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Moving in and out of our boxes as we stay in conflict and relationship

Colleen Magner
November, 2015


In our work at Reos Partners, we’ve come to recognise that one of the triggers for persistent levels of inequality and conflict is when the marginalised voice is unheard or misunderstood.

“Marginalised” is a problematic label. One’s view of who’s marginalised depends on one’s distance or closeness to these voices. Let’s say hypothetically that marginalised means those who are not often heard or understood because they don’t readily have access to platforms that others do and that they often bear a disproportionate brunt of the inadequacies of a social system.

One of the challenges of bringing together people who don’t necessarily agree on how to address a shared problem is that at different points some voices wield more power and attention than others. It is almost impossible to build a level playing field.

I was recently introduced to a helpful framework. A colleague from the Southern Africa Food Lab described a typology used to understand the different perspectives on change. The article (Giménez and Shattuck, 2011) outlined four kinds of dominant thinking:  the free marketers, the reformists, the progressives and the radicals.  To use the example of the food system in South Africa, the free-marketers’ (also called neo-liberals) response to a looming food crisis is to suggest increased industrialised production.  The reformists believe that the market is inherently the best mechanism for food provision, but if left unaccountable it becomes unequal so regulation and some intervention is required to make sure people play by the rules. The progressives stance is that the market system doesn’t work for all and needs better safety nets, which includes setting up alternatives to address inequality.  Finally  the radicals believe that the system serves only a few and because it is ultimately flawed it needs to be dismantled and replaced with a system that first and foremost respects the right to food for all.

We thought about these typologies and realised we could think of representatives of each of these various perspectives within the Southern Africa Food Lab and that these people are all in relationship with each other. As we attempted to address the issues of resources, production, nutrition and governance in the food value chain we often struggled to keep both the free-marketers and radicals in the same process.  But whilst they may be dominant, these four ways of thinking aren’t fixed.  Yes there is an inherent kind of thinking and behavior that represent these four typologies. Yet people involved in the Food Lab are individuals with their own unique experiences and perspectives that don’t necessarily fit the boxes of institutions they work for. When it comes to collaborating, if an individual representing an organisation needs to assume a different kind of thinking it can be perceived as co-option and compromise. For the reformists and progressives who are seeking ways to change the status quo, collaboration is natural. But to a certain extent free-marketers - and in the extreme radicals - participation compromises the typologies of their thinking.  Individuals inevitably feel compromised as they work towards introducing new thinking to a system that’s not working for all. And at times, they will need to move into more adversarial roles with one another.

So what do we do when relationships fall apart? There is not always an easy answer. But I have experienced that it requires us to acknowledge that people need to hold multiple roles at the same time – as a person, as a representative of an organisation, and as an activist trying to find a way through the compromised world we live in. And this requires us to be able to stay in relationship and to be able to fall-out with one another, as we move in and out of these boxes.

This fall-out invariably leads to conflict or opting out. In the continuous pursuit of reinventing these relationships, conflict is sometimes inevitable and necessary. These relationships aren’t only about getting along, which keeps us stuck in these typologies.  The learning required is how to be in both conflict and relationship. Its not a choice between the two, it’s the dual nature that’s required of this work.

This article is part of a series “Moving Through Tough Terrain”.

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