This article provides a theoretical framework that distinguishes between the occurrence of conflict and its severity, and clarifies the role of polarization and fractionalization in each of these cases. The analysis helps in ordering the various definitions, and in providing explanations for the empirical observations on the relationship between conflict, on the one hand, and polarization or fractionalization, on the other. The behaviour of players in conflict is described as a game, and equilibrium payoffs to all players are computed. The status quo is characterized by a set of political institutions that channel the different opposing interests and turn them into a collective decision, with a second set of payoffs. Groups rebel against the status quo political institution whenever the latter set of payoffs is dominated by the former. When society is highly polarized, the potential cost of rebellion is extremely high, and this cost may serve as the guarantor of peace. So, in highly polarized societies, the occurrence of open conflict should be rare but its intensity very severe, whenever it happens. On the other hand, highly fractionalized societies are prone to the occurrence of conflict, but its intensity will be moderate. It matters, therefore, whether one studies the intensity of conflict, conditional on conflict breaking out, or the likelihood that conflict actually occurs. Specifically, it is shown that: (i) measures of fractionalization and polarization tend to run in opposite directions, (ii) the onset of conflict critically depends on the political system in place, (iii) the occurrence of conflict and the intensity of conflict also tend to move in opposite directions, (iv) the relationship between polarization or fractionalization and conflict is non-monotonic and (v) the intensity of conflict depends positively on the degree of polarization.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Sociology and Political Science
- Safety Research
- Political Science and International Relations