Intergroup Conflict

Key Takeaways

  • Intergroup conflict refers to any disagreement or confrontation between the members of at least two different groups.
  • There are numerous models that attempt to explain the emergence and persistence of intergroup conflict. Among these are the aggressor-defender, conflict-spiral, and structural change models.
  • There are also a number of beliefs implicated in intergroup conflicts, such as perceptions of superiority, injustice, vulnerability, distrust, and helplessness transferred from one group to another.
  • Intergroup conflict has a number of aggravating factors, such as group size, group composition, goal incompatibility, dependence, and structural factors.

What is Intergroup Conflict?

Intergroup conflict is a term that refers to disagreement or confrontation between two or more groups and their members. This confrontation can involve physical violence, interpersonal discord, and psychological tension.

Intergroup conflict is a major factor that affects group-level movement patterns and space use and ultimately shapes the evolution of group living and sociality (Hewstone & Greenland, 2000).

The first person to describe intergroup conflict was Thomas Hobbes in his work “Leviathan.” In this book, Hobbes argued that humans are innately selfish and aggressive and will engage in conflict with others in order to survive and thrive.

This view of human nature was later echoed by many other theorists, including Freud and Darwin. That is to say, intergroup conflict is not a new phenomenon. It has been around since the beginning of time and has played a role in shaping human history.

From wars between countries to battles between gangs, intergroup conflict has always been a part of the human world (Hewstone & Greenland, 2000).

However, it was not until the early 1900s that sociologists began to study intergroup conflict in a systematic way, most often to figure out ways to reduce or mitigate it.

One such person to do so was Floyd Allport, who published The Nature of Prejudice in 1954. In this book, Allport proposed the contact hypothesis, which posits that increased contact between members of different groups will lead to reduced prejudice and, ultimately, conflict.

Allport’s contact hypothesis has been supported by a great deal of research and is considered one of the most influential theories in the field of sociology (Hewstone & Greenland, 2000).

Intergroup Conflict Models

There have been numerous conflict models that have emerged over time. These models of conflict escalation can act either exclusively or in concert with each other.

The Aggressor-defender Model

The aggressor-defender model of intergroup conflict is one that dominates the thinking of many leaders in public life. In this view, one group sees the other as an aggressor.

This could occur in a conflict including warfare among nations, strife between racial groups, controversies among scientists, and so on.

The aggressor is seen as motivated by evil and illegitimate aims, while the one being aggressed upon by noble, morally correct, and legitimate motivations.

As a result, following this logic, the ones being aggressed must increase their deterrent power to ensure that the aggressors cannot reach their goals (Rusch & Gavrilets, 2020).

The Conflict-spiral model

Meanwhile, the conflict-spiral model contends that conflict breeds conflict. In turn, each party extends and intensifies the conflict by reacting in a punitive or defensive way to the other party’s behavior.

Consequently, a continuing spiral of escalation ensues, trapping both parties. In this conflict perspective, the initial source of friction may be consequential.

However, rather than focusing on the initial cause of the conflict, the conflict-spiral model describes the dynamic, interactive process by which individuals or groups find themselves caught in an upward spiral of hostilities (Rusch & Gavrilets, 2020).

The conflict spiral model does not only describe escalation. De-escalation of intergroup conflict can occur in a spiral fashion.

For example, the strategic arms limitation talks and summits between the United States and the Soviet Union caused a step-by-step retreat from nuclear confrontation (Rusch & Gavrilets, 2020).

The Structural Change model

Finally, the structural-change model of intergroup conflict is also concerned with the dynamic interaction between parties in the course of the conflict. Unlike the conflict-spiral model, however, this view holds that certain enduring changes take place that perpetuate the conflict.

For example, military elites often gain large amounts of power during a war. They may gain a stake in perpetuating hostilities so that they will not lose their power and privileges to civilian authorities (Rusch & Gavrilets, 2020).

This view comes with one major caveat, however: not all conflicts last long enough that they can bring about major institutional changes. Indeed, societies may return to their pre-conflict conditions after the initial conflict is resolved.

Ingredients of intergroup conflict: belief domains

There are several types of beliefs that commonly lead to intergroup conflict. These include superiority, injustice, vulnerability, distrust, and helplessness.


At an individual level, beliefs of superiority revolve around a person’s enduring notion that he or she is better than other people in important ways.

At the group level, this translates into the belief that one’s own group has a superior cultural heritage to others. This often leads to a sense of entitlement and a desire to protect that heritage from contamination by outsiders.

For example, the development of Hitler’s Nazi party was based on the idea of racial purity and the belief that the Aryan race was superior to all others.

This led to a sense of entitlement to land and resources, which in turn led to conflict and, ultimately, war (Eidelson & Eidelson, 2003).


A second set of beliefs that commonly leads to intergroup conflict is the belief that one has been treated unfairly.

This can be at an individual level, such as when a person feels passed over for a promotion, or at the group level, such as when a minority group feels it has been discriminated against.

These feelings of injustice can lead to a desire for revenge or retribution. One example of injustice fueling intergroup conflict is the civil war in Syria.

The conflict began as a peaceful protest against the government but quickly escalated into a full-blown civil war when the government began to crack down on the protesters, leading to a cycle of violence (Eidelson & Eidelson, 2003).


A third set of beliefs that can lead to intergroup conflict is the belief that one is vulnerable to harm from others.

This can be at an individual level, such as when a person feels threatened by someone else, or at the group level, such as when a country feels threatened by another country’s military buildup.

These feelings of vulnerability can lead to a desire for self-protection or even preemptive strikes. One example of vulnerability leading to intergroup conflict is the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States.

The United States justified the invasion by claiming that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction that could be used to attack the United States or its allies (Eidelson & Eidelson, 2003).


A fourth set of beliefs that can lead to intergroup conflict is distrust. This can be at an individual level, such as when a person doesn’t trust someone else, or at the group level, such as when one country doesn’t trust another country’s motives.

These feelings of distrust can lead to a desire to distance oneself from the other or even to attack the other. One example of distrust leading to intergroup conflict is the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The two countries distrusted each other’s motives and engaged in a long period of competition and tension that led to several crises, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis (Eidelson & Eidelson, 2003).


The fifth and final set of beliefs discussed here that can lead to intergroup conflict is helplessness. This can be at an individual level, such as when a person feels powerless, or at the group level, such as when a country feels it cannot defend itself against another country’s aggression.

These feelings of helplessness can lead to a sense of despair or even resignation. One example of helplessness leading to intergroup conflict is the Rwandan genocide.

The Hutu majority in Rwanda felt helpless against the Tutsi minority, leading to the mass slaughter of Tutsis (Eidelson & Eidelson, 2003).

Intergroup vs. Intragroup conflict

While intergroup conflicts occur between groups, intragroup conflict happens within them.

For example, intragroup conflict can occur when people on a work team have different opinions about how best to accomplish a specific goal — such as between workplace departments.

Meanwhile, intergroup conflict occurs between teams that most often have adversarial goals, such as between warring nations or competing companies (Eidelson & Eidelson, 2003).

Factors influencing the intensity of intergroup conflict

The intensity and severity of intergroup conflict — the degree to which the parties are committed to expending resources and energy in an effort to defeat the other — depends on a multitude of factors.

Group Size

One important factor is group size. All else being equal, the larger the number of people in a group, the more likely it is to be involved in an intergroup conflict.

This is because there are more potential sources of disagreement and more opportunities for people with different opinions to come into contact with each other.

Additionally, large groups are more difficult to control and coordinate than small ones, making it harder for leaders to prevent or resolve disagreements (Fisher, 2000).


Another important factor is composition. The more heterogeneous a group is — that is, the more diverse its members are in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, and so on — the more likely it is to be involved in an intergroup conflict.

This is because people from different backgrounds are more likely to have different opinions and values, which can lead to disagreements.

Additionally, people from different groups may be unfamiliar with or even distrustful of each other, which can further contribute to conflict (Fisher, 2000).

Goal Incompatibility

The more incompatible the goals of the two groups are, the more likely it is that they will come into conflict with each other.

This is because each group will be trying to achieve its own goals while simultaneously trying to prevent the other group from achieving its goals.

For example, two countries that are vying for control of the same piece of land are likely to come into conflict with each other (Fisher, 2000).


The more dependent one group is on another — for example if one group needs the resources of another group in order to survive — the more likely it is that they will come into conflict.

This is because groups that are dependent on each other are often in a position where they must compete with each other for scarce resources.

Additionally, groups that are dependent on each other may also feel threatened by each other, leading to further conflict (Fisher, 2000).

Structural Factors

There are also a number of structural factors that can contribute to the intensity of the intergroup conflict. Structural factors are features of the social environment that shape people’s interactions with each other (Fisher, 2000).

One important structural factor is social inequality. Social inequality is the unequal distribution of resources, power, and status within a society.

It can lead to intergroup conflict because groups that are disadvantaged often feel that they have been treated unfairly and may seek to redress this imbalance through violence or other means.

Additionally, social inequality can also lead to intragroup conflict, as members of the same group compete with each other for the same resources (such as power or food resources) (Fisher, 2000).


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.