IG’s Peace Blog

Peace and its many aspects

Burton redux

Some time ago I wrote a brief post about John Burton’s human needs theory and its implications for peace and conflict resolution.  Well, as I sit here during fifth week of a general strike, I have been thinking about some of these ideas again.  One of the problems involved with the strike is that the country’s government, for a number of reasons, is not seen as entirely legitimate by the population.  Some years ago, I wrote a bit about this kind of situation, drawing on Burton’s ideas:

“Burton’s work on human needs provides a useful benchmark against which plans for “post-conflict” society can be measured. Burton (1990: 23) starts from the premise “…that there are limits to the extent to which the human person, acting separately or within a wider ethnic or national community, can be socialized or manipulated…”; and “…that there are human development needs that must be satisfied and catered for by institutions, if these institutions are to be stable, and if societies are to be significantly free of conflict.” While acknowledging that this is still a new and contested research area, Burton presents a plausible list of needs. First, human beings require a sense of security and of identity. Second, since people have a generic drive to learn, they require a consistent response from the environment, without which learning is impossible. Third, from their social context people require both recognition and valued relationships, or bonding . Finally, and perhaps most importantly, individuals require (some) control over their environments in order to insure that their needs are fulfilled (Burton, 1990: 47 and 95). This approach has important implications for social institutions. If, on balance, needs are being met within an institution, the institution receives support and is consolidated and perpetuated. If, however, needs are not met, the institution loses support and legitimacy, and confronts increasing opposition. In the latter case, authorities tend to react with repression and coercion, but if an institution is “de-legitimated” for enough people, conflict can not be resolved this way. Rather, the institutional structures have to evolve, sooner or later, to more fully accommodate the needs of the people they affect.

To Burton (1990: 127), legitimacy is a dynamic, rather than a static, condition which “stresses the reciprocal nature of relations with authorities, the support given because of the services they render, and respect for legal norms when these are legitimized norms.” He (1990: 127) contrasts this with a static notion of legality which “…has associated with it…loyalty to a sovereign or formal leader right or wrong, elitism, the common good and the national interest as interpreted by elites…” From this perspective, national reconciliation would not be complete until the social and political order was popularly perceived as legitimate. Though such legitimacy is currently considered to inhere in liberal democratic institutions, Burton (1998: 4) has recently argued that conventional representative democracy is only effective in a society with “…relative ethnic homogeneity, classlessness and equality…”; and this model alone is not able to guarantee institutional legitimacy “…in a society that contains major income differences, and in which minorities are unrepresented but must observe the norms of a majority”– conditions characteristic of many transitional countries. In summary, Burton’s work indicates that social reform which goes further than conventional Western models of governance to meet human needs is necessary if the deep-seated conflicts of war-torn societies are ever to be transformed into peaceful and creative relations among the groups concerned.”

(References from:  Burton, John. 1990. Conflict: Resolution and Provention. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Burton, John. 1998. “Conflict Resolution: the Human Dimension. “International Journal of Peace Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, January, pp. 1-5)

As I indicated in the previous post, the “good” news is that this framework gives us real insight into some of the apparently most deeply rooted and persistent social conflicts; however, the “bad” news is that it also shows us how far reaching any measures to heal these conflicts would have to be.


February 19, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,

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