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Volume 2, Number 3, May 2002

Some Trouble with Cows: Making Sense of Social Conflict

Roy, Beth (1994) University of California Press.

Review by Bill Warters

Cows may not seem like a topic that campus conflict folks would be particularly interested in, despite the fact that cows do seem to figure prominently in campus pranks :^). However, this book provides a valuable tool for exploring conflict theory, something which should appeal to conflict studies faculty. It also reveals the centrality of perception and community norms on the emergence and transformation of conflicts, something of potential interest to conflict intervenors and trainers. The fact that the book is now available in a free online version from the publisher (in addition to paperback) significantly increases its utility as well.Book cover

In 1954, in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Golam Fakir's cow ate a bit of Kumar Tarkhania's lentil crop. Sociologist and mediator Beth Roy chronicles the transformation of this relatively routine neighborhood conflict into a communal, or ethnic, 'riot' involving thousands of people on both sides of the dispute and 4 deaths. The author studies the actions and reasoning of participants in and witnesses to this Hindu/Muslim clash which, until Roy's discovery, had somehow been kept out of the press and history books.

In the first half of the book, Roy presents the 'riot' through tales told by various villagers. The complexities of caste and religious distinctions and local terminology adds some difficulty in terms of keeping track of the major players involved, but the book provides a cast of characters listing that helps keep it all straight. The story, revealed in a kind of theater-in-the-round way, is understood and interpreted quite differently by various participants and observers. What villagers call a riot turns out to be primarily a massive sit-down of the two sides across a field from one another, but it does involve the death of some participants and the burning down of several local buildings, so it is more than just a symbolic protest.

The second half of the book seeks to answer three questions: Why did this trouble with cows become a riot? Why did it become an ethnic, or communal, riot? How did the riot connect the villagers to national social transformations? Roy concludes that the seemingly irrational conflict was in reality a means by which villagers could confront very current and important disputes about the distributions of power and rights in their community. In the process, we see how historically defined identities can be actively redefined to reflect a new reality. Roy also suggests ways in which these processes illustrate important theoretical issues in psychology and sociology.

The late James Boskey reviewed the book when it first came out, and his insights remain true for the online version.

With careful interviewing, and even better reporting of those interviews, (Roy) demonstrates the way in which personal involvement, group membership, cultural background, and other similar factors affect the manner, not only in which one reports facts, but what the facts are that one identifies. As in the Japanese movie where an incident is reported from the viewpoint of each of the participants, here the stories that are told by each observer reflect, honest differences in understanding of what occurred.

For the conflict resolver, theoretician or practitioner, this is a very important lesson to learn. Novice practitioners tend to assume that when parties present inconsistent stories about an event that one of them or both are lying about the incident. More experienced practitioners know that this is often not the case. The "angle of view" is often as determinative of the facts of an event as to the meaning to be given to them.

Roy's book examines a community of ethnically different groups who had lived in relative harmony with one another, but then they experience a major social conflict that quickly pits them against one another, in part due to changes at the national political level. While she studies a distant country and a distant time, Roy's work may be even more relevant than ever given the post 9/11 environment and the escalation of conflict in the middle east. Faculty and conflict intervenors interested in theoretical aspects of conflict will find the book well worth reviewing for potential use in a class or seminar.

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