It seems to me that conflict is most often caused by structural sources. Rubenstein describes the two main sources of conflict as “human nature” and “structures” (55). Even upon reading those two options for the very first time, I felt myself pushing back against “human nature” as the cause of conflict. Personally, I try to see the best in human nature, and I feel like blaming conflict on the way that people are (or a person is) makes it difficult to envision the possibility of peace in that situation. Rubenstein gave the rather extreme example of Hitler and whether he was an “embodiment of ideological fanaticism and power-lust” or simply “a nationalist leader responding to Great Power competition” (56). These views illustrate the difference between personal and structural sources of conflict— was the problem Hitler himself, or did a set of structural (social, political, economic, etc.) circumstances also contribute? Clearly, this is an extreme case, and it seems that both structural and personal sources of conflict collided with tragic results.
Rubenstein points out that it is easy to see overt conflict as personal (57), which makes sense since manifest conflict is carried out by individuals or groups. However, he also points of the role of structural violence in causing overt violence, saying that “if the level of provocation continues to rise, all but the rarest individuals will give way eventually to aggressive or self-destructive behavior” (57). This provocation, I think, comes from structural sources which deprive people of their needs and humanity (58). While it is easy to point to individuals who act out violently as the cause for that violence, in order to transform the conflict it is necessary to acknowledge and deal with the “institutions that function either as active causes or necessary conditions for outbreaks of violence” (59). These institutions and structures, not human beings, seem to be most consistently at the root of violence.
While human nature does contribute to conflict, I strongly resist the idea that human nature is the cause of conflict. It seems to me that it is the human instinct to survive that plays the greatest role in conflict, not a human instinct to do violence. While this human instinct to survive often leads to violence, this violence is spurred by either physical or structural threats. A human instinct of survival is not in and of itself a negative thing, as would be a human instinct of violence. Thus, by transforming the structures (and situations) that threaten human survival, it is possible to transform conflict and create space for peace to grow.