What Is Conflict Behaviour & How Does It Come About ?

By Hala A Maizer

Upon becoming more aware of our surroundings as children, we also become more accustomed to certain realities around us. Realities that come with living on a planet with cyclical patterns like- the 24 hours it takes to complete a rotation, and the 365 (and a ¼) days it takes to complete a revolution around the sun. These things (amongst others like gravity and seasonal changes) have become constants. They are studied, questioned and have even been speculated about many times over, but they remain constants nonetheless, for generations that have passed and the generations that will follow. Likewise, there are also behaviours that human beings have exhibited over centuries that have become constants and are part of our collective human history. One behaviour that I am particularly interested in is conflict.

Conflict behaviour has been experienced by almost every human being living on this earth by varying degrees throughout time, be it through personal life experience in the societies we live in, in the family structures we were brought up in, and even within ourselves in our inner worlds and realities. Conflict behaviour in human beings is uncomfortable, yet very normal and natural  and is a constant in our experience. This fascinates me and drives me to explore it further, hence why I pursued a master’s degree in which conflict was the main topic of research. Given my keen interest as well as the current turbulent global climate that seems to be cyclical, I feel compelled to write on this topic in an attempt to deconstruct some elements of it in this two-part article series. In this article, I will attempt to dive into what conflict behaviour is and how it manifests by looking at relative deprivation in order to pain a picture on how its experienced on a societal level. After which in the second article I’ll further discuss how, if possible, can any benefit can be derived from group conflict and in that process choose to flip the narrative and reflect more positively on real life examples on how conflict behaviour produced positive social change.

The ABC Triangle & the Causes of Conflict

The concepts of conflict and violence have been contested in literature and are often attached to other concepts and research umbrellas like peace, reconstruction, war, and international relations to name a few. In order to try and simplify the concept as much as possible, Chris Mitchell took after Johan Galtung’s work (a sociologist who had written extensively on conflict) and defined conflict as being present in any set of circumstance between two or more parties or entities. This can range from individuals, groups, structures or otherwise, where these parties possess contradictory or incompatible goals. Galtung identifies conflict through a triadic construct (figure 1), where all three components must be present in order to fully articulate any conflict at hand between any parties or stakeholders. There are two dimensions at play here, the latent level and the manifest level. At the manifest level we have the visible, empirical and observed behaviours (B). Behaviour like physical violence, destruction of property, hostility, coercion or cooperation. At the latent level we have inferred or subconscious attitudes and assumptions (A) that groups have of themselves, of other groups around them and of each other like prejudice ideologies and stereotypes. There are also contradictions (C) or incompatibility of goals, at the latent levels that represent the basis of every conflict.

Galtung’s Conflict Triangle

The conflict triangle (the ABC triangle) suggests that conflict situations arise or start to manifest as a result of contradictions or goal incompatibility, be it real or perceived, resulting in a conflict situation. Galtung’s framework underscores that conflict is a dynamic process and its three components – behaviours, attitudes and contradictions – are in a constant state of flux and change as they interact with one another. This means that conflict has a transformative ability that adds to the multi-layered nature of studying conflict and conflict behaviour, where conflicts could grow in scope and develop other sub or secondary conflicts, transform, escalate, and de-escalate. This transformative ability can be understood and seen through the intensity of a conflict. The intensity of a conflict, according to Tim Jacoby, is determined by the value of these goals, whereas the scope of the conflict is determined by the number of goals an actor (or each one of the actors) perceived to be dissatisfied or hindered. The domain of a conflict can also grow to include more actors and escalate to include different causes and/or plots. Conflict, however, at times need not to be based upon concrete issues or disputes. Group conflicts can also be described as realistic and unrealisticRealistic conflict is often one that is based on instances or issues that have occurred in the past, a reference point that had led to the incompatibility of goals. Whereas unrealistic conflicts are ones that emerge from misperceptions and confusion regarding a cause. Most conflicts tend to have both elements at play and is a demonstration of the complexities of any group conflicts regardless of scale and impact. It also important to note that not all conflicts transform to violent conflict, and that these nuances need to be accounted for when analysing any conflict situation.

The Theory of Relative Deprivation as a Cause of Conflict

Conflict behaviour can be born out of deep historically proven inequalities and marginalisation, be it gender, racial, religious or otherwise that can be expressed by behaviours or attitudes or even contradictions in a given context. Relative deprivation can be understood by recognising the manifestation of grievances between people and/or groups as a result of the level of their perceived deprivations. The grievances dimension discussed here is political or economic, sometimes referred to as resource deprivation, as being at the basis of  mobilisation. The relative deprivation theory is a dimension of conflict that can be added onto the ABC triangle in analysing conflict behaviour.

Protests in Hong Kong against new proposed extradition law. June 2019.

Literature argues that the consistent and perceived denial of needs, wants and rights could transform into a (collective) sense of injustice, and eventually a sense of disempowerment, anger and deprivation. It is important to clarify that perceived deprivation reflects an object’s perception of oneself in relation to others, therefore deprivation is manifested when an object feels a sense of dissatisfaction because they ‘have less’ from what they think they should have or possibly could have. The presence of that perceived deprivation continuously feeds the cycle of growing frustration and feelings of inadequacy. So, with the passage of time, frustration build against the object, be it a governance entity or structure, a neighbour or a friend. With gathering consensus, group dynamics can transform frustrations into collective violence or rebellion against the subject or perceived antagonist. According to the Swedish sociologist Walter Korpi,  this is a response to the existing, and possibly growing gap between what he calls normative expectations and actual achievements in a collective setting due to a growing level of deprivation. Ted Gurr, an American political scientist drew heavily on the links between inequality and deprivation in the 1960s and 1970s, suggesting that relative deprivation can lead to collective violence cutting across class, power and interpersonal value.

In 1989,  political scientist Mark Lichbach explored another dimension of relative deprivation and assessed whether or not economic inequality breeds political conflict. Lichbach  sought to analyse the nature of group belongings and the separation of people along economic lines. The relationship between economic inequality and political conflict (the EI-PC nexus) became a popular thesis in literature and is a point still being discussed today in analysing the motivations behind people engaging in conflict behaviour on a collective and societal level. Lichbach argues that conflict protagonists i.e. those who lead or initiate a conflict in a society tend to fall into those who seek economic equality, and the established group who are perceived to benefit from the status quo and the distribution of resources in an economy as it is. Sounds familiar? He theorises that people are usually split into rational actors and deprived actors. These two groups act differently in the face of inequality and injustice, yielding different outcomes due to different motivations. His description of deprived actors is consistent with what other academics observed to be relative deprivation (those who observe the gap between what they are getting in terms of economic return, versus what others are getting). Nonrational behaviour that deprived actors

New generation of Thai protesting against the government, August 2020

engage in falls under anger, frustration, rebellion etc. and ultimately, according to him, deprived actors are ones who care about relative income and wage levels. Therefore, with increased economic inequality and relative deprivation, impulse driven actors (deprived actors) will transform their grievances about injustices into behavioural dissent.On the other hand, rational actors’ motivation to engage in conflict stems from the pursuit of self- regarding outcomes, rather than other-regarding outcomes. In other words, rational actors seek to maximise benefit and payoff to self rather than others. Therefore, given the context of inequality, rational actors are more likely to assess their wages relative to what they can do, instead of what other actors are receiving. He states that rational actors will result in a cost-benefit analysis on what engaging in dissident activities will yield them in terms of reward and will only engage in it if the private reward from that activity outweighs the private economic reward of that action. Despite how sound a cost-benefit analysis seems and the fact that we all do this either consciously or subconsciously, it does not always apply. Hence, this theory suggests that with an increased level of inequality, levels of perceived deprivation in this case may or may not increase. Ultimately, rational actors are much less likely to engage in conflict behaviour when economic inequality is high. Only when the levels of relative deprivation increase, the possibility of engaging in opposition might increase.

Grouping people into rational and deprived actors adds a dimension to the relative deprivation theory and ABC triangle. Galtung’s interpretation of how conflict arises at its very basic form is the building block from which relative deprivation theory, greed and grievance dimension, and deprived and rational actors’ theories are built upon here. However, it is important to state that despite the cognitive cost-benefit analysis, some “rational” actors still choose to engage in conflict even if they are not necessarily directly benefiting from it or reaping certain rewards from it as previously mentioned, or when their relative deprivation increases. While this might be true in some cases where the cost of rebellion is higher than the cost of peace, not all contexts might offer this delicate balance. The next article will take these theories as a launching pad, and will look at how some social movements of which had engaged in conflict behaviour and had originated from wealthy classes in society, saw the need to challenge the status quo in order to gain social justice and equality.  After covering the causes of conflict and how this behaviour can come about, the next article will look at real life examples of how (group) conflict behaviour can be beneficial and has the potential for real positive social change.


This article is a contribution to our blog, written by Hala A. Maizer. Hala has a background in Economics and International Development. She works within the non-profit and humanitarian aid and development sector in the Middle East. She has attained her Master’s degree in International Development by way of Poverty, Conflict and Reconstruction from the University of Manchester. Hala is keenly interested in understanding human behaviour in societies, especially group conflict dynamics and drivers as well as social constructs and identity. She hopes to be a social researcher one day where asking questions and finding sustainable answers for societies can be her full time job ! She currently resides in the Middle East and spends her spare time out photographing nature and tending to her house plants (Jameela, Ivy, Rose, Cherry and Philip) :P.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Snakes and Ladders Blog or its members.

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