One Thing to Rule them All?

It is an academic conceit to believe that there is one single unifying, underlying factor that is responsible for animating or driving social phenomena.  Usually, a scholar’s home department or discipline is touted as the codex, the intellectual skeleton key, to unlocking all that there is to know about whatever it is under discussion.  Supporting such elegant explanations for the mess we call life can be tempting…and often rewarding (in terms of reputation and money).  Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ is a case in point: strip away the extraneous stuff (the epiphenomena of power, money, etc.) and we find one, dominating ‘thing’ that drives human conflict.  [Sean Coombs provides an alternate explanation here.  Word.]

The events of the past few weeks have driven people to postulate such reductionist explanations for the conflicts in Thailand, Ukraine, and Venezuela.  [Personally, I think conflicts might just be like tropical storms and we were up to T, U and V in the alphabet…]  Allow me, Dear Reader, to play a few for you below.

  • Geography.  Russia needs it’s ‘near abroad’ and will do anything to preserve it, including carving up Ukraine.
  • History.  Thailand’s current political conflict is a repeat of 2010, 2008, 2006, 1993, 1991, 1973, 1970…all the way back to 1932.
  • Nationalism.  The ethnic affinity of Russian speakers, regardless of where they are, explains why Moscow moved to seize the Crimea.
  • Personality.  Nicolás Maduro ain’t Hugo Chavez and that’s why the people are on the streets.  Putin is Putin; Obama is Obama.  ‘Nuff said.
  • People.  The will of the masses cannot be denied.  The expression of this will explains what is happening in Bangkok/Kiev/Caracas.
  • Class.  The Middle Class desire for more self-determination led to political upheavals in Bangkok/Kiev/Caracas.
  • Ideology.  The attractiveness of the EU ideal is an unstoppable force, what with its democracy, social justice, and tolerance.  The battle in Kiev was one of progressives vs. reactionaries.
  • Economics.  The West is doing nothing about Crimea because it fears Russian economic pressure, in the form of capital flight from The City or increased gas prices in Berlin.
  • Psychology.  Vanity, misperception, egotism, megalomania–all explain why the leaders (on both sides of each conflict) made the choices they did, which led to the various crises.
  • Gender.  The current political crisis in Thailand is driven by male non-acceptance of a female leader.
  • The Internet.  The rise of social media–and the ease of communications that it, because of The Internet, engenders–explains why ideas can spread so quickly and globally, allowing people to see what they are missing.

It is surely the case that all these factors are at play in each of the conflicts mentioned–and a hockey-sock more besides.  As attractive as these theories may be, they are all–sadly–incomplete.  There is no one ‘master variable’ that can explain complex social phenomena like revolution, rebellion, and war.  Life is complicated and, therefore, so must our analyses be.  Solutions–if they exist at all–are unlikely to uni-dimensional.

We need holistic approaches to understand and hopefully resolve these kinds of social conflicts.  Young people of today, mark my words: Do yourself a favour and invest in developing a wide range of disciplinary tools.  Study history, but not to the exclusion of everything else.  By all means, learn economics, but not only economics.  [Good news!  KCL offers just such as thing in its War Studies Department.  Roll up!  Roll up!]  Learn a language.  Travel the world.  Experience other traditions and points of view.  Don’t drink your own bathwater.

And then when you are older, fatter, and grayer (or is that just me?) try and resist making catholic explanations based on the one or two things that you actually think you understand.  By all means make a contribution, but try to do it with a modicum of humility.

Now that would be powerful.


4 thoughts on “One Thing to Rule them All?

  1. This is a slight tangent from your post, with which I agree, but I found KCL War Studies, though excellent in many disciplines, was lacking in economists. Perhaps I just didn’t come across the right professors, but it seemed like a somewhat neglected area.

    • Tom – they were there! I wrote my MA thesis in the War Studies Department on the economics of conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa and had plenty of expert help.

      I tend to veer towards the ‘it’s all about the money’ argument in the depths of my cynicism but agree that a holistic approach is best.

  2. Neutral says:

    The closest I have found to a grand unified theory of individual human behaviour has been evolutionary psychology, and for mass behaviour, behavioural economics – even though that, being more evidence-based, seems itself to be lacking in an overarching Single Model, and more heuristic.

  3. Absolutely! Critically, though, it’s not just the academic disciplines that reinforce this approach (although they have their own reasons for insisting their particular field is the vital one). As a journalist, my aim is always to attempt to reduce the chaos of life down to a story, and simple stories work best. The audience (and the editors) enjoy these sorts of supposedly ‘complete’ analytical frameworks that enable them to easily understand some of the underlying causes of events.

    I recently wrote an analysis of the Thai conflict that deconstructed it, quite simply, in terms of the angst of one social group (the wealthier residents of the capital) that’s been increasingly marginalised by the democratic power of the farmers (with, incidentally, the caveat that now the rural poor are becoming alienated from the government because it’s not paying for their rice as it promised it would). Of course nothing’s that simple, but the ‘rules’ of my discipline (simplify; focus on conflict) are just as alive for me as for a Professor of War Studies writing a book on Strategy which turns out to have a huge number of business examples in it! (I liked the book, btw.)

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