An Investigation of Conflict Management in Cambodian Villages
A Review of the Literature with Suggestions for Future Research
Caroline Hughes - October 2001
English 32 pp. $10.00 / Khmer (forthcoming)


This literature review sets out a conceptual framework for the investigation of conflict management in Cambodian villages, and gives suggestions for further research. It places the study of conflict and conflict management in the framework of ideas of a "culture of peace", and argues that this requires examining questions of both active procedures (agency) and their context (structure) in responses to conflict.

Understanding the historical role of the Cambodian village in resolving conflict is limited by the lack of anthropological data from the pre-war years. In addition, the only study to date on dispute resolution in Cambodian villages focuses on agents and agencies, but says little about structures for conflict management. The present paper also highlights the need to understand the broader patterns of relationships which dispose a community towards particular forms of conflict and the cultural norms that influence approaches to conflict and conflict management. Taking such a broader view suggests an approach to the study of conflict management that addresses not only actions explicitly designed to resolve disputes, but also activities that structure relations between villagers, and which thus give conflict management processes force and legitimacy in their eyes.

This approach requires examination of the way that villagers view their own position in the village and their relationships with other villagers. Habits and customs structure the individual’s conception of appropriate behaviour towards others in the village, important relationships that must be preserved, sources of authority that must be respected, and the boundaries between what can and cannot be tolerated by the individual or by the group. This is the conceptual framework within which the individual conducts conflicts with others, and the community conducts conflict management.

Relationships between villagers can be understood within a structural framework of class and gender relations, within which individuals pursue strategies to secure their welfare. These strategies can be viewed as a series of investments in economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital. The nature and distribution of these are determined, in turn, by cultural factors, including concepts of rightfulness and of legitimate authority.

A study of individual and group investments in these various kinds of assets contributes to the understanding of a culture of peace, while addressing questions both of structure and agency.

Traditionally, the economic well-being of individuals in a small community depends less on impersonal market relations than upon personal relations of status and trust within the village. An investigation of community relations using the conceptual framework outlined, then, focuses on individual strategies in the context of community norms governing the award of status and respect. These apply both to parties in conflict and to conflict managers, awarding them particular resources that can be expended or invested in during conflicts.

The "flexibility" of a power structure based upon personal attributes and identity, rather than upon materially-based and codified institutions also has consequences for the ways in which villages manage conflict. Impersonal and external methods of social control, such as the rule of law, are still underdeveloped in Cambodian society, and at the same time Cambodian villages continue to undergo changes in response to the impacts of war, state-building, capitalist penetration, democratisation and the increasing spread of national and international media. These developments are likely to bring further adjustments to the social and symbolic structure of the rural village in their wake. Equally, there is a self-conscious effort going on in Cambodia at present to reconceptualise notions of right, informed by Buddhist teachings as well as by Western liberal values such as human rights. These represent part of a movement to rebuild the moral basis of Cambodian society.

Appreciation of the way in which such change is being absorbed by the village is likely to be a key explanatory factor in understanding both the causes of present-day conflict and the success or otherwise of locally practised conflict management. 


Acronyms and Abbreviations

A. Defining Conflict and Conflict Management
B. The Village as a Site for Conflict Management
C. The Village in the World
D. Conclusions