Main causes of violent conflict

What is it that makes people wage war? Many people are ready to point the finger (too) quickly at some alleged basic ill that is responsible for all violent conflicts of the present and the past—be it religion, capitalism or the alleged aggressiveness, viciousness and greediness of human nature. Yet, such an abridged explanation does not do justice to the complexity of the matter. Indeed, there is no easy answer to the question of the causes of war. Violent conflict can have many causes. In the history of humankind there is probably not one case where war was waged based on one single cause. The reasons that convince a group to suddenly enforce its goals using direct violence against another group are both multifaceted and complex.

To support this observation, BICC has developed a matrix that systematically clusters the different ideas and theses on causes of war. The matrix is based on a qualitative understanding of war as a process of the collective use of physical violence. There is a logical sequence of different cause categories for the outbreak of wars, and thus causal explanations have been allocated to these categories accordingly.

Inspired by the concept of a “grammar of war” developed by the Working Group for Research on the Causes of War (AKUF) at Hamburg University, five cause categories are allocated to the vertical axis of the conflict matrix:

  1. Structural contradiction. The assumption is that each war is based on a societal contradiction that can be established objectively. The exact contents of this contradiction, sometimes called “root causes”, remains open; it could thus be of a cultural, economic or political nature.
  2. Motivations and goals. On this level, affected actors perceive, interpret and evaluate given differences. Here, it is less about the objective structure but rather about the subjective targets of the parties embedded in this structure. In conflict studies, one often speaks of “motivation strategies” in this context.
  3. Catalysts before the outbreak of violence. According to AKUF, wars presuppose the “change in societal relations into behaviour.” Here, the subjective interpretation of the real contradiction manifests itself in the concrete actions of the affected actors as, taken in isolation, neither root causes nor mobilisation strategies can explain the transition from peaceful to violent conflict resolution patterns. A number of catalysts are required to cause the conflict parties to commit a “civilisational break,” hence to commit violence on a large scale.
  4. Trigger. The exact point in time of the outbreak of violence is often determined by a so-called trigger event. While this event can be directly connected to the root causes, it can also be totally removed from them.
  5. Catalysts after the outbreak of violence. Once a war has broken out, scale and intensity of the use of violence can be influenced by a number of factors—be it the resources and weapons available to the warring parties or the weather conditions, for instance.

The horizontal axis of the conflict matrix describes five functional dimensions — politics, economy and demography, culture, military / security, environment — each of which has an influence on the five cause categories described above.

The matrix is not about solving the partially tedious debates about whether resource wealth or a shortage of resources, greed or grievance, ethnicity or class plays the most important role with a one fits-all resolution. Rather, it aims to integrate different explanatory approaches into an overall model that can be adjusted to concrete cases, while taking into consideration the varying importance of individual conflict dimensions. The matrix thus treats all dimensions equally and does not reduce wars to a certain cause. It keeps the search for possible causes as open as possible.

In total, the BICC conflict matrix shows 25 causal complexes for violent action. Of course, one complex will not be as important as another in the different violent conflicts. The relevance of each individual complex will differ from war to war. This means that each violent conflict has its very own “map” showing the interplay of various different cause complexes.

Sources and further information:

Working Group for Research on the Causes of War (AKUF) an der Universität Hamburg (German)

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