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Skip to 0 minutes and 10 secondsHaving explored the concept of religion, we will now also consider the meaning of conflict, before examining the relationship between the two. The word conflict, for many people, has an extremely negative connotation. When we hear it, we often immediately think of violence and force, particularly when thinking about conflict in relation to religion. But this assumes that conflict is always and inherently a bad thing, assigning a value judgement to the phenomenon of conflict. Another way to think of conflict is simply that it is a part of life. Conflict always occurs in relationships and communities because people have different, and sometimes contradictory, goals and values.

Skip to 0 minutes and 54 secondsBrunk provides us with a useful summary definition, from conflict theory, of conflict as, "What results from the existence, real or imagined, of incompatible interests, goals, beliefs, or activities. It is a situation in which one party's interests cannot be fully realised without their impinging upon the realisation of some other party's interests-- or a situation in which one of them thinks that the interests are incompatible." Understood in this way, we can observe two things about the nature of conflict. Firstly, conflict itself is neither good nor bad but can have both positive and negative consequences. It could contribute to greater alienation and misunderstanding. Or it could lead to the development of new technologies, new forms of communication and relating to one another.

Skip to 1 minute and 49 secondsSecondly, what becomes important, then, is not necessarily the conflict itself but how we deal with it when it does occur. How we choose to deal with conflict will largely determine whether conflict has positive or negative outcomes. Conflict may occur over any number of different issues. And usually it is a complex mix of competing interests and goals, misunderstandings of the perspectives and needs of others, misperceptions of a situation, or of the intentions behind the actions of another person or group. They may occur internally, within groups, relating to issues of identity and leadership. Or they may occur across groups, relating to resources, power, and influence, amongst many other things.

Skip to 2 minutes and 34 secondsActors always have a choice, however, whether to engage with each other peacefully and nonviolently to resolve the conflict, to isolate themselves from others and leave the conflict unresolved, or to respond with violence. Andrew Hayward has argued that politics, and in particular democratic politics, is in essence a form of conflict resolution. Our governments, electoral systems, political parties, and representatives are all part of a complex structure that is designed to mitigate conflict in society over the distribution of resources and the best way to pursue the common good.

Skip to 3 minutes and 12 secondsWhen the political process breaks down, as we sometimes see in so-called failed states, or in situations where there is no clearly established system of governance, there is a danger that actors will resort to violence to deal with conflict. This is why Carl von Clausewitz remarked that "war is a continuation of politics by other means." Politics and conflict are thus inextricably entwined with one another. In week four, we will examine case studies of conflicts where religion is involved that arise in both democratic political contexts and contexts where state governance mechanisms are breaking or have broken down.

Skip to 3 minutes and 56 secondsBut should we then assume that conflicts that can be resolved through established political processes, especially democratic political processes, are always nonviolent and those that occur as a result of the absence or the breakdown of political processes are always violent? This depends very much on how we define what violence is, as we shall explore in the next lecture.

Definitions of conflict

This video broaches the topic of conflict, but outside of assigning value judgments to it.

Conflict is treated with two key features in mind:

  1. Conflict is neither good nor bad, and can have a wide range of positive and negative effects,
  2. Conflict is a feature of human existence. What this video will focus on is the background to conflict, ways of analysing conflict and analysing possible responses to the positive and negative aspects of conflict.

Up for debate

Conflict is a very evocative term, and often is viewed negatively. Below are some questions designed to help you reflect in your own views or biases on conflict, please feel free to discuss below:

  • When you hear the term conflict what first comes to mind?
  • Why do you think this particular image of conflict comes to mind?
  • What are some things that arise because of conflict that are contrary to your initial feelings about conflict?

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This video is from the free online course:

Religion and Conflict

University of Groningen

Course highlights Get a taste of this course before you join: