Reanalysing International Conflicts: Proposals from the Sociology of Power

AuthorGuillem Farrés-Fernández
Publication Date01 October 2019
International Conflicts:
Proposals from the
Sociology of Power
Guillem Farrés-Fernández1
This article opens a dialogue between different notions of conflict and the soci-
ology of power and suggests a new theoretical framework for the analysis of
international conflicts. Refusing to consider abstract entities as actors, it helps us
better determine who the relevant actors are in each international conflict and
gives special attention to the existing power relations between them. Accordingly,
it is considered that a large social system is made up of numerous actors with
multiple conflicts between them. Thus, in the case of international conflicts, we
do not face one single conflict, but a conflictual complex involving a multitude of
actors with their different power resources, who weave a network of conflicts
and power relations between them, and at its top a dominant conflict, the conflict
around which the other conflicts evolve. Acknowledging the complexity of inter-
national conflicts, this new theoretical approach should better explain both the
behaviour of the actors and the evolution of the conflictual complex itself.
Conflict, war, theory, sociology of power, conflict resolution
There are currently a number of conflict analyses that have been carried out using
the theoretical framework of the sociology of power.1 All these analyses2 have
made substantial contributions, which help us to better understand the causes
behind the behaviours of the actors. As a consequence, we believe it would be
1 Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain.
Corresponding author:
Guillem Farrés-Fernández, Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain.
International Studies
56(4) 255–271, 2019
2019 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881719857512
256 International Studies 56(4)
useful to further develop the analytical tools offered by the sociology of power in
the area of conflict analysis and elaborate a new theoretical approach focusing
exclusively on the analysis of international conflicts.
A brief overview of the theory of the sociology of power is explained in the
introduction. This is followed by a brief review of the concepts of conflict devel-
oped by different authors, from the standpoint of the sociology of power. Then, as
a result of this discussion, this article proposes a new definition of conflict.
Following this, based upon the sociology of power, it proposes a new approach for
the analysis of international conflicts and introduces two new concepts, namely,
the conflictual complex and the dominant conflict.
A Brief Overview of the Sociology of Power
The sociology of power is based on a study of the dynamics in the power relations
that exist in societies organized in hierarchical structures. This hierarchical organ-
ization of the society involves the existence of elites, which control the hierar-
chies and which can be distinguished from the rest of society (hereafter referred
to as the population). The privileged position of these elites grants them control
over major power resources, but at the same time, it condemns them to compete
to maintain their position. Thus, the individuals who make up these elites are
forced to engage in continued, competitive power relations to maintain or improve
their position. To put it another way,
the priority objective of the elites that control the hierarchies is the differential accumu-
lation of power, of more power than the other individuals in the elite, because if they
lose this competition, they no longer control the hierarchy. As this is a relative competi-
tion, since the actors do not have absolute objectives, but instead compare themselves
with the other actors, these power relations are endless, circular, and they feed off each
other. That is, these actors have to use their power constantly to gain more differential
power than their competitors. (Izquierdo Brichs & Farrés-Fernández, 2008, pp. 110–111,
translation by the author)
Thus, circular power relations are the dynamics that generally govern the sys-
tem, and so, the actors are governed exclusively by this principle. Only occasion-
ally do we find another, different type of power relations: linear power relations.
These can be defined as:
relations established by the population when it can consciously identify its needs
and become mobilized to full them. In this case, the objectives of the population as
an actor are not relative and, when they are met, this type of power relation comes
to an end. The linear aspect of these relations derives from the fact that a beginning
can be established i.e. the moment from which the process of awareness evolves
into a collective action; likewise we can establish an end point i.e. when the mobi-
lization is successful and the population’s claims have been recognized, or when
there is defeat and the action is abandoned. (Izquierdo Brichs & Lampridi-Kemou,
2012, pp. 8–9)

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