The Power of Symbolic Power : An Application of O'Neill's Game of Honour to Asymmetric Internal Conflict

University dissertation from Uppsala : Institutionen för freds- och konfliktforskning

Abstract: Powerful states can lose wars to militarily weaker opponents. This can only be understood by moving away from an over-simplified traditional definition of power and by incorporating the symbolic dimensions of power. The present study focuses on honour, which is one facet of symbolic power that is particularly relevant for understanding conflict because it is often associated with publicly participating in violence. Barry O’Neill’s Game of Honour model, originally developed for inter-state relations, provides a structured framework to analyse the strategic use of symbols in internal asymmetric conflicts. The main claim in this dissertation is that because there is only one recognised state apparatus competition is always for the same audience. I argue that this makes it difficult to assume that the state can adequately foresee the audience’s expectations, and that outcomes of a challenge can best be understood as the relative honour of the primary actors. Two cases were selected from the recent conflict in Algeria to empirically apply the model. The first is a public demonstration that occurred in Algiers in 1991 and involves a domestic news media audience, while the second is a plane hijacking that involves a Western news media audience. Six other cases are also considered with the aim of highlighting salient issues relevant to incorporating other dimensions of symbolic power connected, but not equal, to honour. The application of the model to the cases clearly reflects that symbolic challenges can be perceived as serious threats to actors who are militarily far superior. This suggests that key events can alter the relative power balance in asymmetric conflicts and, therefore, it is not possible to assume that symbolic power is merely a reflection of underlying material capabilities as a traditional definition of power implies.

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