'Conflict analysis' - Who cares? I do and so should you

Published 20 th August 2016 by Daniel Kirkpatrick
Image of a tank with smoke on a battlefield

When I meet people for the first time they nearly always ask that infamous question - 'So what is it that you do?'- yet with almost complete consistency, as soon as I mention the words 'international conflict analysis' they immediately switch off or else quickly change the topic. I don't say this out of disrespect to anyone, but rather because I believe it is linked to a wider problem with how we understand the term itself.

When we talk of conflict, immediately the wars around the world come to mind, and understandably so: as of 2013 there were 33 armed conflicts, including 7 wars with more than 1,000 battle-related deaths [1]; and at the time of writing there are 65.3 million people globally who are displaced from their homes, and 21.3 million refugees [2]. War and violence are ever present realities which appear to increasingly be seen on the news. My concern however arises because when people see these images and hear of these statistics, their first overriding response is fear or anger. In fact the language used in the media is often of 'evil', 'barbarity', or 'chaos'. But this leaves us feeling helpless; that what is going on 'out there' is somehow unknowable and wrong. In fact, often I feel there to be a moral accusation against those doing research on such issues as if we are seeking to understand the 'evil'; almost that understanding becomes equated with legitimizing.

Now you might think then that I instead am going to extol the virtues of my wonderful academic field which seeks to educate the masses and shed light on this unknowable evil...Well no. Actually I sadly find that all too often we are part of the problem as well. The language and terminology used in articles and books is so specialised and technical that even specialists can struggle to comprehend the author's meaning. I am guilty of this too as it is how we are trained to write. Granted many topics are extremely complex and require corresponding complexity in the language used, but more often than not I feel that academics - myself included - hide behind the veil of their language to either make their work seem more sophisticated than it really is, or to give them a constructive ambiguity to guard against criticism.

'Why does it matter if we don't all understand conflict?' You might respond.

Image of my rental car after it had its hubcaps stolen Well to an extent you are completely correct. It doesn't matter. For most of our day-to-day lives what goes on out there isn't important in terms of our daily routine. But on the other hand, it matters greatly. International conflicts are sadly not a thing of the past, nor something which is likely to disappear, and having a basic understanding is extremely important for all. I will give two examples from my own work and experience to explain why.

Recently I visited South Africa to do some interviews for my research (at the time of writing I am actually still in South Africa). Now whilst I was out at a meeting - ironically talking about criminality and the police - I decided to park my car on a busy street in the middle of central Jo'burg (you probably know where this is going). You see, whilst I was having my meeting, someone decided that the hubcaps on my nice, shiny, new rental car would probably fetch a decent price, so they kindly relieved me of them.

Now my initial response wasn't: "What would cause someone to do this?" It was of fear. I drove quickly back to my flat and viewed everyone I saw as a suspect. Fear later gave way to anger. Anger that someone would have no regard for my own vulnerability as a foreigner. But on reflection I have begun to see not just the error in my judgement, but the dangers it embodies.

The theft was not a random act of barbarity, of evil, or of chaos as I initially felt, but the result of years of economic disadvantage, vast inequality, lack of social justice, political corruption, amongst other things. Yet it was much easier for me to label the individual(s) who did this as evil than it was for me to acknowledge that I represent many of those systemic issues simply because of my skin colour. In fact, by lazy characterisations like those I initially felt, we continue to perpetuate the violence of the past often without realising it.

Now that may seem like an obvious example but consider another. Over the past couple of years there have been various acts of terror committed across Western Europe, indeed just today the BBC reported "Terror deaths in Western Europe at highest level since 2004". The objective of such acts of violence is to evoke fear by their very definition, but their actual threat is often more imagined than reality. For example 574 people died last year as a result of homicide in England and Wales, yet over the same period for the whole of the UK only one death occurred as a result of an act of terror [3]. Of course there clearly is a security threat, but one which needs to be understood for what it is, not how we imagine it.

Police More important however is how such labels lead us to respond. If you consider my earlier example, my initial and instinctive response was to demonise those who committed the offence, but this ultimately embeds the system that gives rise to the act in the first place. Similarly, when we demonise those who commit acts of terror we actually are giving into fear and anger. Instead we need to distinguish between the acts and actors. In separating these out we can begin to consider why it is that some individuals are driven to commit the acts themselves.

An appreciation of our own ignorance is just as important as our understanding.

Yet it is important to also say many of us will never fully understand such acts, but an appreciation of our ignorance is just as important as our understanding. By accepting that we may not know, we are less inclined to respond in anger or fear. Perpetrators will no longer be defined solely by what they do, but as people themselves, often victims of their own circumstances. This does not excuse violence - not at all - but it enables us to resolve it, not embody it.

I hope this post at least encourages some interest in conflict analysis if nothing else, but regardless, it was helpful for me to recount these issues and process them for myself. Researching conflict analysis is not something I simply study, it's the way I understand the world around me. Knowing why individuals engage in violence helps us intervene before another cycle of violence begins. So when you next see an article or news report on political violence don't accept the characterisations, instead consider the person they are describing, the family they belong to, the culture they come from, and the life they've lived. Maybe then we may start resolving violent conflict rather than perpetuating it.

[1]Thenmer et al., (2013). "Armed conflicts, 1946-2013", Journal of Peace Research, 51(4):541-554. http://jpr.sagepub.com/content/51/4/541.abstract

[2]UNHCR, http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

[3]This is from the Global Database on Terrorism. See https://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/