1.6 Objective and subjective views of conflict

There are subjective and objective elements in all conflict situations and both need to be addressed in the resolution process. The objective aspects are those that are largely independent of the parties perceptions, including competition for power, scarce resources, territory, or other historically determined institutions and structures. Analysts who emphasise 'objective' elements of conflict are said to have an 'instrumental' view of the sources of conflict. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict they could focus on issues of territory, water and physical security of both parties. Subjective approaches to conflict resolution involve attempts to improve the ways in which parties understand and behave towards each other. Analysts who emphasise these 'subjective' aspects are said to have an 'expressive' view of the sources of conflict. In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict this would be focus on the history perceived (and often real) injustices both parties have inflicted upon eachother and what this has meant for the way they see eachother and their own suffering.

Recent work suggests that conflict can be best understood if both levels of analysis are pursued. Real differences in interests can cause conflict, but once a conflict has started, the perceptions, beliefs and interaction of the parties are crucial in determining its outcome.

The conflict in Northern Ireland provides an example of how the subjective and objective elements of a conflict situation interact. There is a core issue involving a scarce resource (territory, or to be more precise, the exclusive control of that territory) and two communities with mutually exclusive preferred solutions to the territorial issue. The parties define their separate identities with the oppositional labels of religion (Catholic/ Protestant), which embraces larger cultural divisions of history, heritage and political tradition. Thus, at one level, the root of the conflict lies in the objective political issue of territorial sovereignty.

However, the objective aspect of the conflict is embedded in layers of subjective considerations. These include:

This complex intertwining of elements has produced a society dominated by mutual opposition, mistrust and fear and has made Northern Ireland one of Europe's most intractable contemporary conflicts (for a course in intractable (long running, difficult to resolve) conflicts see the homepage of the University of Colorado). The process of negotiation and mediation that led to the Good Friday agreement between representatives of the two communities has had to address both elements of the conflict. To read about the Good Friday Agreements through the BBC click here or through INCORE (Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity) in Northern Ireland click here.

Some suggestions for further reading on objective/subjective views of conflicts