Conflict and Consensus Research Paper

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Conflict refers to a situation in which there is disagreement over how to divide scarce resources. Conflict resolution thus decides who gets what (Lasswell 1936), and politics is the process of raising and settling this question. An individual experiences inner conflict when he or she faces a choice between incompatible values. This psychic conflict may have political consequences, as when a voter is torn between lower taxes and more spending, but political scientists generally study conflict situations where two or more individuals, groups, political parties, or nation-states seek the same object or maintain incompatible goals. The stakes involved in a specific conflict thus vary widely.

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Although conflict refers to disagreement and consensus to agreement among political actors, they are not mutually exclusive. Without agreement about what is desirable, there could be no conflict over its possession. Contact and interaction also are necessary for conflict; there can be no conflict between an earthling and the man in the moon. It also is important to distinguish between a conflict situation and the behavioral responses of the parties involved. The potential responses range from peaceful negotiation to unlimited aggression and violence, and outcomes vary from a stable compromise to total victory and destruction. For example, two states claiming the same territory may settle the conflict by partition or by war leading to occupation of the disputed land by the victor.

Since political conflict involves a struggle for ad- vantage, generally arising from a challenge to the status quo, strategic behavior is a natural focus for analysis. The rational choice paradigm imported from economics (Elster 1986) and codified in game theory (Von Neumann and Morgenstern 1944, Axelrod 1984) represents an effort to explain how contending parties ‘should’ behave in zero-sum and nonzero-sum games (conflicts), two and n-person games, games with or without full information, and so forth. More psycho- logically oriented scholars (Simon 1957, Kahneman et al. 1982, Janis 1982) have emphasized the cognitive and motivational impediments to ‘pure’ rationality.

1. Normative Aspects Of Conflict

Scarcity and selfishness assure that conflict is a perennial feature of society. Weber (1949) noted that ‘conflict cannot be excluded from social life,’ regarding peace as a momentary pause in the flow. Because conflict is disruptive and inevitably results in some-one’s disappointment, many theorists regard it negatively and stress the need for harmony and common values (Parsons 1952, 1960). Even Marx, for whom class conflict was the key explanatory variable in social development, rhapsodized about how the proletarian revolution would replace the government of people by the administration of things.

On the other hand, Simmel ([1908] 1955), Coser (1956), and Dahrendorf (1959) emphasize the positive functions of conflict. Conflict binds members of one contending group together, forming bonds of solidarity and fostering cooperation, even as it fuels antagonism toward the opponent. In fact, social identity theory in psychology (Tajfel and Turner 1986) posits that mere membership in a social category is sufficient to foster ethnocentric thinking. Further-more, the appearance of harmony often masks entrenched social injustice, so conflict may be a necessary spur for the moral improvement of society. Finally, conflict may result in innovation, as when debate and negotiation stimulate the development of reforms that all contending parties accept.

When interactions among antagonists or potential antagonists persist over time, prudence tends to dictate the establishment and maintenance of reciprocal norms and understandings concerning conflict behavior. For example, there are international treaties concerning diplomatic immunity and the treatment of prisoners of war and refugees. Other limiting rules, such as a norm against assassinating leaders of other countries are more informal. Both the formal and informal arrangements confining conflict tend to evolve as the intentions and relative capabilities of the contending actors change.

Agreement on the rules of the game domesticates conflict by legitimating outcomes reached through accepted procedures. This insight leads scholars to argue that consensus on constitutional principles is a prerequisite for democratic stability (Lipset 1960). This consensus can develop in a number of ways. It can be the outcome of negotiations, of a recognition that the alternative to institutional arrangements limiting conflict may be violence and the risk of permanent loss, or, in a stable society, of socialization into a stable political culture.

2. Foundations Of Conflict

Politics is the attempt to use state power to achieve a favorable distribution of scarce goods or values. Conflicts over such allocation frequently are termed realistic or objective and tend to group people ac-cording to shared positions with respect to the desired value. Perhaps the most common basis for conflict is economic, pitting town against country, worker against manager, and so forth. However, conflicts among religions, races, and cultures also are pervasive and often are more intense than conflicts over economic issues because they seem to touch more directly on people’s fundamental sense of identity. Lines of political cleavage therefore reflect the structure of society, and as demographic, economic, and technological changes occur alignments shift and new layers of conflict are added to the old (Lipset and Rokkan 1967). Political party systems articulate the objective bases of conflict by aggregating coalitions of interests.

Since there are multiple sources of division in any complex society, the degree to which cleavages are cross-cutting rather than overlapping is important. Where religious and economic fault-lines coincide as, for example, in Northern Ireland where Catholics tend to be lower on the income and occupational ladder than Protestants, conflict tends to be more intense and peaceful compromise harder to reach. By contrast, where the connections between religion or language and economic position are loose, individuals tend to have multiple affiliations and groups who are antagonists in one conflict may be allies in another, a circumstance that may moderate their behavior (Horowitz 1985).

Political scientists have contrasted instrumental with expressive conflicts. The former type refer to the pursuit of specific, tangible goals such as political office or economic gain. By contrast, expressive conflicts seek the redistribution of group recognition and esteem, and their outcome may be to supply psychic satisfaction for the many without changing their objective social circumstances (Edelman 1964). In the United States, ethnic group competition for social and political status hampered the development of class-based parties (Lipset and Marks 2000). Conflicts over collective ideals or a group’s way of life are more likely to be infused with great emotion than struggles for personal advantage, and participants in such battles between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are more likely to resort to aggressive or ruthless tactics (Coser 1956).

3. The Impact Of Consensus On Conflict

Political consensus exists when a large proportion of the members of a society agree about how decisions regarding the distribution of values should be made. Such agreement may center on outcomes or on the procedures to reach them. The idea of political consensus has been used primarily to study the stability and effectiveness of democratic political processes. In that sense, a common hypothesis is that the existence of consensus mitigates the intensity of conflicts regarding the allocation of scarce resources. The function of consensus in this view is to maintain civil peace by reducing the probability of disagreements and by fostering a sense of mutual restraint among contending parties.

The crucial features of consensus refer to general principles and values rather than to preferences regarding specific policies. The degree to which there is common acceptance of existing institutions as legitimate, agreement that the society’s political laws and rules are fair, and a shared sense of identity is the focus of empirical studies of political consensus. Political theorists diverge about the elements of social structure and culture that foster agreement on the allocation of values such as power, wealth, and status. Economic inequality and rigid barriers to upward mobility generally are viewed as impediments to consensus (Lipset 1960) whereas cultural unity often is regarded as facilitating agreement on political values (Schle-singer 1991). In traditional societies, religious unity tended to promote social harmony, but modern states usually have a plurality of religious and ethnic back-grounds, with nationalism emerging as an integrating ideology (Haas 1964). More generally, advocates of consensual patterns of belief and identity view these as a lubricant that enables political liberty and social complexity to coexist.

4. The Relevant Contours Of Consensus

Social change poses a challenge to the prevailing political consensus by introducing new conflicts over the distribution of values. Rising groups seek power and recognition, while declining groups fight against displacement. As these conflicts are settled, the content of the political consensus shifts as resources are redistributed. So, for example, the general acceptance of welfare state policies mitigated class-based political conflict in industrialized democracies. A new consensus emerged over what benefits were untouchable and hors de combat. Similarly, the successes of the civil rights movement simultaneously produced consensus on the illegitimacy of official racial discrimination and initiated dissensus over the proper role of government in promoting equality of results rather than opportunity.

Since there is no natural harmony of interests among groups in a differentiated society, political consensus will always be incomplete. A certain number of people will always feel the prevailing norms are unjust. In addition, the belief systems of most people are only loosely integrated. There may be a consensus of values, such as liberty and equality, that collide in concrete situations without awareness of the ultimate need to make trade-offs. Furthermore, those sharing a political outlook differ in the intensity of their beliefs and in their level of political engagement. Hence, the significance of consensus for the government’s effectiveness and stability depends not just on how wide-spread is popular agreement but on which groups in society have shared commitments and values.

In a study of US political culture, McClosky and Zaller (1984) found a broad consensus (defined as 75 percent agreement) within the general public on abstract principles of democracy and free enterprise. Agreement on the principle of minority rights tended to erode, however, when questions centered on what should be allowed to unpopular groups. There also was less consensus on questions of economic and social equality. Previously, Dahl (1961) and McClosky (1964) argued that consensus among the politically active was more significant than disagreement with democratic norms among the general public who often are apathetic and whose choices are structured by elites. The acceptability of existing institutions and important government policies to most significant social groups thus matters more than the universality of agreement within the entire population. In particular, since consensus within groups can enhance conflict across groups, it is important for agreement on fundamentals to encompass leaders of all the major political parties in order to encourage collaboration in the peaceful adjudication of conflicts.

There is, then, a reciprocal interaction between conflict and consensus. When disagreement over the allocation of values is relatively circumscribed, it is easier for feelings of unity and a common fate to develop. At the same time, agreement about what is fair and about accepted ways of pursuing one’s interests facilitates settling conflicts of interest. This suggests that the significance of political consensus as a unifying or stabilizing force varies with the severity of the challenges confronting society. The benefits of consensus for democratic governments are felt mainly during times of external threat or internal convulsion.

5. Creating Consensus

Since political conflict never disappears, the problems of creating and sustaining consensus are ongoing. One source of consensus is the development of mutual trust among political actors through incremental steps of cooperation (Axelrod 1984). Another is the incorporation of previously disadvantaged groups into the polity through a combination of political and economic changes. Finally, consensus develops through the process of socialization that transmits values from one generation to the next. Families and schools are important agents in this process. The degree to which political regimes self-consciously strive to inculcate a supportive consensus varies, but the increasing difficulty of controlling access to divergent values makes the success of such efforts fragile.


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