Human Security, Conflict, and Ordering

In conjunction with his interest in law and legal pluralism, Bert Turner has done extended research on the institutional arrangements that intertwine in composing legal-infrastructural assemblages of conflict processing. He has widely published on technologies of ordering as they are institutionalized in larger contexts of normative plurality, on asylum, exile, retaliation, forgiveness, the production of truth and evidence, mediation, and processes of inclusion and exclusion.


Dealing with ‘social transgression’ and ‘deviance’

The point of departure is local ways of dealing with social transgression in rural Morocco, be it behaviour that is considered to contravene local notions of order or acts that are formally classified in legal terms as deviant or criminal acts. There may be different readings of behaviour at the local scale depending on various normative frames of reference that may come into play, which can involve different techniques of truth finding, concepts of ‘proof’, and regulation of conflict. Behaviour that can be qualified as punishable and which therefore should be prosecuted according to criminal law might be acceptable or even preferable according to local standards of right and wrong; in other words, the notions of ‘wrong’ and ‘crime’ are not necessarily coterminous. In Bert Turner’s work, therefore, the term ‘transgression’ refers to behaviour that is perceived by locals as wrong according to local parameters and in view of the specific circumstances or the situationality of the case. Classifying a wrong as a ‘crime’, on the other hand, is a legal procedure that formal governments and judiciaries produce in a political process.


Institutional arrangements

Institutional assemblages dealing with violent conflict materialize in various manifestations all around the globe. After a violent act, they combine protection with mediation in order to make the acceptance of compensation possible; this, in turn, paves the way for the exchange of forgiveness for apology and post-conflict settlement as acts that allow for the formal social reintegration of the parties to the conflict.

In more detail, the sequence of steps in local conflict management may include action/reaction, getting even/retaliation, mediation/compensation (balancing out the right to violent response), apology (along with self-humiliation such as prostration with bound hands, a substitute blood sacrifice, symbolic death…)/forgiveness, purification (final ritual sacrifice)/social reintegration, and definition of the future relationship between the parties involved.

Institutionalized conflict processing unfolds in processes that are informed by a set of five interconnected but distinct legal institutions that reference their own specific onto-normativity. Together, these five institutional steps form an ‘enabling infrastructural design’. They may materialize in various ways according to the lifeworlds in which they are inscribed.

The first of these entangled normative logics finds expression in the concept of retaliation, which is a universal principle of human interaction (see Turner and Schlee 2008; Turner 2017a; 2017b). Retaliation describes the human disposition to reactive balancing in case of conflict or other types of situations perceived as unjust. Retaliatory reaction exhibits two properties: on the one hand it entails a preventive principle, as the threat of retaliation can prevent someone from committing an inappropriate act directed against another; on the other hand, it implies the right to react in a way that allows an offended party to engage in re-balancing following a perceived injustice, including through the use of violence. However, the legitimate right to violent retaliation does not necessarily mean that it is carried out in this form; it can be substituted by compensation. All this is subject to negotiations. Retaliation is thus about deciding between violent or compensatory reactions to an initial act that disrupts the balance. It is this underlying understanding of conflictive relationships that informs the protagonists’ decisions to act in a given situation.

Here comes into play the offset of individual against collective accountability, whereby forms of shared accountability or the taking up of collective responsibility, not guilt, prevail in retaliatory relationships as opposing solidary groups may form compensation-receiving or -raising communities. Insofar translate perceptions of social distance or proximity between parties to conflict into options to compensatory settlement.

Second, institutionalized protection comes into play here as a necessary interface that helps create a situation favorable to mediation. The temporary protection of the weaker party in the conflict constellation (usually the perpetrator, but sometimes the victim) often takes the form of the legal institutions of asylum or exile (Turner 2005). A perpetrator may be sent to exile beyond the reach of his pursuers, for instance, thus preventing the exercise of legitimate retaliatory violence. Besides protection, a perpetrator’s absence may also be understood as a means to ease the emotional distress of the victim’s party and a precondition for negotiations. 

Third, mediators can then intervene to negotiate the waiving of the right to violent response in exchange for material compensation. Among the basic conditions that make mediation work possible is the suspension of power differences between the parties during the process. Mediators assist with negotiations between the parties and help them reach a compromise, which often entails arranging the transfer of—mostly material—compensation in a face-saving manner. The main goal is to avoid recourse to violence and an escalation of the conflict.

Forth, the exchange of forgiveness for apology follows a successful outcome of the mediation process. The ritual order of the process signifies the liminal transition phase which the protagonists, starting with the perpetrator, undergo. This phase ends with the fifth normative logic that finds expression in institutionalized post-conflict social reintegration, which a specialized agent effectuates through ritual forms of purification and social rebalancing. The deviant act may remain on the offender’s ‘record’—thus no disburdening of individual culpability takes place—but a return to normality and social routine should be reached. The ritual purification of the offender makes it possible for other people to resume interacting with him/her without negative consequences. A great variety of ritual expressions and performances of exclusion and inclusion are involved in the process.


Infrastructures of conflict processing and their potential to fail

In such assemblages, different agents—humans, the material world, and inventories of knowledge—all come together to form an infrastructural design. They may include the state judiciary and even combine with transnational legal templates such as human rights rhetoric and their local varieties. Or they may run parallel to the state, with partly overlapping, partly mutually exclusive features. Analytically, they can be approached as an infrastructure that provides societies with their basic supply of conflict management.

Infrastructures are more than physical structures of the built environment; they involve people and knowledge regimes as well. Different agents, such as humans, material things (including spaces, places, their defined demarcations and spatiotemporal limitations, the built environment, insignia of power and agency, and ritual paraphernalia), and inventories of knowledge all come together to form an enabling infrastructural design in which power (protective, decisional, ritual), powerlessness (political, social, based on lack of material property), and knowledge practices (production of evidence, truth-making, technologies of conflict management) flow across institutional boundaries and have their own aesthetics.

The practices that make up the five legal institutions of retaliation, protection, mediation, apology/forgiveness, and social reintegration are spatially and temporally interwoven. No protection without flight after having done wrong (or been wronged); no mediation without exile/asylum; no forgiveness without apology, no reintegration without mediation and transformation of legitimate claims to violence into compensation. They all are co-constitutive. This interweaving of institutions can best be analyzed as “infrastructuring”. Such infrastructuring may be understood as a technology of socio-normative ordering. However, institutions of ordering and their interweaving only generate a limited degree of stability and predictability because they enable a number of possible courses of conflict processing and can only work if carefully adapted to the concrete situation. No institutional stability can guarantee that events will take the desired course. Uncertainty about the outcome persists. The constitutive components of the institutional assemblage have multiple meanings and may be activated for different, often conflicting, purposes. Moreover, rules may change in light of practical application. Thus, the specialists who run such processes must engage in “creative syncretism,” weaving institutional components into an enabling design in order to intensify their specific ordering capacities. Because these components are institutionalized, they are inscribed into public knowledge, attain a degree of formalization, and can be recognized in space and time. Yet the order formalized in this way is fragile and the outcome of each individual case is unpredictable and depends on the creative combination of infrastructural elements.


This research focus was related to the International Max Planck Research School ‘Retaliation Mediation Punishment (IMPRS REMEP 2008 – 2019)’. Bert Turner was the local coordinator of the IMPRS REMEP from its foundation in January 2008 through the end of 2013, and remained closely involved as a member of the REMEP faculty on behalf of the Law & Anthropology Department. He has made significant contributions to the development of the first REMEP research programme. In June 2012, the research agenda was revised in the light of the results and advancements reached during the first four years of research cooperation. Bert Turner was responsible for the design of this subsequent programme (2014–2019), which has a special emphasis on ‘human security’. The extended version, for which he assumes full responsibility, is posted here: Research Agenda on Human Security.

See: Sureau, Timm and Yelva Auge (eds.) 2019 Understanding Retaliation Mediation and Punishment- Collected Results. Halle/Saale.


2023 ‘Politics of Belonging and the Litmus Test of Retaliation’, in Markus Höhne, Echi Gabbert and John Eidson (eds.) Dynamics of Identification and Conflict: Anthropological perspectives. New York/Oxford: Berghahn.

2022 ‘The Place of Forgiveness in Conflict Management: Scale-Bound Institutional Arrangements in the Moroccan Nomosphere’, in: Maria-Sibylla Lotter and Saskia Fischer (eds.) Guilt, Forgiveness, and Moral Repair. A Cross-Cultural Comparison: Cham: Palgrave Macmillan: 285-306.

2019 ‘From Retaliation to Human Security: epistemology and insights gained in the Halle chapter of REMEP 2008-2012 (and beyond)’, in: Sureau, Timm P. and Auge, Yelva (eds.) Understanding Retaliation, Mediation and Punishment, Halle (Saale): IMPRESS: 19- 34.

2017 ‘Translocal, faith-based dispute management: Moroccan-Canadian struggles with normative plurality‘, in: Colom González, Francisco and Gianni D’Amato (eds.) Multireligious Society: Dealing with religious diversity in theory and practice. Abingdon: Routledge, 213-235.

2017 Dialectics of Non-power and Marginality in Mediation: Institutional Diversification and Multiple Identities of Mediators. Politika: Projet Médiation-conciliation.

2017 ‘Translating evidentiary practices and technologies of truth finding: oath taking as witness testimony in plural legal configurations in Morocco’, in: Ben Hounet, Yazd and Puccio-Den, Deborah (eds.) Truth, Intentionality and Evidence. Anthropological Approaches to Crime, Abingdon: Routledge: 112-129.

2017 Turner, Bertram and Schlee, Günther (eds.) On Retaliation. Towards an Interdisciplinary Understanding of a Basic Human Condition, New York/Oxford: Berghahn. (Paperback 2018)

2017b ‘Conclusion: Retaliation in Specific Spheres of Effectiveness’, in: Turner, Bertram and Schlee, Günther (eds.) On Retaliation. Towards an Interdisciplinary Understanding of a Basic Human Condition, New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 283-305.

2017a ‘Introduction On Retaliation: Conceptual Plurality, Transdisciplinary Research, Rifts, Blurrings and Translations’, in: Turner, Bertram and Schlee, Günther (eds.) On Retaliation. Towards an Interdisciplinary Understanding of a Basic Human Condition, New York/Oxford: Berghahn, 1-25.

2016 ‘Technologies of truth finding: provision of evidence in local dealings with crime and deviance in rural Morocco’, Cahiers d’anthropologie sociale 13: 60-77.

2014 ‘International Max Planck Research School “Retaliation, Mediation and Punishment” (IMPRS-REMEP)’, in: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (ed.): Report 2012-2013 Halle/Saale: IMPRESS, 115-122.

2013 ‘Religious Subtleties in Disputing: spatiotemporal inscriptions of faith in the nomosphere in rural Morocco‘, in: Benda-Beckmann, Franz von, Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, Martin Ramstedt and Bertram Turner (eds.) Religion in Dispute: Pervasiveness of Religious Normativity in Disputing Processes. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 55-73.

2012 ‘International Max Planck Research School “Retaliation, Mediation and Punishment” (IMPRS-REMEP)’, in: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (ed.): Report 2010–2011, Halle/Saale: IMPRESS, 109-116.

2012 ‘IMPRS REMEP – Local Perspective Halle’, in: Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law (ed.): International Max Planck Research School on Retaliation, Mediation and Punishment 2008 – 2011; Speaker’s Report, Freiburg: Stückle, 10–11.

2010 ‘International Max Planck Research School “Retaliation, Mediation and Punishment” (IMPRS-REMEP)’, in: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (ed.): Report 2008–2009, vol. I, Halle/Saale: IMPRESS, 110–111.

2008 ‘International Max Planck Research School “Retaliation Mediation Punishment” (IMPRS REMEP)’, in: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (ed.): Report 2006–2007, Halle/Saale: dmv, 121–122.

2008 ‘Schlussbetrachtung’, in: Günther Schlee and Turner, Bertram (eds.): Vergeltung. Eine interdisziplinäre Betrachtung der Rechtfertigung und Regulation von Gewalt. Frankfurt: Campus, 181–185.

2008 ‘Recht auf Vergeltung? Soziale Konfigurationen und die prägende Kraft der Gewaltoption’, in: Günther Schlee and Turner, Bertram (eds.): Vergeltung. Eine interdisziplinäre Betrachtung der Rechtfertigung und Regulation von Gewalt. Frankfurt: Campus, 69–103.

2008 (with Günther Schlee). ‘Rache, Wiedergutmachung und Strafe: Ein Überblick’, in: Vergeltung. Eine interdisziplinäre Betrachtung der Rechtfertigung und Regulation von Gewalt. Frankfurt: Campus, 49–67.

2008 (with Günther Schlee). ‘Einleitung: Wirkungskontexte des Vergeltungsprinzips in der Konfliktregulierung’, in: Vergeltung. Eine interdisziplinäre Betrachtung der Rechtfertigung und Regulation von Gewalt. Frankfurt: Campus, 7–47.

2008 (with Günther Schlee) (eds.). Vergeltung. Eine interdisziplinäre Betrachtung der Rechtfertigung und Regulation von Gewalt. Frankfurt: Campus.

2007 ‘Imposing new concepts of order in rural Morocco: Violence and transnational challenges to local order’, in: Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, and Pirie, Fernanda (eds.): Order and disorder: Anthropological perspectives, Oxford and New York: Berghahn, 90–111.

2007 ‘International Max Planck Research School “Retaliation Mediation Punishment” (IMPRS REMEP)’, in: MPIeF Abteilung I Integration und Konflikt Bericht 2007, 161-164.

2005 Asyl und Konflikt. Von der Antike bis heute. Rechtsethnologische Untersuchungen. Berlin: Reimer Verlag (602 pp.).

2001 ‘Die Persistenz traditioneller Konfliktregelungsverfahren im Souss; Marokko’, in: Wolfgang Fikentscher (ed.): Begegnung und Konflikt – eine kulturanthropologische Bestandsaufnahme – (Bayerische Akademie der Wiss., Phil.-Hist. Kl., Abhandlungen, N.F., H.120) München: C.H. Beck, 187–202.

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