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  • Writer's pictureAdriana Santamaria Duthon

What can the study of conflict history teach us about socio-political change?

Updated: May 1, 2021

For centuries, historians, political theorists, and the public at large have sought to create a universal approach to explain the rise and fall of nations and civilizations. The accounts illustrating a link between conflict and socio-political change can be traced back as far as Aristotle and the ancient Greeks[1]. In fact, this relationship demonstrates the existence of a unique principle where history relies on rules and evidence,[2] while the nature of war informs us about the dynamics of political and social behavior within nations and across populations[3]. This has given academia important historical insights on the value and effects of collective political narratives. Although it is impossible to deliberate and theorize the interdisciplinary extent of the link between conflict and socio-political change, there are three specific characteristics in the study of conflict that provide us with a discerning perspective on socio-political change. The first observable attribute that derives from the study of conflict suggests that socio-political change is inherently linked to the culture it identifies with. The second component supposes social and political behaviour depend on mobilization, contestation, and participation. Finally, the last aspect that links the study of conflict and socio-political change is that they both share elements of transformation, innovation, and adaptation. Together, these characteristics demonstrate that the study of conflict history can illustrate several rooted and multifaceted meanings of socio-political history.


Culture has been an important factor in understanding the causes and effects of conflict. This is mainly due to the fact that warfare and state-building have been inextricably intertwined since prehistory[4]. However, because culture represents an ambiguous repertoire of ideas[5], perceptions of conflict are determined by a set of values and commands mainly set forth by historical arguments based on a ‘western way of warfare.’ The latter is based on concepts of authority, legitimacy of nation-states, and civic militarism. Interestingly, the role of humans in warfare demonstrates that social involvement has been essential in the pursuit of geopolitical change. This last observation supposes two things: first, that conflict brought forward important changes in governmental structure and economic policy, and these created a cataclysmic disruption of social life,[6] and second, that this socio-political change was established by a strategic context, where culture was responsible for a distinct and lasting set of beliefs, values, and preferences regarding the use of force, its role and effectiveness in political affairs[7]’. The association between culture and socio-political change depicts a continuity over time, which uses socially accepted values and behaviours based on ideas and political conditions. This is why, ‘nearly all the structural changes that occurred in Britain during the Second World War were paralleled by comparable changes in all other Western European countries.[8]’Thus, culture can be a seen as a culmination of social expectation regarding the role of the state.


The role of mobilization, contestation, and participation has also been a pivotal element to both the study of conflict and socio-political change. The importance behind these elements supports Sparrow’s idea on citizenship and its link with a ‘fictive social contract which justifies the exertions of mass participation in the mobilization for total war.[9]’ When we consider mobilization in conflict, we examine the way in which war activates military strategy, the state’s ability to wield power in international politics, and the effects of post-war in the international theatre. This trend does not only affect war, but it can also explain how and why mobilization restructures society, mainly perceptions of equity and civil liberties[10]. This supposes that by analysing social mobilization, participation and contestation, we can understand how civilian participation and induced socio-political change can determine post-war reforms and policymaking. Thus, ‘by focusing on the interplay between state formation and political culture […] it is possible to uncover the shared assumptions that ordered both cooperation and conflict within the polity’[11]. For these reasons, conflict history demonstrates that it is paramount not only to analyse the causes and demands of mass mobilisation, but also the consequences it may have on reforms and future conflicts. This influence on policy will inherently push policymakers to understand that socio-political change might be an essential requirement for future state legitimation.[12]


Transformation, innovation, and adaptation embody other significant components contributing to socio-political change. Like conflict, ‘the political and economic structures made by humans share many of the features of complex adaptive systems’[13]. This means both conflict and socio-political change depend on human cognitive system, which naturally evolves through time and space. This can be explained by two factors: first, they both require embracing the knowledge provided by other disciplines (anthropology, sociology, political science, public policy, and business) and second, the components of adaptation and innovation, as used in military practice, can also explain how socio-political change evolves in specific political environments. Whether it be for the study of conflict or socio-political change, they both require mechanisms for translating tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge[14]. Overall, the study of conflict history can explain three ways in which socio-political change evolves. First, it shows that transformation does not solely rely on civil society, but it also depends on the role of other actors that are often left out, such as soldiers or civil servants. Second, it demonstrates that innovation does not only rely on developing technology but mostly on the way technology is used as a means of change. Finally, it validates the idea that adaptation is not only about the adjustment of existing political practices, but also about modifying the way perceive the relationship between policy and socio-political change.


While there is a strong link between conflict and socio-political change, ‘it is important for both theory and policy to understand what is causing what.[15] Both conflict and socio-political change cannot be theorized because they need to be understood in their unique context. However, there are certain premises that need to be recognized. First, that cultural identity is inherently linked to the way people do war and perceive change. However, due to the ambiguity of culture, socio-political change can be easily politicized. Second, social mobilization, contestation, and participation are paramount to create a link between policy, conflict, and socio-political change. Understanding these three variables will allow historians to develop a heightened ability for comprehending the elements of political behaviour that can lead to sustainable […] social, political, and economic structures and relationships[16]. Finally, transformation, innovation, and adaptation stimulate unique environmental characteristics necessary for socio-political change. As we navigate through a globalised world, the advent of new relationships between the political and the social realm will increasingly depend on dynamic approaches and the effect they may have on future socio-political changes. Ultimately, the study of conflict history demonstrates that socio-political change is an amalgamation of different contexts, perceptions, and interpretations.


 

[1] Harold L. Smith, War and Social Change: British Society in the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), 1. [2] Jay Winter. Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the 20th Century. (Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006), 7 [3] Tami Davis Biddle and Robert M. Citino, “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy,” A Society for Military History White Paper (2014): 1. [4] Pradeep Barua. The State at War in South Asia (Lincoln: Nebraska, 2005), x. [5] Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes (New York, Columbia University Press, 2011), xi. [6] Jose Harris, “War and Social History: Britain and the Home Front during the Second World War.” Contemporary European History 1, no. 1 (1992): 22. DOI:10.1017/S0960777 30000504X. [7] Idem, 15. [8] Idem, 21. [9] James T Sparrow. Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government. (Cary: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3. [10] Elizabeth Kier and Ronald R. Krebs, eds. “War and Reform: Gaining Labor’s compliance on the Homefront”, In War’s Wake: International Conflict and the Fate of Liberal Democracy (New York: Cambridge University Press), 139-140. [11] James T Sparrow. Warfare State: World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government. (Cary: Oxford University Press, 2011), 9. [12] Jonathan Fennell. Fighting the People’s War: The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 627-677. [13] Niall Ferguson, “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos” Foreign Affairs, 89, no. 2 (March/April 2010), 24. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20699848. [14] Robert T Foley, “A Case Study in Horizontal Military Innovation: The German Army, 1916–1918, 799-827” Journal of Strategic Studies, 35:6 (2012): 281. DOI:10.1080/01402390.2012.669737 [15] Elizabeth Kier, and Ronald R Krebs, “Introduction”, In War’s Wake: International Conflict and the Fate of Liberal Democracy. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 7. [16] Tami Davis Biddle and Robert M. Citino, “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy,” A Society for Military History, White Paper (2014): 1.


Bibliography


Books


Barua, Pradeep. The State at War in South Asia. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2005.


Fennell, Jonathan. Fighting the People’s War: The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


Kier, Elizabeth, and Krebs, Ronald R., eds. In War’s Wake: International Conflict and the Fate of Liberal Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.


Lynn, John A. Battle: A History of Combat and Culture. New York: Basic Books, 2008.


Porter, Patrick. Military Orientalism: Eastern War Through Western Eyes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.


Sparrow, James T. Warfare State : World War II Americans and the Age of Big Government. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2011.


Winter, Jay. Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the 20th Century. Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2006.



Journal articles


Biddle, Tami Davis and Robert M. Citino, “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy,” A Society for Military History White Paper (November 2014), 1.


Ferguson, Niall. “Complexity and Collapse: Empires on the Edge of Chaos,18-32” Foreign Affairs, 89, no. 2 (March/April 2010). http://www.jstor.org/stable/20699848.


Foley, Robert T. “A Case Study in Horizontal Military Innovation: The German Army, 1916–1918, 799-827” Journal of Strategic Studies, 35:6 (May 2012) DOI:10.1080/01402390.2012.669737


Harris, Jose. “War and Social History: Britain and the Home Front during the Second World War.” Contemporary European History 1, no. 1 (1992): 17–35. DOI:10.1017/S0960777 30000504X.

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