building is essential to the process of conflict resolution. Clear communication over an extended period of time will maximize positive outcomes in the use of either productive or repressive power. As parties communicate clearly, productive power intended to produce an internal change is much more likely to take place. On the other hand, opaque communication often leads parties to resort to using repressive power, which attempts to produce desired results from an opponent through coercion. If communication is clear, coercion does not have to be the best or only option.

An example of a situation where unclear signaling has resulted in using repressive power is the US-Iran relationship since the 1950s. A US sponsored coup of the Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddeqh in the 1950s, the Iranian Revolution’s capture and detainment of hostages in 1979, and other interactions, have led to strained relations that have inhibited communication between the two countries for decades. So when Iran asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for replacement nuclear fuel rods for its nuclear power plants, the US got involved and started rounds and rounds of nuclear negotiations. Each side, but especially the US, has tried to use both disciplinary and repressive power to influence the Iranian nuclear program. Sanctions on products and the banking system, as well as embargos, have been the blunt instruments designed to produce change in Iran’s policy and behavior. However, these sanctions have, through poor communication and unclear signaling, been interpreted as acts of repressive power. As a result, they have yet to produce an internal change that both Iran and the US are satisfied with (Iran–United States Relations, 2013).

In conclusion, I agree with the statement made above that a good conflict resolution theory will be applicable across any level of conflict because conflict follow similar patterns and principles on almost all levels. Two theories that illustrate my point in this are Trust and Repressive vs Productive/Disciplinary Power. Both can be applied with greater clarity and accuracy to interpersonal and societal level conflict, but also hold true for international or large scale conflict. Trust forms a foundation on which to build agreement on any level and Productive/Disciplinary Power gives a model that guides actions aimed at influencing the choices of one’s opponent. All in all, a good conflict theory will help in resolving conflict at any level, because a good theory will be principle based and most conflicts follow the same patterns or principles in general.


  1. Imagine a discussion between Volkan, Anderson, and Cobb about the sources of the current conflict in Afghanistan. What would each theorist say? Where would they agree and disagree? If you were asked to comment briefly on their discussion, what would you say?


If Volkan, Anderson, and Cobb had a discussion about the current conflict in Afghanistan and its causes, each would tell a very different story. I will recount briefly the conflict in Afghanistan, discuss each theorist’s ideas and how they might relate those to this particular conflict, then I will conclude with my own thoughts on this simulated discussion.

The conflict in Afghanistan has long, historical roots, but I will begin in the 1980s with the Soviet-Afghan war. This ten year proxy war between Soviet and Afghan troops and US backed Afghan and foreign troops eventually resulted in an Afghan victory. However, the US-backed fighters in this war, known as Mujahideen, were a mix of foreign Muslim fighters, many of them Arab, as well as native Afghans. The outpouring of foreign help was in part a function of social trends calling for a return to a much more orthodox and narrow interpretation of Islam. This is where Osama Bin Laden started developing his networks that became Al Qaeda. Shortly after this war, Muhammad Omar formed the Taliban, a group dedicated to enforcing strictly its interpretation of Islamic law and Islamic practices. Al Qaeda held similar goals and so the Taliban harbored this terrorist group until the attacks of September 11,, 2001. After these attacks, the US and NATO delivered military assaults in key areas of Afghanistan and began a second official war in three decades for this country, which was harshly ruled by a repressive regime in the intervening decade. The US and many NATO nations are still involved in Afghanistan and the war is ongoing to this day (Afghanistan, 2013).

Volkan: Psychoanalytical

Volkan would analyze this conflict by looking at the mourning process the country as a whole is experiencing. Volkan takes a psychoanalytical approach that mostly deals with mourning. According to Volkan, there are two phases of mourning: the actual mourning and learning to adapt, adjust, or assimilate to the change after the loss for which one is mourning. He asserts that some mourning is resolved naturally and even through humor and some takes a long time and commemoration helps in the process. There is also a kind a mourning related to collective memory. This is where one generation does not fully complete the mourning or adjustment phase and essentially passes on their grief and mourning to the next generation (Volkan, 1998).

Volkan’s theory applied to the conflict in Afghanistan would start by analyzing the Taliban and its onus for forming as a group. Volkan might suggest that the founders of the Taliban, as a group, were still “dreaming of Mecca” or mourning the loss of an Islamic society. He might also suggest that through searching for reasons for the years of loss and hardship in the war, the solution some came to in their phase of adaptation to new realities after the Soviet-Afghan War was to remember their Islamic roots and apply principles they felt were right in a compelling, even forceful way. The 1980s gave the Mujahideen a taste for fighting for their self-determination in a world that was dominated by non-Islamic forces, one of which was even atheist. They could fight for their interpretation of Islam, preserve their view of themselves, and overcome what was seen as an anti-Islamic force in the 1980s when Afghans and foreign fighters pushed the Soviets out of Afghanistan. It can be argued that the Taliban based their organization’s goals on coping with the changes in power, influence, and values going on in the world around them, over which they had little control. To assert more control, the Taliban and their coercive tactics were established. Similarly, Al Qaeda developed under similar circumstances, ostensibly forming in response to mourning the loss of being central, progressive, and influential (Lewis, 2002).

After the attacks of September 11th, the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan were geared toward rooting out both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In their process of mourning the attacks, the Western powers coped with changes through coercive force.

Anderson: Identity

Anderson explains conflict through identity, especially the identity of the nation or other similar group. while unable to clearly define nationalism or nationality, Anderson does define a nation as an imagined political community, and is imagined to be inherently both limited and sovereign. National identity, according to Anderson, grew out of a context of religious identity, hereditary dynasties, and a conception of time where all is present and history and contemporary events are indistinguishable. For the Afghan conflict, it is of particular interest to note that religion, according to Anderson, lost prominence in favor of nationalism because over time other religions were discovered and the sacred language of religion was de-emphasized or made more commonly accessible (Anderson, 2006).

Anderson might analyze the conflict in Afghanistan as a Taliban reaction against the nation-ness trend he describes. The Taliban can be seen as a call back from days now gone in the Western experience and just beginning to reach full bloom in the experience of Middle Eastern or developing countries. Nation-ness in the West has evolved away from religious empires, hereditary dynasties, and an anachronistic sense of temporality. However, the Taliban movement is in opposition to this trend, endeavoring to keep religion relevant and unite the Ummah, or Muslim religious community, across national boundaries. Al Qaeda holds similar ideals in uniting the Ummah. Neither the Taliban, nor Al Qaeda have been in operation long enough to determine their stance on hereditary rule, but the sense of time with which the Taliban and Al Qaeda regard the past as transferable onto current societal situations is also indicative of the pre-nation-ness world trend. This conflict, as seen through the lens of identity, is a reactionary step by the Taliban and Al Qaeda against the encroaching nation-ness that is taking away their cohesive nature.

On the US and NATO side, these nations already see themselves as nations and some would argue supra-nations. Afghanistan is also seen as a nation in their eyes, and thereby launched an attack, not necessarily against the ideas of identity, but against the national entity who harbored the perpetrators who were fighting for their identity. Instead of lashing out at a group that does not consider itself a nation, but a transcendent idea, a better strategy could be used where the perogatives of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and their perceived threat to their identities could be addressed through diplomacy, aid, grassroots efforts, and other means to prevent dangerous actions that lead to conflict.

Cobb: Narrative

Cobb adopts a narrative approach where the way a story is told leads to views of the conflict and how parties engage with one another in that conflict. She states that where violence is being used instead of words, meaningful words need to take its place. You can replace violence with meaningful conversation. The stories told and the identities adopted in the narratives of each side make up what is meaningful. She asserts also that identities consist of what is done by locals in the everyday of life, not the dominant ethnicity only. Violence results when words cannot express the hatred that fuels stories of victimization. Origin myths can fuel violence because descriptions are thin and geared to rationalize violence. Four dimensions in narratives are time, character, causality, and values and themes. These elements make up narrative and if they can be put together well, they can produce positive narratives that can replace violence with meaning-filled conversation (Cobb, 2003).

The sources of the conflict in Afghanistan for the Taliban and Al Qaeda have already been discussed, but Cobb would add that their narratives clearly hold similarities to negative aspects of origin narratives. These aspects, built on the four dimensions of narrative (time, character, causality, and values and themes), where the past is emphasized, characters are rare and underdeveloped, actors are passive recipients of actions and blame is placed on the perpetrators, and the values and themes of the two groups are resoundingly about suffering, justice, rights, vengeance, and in-group loyalty.

On the US and NATO side, narrative definitely played a role after the September 11th attacks. Unsure of exactly what prompted a seemingly unprovoked attack, rhetoric soared against Islamist terrorists and even Muslims in general in some quarters during this time. Violence was sought first before narrative or meaningful conversation could take hold. Narrative and understanding of the other side seems to come later in this conflict, if at all.

Concluding Comments

If asked to comment briefly on this discussion, I would point out that Volkan had a point that mourning and adapting played a large role in the Afghan conflict, starting from the 1980s. One reason for the formation of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda could, in part, be adapting to their helpless position in world politics. However, this is not a complete explanation of these groups’ formations. Other factors would have to be considered in order to understand this conflict more fully. Some of these considerations include social networks, financing, nuances in ideology, geo-politics, and the social context these two groups grew out of. Anderson’s views on identity help to fill in some of the gaps in social contexts, networks, and politics that Volkan’s theory does not address. Anderson identifies a global trend toward nation-ness, however, it is not explicit of the slow timetable with which nationalism is still being adopted in other parts of the world, and is therefore a bit misleading in interpreting the Afghan conflict. It is a conflict of a set of Western nation-states with both a transnational and a local ideologue groups which leaves some gaps in understanding the non-nation-ness of the Taliban and Al Qaeda especially. Finally, Cobb gives a unique perspective on the Afghan conflict and correctly identifies a negative, violence prone, origin myth that Al Qaeda and the Taliban adopted. However, analysis is sparse on how her theories of resolution may be applied to this conflict. Using tools to open space for meaningful conversation is much needed research, especially in how to apply it to zones of active conflict. However, many of these tools are underutilized and apparently less practical to apply on a national scale.



Works Cited

Afghanistan. In (2013). Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afghanistan

Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined communities. (pp. 1-36). London: Verso.

Cobb, S. (2003). Fostering coexistence in identity-based conflicts: Toward a narrative approach. Imagine Coexistence: Restoring Humanity After Violent Ethnic Conflict.

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: the birth of a prison. New York City: Random House.

Hardin, R. (2006). Trust. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Iran–United States Relations. In (2013). Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/US_Iran_relations

Lewis, B. (2002). What went wrong?: The clash between islam and modernity in the middle east. New York City: Oxford University Press.

Putnam, R. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of Democracy6(1), 65-78x.

Ricks, T. E. (2009). The gamble. London: The Penguin Press.

Volkan, V. (1998). Bloodlines: from ethnic pride to ethnic terrorism. Boulder: Westveiw Press.