We don't just use language to talk about the world; we use it to shape the world, to form and change relationships and to get things done. In fact, almost everything we do has language in it somewhere. We are moved to act in particular ways by our attitudes, for whose formation language has been largely responsible, and our evaluation of other people's actions often depends on how they are represented in language.
Conflict, whether between individuals or groups, is no exception to this fundamental aspect of the human condition. The three elements of Johann Galtung's Conflict Triangle - Attitude, Behaviour and Contradiction - are all shaped and expressed by language in this way. Even when the underlying cause of a conflict appears purely existential (e.g. over basic resources), the question of who is in conflict with who, the self-and-other-perceptions of those involved and the perception of incompatible interests itself are a result of allegiances and world views expressed and inculcated through language. And certainly, any justification of the status quo and any modification of the underlying cause or of attitudes will be achieved through language.
But 'language' does not occur in a vacuum. It is used on particular occasions, in particular times and places with particular participants through a particular medium. An understanding of the meaning and effect of such language-in-use requires consideration of all these circumstances. To study the dynamics of conflict, therefore, we need to look beyond the words used and situate them in their wider context, as just one (albeit crucial) component of interaction.
It is these enacted linguistic aspects of conflict which this article addresses. Proceeding from the above considerations, it is an attempt to provide an inventory which circumscribes all the possible variety of interaction which takes place within the context of conflict. Its intention is to provide a vocabulary for this variation, to offer a checklist of situational features which could have a bearing on the nature, development and outcome of conflictual encounters and to take a first step towards a possible typology of conflict situations. It is based on the assumption that 'settings' on each of the identified parameters have a profound effect on the way conflict participants conduct themselves and therefore will influence the nature and progression of a conflict.
The inventory is divided into four sections, each of which addresses a particular question, as follows: who? (parameters of participation); how? (categories of means); what? (categories of object); when and where? (spatio-temporal categories).
Parameters of participation: who is involved and how are they involved?
• Scale of engagement: How many individuals are actively participating? Of course, there may be (and often are) many others engaged behind the scenes, but this parameter refers to those enacting conflict in any one encounter. From 1:1 (e.g. a couple having a fight) to many thousands (e.g. a large-scale demonstration).
• Scale of effect: How many individuals stand to be measurably affected? From just two (e.g. the parties in a small-claims court) to large swathes of the global population (e.g. peace negotiations between countries at war)
• Permeability: To what extent are members of opposing sides fixed? From closed (i.e. the parties are clearly identifiable and restricted, as in a civil court hearing) to entirely open (e.g. anyone can 'take sides' - or change them - in a public meeting called for the purpose of discussing an issue). Those present may disagree about individuals' group membership – or indeed their right to be considered a party at all – which might affect their ability to participate in the interaction.
• Power: From symmetrical to very asymmetrical. This parameter involves potential divergences between participants regarding their ability to influence proceedings and outcomes. These result not only from existential aspects of the wider context (e.g. unequal distribution of military might, financial muscle or soft power) but also prevailing social values and linguistic capital in the specific activity-type (e.g. legal experts versus lay people in court proceedings).
• Visibility: Who else (other than those actively engaged as conflicting parties) is privy to what happens? From nobody to everybody. Crucially, this parameter refers not only to knowledge of the occurrence of an encounter but also to the extent to which it is directly witnessed, since conflicting parties are likely to behave very differently when alone with each other, in the presence of a few witnesses or before TV cameras.
• Direct/indirect: To what extent are the parties engaging directly? Is their conflict being enacted through third parties (with varying possible degrees of autonomy)?
• Representativeness: To what extent are those directly engaged acting on their own behalf? (Or are they merely representing a position? If so, what latitude do they have?) This question is the converse of direct/indirect above.
Categories of means: how is conflict expressed and manifested?
• Channel: A list of means for relaying language (e.g. face-to-face, phone, e-mail, twitter, letter, displayed notice, badge, distributed flyer, newspaper), but can also involve non-verbal signs (e.g clothing, mannerisms, use of projectiles, display of physical presence).
• Language Activity / genre: E.g. informal discussion, formal warning, formal negotiation, debate, semi-public meeting, report. This category involves issues of accountability and confidentiality. For example, is a meeting on-record or off-record? (And if the former, how is it to be recorded?) The precise nature of an encounter, and its assumed purpose, are often matters of contest in themselves and/or involve divergent assumptions on the part of participants.
• Intensity: This is a cline, from inflammatory verbiage, through clearly articulated language of entirely neutral affect, to barely articulated 'bad feeling'.
• Strategy: A list of future prospects projected by one party intended to induce change in an opposing party (e.g. changed perspectives, dire consequences, benefits). These may be contained in a single speech act (e.g. an assertion, a threat, a promise) or in large-scale non-verbal actions (e.g. overt military manoeuvres).
Categories of object: what is presented as at issue?
• Possession: "I want X" versus "You can't have X (perhaps because I want it)". Typically for territory, goods or money.
• Action: "I want to do X" versus "No, you can't do X (perhaps because I want to do it)". Typically about access to resources or facilities, or about performing actions.
• Procedure: "Let's do X" versus "No, let's not do X (perhaps let's do Y instead)". All ideological debates within a society about mores and laws fall into this category.
• Commission: "I want X (to be) done" versus "No, X will not be done".
Cutting across these basic categories are several more. One of these admits the possibility that the matter is not so clear-cut:
• Focus: How clear is it? From high focus (clear, single object of dispute) to very diffuse, in which more than one of the above categories of object arises. For example, a person who alleges unfair dismissal may clearly frame their case as one of possession (e.g "I want compensation") or as one of action (e.g. "You have no right to dismiss me"). On the other hand, s/he may frame it in a manner which allows for both ("You have no right to dismiss me, so I want compensation or my job back").
Two other categories refer to participants' allignment to the object of dispute:
• Outcome = yes/no or either/or: There are two possible types of reason for "no" in the definitions above. It could be a 'flat' no, the naysayer arguing simply that "you have no right to X" and/or that "X is a bad idea". This means that the disputed outcome is yes/no. On the other hand, the reason for "no" may be because an alternative is predicated. This means that the disputed outcome is either/or. This latter type may be further subdivided into either X or Y and either me or you. The former is applicable to all categories of disputed object (e.g. "You can't have X, but you can have Y / Let's not do X; let's do Y instead"). The latter is applicable only to the possession and action categories (e.g. "You can't do X because I want to do X instead").
• Perceived magnitude: From a perception that this is a matter of great moment (invoking deeply-held principles and beliefs and/or involving the setting of precedent) to one that this is an ephemeral matter (e.g. result of a misunderstanding, 'storm-in-a-teacup').
Finally, there are two categories which relate the object of dispute to its temporal existence:
• Facticity: Is the dispute about something which is presented as having already happened, is happening or is planned? Conflicts concerning planned actions or arrangements may be easier to resolve, while those pertaining to done deeds are inherently more difficult because the original sense of grievance is likely to have been exacerbated by initial responses to its voicing.
• Immediacy: To what extent is the object of the dispute an integral part of the encounter itself? From completely (e.g. refused entry to venue) to not at all (e.g. a debate concerning the Middle East conflict).
• Stand-alone/episodic: Is the encounter a one-off (e.g. a fight with a stranger over a parking space) or part of a series (e.g. one of several negotiation meetings)?
• Domain: Three basic types: private (individuals interacting as themselves without a significant audience), specialist-role-based (e.g. workplace, service encounters, state agencies; where individuals act as representative so that particular norms apply and issues of accountability arise); public arena (whether local, national or international; where the numbers and identity of the audience is unknown).
• Setting: E.g. private place, institutional building, TV studio, street.
The above does not constitute a model. It is a list of interdependent categories; that is, 'settings' on any one parameter often constrain what settings are possible on others. But its relevance to conflict situations should be obvious. It may be used for prediction, as a guide to conduct and/or for explanation.