Interpersonal conflicts and third-party mediation in a pastoralist society

Zachary H. Garfield, Luke Glowacki

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Human societies depend on the ability of their members to coordinate and cooperate with others. Yet, within-group conflict can threaten group stability. This threat is severe among humans due to the scale of our societies and the frequent low levels of relatedness between members. Our ability to resolve inter-individual conflicts is a key aspect of our species' success. Despite the importance of conflict resolution in human sociality, the socio-ecology of how within-group conflicts are resolved in naturalistic settings is underexplored. Using a sample of 160 inter-individual conflicts reported by 81 adults from an agro-pastoralist community in southwest Ethiopia, we identify the primary causes of interpersonal conflict and the features associated with third-party mediation and conflict outcomes. We find that both men and women experience relatively severe inter- and intra-gender conflicts; conflicts between women are more likely to be social in nature, while conflicts between men are more likely to be over resource control. Third-party mediation more often occurs in social conflicts rather than conflicts over material or subsistence resources and in conflicts between clan members and friends. Mediators in conflicts between women tend to be women while mediators for conflicts between men tend to be men. Women, however, are as equally likely as men to help mediate inter-gender conflicts, which suggests an important opportunity for female leadership in this patriarchal society. Although more than 80% of conflicts were resolved, social conflicts are more difficult to resolve than conflicts over resources. Conflict severity, clan membership, and the relationship between those in conflict are associated with severed relationships. These results underscore the importance of third-party mediators and inter-gender interactions in human societies and the importance of socio-economic structures in shaping interpersonal conflicts and their resolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)613-623
Number of pages11
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)

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