Conflicting Theories in Conflict

How do the debates contribute to explaining the long durability-low intensity nexus of contemporary civil conflict in Africa?

Essay, 2017

13 Pages, Grade: 8,0


Conflicting Theories in Explaining Conflict

How do the debates (not) contribute to explain the long duration-low intensity nexusofcontemporary civil wars in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Introduction: Challenges of understanding conflict

The field of conflict studies used to be dominated by the search for causes, however, such grand theories striving for universal laws (see for instance Collier 1999) often cannot properly account for the complex circumstances of long duration/low intensity of contemporary civil wars. The interpretative, micro-political turn in conflict studies (e.g. Autessere 2012; Korf 2006; Kalyvas 2003; Cramer 2003/2002) further contribut­ed to understand conflicts such as the intractable conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This essay is to illustrate the contributions and shortcomings of the respective debates, with regard to the intractability and low intensity of contempo­rary civil conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa. The case of the DRC will be used as exem­plary case, whereas I start by laying out the framework of the conflict and briefly ad­dress the challenges of understanding conflict. I continue by elaborating on the greed vs. grievance debate, further focus on group inequalities and contrast it to the debate of identity and conflict. Subsequently, I will use this as a bridge to outline the benefi­cial value of the state-building debate, while taking into account the embeddedness into the international system. Hence, I will illustrate how institutional explanations can be seen as counterpart to this debate, and finally refer to the significant debate about explaining violence. In doing so, I will briefly address the author’s epistemological and ontological assumptions, i.e. the way they approach a subject. I will conclude by criti­cally assessing the shortcomings of the different debates and reflect on how my onto­logical/epistemological assumptions have changed throughout the course.

Due to the multifaceted and interconnected causes of violence on the local level, the conflict in the DRC serves as exemplary case for the complexity of contemporary conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa. The problems of causes (multiple, changing, starting point or continuum) versus motivations and construction of causality (see for instance Cramer 2006; Kalyvas 2003) are consistent issues in conflict studies. As we have seen in Autessere (2012), simple frames have a certain value in enabling policy makers and practitioners in the field to do their work. Essentially by reducing com­plexity, they draw attention to specific issues and are also able to create funds. How­ever, even though framing may be unavoidable, it remains artificial and frames should always be questioned. Labeling can be a political act and conflicting parties often appropriate narratives according to their needs (see for instance Collier 1999). Moreover, along the lines of ontology and epistemology, there is the criticism of “armchair empiricism” (Korf 2006) which criticizes the popularity of positivist ap­proaches striving to identify universal causal mechanisms predicting outbreak and duration of war. Moreover, there is clearly a difference between the assumption of conflict as just being out there and the view of it as subject of human construction. I will try to include these underlying thoughts within the depiction ofthe debates.

Economic motives, inequality and the role ofidentities

Considering the fact that the conflict in the DRC is often framed as resource conflict, economic factors have to be acknowledged as highly influential. However, as the greed vs. grievance debate shows, the role of natural resources in conflict is more complex than it looks, whereas the rational actor perspective as explained by Collier (e.g. 1999) does not explain everything in conflict and political economic factors do need to be investigated (Cramer 2003).

On the one hand side of the debate, the orthodox economic approach is partly useful in understanding the duration of conflict. Collier sees greed as motive and his argu­ment that life is cheap has some value in explaining “why” conflict persists: looting of resources is highly profitable (see for instance Cramer 2002: 1849) and there is a lack of (profitable) alternatives for a vast young population. However, Cramer (and probably Langer/Stewart as well) would argue that these factors may be the reason for the intractability of the conflict but not its initial cause (Cramer 2002: 1858), and they strongly criticize the adequacy of proxies. Moreover, Collier’s implications of risk reduction by controlling a high proportion of primary commodity exports and a diversi­fication of economies jointly with development assistance (Collier 1999: 11 f.) have failed to ease the intractable conflict in the DRC. While this can be taken as evidence of neglecting specific/local contexts, economic factors still have to be taken into con­sideration to understand the persistence of many rebel groups, and their looting de­fines the low intensity characteristic of many conflicts. In terms of causality, however, it might have been grievances that delivered the opportunity for individual motivations such as loot. Therefore, we need to switch from the positivist to the interpretative perspective to better understand the “how” of the intractability, which refers to in­depth understanding ofthe whole context.

This is what Cramer (2002/2003) on the other hand wants to tackle by including “the social” into the equation. This switch on the individual level helps to include political economic factors to investigate why individuals participate in conflict. However, hori­zontal (group) inequalities (HI) are of higher significance than vertical inequalities amongst individuals (Langer/Stewart 2014), which emphasizes the embeddedness of the social actor within identity groups and therefore the structural level. Consequent­ly, understanding the underlying complexity will contribute to understanding the long duration. The critique of adequate proxies within the positivist approach of gathering large amounts of comparable data may be addressed by gathering more specific da­ta and possibly field work in the interpretative approach. In this case, the interpreta­tive structural level seems to matter more to (fully) understand the intractability, whereas the rational approach illustrates the (pre-)conditions of why the conflict per­sists. One has to acknowledge the poor quality of data on inequalities as the general weakness of the debate.

In terms of HI, Langer and Stewart point out the necessity of inclusionary practices in the political and socio-economic dimensions (2014: 114). Inequalities in these spheres are fueling conflict and more equitable groups in terms of education and wealth can ease conflict. In this context, geographical (center-periphery), gender and linguistic HIs turned out to be more important in the case ofthe Congo than inequali­ties along the lines of religious identities (Kanyama 2017: 13 f.). This leads us to pos­sible shortcomings ofthe identity debate in conflict studies.

At first, I want to point out the constructivist notion within the debate of how identities are constructed (Sen 2006: 19 ff.), whereas the freedom of choice over these identi­ties may also be very limited (ibid.: 31). One could argue here that this is the underly­ing understanding with Oberschall (2000: 982 f.), when he talks about the two sets of frames (peace and war) during the conflict in former Yugoslavia. While this under­standing of identities accounts for mobilization along ethnic lines that become in­duced by elites’ triggering of fear (see for instance Fearon/Laitin 2000: 874), it does not significantly account for the long duration-low intensity nexus. The possibility of change in identity remains. Moreover, the primordial understanding of identities (cf. Kaplan 1993) based on latent but inherent identities is neither able to deliver an ex­planation of the long duration. As we have seen for instance in former Yugoslavia, but also in the genocide in Rwanda with effects on the Congo, mobilization along (ethnic) identity lines rather leads to intense ethnic cleansing that does not necessari­ly persist over decades.

Within this debate, neither the question of how identities come into place within the constructivist notion of ethno-symbolism (cf. Sen 2006), nor the positivist approach of Kaplan (1993) are able to substantially explain intractability. However, the construc­tivist notion in identifying with certain identity groups helps to understand complex alliances in the field. In this context, I want to briefly refer to the debate about imagi­native geographies of conflict, because it illustrates how such interpretative ap­proaches can be beneficial in understanding conflict (and intractability). Human geog­raphers emphasize the importance of contrapuntal reading and responsive methods like counter-mapping and de-orientalization to better understand conflicting issues. Said (1978) particularly emphasizes our identity of the Occident, whereas the Orient is constructed by us as the more powerful. Overlapping territories and intertwined histories based on different narratives (see for instance Gregory 2010) can therefore help to unravel causes for intractability, wherewith critical/interpretative approaches go beyond accepting facts from our Western world view.

Nonetheless, other factors than (ethnic) identities need to be included into the equa­tion if one wants to fully understand the intractability characteristics of contemporary civil wars such as the one in the DRC. Locating such conflicts within the global sys­tem may be beneficial in this regard.

State formation and going beyond the idea of weak states

Looking at the concept of new wars, it seems that its major contribution is the linkage to globalization. “New” wars differ “old” wars in terms of the aspired goals, warfare methods, and financing (cf. Kaldor 2012: 7), whereas the latter sort of links it to the greed vs. grievance debate. The change in mode of warfare within so-called new (in­ternationalized) wars can clearly account for intractability. In addition, the decentrali­zation of war economies eventually causing “shadow economies” that rebel groups use to finance themselves (Devatak 2008: 6-16) further contributes to intractability. However, in the context of globalization there is the critique of a mismatch between complexity of analysis and simplicity of policy response (cf. imperative of statebuild­ing, Fukuyama 2004). While the debate recognizes positive effects of increasing global interconnectedness, e.g. in terms of intervention and state-building (see for instance Devatak 2008), it also recognizes traditional practices of empire. Notably, this refers to the enforcement of invasive forms of external regulation, whereas the question remains if they can support the stated goals of the affected states (see Chandler 2006: 1-7).

With regard to the ontology table, the embeddedness of conflicts into the internation­al system highlights the structural level. In this sphere, authors like Kaldor (explaining characteristics of new wars) and further Fukuyama with his imperative of statebuild­ing with regard to measuring the scope of a political system illustrate the characteri­zation of conflict as contribution of the positivist position. In contrast, the critical inter­pretative views (especially Chandler) go beyond identifying presumably measurable facts and try to get the figuratively speaking “bigger picture”. Therefore, the question in this line of thought is not only about what we have, but what the consequences are of what we do (e.g. imperial practices, etc.), incorporating the constructivist notion of social reality.

Within the debate of state-formation and conflict, it is more the question of how state­building and violent conflict are related (initially Tilly (1985) in terms of historical state- formation in Western Europe, then Newman (2014) linking it to contemporary state­building).


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Conflicting Theories in Conflict
How do the debates contribute to explaining the long durability-low intensity nexus of contemporary civil conflict in Africa?
Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
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conflicting, theories, conflict, africa
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Kai-Uwe Ratheiser (Author), 2017, Conflicting Theories in Conflict, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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