7 min read
10 Oct

The real causes of and solutions to our conflicts 

Never settle down with the theory that you have chosen, the cause you have embraced: know that another theory, another cause exists, and seek that. 

Mary Parker Follett


Intergroup conflicts in South Africa have such a vivid and long history that most of our thinking about these conflicts have become rather stale and entrenched. Whether we are dealing with conflicts between various races or tribal, socio-economic divisions, gender wars, political affiliations or one of the many other nuanced battlegrounds of the modern South Africa, we believe that we well understand the causes for such conflicts, and based on such assessments we then plan our strategies, solutions and responses to such conflicts. 

The general processes involved in these assessments, whether by groups or individuals, follow a simplified and nearly predictable pattern of oversimplification and clichéd categorization that ends in tired templates dealing with the perceived differences between these groups, and such conflicts are deemed to stem from the involved group characteristics. Caricatures are created, with received “wisdom” telling us how these groups are, how they behave, and why these conflicts are happening or persisting. 

In South Africa we have more than our fair share of these processes, with tensions between political groupings, racial disharmony and the growing conflict with migrants being particularly instructive case studies. But can we however hope to design and implement effective conflict strategies, whether that is in the boardroom, political arena or community streets, if we do not have this crucial first step, the understanding of the causes of our conflicts, accurately in our sights? If we get the diagnosis wrong the cure must also be wrong, and even potentially harmful. In addition to the self-evident problems arising from this misdiagnosis, an inaccurate understanding of such conflict causes is furthermore consciously abused by several groups and individuals involved in such conflicts. Real, perceived and manufactured differences between groups are used and applied to great political and economic effect through misinformation campaigns, group prejudices, political speeches, social media influencers and others. 

An accurate understanding of intergroup conflicts is therefore of crucial importance. We will study the actual causes for intergroup conflict, have a look at some pertinent research and case studies, and then consider a few strategies that may improve intergroup relationships. 

The main cause of intergroup conflict 

Contrary to many popular perceptions and narratives, the main cause for intergroup conflicts lies in the basic human need for identity. One of the most important sources of identity is our social identity, the developed sense of self, of meaning, of belonging that we derive from belonging to a larger social group. This need naturally leads to social categorization, a reflexive social process where we define ourselves by the groups we belong to, or do not belong to. This starts very early on in childhood, and continues throughout adult life. We see ourselves as a South African, as a Tswana, a male, a teacher, a Liverpool supporter and a large variety of groups and categories. 

By this same process we also build our social identities by the groups that we do not belong to – we may do so by specifically not identifying as a Zimbabwean, a sports fan, a pacifist and so on. Inevitably then, this socialization process causes identification, but also oppositions, polarization and conflict. We see these categories present throughout history, but a careful study also shows how these categories have changed or even disappeared over time. Consider, for examples, the traditional divisions of men and women and how this is changing, the categories of slave and free person, the importance of your views on alcohol during the 1920’s Prohibition in the US and many other examples. Research, and history, show us that there is no single set of universal social divisions, they are all socially defined and negotiated on an ongoing basis in each culture and subculture. 

This process of identity creation of course has much value and importance. Human beings need that sense of belonging, of their place in actual history, the world, and in their communities. But this categorization and group differentiation also causes social and group communication barriers and conflict triggers that become easy to manipulate, difficult to notice and to eradicate. Also flowing from these categories and the process used to create them is the constant narratives we create about those not in our group(s), and how we create a sort of mental shorthand for these Others. This ends in the ubiquitous labels and clichés we find about the various groups, and these silos then often become self-supporting and self-perpetuating sources of misinformation, engines of conflict. 

These categories and the associated process that follow from them now set up a framework of judgment, association, defenses and biases, reactions, fears, insecurities and several other potential conflict drivers that most of us are quite unaware of, but which have immense influence over our worldviews and how we deal with conflict. In this way we may have certain views about a person’s accent, clothes she wears, job he does, race, sexual preference, social status, religion (or lack thereof) and a host of other categories by which we judge, label and accept or dismiss people. This sets in motion a self-reinforcing cycle of how we treat those categories, and we start reacting to these categories, not the actual person. This, in the wonderful term coined by Thomas Scheff, leads to a state of pluralistic ignorance, where these categories and groups are mistaken about the other, without even being aware of their ignorance. 

Some of the strongest and best-entrenched of these stereotypes are those related to race and gender, and it serves an important role in how we judge and react to others. These social identity categories now start playing a role as tools, as weapons in when a group has a need to enhance self-esteem, reduce uncertainty or establish or maintain distinctiveness. Our reaction and expectations of other groups, often untested and clichéd but realities nevertheless, further create and maintain these separate groups and social identities. Here the existence of previous conflicts among such social groups plays an enormously important role. Throughout these conflicts certain ways of thinking and talking about the other group would have developed, and become quite entrenched. This group differentiation creates and maintains polarization, and several conflict triggers follow on such categorization. 

This us-them polarization is then heightened by ongoing economic and communication dynamics such as employment and resource competition, political activities and campaigning, and in-group conversations build barriers to understanding or independent assessment. These stereotypes then lead to extremely narrow and unexamined views of the other group, which of course further enhances and strengthens the in-group dynamics and the perceived reasons for belonging to such group. These stereotypical thought patterns can be identified by exaggerated differences between the groups, perceptions regarding the start and perpetuation of isolated conflict events (the “he started it” argument for adults), and the perpetuation and deepening of these divisions. The West’s recent experience and narratives involving Islam, for example, or the various stereotypes involving race and gender, are vivid examples. 

And there is of course a snowballing effect – once we have a “they”, an out-group, isolated examples of conduct, speech and other markers easily become confirmations of those stereotypes. This process leads to observable benefits and disadvantages of such in-group thinking. Suppression of disagreement leads to further polarization and entrenched stereotypes. The various groups become strongly opposed to each other, and this social identity in-group dynamics can create very strong group cohesion and serve as distractions of existing in-group weaknesses or errors. 

Intergroup ideologies 

Extended conflict between groups can lead to intergroup ideologies, which are devices used to justify group behaviour and views. These intergroup ideologies are organized belief systems that describe the differences between the groups in terms beneficial and favourable to the in-group, and such conflicts are described from that group’s perspective. These ideologies then become ready justifications for group behaviour such as aggression, inducing fear or insecurity, or for such a group’s unwillingness to make concessions. The result of such intergroup ideologies result in very clear solidification of the conflict between such groups, and the combined effect of social categorization, group differentiation and intergroup ideologies starts to create and maintain social reality for the members of those groups. These realities are then simply, and often unwittingly, transferred into conflict with such opposing groups. This process is also why we cannot reduce these intergroup conflicts to simply just the interpersonal level. There are cultural, political and social factors that are necessary for a complete assessment. As South African society shows us on a daily basis, it is difficult for communities that have, or are continuing to experience racial problems, to have interpersonal conflicts that are not somehow influenced by perceptions involving racial differences. 

Research and case studies on intergroup conflict 

Modern research on these various dynamics often paints a rather grim picture of practical and workable strategies to improve intergroup relationships. To summarize such research and case studies, we find that negative attitudes and stereotypes between social groups are noticeably durable and difficult to change. This is due to certain cognitive processes, where beliefs once formed become entrenched and very difficult to dislodge, and of course the factors referred to above where conscious and conscious dynamics further entrench such ideas, sometimes over a period of decades. This research shows that counterevidence simply makes the stereotype more accessible in memory and therefore simply strengthens the stereotype. 

Efforts to bring factual arguments to the table may therefore, quite counterintuitively, simply serve to strengthen the views that a party may be seeking to change. Generally speaking, it takes a tremendous amount of evidence to overcome the stereotype, the stereotype must be overwhelmed by counterexamples in order to overcome it. 

Some strategies to create better intergroup relationships 

The most common approach in such a strategy would be to bring members of different groups into contact with each other. The operating principle here is of course that such contact would show the members of the groups that the prevailing stereotypes are unrealistic or incorrect. This so-called “contact hypothesis” was originally advanced by Gordon Allport in 1954, and his research showed that such contact will reduce intergroup prejudice if it is handled in such a manner that it fosters social norms that favour intergroup acceptance, where intimate contact between such group members is encouraged where such interaction is on an equal status basis and where such interaction creates conditions of co-operative interdependence. 

Allport’s research however shows that while such strategies are often successful, they tend to only lead to a reduction in prejudice towards the individuals involved in the studies themselves, and not to an improvement of the prejudices towards the out-group itself. The individuals from such group are then simply seen as exceptions to the rule, and improved relationships with them tend not to extend to the group as a whole. 

Brewer and Gaertner suggest three different strategies to improve intergroup relationships. They are (i) decategorization, where the other is to be seen primarily as an individual and not as a member of a group, (ii) recategorization, where common goals and interests are emphasized, thereby creating in effect a new category, and (iii) mutual differentiation, where the differences among social groups are recognized but where the strengths and advantages of such groups are also recognized and then sought to be capitalized on to mutual benefit. Mutual differentiation has been studied extensively, and several hopeful results have been shown to exist. 

Some researchers (eg Shapiro) argue that these social categories are fluid, and becoming more so, with the result that the best modern strategy is to encourage people to develop a positive identity grounded in who you are, not in who you are not. Education involving the positive impact, implementation and benefits of diversity can be used in such a strategy. Workplace social groups bring about a heightening of certain of these dynamics and need a more in-depth assessment and tailor-made conflict management program. It is then, when these groups have been created and nurtured, that other more obvious conflict drivers such as the economy, unemployment, corruption and so on start to take their effect on society.  


An understanding and application of social identity brings about a more comprehensive and practical approach to conflict, as opposed to simply dealing with the cyclical triggers and accepted narratives, and makes it possible to escape cyclical conflicts. This is particularly important in the South African context, where ignorance of the real conflict causes are used in various political and social agendas in order to advance dissension and disharmony. Whatever our political views may be, it has to be accepted that a continuation of these conflicts and further polarization will not serve the country’s best interests. This understanding, and the conflict tools that we have briefly considered, may lead us out of these harmful processes. 


  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

   (Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information) Andre Vlok 

October 2022

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