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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2009, Vol.1, No.1 .


Understanding Conflict and Violence: Theoretical and interdisciplinary approaches
Tim Jacoby

(Routledge: London, 2007) 242 pp, PB, 20.99
ISBN 978-0415369107


This book is a highly useful resource for understanding the complex debates on why violence and conflicts occur. It focuses on diverse theories and compares analytical themes, with case studies and examples drawn from a variety of historical periods. The book explores nine interrelated ways of theorising causes of conflict and violence through a highly interdisciplinary analysis, which appeals to a wide audience.

The book begins by examining dimensions and difficulties in defining conflicts, looking for patterns of similarity. What these show is that while ?Iraq?s invasion of Kuwait, the Khmer Rouge?s activism in Cambodia, the French Revolution and domestic violence? (32) might appear dissimilar, they all exhibit a basic, fundamental struggle for recognition or resources. Jacoby also utilises Galtung?s (1969) notion of structural violence to analyse how structures explain violence. Direct violence includes deployment of arms, while structural violence includes malnutrition, lack of shelter and health care. He notes that violence is psychological as well as physical, while a focus on structural violence pays attention to discrimination of class, gender, ethnicity and race.

Another theme in the book that Jacoby stresses is the need to understand the functions of social conflict as demarcating boundaries from others that help to solidify groups. As with most functionalist accounts, I found this chapter lacking in a critique of the validity of such functions. In the fourth chapter he explores innate explanations for the human propensity to engage in violence, an idea often used in seemingly intractable ethno-religious conflicts. The fifth way of understanding the ?why? of conflict is to look at learnt forms of aggressive behaviour that are derived from individuals? socialisation experiences, including gender-differentiated patterns.

Chapter 6 looks at the notion that much social conflict results from grievances, particularly relating to inequality and social expectations. When people are aggrieved and not able to satisfy needs for sustenance, security and self-actualisation, frustration and aggression often sets in. This leads on to the argument in the seventh chapter, which notes that other accounts of conflict look at how mobilisation is rational and self-regarding in assessing the cost-benefit of participating in violent acts. Again, a critical approach would have been appreciated. Crises triggered by verbal acts, economic sanctions, political measures or military coercion underlie the eighth explanation of conflict, particularly evident within international relations theory, while the ninth explanation looks at hegemony as a way for powers to assert themselves.

Each chapter makes excellent links from one explanation to the next. The conclusion raises further issues relating to the analysis of conflict over disciplinary boundaries and ethical considerations on understanding war and peace. The book has an extensive 40 pages of references with an eclectic selection of literature. It includes a vast array of diverse examples, utilising interdisciplinary literature and contrasting theories. Hence it has broad appeal to a diverse range of students and scholars. While extremely impressive in the breadth of coverage of explanations, I would have welcomed a more critical approach to the theories and further indication of how an understanding of conflict and violence may actually help to prevent or minimise further outbreaks. That is, an understanding of conflict should lead to an understanding of what furthers peace.


Dr. Elisabeth Porter, Head of School of International Studies, University of South Australia



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