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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
Conflict geography studies the distribution of conflicting interests over space.
Conflicts may arise due to disputes over the use of land or resources, over political authority and over territorial rights amongst many other reasons. This aspect of geography considers the causes of conflict, the ways in which conflict may manifest itself, the impacts of conflict, and how conflict may be resolved. Usually geography considers a 30-year past period as ‘contemporary’ for geographical purposes; beyond that it becomes historical geography.
Causes of conflict
Identity: conflict that arises as a result of how a group perceives itself, and the variance with how that group is seen by others in authority. Groups are usually identified with a territory, so it becomes identity with place that can also manifest itself as identity with a language, religion, ethnicity, shared history or values.
- National Identity: the independence movement in Scotland is one in which a distinctive Scottish national identity is recognised by adherents, which is distinguishable from that of the other countries that currently make up the United Kingdom.
- Regional Identity: often demands for more autonomy for a particular region of a country arise when people in that region identify a significant difference between them and the rest of the nation – such as parts of SE Ukraine demanding more autonomy to associate more closely with Russia, with whom they feel they have more in common than with the Ukrainian government in Kiev.
- Local identity: passionate belief in a local cause can lead people to protest about a new by-pass or an extension to a runway. The proposed third runway at Heathrow airport west of London is dividing many local people into groups in favour, who see economic and occupation benefits of a growing airport business, and those against who fear the loss of land, community and pollution-free air.
Ethnicity: if there is actual or perceived discrimination by those in power against a particular ethnic group – as evidenced by their cultural characteristics (language, religion, race, historical origins etc) – then conflict may arise. Much of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is based on ethnic differences.
Culture: identity and culture are often closely related. Living according to the values of one particular culture gives a person a sense of identify with others who also follow those traditions and/or values. Within the USA there is a distinct Hispanic culture (largely derived from Mexican migrants) that contrasts with the WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant) historically dominant cultural group. Attitudes towards cross-border migration from Mexico to the southern USA can develop into conflict between these cultures.
Territory/Resources: Land disputes between different groups at a variety of scales are a common cause of conflict. A territory may be seen as historically ‘belonging’ to another country – as in the dispute between the UK and Spain over the governance of Gibraltar. If the area is known, or thought, to contain valuable resources, then conflict may arise over who has access to those resources. Currently the search for oil in Arctic waters is creating potential conflict over ownership rights of the sea bed beneath the North Pole.
Conflict can be seen to operate at a range of scales:
- Local: disputes over whether a new superstore should be built on the edge of a town
- Regional: disputes over the siting of a regional airport
- National: disputes over the quality of services in one part of the country compared with another
- International: disputes over contested borders – as between Ukraine and Russia
- Global: climate change has multiple causes and effects, but there is disagreement about who should take action, what action, and how quickly.
How conflict shows itself can vary from the polite disagreement, to all-out war.
- Individual dispute: writing a letter to a newspaper complaining about a council’s policy on speed cameras.
- Demonstrating scale of dispute: handing in a petition complaining about a new waste incinerator
- Visible demonstration of dispute: organising a march through London to complain about student tuition fees
- Direct action: climbing the chimney stacks of a power station to unfurl banners protesting about fossil-fuel use.
- Direct conflict: sitting down on the ground in front of a new housing development site and refusing to move to enable diggers to begin work on the development.
- Mass action: widespread groups going on strike to protest about a government policy
- Insurrection: groups – known as insurgents - rising up against the government body intending to disrupt or remove the government.
- Terrorism: attempting to change the actions of one or more governments through acts of violence.
- Civil war: distinct elements within a country using armed violence in order to gain control of power.
- War: the use of armed violence by one country against another to exert power and control.
Turning a period of conflict into non-conflict, or working to prevent conflict manifesting itself in the first place is known as conflict resolution – resolving the issue that could (or has) resulted in conflict.
- Compromise: The parties in dispute manage to find an agreement without needing to refer to external groups. Often it involves both giving way in some respects in their total claims.
- Democratic debate: many organisations and systems operate the chance for people to debate their views or a proposed action, take a vote, and abide by the majority decision. So long as people abide by the majority decision – conflict is avoided.
- Appeal to the law: using solicitors, lawyers and judges to define the interpretation of the law to clarify who has which legal rights in a dispute.
- Appeal to authority: the two (or more) parties in dispute may ask a mutually regarded figure or body to determine the next steps forward to resolve an issue.
- Arbitration/Mediation: calling in a neutral external figure to examine the root causes of the issue and find a way forward that all parties can agree to. The United Nations often acts in this capacity for disputes between nations.
Elements which help bring about a Resolution
- Meet on ‘neutral ground’ - where both sides feel safe but without unbalanced pressure
- Use Accurate information, that is not biased, or inaccurate
- All views being taken into account—not ignoring certain groups
- Respecting minorities— many situations will have a ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ - the minority have to feel their views are being respected and they will be treated fairly.
- Public opinion—having a sense that you carry the views of a large section of people
- Communication—setting up situations where the opposing groups talk to each other via a mediator
- Common ground—identifying areas that you agree on before tackling the areas you disagree on.
- Time-limits—having a deadline so that discussions don’t get drawn out
- Trust in the people or group chairing/organising the conflict resolution. Feeling that they are not on one group’s side more than the other.
- Solutions which don’t store up future problems
- Bringing about ‘win-win’ situations where all groups can go back to say they’ve achieved some of their aims