War as a Social Phenomenon

Dr. Ori Swed, Texas Tech University

Published on: March 17, 2021

Guernica by Pablo Picasso. 1937. Oil on canvas

War, as organized armed violence, calls to mind a particular association. The image of marching soldiers, weapons of war, and explosions are the most common imagery this term invokes. This outlook has been dominating sociological discussion and view of war. Yet, these acts, their methods, and classifications, whether it is a total war, asymmetric war, new wars, hybrid war, terrorism, insurgency, genocide, or rebellion capture only part of this phenomenon.

First and foremost, war is a social phenomenon, that takes place in social space and time, influenced by social forces, and executed by social actors. It is a process with enduring effects and not a discrete event as often described in traditional historical narratives. War is not separate from the fabric of social life; it is integrated into it. War has a personal dimension for the people that experience it firsthand as the perpetrators of violence, spectators, or victims, and those that the collective trauma still affects them generations after. War affects demography and public health. It is an engine for migration, as people escape violence or colonize conquered areas. It affects family structure (war orphans and child soldiers) and life expectancy. The exposure to violence traumatizes soldiers and civilians alike, and influences the life trajectories of individuals affected and their friends and families (PTSD and unemployment). War affects the economy on the macro and micro levels. States’ investment in security apparatus and technology is expensive and the economic costs of active participation in war are even greater. Resources can fuel war or redirect them. Yet, the economic effect stretches beyond macroeconomics. War conditions affect supply and demand and prompt unique consumerism and markets (black markets and black economy for example). Perception of risk emerging out of the war reality can alter and reshape individuals’ day-to-day activities and behavior (not taking a flight today due to a terrorist threat). War shapes groups and individuals’ culture, language, and point of reference (Duck and Cover Cold-War exercise). The memory of war and its physical manifestations can shape national and individuals’ identity and the political landscape. War affects the environment, directly, and indirectly (Damaged infrastructure that causes pollution). It is a political tool with political manifestation (affecting leadership popularity and impact voters). When big enough, it can create or break states. It can overshadow any other social activity. In those cases, it is a social force by itself that pushes and pulls people and organizations.

Examining those described trends through sociological lenses we can point out two important patterns. The first is one of the most significant implications of war—its ability to challenge or even shatter existing social structures. This pattern is not a minor feat, given social structures’ durability. War has the potential to alter social order, norms, and expectations. A civil war, violent revolution, or war of independence in effect redistributes power in society. They reshuffle status and class within a society taken opportunities from some and offering opportunities to others. This is the reason why for so many, war has been viewed as an emancipatory tool. It is an act of organized destruction that gives way to new structures to emerge. That takes us to the second pattern emerging out of a war that focuses on the part inequalities play before, during, and in the post-conflict period. The impacts and cost of war, as well as the redistribution of power due to war, are not random. They follow existing fault lines of inequality. Violence often follows identity divides, whether they are religious, ethnic, national, or racial. Minorities, women, and disabled individuals will fare worse when violence erupts. Those who benefit from war are those with enough resources to reshape and mold the new order, those are not the poor and disenfranchised.

War is not a minor phenomenon; for many across the globe, it is their day-to-day reality. A quick review of ongoing armed conflict on The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) shows that war is a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, it is a common one (Wars are still raging in Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Syria to name a few). This essay is not pretending to cover the full complexities and numerous nuances of the phenomenon of war and political collective violence. It is merely an invitation to explore a social force that has numerous and dramatic implications on human life and security throughout history and today from a different outlook—a sociological outlook.

Ori Swed is an Assistant Professor at the Sociology Department at Texas Tech University. He is also the director of the Peace, War, & Social Conflict Laboratory. Dr. Swed research explores the organizational aspects of violent non-state actors and state actors in the context of peace, war, and security.