Managing Societal Conflicts

Lola Akin Ojelabi

(Adapted from Lola Akin Ojelabi, “Managing Societal Conflicts: Identity, Social Inclusion and Values” (2020) 30 (3) Australasian Dispute Resolution Journal, 193 – 202).

Social/Societal conflicts are those that are fluid, moving from stage to stage, from emergence to escalation and de-escalation, and then to resolution. They include many small conflicts which interlock, with parties engaging in various strategies for the achievement of their goals.[1] Societal conflicts are not always large-scale violent conflicts attracting the attention of the international community. They relate to social problems which may include issues around identity, race, gender, culture and class.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Conflict can arise in relation to values (Culture), goals (basic needs/Nature) and interests (Structure) and is a combination of attitudes, behaviour and contradictions.[2] Galtung goes further to identify various forms of violence within society. Violence is defined simply as ‘any avoidable insult to basic human needs’.[3] Basic needs, according to Galtung, include survival, wellness, freedom and identity needs. [4] Violence includes direct violence, cultural violence and structural violence. Direct violence is a form of physical violence directed by one person at another or at a group, which injures physically. Structural violence exists when institutions and systems employ discriminatory practices toward a group and cultural violence exists when discriminatory practices are not condemned by mainstream groups or government institutions.[5] Galtung argues that direct violence can result when injustices are woven into the social structure of society and there is polarisation (social distance) and frustration.[6] Frustration can lead to violence[7] but regardless of the absence of violence, conflict may exist, lying covertly under existing structures.  The flame of conflict can be fanned by negative societal discourses embedding prejudices, stereotypes and ethnocentrism.

But societal conflicts, as with any other type of dispute, can be functional in that they can promote social change, facilitate reconciliation of legitimate interests, discourage premature decisions for fear of antagonism and foster group solidarity.[8] Realising positive outcomes however requires cooperative processes.  Processes in which frank and open conversations can be had regarding underlying issues including value-differences, perceived divergence of interests and needs.[9]

A conflict resolution approach designed to achieve social change based on social justice values would require a vision of what a just society looks like.[10]  A just society, it is argued, is one where justice, freedom, equality and peace are core values. A society that emphasises the need for addressing societal conflict by engaging with underlying causes of conflict. A conflict resolution process that will inject values (justice, freedom, equality and peace)[11] into the conflict conversation to bring about a change; a change that will end the cycle of conflict. Not all conflict resolution processes have the injection of values at their core, but restorative justice processes could be useful in this regard.

Restorative justice is an approach to conflict resolution used where a community has been harmed by the action of one of its own.  This approach is used mostly in relation to criminal offending but the values underlying it are useful in the context of societal conflicts where a section of the community may be feeling excluded and undervalued;[12] where people and relationships have been violated and the goal is to seek healing and put right the wrongs. It is process in which taking responsibility is important. The goal must be clear and centred on achieving social justice, and the forum must be designed to provide an opportunity for genuine and honest conversations about the implications of negative public discourses on peoples, including minority groups. It must include taking steps to redress the situation where possible.


[1] Louis Kriesberg ‘The State of the Art in Conflict Transformation’, Berghof Handbook of Conflict Transformation, Article, [50-69] available online at https://www.berghof-foundation.org/fileadmin/redaktion/Publications/Handbook/Articles/kriesberg_handbook.pdf   

[2] Johan Galtung, ‘Peace by Peaceful Conflict Transformation – The TRANSCEND Approach’ in Charles Webel and Johan Galtung (eds), Handbook of Peace and Conflict Studies (Routledge, 2007) 22.

[3] Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer, ‘Violence: Direct, Structural and Cultural’ in Johan Galtung, Pioneer of Peace Research, (Springer Briefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice, Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, vol 5, 2013) 35.

[4] Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer, ‘Violence: Direct, Structural and Cultural’ in Johan Galtung, Pioneer of Peace Research, (Springer Briefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice, Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, vol 5, 2013) 35-36.

[5] Johan Galtung, ‘Peace by Peaceful Conflict Transformation – The TRANSCEND Approach’ in Charles Webel and Johan Galtung (eds), Handbook of Peace and Conflict Studies (Routledge, 2007) 29; Johan Galtung and Dietrich Fischer, ‘Violence: Direct, Structural and Cultural’ in Johan Galtung, Pioneer of Peace Research, (Springer Briefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice, Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, vol 5, 2013) 35.

[6] Johan Galtung, ‘Peace by Peaceful Conflict Transformation – The TRANSCEND Approach’ in Charles Webel and Johan Galtung (eds), Handbook of Peace and Conflict Studies (Routledge, 2007) 18.

[7] Johan Galtung, ‘Peace by Peaceful Conflict Transformation – The TRANSCEND Approach’ in Charles Webel and Johan Galtung (eds), Handbook of Peace and Conflict Studies (Routledge, 2007) 18.

Dean G Pruitt and Sung Hee Kim, Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement (McGraw Hill, 2004) 10-11.

[9] Bernard Mayer, Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution (Wiley & Sons, 2004) 172.

[10] Alicia Pfund (ed), From Conflict Resolution to Social Justice – The Work and Legacy of Wallace Warfield (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) xxxii.

[11] Lola Akin Ojelabi and Tania Sourdin, ‘Using a Values-Based Approach in Mediation’, 2011 (22) Australasian Dispute Resolution Journal 258.

[12] Brenda Morrison and Eliza Ahmed, ‘Restorative Justice and Civil Society: Emerging Practice, Theory, and Evidence’ (2006) 62 (2) Journal of Social Issues 209. The paper refers to a values-oriented conception of restorative justice.

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About Dr Lola Akin Ojelabi

Dr Akin Ojelabi is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law, La Trobe University. Her research interests are in the fields of conflict resolution including alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and international law. Her ADR research focuses on issues of fairness and justice, in particular, access to justice for vulnerable/disadvantaged citizens, process design, and culture. In the field of international law, her interest is in the role of international institutions, particularly the United Nations, in the resolution of disputes and how international law principles promote peace and justice globally.

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