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Conflict in Africa: The socio-psychological perspective

2nd December 2010

By: In On Africa IOA


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Conflict, as we know it today, has endured major transformation since the earliest days. In the contemporary world, three major causes of conflict have been identified: cultural, social psychological and material. These three analytical perspectives claim that the essential goods at stake are values (cultural outlook), status (socio-psychological stance), and scarce resources (material resource perspective). Even though only one of these perspectives is often needed to explain conflict in an area, it is important to note that the three can merge to form a combined cause for conflict.



For the purpose of this article, only the social psychological perspective as a cause of conflict will be explored. For decades now, political and economic approaches to explaining conflict and conflict management have entertained many political scientists. However, to develop a comprehensive understanding of conflict, focus should be placed on the socio-psychological aspects of conflict, as the political and economic approaches are vital to an understanding of the root causes of conflict. Yet, the socio-psychological dimension allows us to develop deeper insights to, not only conflict and conflict management, but the development of sustainable peace. Since the latter part of the 20th century, the rational choice theory acted as the main paradigm for the explanation of why conflict occurs. As the importance of the social psychological perspective have been realised, the need for a new paradigm was also realised. Therefore, this article will focus on the paradigm shift that occurred in the social psychological perspective in an attempt to provide reasons as to why marginalised people turn to conflict in group membership.

The social psychological perspective



The rational choice theory was originally developed as an economic theory by economist Adam Smith. Since the 20th century, however, it has been applied to the social sciences in an attempt to explain socio-political phenomenon in a more scientific manner. By the 1970s, this theory was used as the main paradigm to explain phenomenon such as voting behaviour, coalition formation, interaction, discrimination and conflict. The theory assumes the following: the individual is the basic actor within any society. All individuals pursue goals which are, inherently, a reflection of his or her perceived self-interest. In order to recognise their goals, individuals undergo a process of conscious decision-making – when given options, they always choose the alternative with the highest expected value. Even though this theory is vital, criticism emerged and the need for a revised version to explain social behaviour and the socio-political aspects of conflict was recognised.(2)


Some of the criticism includes that the theory assumes that the actors will always choose the alternative that has the highest expected value. It also believes that the actors will have access to all the necessary information on the alternatives and the possible consequences. Moreover, it is not clear whether the actors will indeed have the knowledge to recognise an alternative as one with the highest expected value, or if they will settle for the alternative that satisfies some minimum requirement. Furthermore, emphasis is placed on the process of decision-making rather than on the outcome itself. The theory ignores any possible limitations on free choice that could be imposed by culture in the form of tradition, institutions and norms. It also masks a Western individualistic bias by ignoring other factors such as culture.(3)


As a viable alternative to the rational choice theory, the theory of perspective comes to mind. According to this, perceptions of the self occur in relation to others. Self-perceptions determine the options that are made available to choose from. In this way, choice is recognised as a function of the self. Self-interest forms the basic part of the theory, but it should be balanced by people’s need for sociability – their need to belong to a group. The theory of perspective gives recognition to the importance of group membership in a society. It assumes that actors have various identities as developed by their membership to different groups. Thus, the self is seen as an individual functioning in a social world populated by others who influence the individual’s behaviour. This allows other factors to be included in the decision-making process. These factors can range from culture and religion to cognition and feelings that have an effect on the decision-making process when the individual is faced with alternative options.(4)

Thus, a paradigm shift is witnessed – a shift away from the rational choice theory towards a theory that understands the self in relation to others.(5) Identity of the individual is replaced by identity in the group. Accordingly, a distinction is made between the in-group (group members’ own identity) and the out-group (opposing groups’ identities). A strong sense of loyalty and allegiance is formed within the boundaries of the in-group and discrimination is applied against the out-group(s).(6) Tension emerges not as a result of purely economic or political issues, but rather from issues enhanced by the relevant groups’ statuses. Within societies, individuals – or the members of a group – compare themselves to other groups. They evaluate their worth and abilities in relation to the other groups within the society. Self-esteem is often dependent on their social position – it puts them in an advanced, level or backward position to other groups that could inevitably decrease or increase the likelihood of conflict.(7)


When applied to conflict situations in Africa, the argument is made that the conflict between the Hutu’s and the Tutsi’s in the 1994 Rwanda genocide was not necessarily a clash of cultures, but rather a clash of status in the sense that tensions between these two groups were enhanced by their social positions as derived from colonialism in Rwanda. Henry Tajfel and John Turner(8) stated that in intergroup situations such as this, “individuals will not interact as individuals, on the basis of their individual characteristics or interpersonal relationships, but as members of their groups’ standing in certain defined relationships to members of other groups”. The members of the groups acted in unison against each other because of the irrespective in-group, out-group identification. Thus, status of the individuals within the groups acted as the cause for conflict as opposed to tension brought about by culture alone. The self-determination of the individuals is reflected in the conformity to group membership and status differences between the groups led to an increase in the intergroup conflict.(9)


Further examples of this include South Africa where tensions driven by status differences are exacerbated by race; tensions in Somalia between clans where ethnic and historic differences directly impacted the demise of the Somali state; and the inter-ethnic conflict in Cote d’Ivoire that has contributed to the country's uncertain future.(10)




Whereas the rational choice theory has acted as the main paradigm for the explanation of social behaviour, a clear shift towards the theory of perspectives has been witnessed. In the contemporary world, it is necessary to understand the dynamic of social behaviour within society. This is done not by merely looking at the individual, but by looking at the individual functioning in a social world populated by others who influence the individual’s behaviour. The self (and accordingly his or her status) is recognised in relation to others – in relation to the different groups within society. It is within these groups that the identity of the self is reconceptualised and that the idea of the in-group and the out-group is established. Here, loyalty is formed and discrimination and possible conflict is born. It is, therefore, clear that the social psychological perspective of conflict should not be ignored when possible causes for conflict is explored.


Written by By Lize-Marié Smuts(1)



(1) Contact Lize-Marié Smuts through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Conflict and Terrorism Unit (
(2) Monroe, K. R., 2001. Paradigm shift: From the rational choice to perspective. International Political Science Review, 22(2).
(3) Ibid.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Horowitz, D., 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley, University of California.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Tajfel, H. & Turner, J., 1979. “An integrative theory of intergroup conflict”, in Austin, G. & Worchel, S. [eds.], The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Monterey, Wadsworth.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Bettencourt, B.A. & Bartholow, B.D., 1998. The importance of status legitimacy for intergroup attitudes among numerical minorities. Journal of Social Issues, Winter; Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. 1979, “An integrative theory of intergroup conflict”, in Austin, G. &Worchel, S. [eds.], The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Monterey, Wadsworth.



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