Types and Levels of Conflict

We are all accustomed to disagreements. They are a part of our everyday lives. They are built into human interactions. Nevertheless, this does not imply that every social interaction is always entirely or even partially problematic. It also does not imply that every underlying antagonistic relationship would be exhibited with the same level of animosity or violence. Disputes are a part of the totality of social existence; their area is as extensive and varied as life itself.

To fully comprehend the complexities of various forms and levels of conflict, we must draw on viewpoints from various disciplines, including Anthropology, Sociology, History, Political Science, International Relations, and Psychoanalysis. This will provide us with an interdisciplinary perspective on conflicts.

Types and Levels of Conflict

Scholars need to agree on the types and intensities of conflict. Many researchers have identified various sorts of conflict. Social conflicts, intercommunity conflicts, caste conflicts, group conflicts, interpersonal conflicts, intellectual conflicts, economic conflicts, cultural conflicts, religious conflicts, racial or ethnic conflicts, ideological conflicts, hot and cold conflicts, north and south conflicts, regional conflicts, international or intra-national conflicts, and so on are all possible.

According to Dennis Sandole, a typology promotes analysis, and a typology of conflicts could aid in conflict resolution and analysis. Furthermore, studying several conflict typologies may reveal interconnected insights into a given conflict situation. Such insights allow an analyst and prospective third-party intervener to view a problem from multiple perspectives, increasing the possibility of a more effective reaction.

Quincy Wright's Classification

Quincy Wright was one of the first political scientists to study conflicts and war comprehensively. Conflict can occur between various types of entities, according to him. Physical conflict, political conflict, intellectual conflict, and legal conflict are his four forms of conflict. He contrasts physical conflict, which occurs when two or more things attempt to occupy the same place simultaneously, with political conflict, which occurs when a group attempts to force its policy on others. He further divides these two types of conflict from ideological conflicts, in which opposing systems of thinking or values clash, and legal disputes, in which controversies over claims or demands are resolved through mutually agreed-upon procedures.

He also sees war as the fifth type of conflict. For him, the war in the legal sense has been defined by the combination of all four categories of conflict mentioned above. The physical struggle of armies to occupy the same space, each seeking to annihilate, disarm, or capture the other; the political struggle of nations to achieve policies against the resistance of others; the ideological struggle of people to preserve or extend ways of life and value systems; and the legal struggle of states to acquire titles, vindicate claims, prevent violence, or punish offenses through recognized procedures of regulation are all manifestations of war.

Anatol Rapoport's Classification

Anatol Rapoport proposed categorizing confrontations into three types: battles, games, and arguments. Their distinguishing factors include the opponent's perception, the parties' intent, and the rational content of the circumstance. The opponent is considered a nuisance in a battle, the objective is to injure him, and the situation is devoid of logic. In a game, the opponent is considered an extension of oneself, the goal is to outwit him, and the scenario is entirely rational. Furthermore, in a dispute, the opponent is seen as essential, but differently, the goal is to persuade him, and the situation is considered rational. Rapoport's three conflict dynamics models can be expanded upon. He identifies three types of conflicts using the four criteria listed below.

Initially, the premise or beginning point of the dispute differs in each of the three conflict models. There is mutual fear or hostility between the parties in fights; there is an agreement between the parties in games to strive for mutually incompatible goals within the constraints of specific rules, but not where the outcome can be predicted in advance; and there is a disagreement between the parties in debates about "what is" (facts) or "what ought to be" (values); i.e., clashes of convictions or "outlooks."

Second, the picture of the opponent (kept by each party) differs: in conflicts, the image maintained by each party is primarily a nuisance; ideally, the opponent should vanish or, at the very least, be decreased in size or importance. In games, each party's vision of the opponent is that of an essential partner, regarded as a mirror image of the self; preferably, a strong opponent who will do everything in his power to win; and a logical entity whose inner thought processes must be considered.

In discussions, each party's image of the opponent needs to be corrected or misinformed; ideally, the opponent should become a convert to one's point of view. Finally, the goals of each party differ in the three types of disputes. In fights, each party's goal is to hurt, destroy, subdue, or drive away the opponent; in games, it is to outwit the opponent; and in arguments, it is to persuade the opponent.

Fourth, the style of interaction varies across all three types. The form of engagement in fights is a non-rational series of acts and reactions to the other's and one's actions; use of thrusts, threats, violence, and so on; and the course of interaction is not dependent on the opponent's goals. In games, the parties cooperate by adhering to the rules and doing their best to give the greatest challenge to the opponent; actions (stratagems) are chosen based on likely outcomes, and the interaction ends when the outcome is evident to both sides.

In debates, the sides engage in verbal interaction of arguments utilizing various persuasion strategies such as brainwashing, explaining away the opponent's beliefs, and reducing threats connected with adopting one's outlook in the opponent's mind.

Singer's Classification

Singer's conflict typology is based on conflict parties' political status. He maintains his original distinction between (a) interstate wars and (b) extra-systemic (primarily colonial) wars but adds two new categories of non-interstate conflict: (c) 'civil' conflicts, in which, unlike (b) one protagonist may be 'an insurgent or revolutionary group within the recognized territorial boundaries of the state,' and (d) 'increasingly complex intrastate wars' in former colonial states,

Holsti's Classification

K. J. Holsti also modified this typology in his 1996 book, The State, War, and the State of War. Before 1989, he classified international (interstate) conflict into twenty-four concerns, divided into five composite sets: conflict over territory, economics, nation-state formation, ideology, and 'human sympathy' (i.e., ethnicity/religion). He found that the incidence of the first two was decreasing while the incidence of the last three was growing. Later, he focuses on non-interstate war and bases his typology on 'types of actors and objectives,' resulting in four conflict categories −

  • Normal state versus wars (e.g., China and India in 1962) and armed interventions involving significant loss of life (the US in Vietnam, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan)

  • National liberation decolonizing wars

  • Internal wars based on ideological goals (e.g., Sendero Luminoso in Peru, Montenegro in Uruguay)

  • State-nation wars including armed resistance by ethnic, language, and religious groups, often with the goal of secession or separation from the state (e.g., Tamils in Sri Lanka, Ibos in Nigeria)

Kenneth Boulding's Classification

Kenneth Boulding (1962) classifies social conflicts into eight types −

  • Disputes between or among individuals

  • Conflicts between groups (spatially separated groups)

  • The ecological conflict between groups

  • Homogeneous organizational conflict (i.e., a conflict between organizations of similar type and aim, such as state vs. state, sect vs. sect, union vs. union, and so on)

  • Heterogeneous organization conflict (i.e., between unlike organizations, such as state vs. church, union vs. corporation, university vs. church/state, etc.)

  • Conflicts between a person and a group (mainly socialization conflicts, as in child vs. Family, person vs. peer group, person vs. hierarchical superiors or inferiors, etc.)

  • The conflict between a person and an organization (mainly role conflicts)

  • Conflicts between a group and an organization


Disputes serve a variety of functions. Not all conflicts are harmful and destructive. Philosophers such as Hegel and Marx viewed the conflict as a vital tool for change and progress. There are as many typologies as analysts, and the criteria used differ and are frequently incompatible. A list of some labels used in well-known analyses from the 1990s quickly approaches a hundred. Some differentiate by conflict parties, others by conflict problems, but the majority by hybrid lists that appear to mix numerous categories. Some have two types, while others have more than twenty. This unit provides an overview of various conflict kinds and levels.

Updated on: 13-Mar-2023


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