No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)


The Sociological Significance of Conflict in Social Unity

Conflict is sociologically significant as it influences and shapes communities, solidarity, and organization. Despite traditional views that see conflict purely as a negative force, conflict is indeed a form of association, an essential aspect of social interaction. Conflict arises from fundamental human emotions and needs such as hate, envy, desire, and necessity, and serves as a mechanism to address and resolve these tensions, ultimately aiming to restore some form of unity, even if it means the destruction of one party. Conflict should not be seen as merely a destructive force but rather as a component of social unity, necessary for the dynamic and organic development of society. Social constructs always involve both unifying and diverging forces. No social unity is purely harmonious; instead, real social life requires a balance of harmony and disharmony, cooperation and competition, love and hate. These dual forces are necessary for the formation and evolution of social structures.

Redefining Conflict

Traditional sociology often neglects the independent study of conflict, focusing instead on the contributions it makes to unity. Conflict should be recognized as a fundamental and intrinsic part of social relationships, contributing to the overall structure and function of society. It is not merely an obstacle to be overcome but a vital part of the social process that helps maintain balance and drive progress. In complex social structures, conflict often coexists with unity in an organic and inseparable way. Relationships such as marriage or hierarchical social systems illustrate how conflict and unity are intertwined, each contributing to the stability and function of the relationship or system. Even in seemingly harmonious associations, latent forms of conflict provide necessary balance and dynamism.

Paradoxes of Social Discord

Some conflicts, such as those between a robber and a victim, seem devoid of any unifying factors and verge on treacherous violence. Even in these scenarios, when restraints are imposed, a rudimentary form of social order emerges. Kant wrote that wars without restraint devolve into wars of extermination, as mutual trust is necessary for any peaceful resolution. Conquerors like the Lombards in 6th century Italy depended on their subjects for tributes, which created a form of interdependence despite underlying animosities. This dynamic is seen in other contexts, such as slavery, where the harsh relationship paradoxically forms a sociological connection, potentially leading to mitigation of animosity over time. Conflict driven purely by a desire to fight also arises, characterized by an innate oppositional instinct. This instinct can manifest even in trivial disputes, suggesting a fundamental human drive towards conflict, akin to an automatic reflex. Such opposition can be seen in various social, political, and personal contexts, driven by deep-seated psychological impulses.

The Dual Nature of Legal Disputes and Athletic Competitions

Legal disputes and athletic competitions epitomize pure conflict within a framework of mutual rules and standards. Legal disputes, although objective, create a stringent form of unity through common adherence to law and formalities. This objective approach can intensify the conflict but also limits it to the legal domain, excluding personal grievances. In conflicts centered on objective interests rather than personal animosities, the pursuit of a common goal, such as scientific truth or social justice, leads to a noble form of conflict. This form emphasizes objectivity and severity, driven by the substantive issue at hand rather than personal motives, exemplified by labor movements influenced by Marxist theory. The objectification of such conflicts transforms them into battles over ideas and systemic issues rather than individual adversaries.

Intense Conflict in Relationships because of Unity and Similarity

Unity and similarity can lead to intense conflict in relationships. When relationships start from a point of unity or similarity and then experience conflict, this conflict tends to be more passionate and radical than in relationships without such a foundation. Ancient Jewish law prohibited marriage to two sisters simultaneously due to the heightened jealousy it could cause. Conflicts within families, where there is a high degree of similarity and shared interests, are often more passionate and irreconcilable than conflicts among strangers. Also, the mutual hatred between small neighboring states, which share many similarities, is intense compared to the often less passionate conflicts between larger, more distant nations. Historical examples include the animosity between Greeks and late Roman Italy, and internal conflicts in England before the Norman Conquest. The disputes between Lutherans and Reformed Church members in the 17th century demonstrate how minor doctrinal differences can lead to intense conflicts, sometimes even more severe than conflicts with entirely different religious groups. Within closely knit groups, conflicts can become very intense because any disagreement threatens the integrity of the group. Examples include internal conflicts in political factions, labor unions, or families.

Competition is Balancing Conflict and Cooperation for Social Value

Jealousy involves a perceived rightful claim to something possessed by another, while envy is simply desiring what another has. Jealousy causes intense personal conflicts because it involves not just the desire for an object but also the desire to possess it over someone else. 
Competition is a form of indirect conflict where the goal is not directly to harm the competitor but to achieve a desired outcome, such as winning a prize or gaining favor. Competition can lead to conflicts that are resolved through the parallel efforts of both parties striving for the same goal. Competition within a group has significant social value, since it increases both subjective and objective values. Unlike other forms of conflict that may deplete resources and values, competition can enhance value by driving participants to improve and innovate. This dynamic is beneficial from both individual and group perspectives, as it fosters mutual adaptation, cooperation, and the production of socially valuable outcomes. But competition also has social drawbacks, such as the potential for increased antagonism and wasteful expenditure of energy. Despite these, competition fosters close interactions among competitors, forcing them to understand and respond to each other's strengths and weaknesses, thus enhancing social bonds and collective efficiency. In family or religious groups, competition may be absent or limited due to different principles or structures that promote unity and shared goals over individual rivalry. Here, conflict may still exist but is not driven by competition for scarce resources.
Competition influences larger social structures, like political or economic systems. Socialism seeks to eliminate competition through organized cooperation. Both approaches aim to serve collective interests but use different methods to achieve social harmony and efficiency. The choice between competition and organization often depends on the specific goals and circumstances of the group or society in question.

Regulating Competition by Balancing Equality and Efficiency

Competition suppresses various forms of social organization. Mechanical similarity of parts contrasts with organic unity. In the guild system, competition was suppressed to maintain equality among members. In guilds, competition was restricted through regulations like limiting shops and standardizing products and prices to avoid disparities. Competition inherently involves uncertainty and shifting parity among participants. Competition often results in one party preferring the uncertain chance of differentiation over splitting profits equally. This principle of chance is in direct conflict with the principle of equality, leading guilds to suppress competition through various restrictions. Different societies have dealt with competition. When competition is allowed, it leads to a voluntary equivalence of achievements. The resolution of competition is not solely based on probability but also on the mindset of the epoch or individuals.

Two forms of limiting competition are inter-individual and supra-individual. Inter-individual limitation occurs when competitors agree to forego certain competitive practices, like setting discount limits or shop closing times, to maintain mutual benefit. This does not eliminate competition but removes non-essential elements that balance out, making competition more intense and pure. Supra-individual limitations come from laws and morality, which restrict certain means of competition deemed unfair, like fraud and violence. These limitations are meant to maintain fair competition by removing practices that do not align with its pure, socially beneficial form. Competition is influenced by law, and certain legal restrictions are not new but extensions of existing fraud laws. These laws protect honest competitors from deceptive practices that, while not directly harming the public, unfairly affect other businesses. Morality also plays a role in limiting competition, often driven by a sense of fairness and self-respect. The moral view on competition varies, with some moral frameworks promoting self-affirmation and others advocating for reduced competition to foster peace and cooperation.

Conflict, including competition, shapes the internal structure of individuals and groups. In times of conflict, energies must be concentrated and centralized for effective action, contrasting with the more relaxed, decentralized organization in peaceful times. This centralization is necessary for military and other emergency responses, while more democratic forms prevail in times of peace.

Centralization, Unity, and Division

Different societies adapt their organizational structures based on the nature and intensity of competition and conflict. While unity is generally beneficial for a party in conflict, there are cases where parties prefer their opponents to be unified as well. This paradox is evident in labor disputes where both workers and employers benefit from organized opposition, as it facilitates negotiations and reduces frequent small conflicts. Conflict tends to solidify internal unity by forcing a group to address internal differences and work towards a common goal. This can result in either strengthened cohesion or a clear separation of incompatible elements. For example, within families or political parties, conflict can either unite members more closely or cause permanent splits. Historical examples, such as the Catholic Church's handling of heresy, show that groups often tolerate internal differences up to a point, after which they enforce strict unity or expel dissenters. This strict cohesion is essential for groups in conflict to maintain their strength and focus.

Unification Through Conflict

Conflict also has the power to unite disparate groups against a common enemy. For instance, alliances formed during wars or political struggles often bring together otherwise antagonistic parties. The unity created by conflict can persist beyond the immediate situation, forming the basis for long-term alliances. A group’s unity often depends on the presence of an external enemy. The absence of such an enemy can lead to internal fragmentation, as seen in the case of Protestantism losing its cohesion without a clear opponent. The unity achieved through conflict is thus both a reaction to external threats and a means of maintaining internal solidarity. An ongoing threat, rather than an immediate attack, can strengthen unity by maintaining a chronic sense of danger. This applies not only to political alliances, such as the Achaean League, but also to religious communities and social classes, which can be bound together by a shared adversary or a unifying symbol that stands at a distance from individual members. Uniting against external threats can help overcome internal differences and rivalries. Conflictual situations often require the involvement of a wide array of members, including those who might otherwise remain separate, thus promoting broader collaboration. Peaceful activities tend to involve closer associates.

From Conflict to Reconciliation and Back

Conflict and peace are of a cyclical nature; societal developments often oscillate between these states. Conflicts emerge from underlying tensions within peaceful periods and peace is not merely the absence of conflict but a distinct state requiring its resolution. Conflicts are ended by declaring victory, by compromise, and through mutual recognition of the futility of the conflict. Voluntary submission in defeat is complex. Sudden resolution has psychological impacts. Various patterns of interaction mark the end of hostilities. Reconciliation is subjective, while compromise marks an objective resolution of conflict. Reconciliation is not merely a result of resolving conflict but an intrinsic attitude that seeks to end conflict without necessarily having objective reasons. This inclination towards reconciliation is an elemental, irrational tendency akin to forgiveness, often emerging after intense conflict or perceived injustice. Reconciliation differs from weakness, social morality, or serenity, as it can follow a complete commitment to conflict and is rooted in an irrational shift of feelings. Reconciled relationships often gain intensity and depth compared to relationships that were never broken. This is due to the heightened awareness of the relationship's value and the cautious handling of sensitive past issues, which can foster a new, intimate understanding. Irreconcilability, on the other hand, is not just an inability to forget past conflicts but a profound, irreversible alteration in one's soul, resulting in a permanent estrangement. This can manifest as a deep-seated change in one's being or as a continued love that incorporates unresolved conflicts into the broader relationship dynamics. The spectrum of irreconcilability ranges from total transformation to a nuanced acceptance of unresolved issues. Ultimately, both reconciliation and irreconcilability highlight the deep, often irrational, psychological processes that govern human relationships, revealing the intricate interplay between forgiveness, conflict, and the enduring impact of relational breaks.

Simmel, G. (1908), Der Streit, in: Soziologie - Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung, Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.