2, Number 3, May 2002
Trouble with Cows: Making Sense of Social Conflict
Beth (1994) University of California Press.
by Bill Warters
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
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
significantly increases its utility as well.
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
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.
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.
late James Boskey reviewed the book when it first
came out, and his insights remain true for the online
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
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.
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.
project of Campus Conflict Resolution
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo
to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
Department of Communication
585 Manoogian Hall
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.
send comments, bug reports, etc. to the Editor.
© 2000-2005 William C. Warters & WSU,
All rights reserved.