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Chapter 5 - Political Conflicts

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Summary

The variety of topics that lie at the heart of political conflicts is virtually infinite. Any analysis of real-world conflicts therefore needs to start by identifying and studying its concrete subject matter. However, a more general understanding of political conflicts requires a focus on their characteristics, which are the aspects of their identity that can be used to describe every imaginable conflict, and this may help to recognise similarities in the factors underlying their origin, evolution and dynamics.

Which characteristics are useful in this respect can only be established by empirically driven theoretical analysis. This chapter focusses on a small number of such aspects of conflicts that have been demonstrated to be relevant for a wide variety of seemingly quite different concrete situations. The first of these concerns what is at stake for the conflicting parties, which can be specified in several ways. Other important characteristics of conflicts that will be discussed in this chapter relate to the actors involved in the conflict, its history, and its connections to other conflicts.

Before turning to these characteristics, a cautionary remark has to be reiterated that was made earlier in Chapter 2. The terms conflict and cooperation are used here in a neutral sense, in contrast to many evaluative connotations of these terms in everyday language. Conflict is not necessarily bad, or regrettable, and cooperation is not necessarily to be applauded. How one would evaluate specific conflictual or cooperative relationships depends on one's norms and values and on the goals or interests one pursues, and all of these are different across people. Moreover, there is also a philosophical tradition – known as agonism – that points to the positive consequences of some kinds of political conflict. The underlying idea is that truth and understanding require the acknowledgement of, and intellectual contestation between inevitably incompatible interests and viewpoints, rather than their negation or obfuscation.

What is at stake?

What is at stake in conflicts affects the motivations of those actively involved and how determinedly they will pursue their cause. It therefore also impacts upon the dynamics between the conflicting parties, and on the possibilities for arriving at some kind of resolution. This ‘what is at stake’ aspect of conflicts has different aspects of its own that are not fully independent of each other.

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Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2018

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