Institutions, like all dimensions of conflict, have both positive and negative potential in times of conflict. Rubenstein focused on the legitimacy of institutions, specifically the legal system (175). Whether or not institutions are viewed as legitimate impacts their capacity to affect conflict positively or negatively, as “every social system rests on a foundation consisting of both force and consent” (168). While institutions can use force to impact a conflict, this usually goes along with a decrease in consent and popular support (168). On the other hand, an increase in support and consent decreases the need for use of force (168). Thus, the consent of the people based on their perception of an institution’s legitimacy can dramatically change the dimensions of conflict (168).
Rubenstein explored institutional legitimacy using the example of the legal system, stating that “the system as a whole justifies its existence by the extent to which it satisfies people’s need for security, freedom, and other social goods” (175). He also emphasized the responsibility of the legal system to “maintain social peace…[and] resolve conflicts both inside and outside their boundaries” (177). Finally, he listed “protecting the rights and interests of disadvantaged parties” as one of the five purposes of the legal system (179). All of these tasks of a legitimate legal system are examples of how institutions can and do affect conflict positively—by meeting needs, by protecting rights, and by promoting peace. On the other hand, Rubenstein was honest in admitting that the legal system can also affect conflict negatively, adding fuel to the fire. For example, at times “legal rulings can intensify social conflicts rather than resolve them” (181). When this happens, the legal system loses its legitimacy, as it fails to meet the needs of all people and resolve the conflict at hand.
Overall, I think institutions have a critical role in conflict, but it is important to recognize the connection between institutions and individuals. If individuals do not view institutions as legitimate, any influence in the conflict will likely be through force, which I think would lead to negative influences in conflict. However, if an institution meets needs, protects rights, and promotes peace, the consent of the people will likely place that institution in a prime position to affect the conflict situation in a positive manner. While the examples in this chapter were specific to the legal system, I think it provided a helpful framework for both identifying legitimate institutions and critiquing and transforming illegitimate ones.