What is politics?
What is politics?

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

What is politics?

2.1.3 Politics as conflict

You might be wondering whether anyone could actually positively value conflict. Aren’t consensus or the reconciliation of difference always a good thing? Would anyone actually argue that conflict is desirable? There are indeed those who do and who, on the basis of this perhaps counterintuitive normative judgement, offer a definition of politics with a somewhat different focus. Among these are theorists who subscribe to a school of thought known as agonism. As a political theory, agonism emphasises the positive aspect of conflict and, as such, does not see the reconciliation of difference or the resolution of conflict as the only desirable outcomes of politics. For instance, a prominent advocate of agonism, political theorist Bonnie Honig, argues for the need to identify ‘the affirmative dimension of contestation’ (Honig, 1993, p. 15).

For agonist political theorists, politics is a process that makes possible the coexistence of difference and conflict. In other words, politics is the process through which we live together with and respect those who are different, without us trying to convince them to become ‘like us’, or them trying to convince us to become ‘like them’. It is also the process through which conflict is organised, and in fact made productive, rather than erased. As another prominent agonist theorist, Chantal Mouffe argues, ‘if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and... provide an arena where differences can be confronted’ (Castle, 1998).

Agonist definitions of politics share some things in common with definitions of politics such as those put forward by Crick and Heywood. Both make the assumption, for instance, that difference and conflict are fundamental features of society and that politics offers a way of living with such difference and conflict. But arguably there are also some differences. There seems, for instance, to be a normative difference, with agonist theorists placing greater emphasis on the desirability and productive aspects of conflict, as opposed to the search for conciliation. Indeed, for some agonist theorists the persistence of difference and discord is precisely what indicates the existence of freedom.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371