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Conflict Theory and Anticipation

The connection between anticipation and conflicts has been well known since the early days of conflict studies. In fact, the difference between defensive and aggressive conflicts is often articulated in terms of anticipations, as shown by the way in which the basic types of conflicts are usually defined:

  • Defensive conflict = when the initiating contendant tries to avoid an anticipated loss.
  • Aggressive conflict = when the initiating contendant tries to acquire an anticipated gain.

Furthermore, it is often assumed that power is a scarce resource, i.e. that “what he loses, I gain”. If power is indeed a scarce resource, the obvious consequence is that contendants will try anything to have more of it (I will consider in a future post the alternative view that power may not be a scarse resource).

To date, conflict studies have taken it for granted that the idea of anticipation is sufficiently clear and does not require further analysis. Things may not be so straightforward, however. Indeed, the theory of anticipation has many surprises in store. Conflicts, as based on anticipations, embody people’s habits, dispositions, tendencies, and attitudes – and none of these are well understood, to say the least. Much more is there, however: for systems which are able to anticipate behave in a much more sophisticated way than systems without such a capacity.

Let me ask the main question: What is anticipation? The short answer is: Anticipation is future-based information acting in the present situation. The simplest way to understand anticipation is to think about the projects, plans and aims that persons may have. Occasionally some of these may even operate in an implicit way, i.e. below the threshold of consciousness.

The somewhat longer answer states that anticipation has two aspects: (1) the system has an idea or model of its future development, and (2) it uses the information related to that idea or model to take its decisions in the present moment. If, according to the values accepted by the system, the model projects a positive evolution of the system, the system tries to realize the projected development; on the other hand, if the model projects a negative evolution of the system, the system may try to modify its trajectory.

Many more details need to be added to this first outline if a reasonable picture is to be developed. For instance, the system may know that it is heading towards a negative outcome, but it may feel unable to change its behavior, or it may reject the very idea of changing behavior. Or the anticipatory model may be wrong and may take for positive outcomes ones that in reality are negative, or the other way round. Future posts will slowly unpack these issues.

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