Examining the Abyss: An Epistemic Inquiry into Violent Human Conflict, Contested Truths and Multiplex Methodology

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"Examining the Abyss: An Epistemic Inquiry into Violent Human Conflict, Contested Truths and Multiplex Methodology”

(A summary of this article is forthcoming in the book, Critical Issues, Lexington Books, MAY 2011)
By: Thomas E. Boudreau, Ph.D., Chair

Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution

Salisbury University

© 2010

Thomas E. Boudreau

All Rights Reserved

In the following pages, violent human conflict will be defined, in a preliminary way as a human encounter in which one or both parties seek to achieve specific goals by physically coercing, harming or killing, if possible, the other party (Garver, : Tilly : Galtung, ). “Party” or “parties” in this case refer to other groups of human beings, spanning from individuals, or the ethnic group to the nation-state. In violent conflict, one or more parties see another group or groups as an obstacle to the obtainment of their goals. Rather than forsake these goals, the group is willing to engage in violent behavior in order to convince, coerce or even destroy the other group or groups that are perceived, or actually do, stand in the way.

One of the characteristics of such lethal contests is often the presence of intensely competing epistemologies dealing each side’s privileged knowledge claims and discourse on what constitutes valid knowledge and the “true” account of the conflict. Violent human conflict almost always involves an intense competition over which side’s truth will endure and become the privileged discourse of description and analysis. For instance, epistemic pluralism, which can be defined as competing descriptions and narratives of the same factual conditions (Boudreau and Polkinghorn, 2008) is almost always a characteristic of such conflicts. In other words, unlike most social conflicts, in lethal contests there is often an absence of a shared epistemology among the contending sides; “truth” itself is contested and considered a great prize in violent human conflict. As we shall see, the complexity of the struggle is compounded by the presence of contested and competing geographies, human agencies and intended outcomes. The problem then, from a methodological perspective, is how to capture and investigate the composite complexity of this phenomenon in which knowledge claims, and truth itself is almost always deeply contested.

This presents a profound epistemic problem. Epistemology is the study of the origins, nature, methods and limits of knowledge. Ever since the Enlightenment, scholars and scientists have largely assumed that educated people looking at the same or similar factual situation would come to the same of similar conclusions. In violent human conflicts, this is patently not the case. Participants with the same or similar backgrounds and educations often make wildly different knowledge claims concerning the same supposedly factual conflict.

So, this essay attempts to answer the epistemic question: How do we know and study such violent human conflicts? In the following pages, we will explore the origins, nature, and limits of knowledge claims concerning such conflicts, and then attempt to provide a “multiplex” methodology for investigating these conflicts as they actually exist in their unique ontological site or local setting. (Boudreau 2003; Druckman, 2005) Such a complex and unique phenomenon often characterized at its core by epistemic pluralism can’t be easily captured in a single theory or methodology; it requires a compound and sequential method of inquiry and investigation to match the compound realities occurring in a violent conflict.

As we shall see, Graham Allison’s classic text Essence of Decision (1971) provides a prototypical case study of such a multiplex approach in conflict analysis. In this book, Allison uses three sequential conceptual frames of reference to analyze the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. By doing so, he demonstrates the methodological power of using multiple modeling to analyze a specific conflict in order to achieve a richer and more complete understanding of an unique event. In the following pages, Allison’s path-breaking case study and methodological innovations will be developed one step further; specifically, the concept of a multiplex methodology will be introduced that incorporates a causal matrix consisting of multiple frames of reference using revelatory and contingent causality in order to discover new knowledge concerning a complex phenomenon such as human conflict. In particular, this essay will argue that multiplex methodology provides a preliminary means of insuring the construct validity of the causes as well as effects (Cook and Campbell,1979). The essay will end by making an argument for using case studies as a preliminary, necessary but not sufficient method of understanding each unique, violent and complex human conflict.
Violent human conflict is one of the most, if not the most, complex social phenomenon that human beings experience. In violent human conflict, especially those involving ethnic groups or entire nations, participants often have deep convictions that frequently have bloody consequences in organized action (Galtung, 1996) concerning contested geographies, historical narratives, moral grievances, religious values, or sometimes even competing cosmologies and gods (Boudreau, 2008). Such complex social organizations in collision create significant dilemmas for any researcher attempting to understand their full scope and significance. Linear thought or what Max Web describes as “operational rationality,” with its emphasis on single-sourced cause and effect simply doesn’t reflect and can’t capture the complex realities, epistemic pluralism and contested causes of violent human conflict. From this perspective, to “single source” the cause of a deadly human conflict and attribute it solely to “interests,” “needs” or “identity” is almost always oversimplified. To investigate deadly disputes using a single type or disciplinary system of methodology usually results in a reductionist and incomplete understanding of a complex phenomenon such as human conflict.

For instance, the “Correlates of War Project” at the University of Michigan has for years used mathematics and advanced statistical methods to determine whether there are significant correlations between specific events or phenomena and the outbreak of war. This effort certainly has worthy intentions and goals but potentially dangerous consequences. For instance, this information, when and if obtained, could possibly help to prevent war but also, conversely (though unintentionally) could conceivably be used to inform governments when is the most opportune time to strike first.

Yet, the Correlates of War project will never be able to give us a full understanding of war or other violent social conflicts. Goedel’s Theorem, in effect, caution us to be very careful in asserting that a singular theoretical or methodological preeminence can provide complete explanations, whether in mathematics or the social sciences. Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem asserts that no formal system can be both consistent and complete. Intended for mathematics, Goedel’s theorem demands, I think, an intellectual modesty concerning any theory or system in asserting that only one methodology, especially a scientific one, can lead to the complete truth about violent human conflict. So arguing by analogy, other methods of inquiry will be necessary if we wish to develop a “complete” understanding concerning the multiple possible causes of lethal contests.

This does not mean that the pursuit of understanding into violent social conflicts is eclectic or improvised; on the contrary, this is an extremely complex phenomenon that we are trying to understand and no single method, no single approach can claim to have a monopoly on the truth, especially when the “truths” of the conflict are in such deadly competition. We will need multiple methods and multiple schools of thought even to begin the process of understanding and explaining violent conflict accurately….

In fact, Gandhi was among the first to note the existence of these contested truths in human conflict. During his illustrious career, he described his method of nonviolently campaigning against British colonialism Satygrapha—which literally means truth force – which required that the other sides’ contested narratives be incorporated as well into a new “Gandhian synthesis” that reveals the truths for both sides of the conflict, a process that Joan Bondurant describes as the “Gandhian dialectic” (Bondurant, 1971; Juergenmeyer,). This is one of the reason’s Gandhi’s autobiography is entitled Experiments with Truth.” He recognized that contested truths are often embedded in the very fabric of human struggle. Gandhi refused to take comfort in reducing the complexity of conflict to one main “cause” or “truth.”
So, the first prerequisite of “true” knowledge claims is that they should accurately reflect in their origins the complexity of the actual phenomena that they purport to describe, understand or explain (Christie, 2010). This is why the investigation of conflict necessarily involves, at first, the use of compound or multiple steps of inquiry in progressive sequence emphasizing different types of causality. In particular, using such causal constructs requires true interdisciplinary studies and inquiry, a branch of knowledge largely lost, in my judgment, since the ancient Greeks and Aristotle.


Interdisciplinarity is a unique, preliminary and often missing first stage of inquiry between philosophy, pure theory or “speculative reasoning” (Boudreau, 2009) and the specific domain disciplines of the social sciences. Interdisciplinary inquiry seeks to understand a unique phenomenon in its embedded existence while subsequent disciplinary methods seek to explain a phenomenon in terms of the prevailing episteme of “identify and difference”(Foucault ). (In the following essay, “understanding” will refer to the knowledge that results from studying a unique phenomenon, while “explanation” will refer to the knowledge claims made in attempting to generalize into a more comprehensive theory.) In other words, interdisciplinary has a revelatory role that is contingent upon the preliminary disclosure concerning the causal constructs of the human condition as an embedded existence. In particular, violent human conflict is always embedded in a unique and often local place and historical time.

In our current study, the explicit assumption is that such interdisciplinary inquiry is necessary in order to capture the uniqueness of a complex phenomenon such as violent human conflict in its original ontological site, or “local realism (a term borrowed from Quantum mechanics.) Such uniqueness can’t be glibly reduced to the over generalized and theoretical assumptions concerning place and a unique historical moment existing as Cartesian coordinates in a presumed universal time and space continuum; this is pure theoretical fiction, especially if the premises of such theoretical generalization have not been specifically confirmed or falsified in subsequent research. In short, interdisciplinary inquiry is a way to capture and understand uniqueness; only when the phenomenon is understood as it actually exists can attempts to generalize from it be made.

Such an interdisciplinary methodological approach is necessary to correct the most egregious omissions of current theories or research on human conflict. First and foremost is that theories about violent human conflict suffer from what Cook and Campbell describe as “construct under representation” which they define as: “the operations failing to incorporate all the dimensions of the construct” (Cook and Campbell, 1979, p 64.) They see this as a serious threat to construct validity in general. In the following essay, I will attempt to address this threat to construct validity in the field of conflict analysis by developing interdisciplinary causal constructs of violent social conflict.

A vivid example of construct under-representation in the field of conflict analysis is the almost predictable lack of maps and geographical analysis in any publication dealing with violent human conflict, as though human conflicts happen in a topographical void. Fighting for contested geography is often the lifeblood of armies yet is barely mentioned in the growing literature in conflict analysis. Military establishments throughout the world spend an inordinate amount of time preparing and reading maps in specific conflicts or wars while theoreticians of the same conflicts rarely, if ever, use maps in their analysis; this omission only highlights the poverty of current causal constructs in the field. Notable exceptions to this are the book Contested Lands by Prof. Bose (that I reviewed for Harvard University Press) and the parallel development in the field of geography of “contested geographies” as a developing field of sub-specialization (Phillips, 2005).

An added danger to the validity of research, besides the construct under representation, is that the construct validity of effects is often overgeneralized. Disembodied theory building is often given the pride of place in the production of new “knowledge” in conflicts. Hence, the unique people, place and historical moment of each violent conflict is largely lost and replaced by the overgeneralized construct validity of one or two effects—such as identity formation or interest based outcomes-- that may be prevalent across many different—though certainly not all-mortal conflicts.

Finally, to make matters more complex, any single cause of the competing knowledge claims that originate from highly contested epistemic encounters between knowing subjects, such as claims to contested geography, can constantly interact with other causes and thus intensify the conflict’s complexity. So, at first glance, the compound realities of lethal contests almost defy traditional definition and description; scholars have and will inevitably contest the sources, substance and significance of such conflicts almost as hotly as the combatants themselves.

To decipher this complexity, the scholar as researcher and experimenter needs to combine different, compound, and parallel methods of interdisciplinary inquiry in order to understand the complex causalities and compound realities of violent human conflict. Thus, the immediate task is to reveal or disclose the full complexity of a unique phenomenon, such as violent social conflict through interdisciplinary research.. This is what the multiplex methodology seeks to accomplish. Simply stated, it provides a way to study an embedded and unique phenomenon while also providing a method for careful, calculated generalization—after all the causal constructs have been identified.

As we shall see in the next section, multiplex methodology uses a dual system, or causal matrix, consisting of revelatory and contingent causation in investigating conflicts. An accurate interdisciplinary understanding of dual nature of causation in insuring the construct validity of causes in violent human conflicts is a necessary but not sufficient condition for their eventual understanding. When combined, each of these causal systems provide a point d’appuie, or departure point, for entering and deciphering the hermeneutical circles (like the descending circles of Dante’s Inferno) that surround and suffuse violent conflicts between human beings.

A multiplex methodology is not so much a single “method” to collect data; instead, it is a compound, contingent and sequential structure of inquiry in case studies that utilizes parallel and multiple processes of data collection using a variety of disciplinary methodologies to insure the “construct validity of causes” that incorporate all dimensions of the conflict. A multiplex methodology first seeks to provide revelatory structures of inquiry into the conflict consisting of rival hypotheses that involve contingent causal constructs and their interrelationships identified in a tentative causal constellation. Such contingent constellated causal structures (Kuhn, 1970) discloses possible relationships that can then be tested and corroborated in the conflicts unique ontological site using process tracing (Homer-Dixon; George and McKeown) and subsequent disciplinary methods of data collection, confirmation or falsification. Only once such a contingent process of revelation and subsequent confirmation or falsification of constellated causal representation is conducted can more general theories of conflict be constructed or implied. In this way, for instance, the epistemic pluralism found in almost all violent human conflicts can be identified or revealed and investigated.

To accomplish this, the Aristotelian famous fourfold causal structure can be employed as the basic structure of multiplex methodology. “Cause” here will be used in its original Greek meaning—naming to “reveal or disclose” that which is. Specifically, the ancient Greek word “Atia” which Aristotle uses in both his Physics and Metaphysics (1941) to describe his fourfold causal structure always meant to “reveal” or to “disclose.” For Aristotle, this fourfold causal framework concerning the material, efficient, formal and final “causes” of a specific phenomenon was a revelatory structure of inquiry.

Hence, the first use of “cause” in a multiplex methodology requires the researcher to reveal or disclose, if possible, the full range of contested truths concerning geography, ecology, history epistemology, needs, interests and goals found in a violent human conflict. This should be done in parallel for both or all groups involved in a deadly dispute.

After this is completed, and the construct validity of causes is assured, then the process of careful generalization from the particular can begin, if necessary, by using contingent causality consisting of confirmation and falsification techniques of verification (Boudreau, 2009).

In view of this, I believe that a violent human contest can best be studied in a preliminary way by Aristotle’s sequential fourfold causal structure consisting of the following interrelated concepts that are looking for contested truths in the following areas: (1) The Material Cause which consist of the inevitable ecological and geographical embeddedness of the conflict; the purpose of this “cause” is to reveal or disclose the unique ecologies, contested geographies (localities), competing or contested maps and actual typologies (human perception of these localities) often involved in violent human conflict; elsewhere, I describe the material cause as the ontological site unique in time and place that inevitably characterizes human life (Boudreau, 2009). (2) The Efficient Cause or Human Agency consisting of competing or contested human behavior, needs, emotions or agencies engaged in a violent human conflict; this also includes the contested histories of previous encounters where actual confrontations, attacks and battles occurred that often characterize the groups in actual conflict. Emotional analyses of violent human conflicts are one of those often missing causal constructs yet obviously deeply felt hurt or anger can contribute significantly to a human conflict, so this factor is included here for possible investigation; (3) The Epistemic Cause as the “formal cause” which Aristotle defines as the “ways in which we describe” the resulting structure. Following his lead, the formal cause can be characterized as how those who make knowledge claims describe and justify their verbal assertions. Hence, it will be described here as the epistemic cause or causes include the competing knowledge claims, contested histories, competing and socially defined identities, discourses and narratives by all the epistemic communities (Haas, ; Boudreau and Polkinghorn, 2008) involved in violent human conflict used to explain and justify their actions including, among other things, dehumanizing and legitimating the killing of another human being (Camus). (4)The Final Cause or goals of the conflict which can either be, in violent human conflict, competing interests, and the win/lose Nietzschean “Will to Power” or,—using the appropriate conflict resolution methods of intervention and transformation—the “Will to Empower” all the participants in a violent human conflict. (This is where third party intervention and efforts at conflict resolution can play the greatest role, especially by providing reframing or alternative frameworks of understanding to the participants themselves or seeking the common ground, if any, within the contested narratives of the competing groups.) Ideally, each of these sequential “causes” of conflict must be confirmed or falsified for each unique conflict before subsequent theoretical generalization can proceed.


The specific sequence of these “causes” is deliberate and demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature of the subsequent inquiry; in particular, it is significant that Aristotle posts the efficient cause second in the sequence of his fourfold causal structure; for Aristotle, positing human agency first as the “efficient cause”—free from material conditions or constraints—would have been literally heresy, and considered an act of hubris in the classical Greek world in which he lived. For Aristotle, human life was always found and embedded in an ecological or material foundation. In short, for Aristotle, human life is never found in abstraction from its material or earthy preconditions for its biological existence. In Greek, “ikos” means “home.” Thus, the original meaning of the word “ecology” in Greek literally means the study of one’s true home. So in today’s world, the basic level of analysis in such embeddedness is now the earth as a whole including its ecology upon which all human life exists and depends. So, in Aristotle fourfold causal structure, these can be truly and accurately portrayed as the “first cause.”

Unfortunately, the modern social sciences have apparently forgotten this key Aristotelian insight in their various definitions of human agency which often contain no reference at all to our material or biological conditions as the “first cause” of existence (Boudreau, 2009). For instance, according to economic theory, the human agent is often viewed as being solely concerned with maximizing his or her utilities or interests. This is described as “rational” behavior—as though human life exists in a biological void. So, it is possible in today’s university to educate economists who have little or no understanding of the earth’s ecology or of the profound interrelationships between the environment and economic activity. Furthermore, this basic definition of rational human behavior does not explain, within its own terms, the motivation or behavior of the millions of police, firemen, soldiers or even teachers throughout the world who work for something other than monetary reward; finally, the environmental impact of economic decisions is rarely if ever studied or anticipated, as the BP oil spill in the Gulf in 2010 vividly illustrates. In fact, the earth’s ecology is rarely listed in the index of most college or MBA text books—even though economic decisions are having a decisive and deleterious impact on the earth’s ecology. In other words, Aristotle’s first cause is largely looked over or even totally ignored by the so-called “rational” agents of economic theory—which have profound consequences for people’s actual choices and human ecology in the modern world. This is theoretical fiddle playing while the world burns. Thus we need to return to the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and to Aristotle for whom human life was always embedded in a material and ecological foundation which is appropriately paced here as the first cause.
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