Factionalism Research Paper

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Factionalism refers to dissension between rival subgroups—factions—within a larger social unit. Factionalism can take many forms and has been observed in all parts of the world. It is a basic political process dynamically related to social change.

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1. Factions And Organizations

Factionalism, regardless of where it is classified on the conflict continuum, is conflict between factions. Factions are coalitions of persons or subgroups that compete over specific issues within a larger organization or community. The central focus of a faction is the leader who coordinates its activities and recruits its members. Ties between leader and followers are usually personal, although some followers may recruit others on behalf of the leader. The issues about which factions compete are diverse. They generally concern scarce resources the control over which provide power chances, such as economic assets, office and new laws. But they may also involve honor, ideology and behavioral norms. Loosely structured, factions are non-corporate groups that generally dissolve when the particular issues that gave rise to them are resolved. But if the issues remain unresolved, factions may acquire a range of cultural trappings such as property, symbols, ideology and bureaucratic organization. They can then evolve into permanent corporate groups, such as ritual moieties, political parties or other formal associations, for which the term faction is no longer appropriate.

Factionalism takes place within the framework of an established social entity, whether village, school, political party, office, club, kin group, etc., that have clear norms of behaviour. These norms generally include notions of unity, consensus, and cooperation. The covert maneuvering of factions bent on achieving their own, often self-serving aims, contradict these norms. Hence factionalism has a pejorative connotation. It is seen as subverting organizational rules and goals. Faction members are consequently viewed as disloyal, obstructive persons whose pursuit of narrow, short-term advantage endangers the wider, long-term goals of the organization. The divisiveness inherent in factionalism also hampers the day to day affairs of the organization or community that depend on cooperation. Furthermore, factionalism jeopardizes the good name and image of unity and harmony it seeks to project to the outside world.

2. The Study Of Factionalism

The study of factions and factionalism developed slowly, shadowing theoretical shifts in the social sciences. Although Linton (1936) long ago suggested that factions presented an interesting but unexplored field, little was done until the 1950s. Political anthropology until then was dominated by the functionalist paradigm elaborated in African Political Systems (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940). This viewed politics as maintaining order through consensus, harmony, and balanced opposition. The political groups on which functionalists focused were enduring units, corporate groups. Conflict, if examined, was viewed as reinforcing the social structure. Loosely structured, temporary coalitions such as factions patently did fit into this conception of politics. The theoretical hegemony of Africanist political anthropologists began to be challenged in the 1950s. Not surprisingly, Raymond Firth, given his interest in individual choice, had for some time been uncomfortable with the functionalist paradigm. He and colleagues, who had observed factionalism in Indian communities, were the first to examine factionalism theoretically (Firth 1957). They treated factions as informal counterparts of more formal political formations whose members were recruited according to structurally diverse principles. They also noted that factions tended to become activated on specific occasions and not as regularly recurring features. Other studies of factions and factionalism swiftly followed (Siegel and Beals 1960, Boissevain 1964, 1974, Nicholas 1965, Bailey 1969, Thoden van Velzen 1973, Bujra 1973, Alavi 1973). Most employed a transactionalist perspective, viewing political activity as an arena in which entrepreneurs transact personal relations for political and economic gain. The study of factionalism culminated in the late 1970s with the volume edited by Silverman and Salisbury (1977). This is still considered the definitive work on the subject. Following its publication and the demise of functionalist social science—in which transactionalists played a significant role—academic debate moved on to puzzles related to symbolic, cognitive, and discursive approaches to politics. Factions and factionalism have become accepted concepts whose characteristics are no longer debated. They are also proving useful to related disciplines (see Brumfiel and Fox 1994).

3. Issues

Much of the work on factionalism in the 1960s, although using a transactionalist perspective, continued to be strongly influenced by functionalism. Factionalism was seen as occurring as a result of rapid sociocultural change. Change was seen as coming from the surrounding environment, not as the result of tensions inherent in the community or society in which factionalism arose. Factionalism was generally viewed as occurring because the system’s equilibrium was disturbed, and it operated to restore its dynamic equilibrium. Factions were regarded as structurally similar and in balanced opposition. These viewpoints were debated and successfully challenged during the 1970s.

Many of the societies in which factionalism was observed were in fact not subject to rapid social change. But if factionalism was not always a ‘result’ of change, it seemed always to be ‘about’ change: changes in power resources, ideology, rules and/or ways of doing things. Factions competed about who was to be boss, about which normative concepts were to be followed, about whose will was to prevail, and thus about which rules were to be followed. Moreover, a closer examination of rival factions revealed that far from being similar or evenly matched, they differed in their access to resources, strategy, tactics, internal organization, ideology, and social composition.

4. Factions: Structure, Symmetry, And Balance

Factions often form in opposition to or in defense of some issue or some pre-existing source of power and authority within a community or organization. The distribution of such resources is binary. Some persons have more and some have less. Those with more normally constitute the local establishment that coalesces around a leader or a dominant personage such as a headman, mayor, parish priest, or club president. They and their supporters form the ‘establishment’ faction. Those who are dissatisfied with the establishment’s exercise of its power constitute a category from which a rival or ‘opposition’ faction can be recruited.

Reports also mention conservative and progressive factions. Because the local establishment normally defends the ‘status quo,’ from which it derives its superordinate position, it is often labeled as conservative. Since the opposition faction challenges the established defenders of the ‘status quo’ it is labelled progressive. These labels often do not reflect reality, as when a progressive opposition faction defeats its rival and becomes the dominant, establishment faction. There is a further reason why opposition factions come to be regarded as progressive. Since they are weaker, they are perhaps more receptive to new resources if and when these become available in the wider society. With these they can challenge their rivals. In rapidly changing societies these may include new government and commercial offices, new laws and new ideologies. Such new resources rapidly tend to change the balance of power. Factionalism thus does not necessarily result from the availability of new resources, as some authors have suggested. Rather, new resources are used in ongoing competitions for power and prestige and tend to escalate the conflict. The use of new resources is not random. A faction will use new resources when it seems likely that they will strengthen its position. It is then labelled progressive, in the sense of favoring change of the ‘status quo.’

There is evidence that conflict groups—whether faction, ritual moiety, or political party—differ organizationally. When the opposition consists merely of a category of persons disgruntled with the dominant power elite, they are obviously less organized than the establishment. The internal structure of the local establishment faction, whose members are used to networking to maintain their position, will normally have a more developed exchange circuit than the opposition faction. But if a conflict between the two persists over time, the opposition faction may well become better organized than its rival may. Good organization is a valuable resource and one of the ways a weaker faction can successfully challenge its rival. It is thus more open than the establishment faction to organizational innovation. Because of its superior resources, the dominant faction also tends to be more wasteful. It does not need to husband its resources to the extent that its weaker rival does.

Like most coalitions, factions have core and peripheral members. Core members cluster around the leader and have multiple links to each other. The peripheral members are often linked only to the leader or to a single member of the core group. Where there is a strong core, the faction often acquires some of the characteristics of corporate groups noted previously.

Factions are not necessarily ideologically neutral, as some authors have suggested. The differences between establishment and opposition, like those between conservative and progressive, are not random. They have ideological implications. There is evidence that opposition factions recruit more support than their rivals from weaker or even marginal social categories do. Since opposition leaders usually lack the network ties and material resources that establishment leaders use to recruit followers, they cannot afford to be too particular about the nature of their support. The strength of a faction is usually a function of its size. Just as they often turn to new ideologies and tactics— which because they are new are often viewed as socially unacceptable and subversive—opposition leaders also recruit supporters from among those who are less influential or are regarded as social or morally inferior. Followers are followers.

Opposition factions consequently often develop or adopt an overarching ideology or symbol to bind their heterogeneous members into a unity. They also often align themselves with political parties that defend the interests of their socially weaker supporters. Most often, opposition factions seek links to parties that embody an emancipatory ideology. Their establishment rivals develop relations with political parties representing vested interests in the wider society. Political parties, on the other hand, also consciously make use of local factions to recruit support at the grass roots level.

5. Conclusion

If factionalism is not necessarily a product of social change, it appears to be always about change. Factions are coalitions that compete for power to determine, and thus to change, what is to be accepted as normal. Rival factions, because they have different access to power chances, are not evenly matched, structurally similar groups. Their asymmetry is fundamental to understanding the nature of factionalism and its dynamic for long term change.

Structural asymmetry and competition for power are also characteristic of class-based conflict groups. This suggests that the line of cleavage between faction, class or party cuts across moral categories and socioeconomic classes, not at right angles, as most functionalist and class-oriented analysts postulate, but diagonally. Where the line approaches the vertical, forming conflicting coalitions with a generally even spread across socio-economic classes, it is reasonable to speak of factionalism, in the case of face-to-face groups, and party conflict in the case of conflict on a broader scale. Where the line of cleavage approaches the horizontal, forming conflict groups that are more clearly differentiated according to socio-economic criteria, the term class conflict seems appropriate. But in every case the axis of cleavage must be determined by empirical investigation. It should not be taken for granted.


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