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Conflict Analysis and Resolution as a Field

Summary and Keywords

Conflict analysis and resolution (CAR) is defined by a set of ideas about avoiding, minimizing, and stopping violence that often is mutually destructive. CAR relates to all domains of conflicts, whether within or between families, organizations, communities, or countries. The CAR field emerged between 1946 and 1969, as numerous wars and crises erupted, associated with the Cold War and the national liberation struggles of the decolonization process. Many doctrines, theories, and research appeared to explain and influence those conflicts. New governmental and nongovernmental actions were also undertaken to prevent future wars by building transnational institutions and fostering reconciliation between former enemies. The rapid expansion and institutionalization of CAR began in the early 1970s, when many American pioneers in the field became discouraged by their failure to accomplish more during the 1950s and 1960s. The end of the Cold War in 1989 and collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 profoundly changed the world environment. Several developments contributed to limiting destructive international and domestic conflicts. These include the increasing economic integration of the world and the intensification of global communications; the growing adherence to norms protecting human rights; increasing number of democratic countries; and growing engagement of women in governance. Core CAR concepts include conflict analysis, conflict fluidity and subjectivity, and multiplicity of actors.

Keywords: conflict analysis, conflict resolution, CAR, international relations, domestic conflict, international conflict


In this essay, the field of conflict analysis and resolution (CAR) is largely discussed in terms of ideas, as expressed in writing about the ways conflicts are conducted and resolved constructively, relying on particular methods of negotiation, mediation, and other processes. The field also may be defined in terms of a set of practices or in terms of the people designated or self-identified as conflict resolvers. Here, CAR is defined by a set of ideas about avoiding, minimizing, and stopping violence that often is mutually destructive. At times, reference will also be made to the other ways of treating the field. There is no universal agreement about the ways of thinking that characterize the field. Even self-identified workers in the field do not all agree about its parameters and particular concepts. Incorporating the word “analysis” in designating the field highlights that this essay is focused on theory and research.

Broadly conceived, CAR relates to all domains of conflicts, whether within or between families, organizations, communities, or countries. This essay emphasizes large-scale conflicts, within and among societies. In focusing on the ideas constituting the field, it discusses relevant theory and research, treating CAR as an interdisciplinary social science endeavor within the broad international relations domain. In addition, some attention is given to writing that is relatively prescriptive and speculative, deriving from a degree of empirical evidence. Peace studies is one of the sources for the CAR field, which now overlaps with and contributes to peace studies.

This essay has four interrelated sections. First, the major periods in the development of CAR are reviewed. Second, the core ideas in the field are discussed. Third, the CAR ideas particularly relevant at each stage of conflict are noted. Finally, current and future issues in the field are examined.

Development of the Conflict Analysis and Resolution Field

Humans have always waged conflicts, but they also have always engaged in various ways to end them. Often, one side coercively imposes its will upon the other side, thereby terminating a conflict. Nevertheless, within every society, many other ways of settling fights have long been practiced, including diverse forms of mediation and adjudication. Even between opposing societies, negotiations have been used throughout history to settle disputes between them. Ideas about avoiding destructive conflicts were drawn from experience and then also guided conduct.

The breadth and diversity of the contemporary CAR field is a consequence of the field's development from many sources (Kriesberg 2007b). In examining the evolution of the field, four periods are distinguished: (1) preliminary beginnings, 1914–45, (2) emergence of the field, 1946–69, (3) expansion and institutionalization, 1970–89, and (4) diffusion and differentiation, 1990–2009.

Preliminary Beginnings, 1914–1945

World War I and its consequences stimulated ideologies justifying resorting to violence. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin elaborated Marxism with his influential analysis of the relationship between capitalism and imperialism, and consequent wars. Lenin also espoused and demonstrated how an authoritarian vanguard could use violent means, deemed necessary to achieve a just society. Later, fascism, as asserted by Adolf Hitler et al., celebrated totalitarian domination and the use of violence.

The horrors of World War I and its mass killings, however, also spurred pacifist sentiments and organizations. In the United States and in many European countries peace movement organizations renewed earlier efforts to construct institutions that would reduce the causes of war and foster collective security to stop wars (Cortright 2008). These efforts contributed to the establishment of the League of Nations; but the effectiveness of the League was undermined by the punishing severity of the Versailles treaty. Similarly, public pressures fostered the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw wars; however, to the consternation of peace movement organizations, the governments did not adhere to the Pact.

Much scholarly research focused on analyzing the outbreak of violent conflicts and explanations for them; in studies of war frequencies, arms races, and revolutions (Sorokin 1925; Wright 1942; Richardson 1960). Research and theorizing about the causes of wars presumably would help understand how they could be avoided. Other research and theorizing examined the bases for conflicts generally, as in the work on psychological and social psychological processes by John Dollard et al. (1939).

Nonrational factors were also recognized as important in the outbreak of conflicts. Research on these matters examined scapegoating and other kinds of displaced feelings, susceptibility to propaganda, and the attributes of leaders who manipulated political symbols (Lasswell 1935). Psychoanalytic premises were influential, with attention to unconscious mechanisms. For example, these ideas were applied to social movements and the rise of Nazism in Germany.

Psychological processes can contribute to the eruption and the exacerbation of conflicts by fostering misunderstandings and arousing unrelated concerns. In some circumstances, however, such processes can make conflicts susceptible to control and resolution. The influential human relations approach to industrial conflicts built on this assumption, providing good attention to workers and alleviating their tensions arising outside the workplace (Roethlisberger and Dickson 1939). This was criticized by many as denying the reality of conflicts between workers and managers. Other research about industrial organizations stressed the way struggles based on differences of interests could be controlled by norms and structures, if asymmetries in power were not too large. The experience with regulated collective bargaining provided a model for this possibility. Mary Parker Follett (1942) influentially wrote about labor negotiations that would produce mutual benefits.

Emergence of the Field, 1946–1969

The CAR field emerged between 1946 and 1969, as numerous wars and crises erupted, associated with the Cold War and the national liberation struggles of the decolonization process. Many doctrines, theories, and research appeared to explain and influence those conflicts. Thus ideas about using nuclear weapons for purposes of deterrence were elaborated by persons associated with national security affairs (Brodie 1959; Kahn 1960). Such work generally presumed rational calculations by adversaries seeking to defend themselves from external aggression. Other approaches sought to explain and justify violence. Drawing upon Lenin's writing and actions, Mao Tse-tung wrote influentially and seemed to demonstrate in China how reliance on armed struggle was necessary to achieve independence and progress toward a just order.

Also during this period, however, many new governmental and nongovernmental actions were undertaken to prevent future wars by building transnational institutions and fostering reconciliation between former enemies. Globally, this was evident in the establishment of the United Nations (UN), and associated international governmental organizations. Regionally, such efforts were most notable in Europe, where the European Coal and Steel Community was established in 1952, the forerunner of the European Union. In 1946, in Caux, Switzerland, a series of conferences brought together persons from countries that had been at war, for mutual understanding and forgiveness; this nongovernmental endeavor was inspired by Moral Re-armament (Henderson 1996). These developments were analyzed and informed thinking in the CAR field.

Particular war-averting events also became models for and illustrations of basic CAR ideas. For example, the resolution of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis revealed the effectiveness of measured responses and creative negotiations (Holsti et al. 1964). The high-level, nonofficial, regular meetings of the Pugwash and the Dartmouth conferences, starting in 1957 and 1960, respectively, greatly aided the Soviet–American negotiations about arms control (Evangelista 1999). These actions contributed to the growing practice of Track II diplomacy, which has become a major arena of research and theorizing in the CAR field.

Indian independence from Britain was achieved in 1947, following many years of nonviolent resistance, led by Mohandas Gandhi. He drew from Hindu traditions and other influences to develop and advocate for a strategy of popular civil disobedience, which he called Satyagraha, the search for truth (Bondurant 1965). The Satyagraha campaigns and related negotiations influentially modeled methods of constructive escalation. The strategies of nonviolent action were further developed in the civil rights struggles in the US during the 1960s. For many in the CAR field, the possibility of limiting destructive escalation while struggling for desirable social change was demonstrated. This provided evidence in their disagreements with advocates for armed struggle as the necessary means to achieve independence and justice.

Scholarly work during this period helped establish the bases for the CAR field. In the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the US, research and theorizing focused on preventing a devastating war, perhaps a nuclear war. Many academics consciously tried to build a broad, interdisciplinary, cooperative endeavor to apply the social sciences so as to overcome that threat. Several clusters of scholars undertook projects with perspectives that differed from the prevailing national security and international relations “realist” approaches.

The Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS), at Stanford, California, was a catalyst for the emergence of the field (Harty and Modell 1991). CASBS was designed to foster major new undertakings in the behavioral sciences. In its initial year, 1954–5, several scholars were invited who reinforced each other's work related to the emerging field of CAR; they included the social psychologist Herbert Kelman, the economist Kenneth E. Boulding, the mathematician Anatol Rapoport, the political scientist Harold Lasswell, and the general systems theorist Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

After their CASBS year, Boulding and Rapoport returned to the University of Michigan; and joined with other colleagues to begin the Journal of Conflict Resolution in 1957. Then, in 1959, they and others established the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution at the University of Michigan, with the sociologist Robert C. Angell as the first director.

Scholars at the Center and in other institutions published a variety of works that might contribute to formulating a comprehensive interdisciplinary theory of social conflicts (Lentz 1955; Schelling 1960; Boulding 1962). Other works focused on particular phases of conflicts, such those written by Karl Deutsch et al. (1957) about the formation of security communities between countries. Ernst B. Haas (1958) analyzed the European Coal and Steel Community as an example of how international cooperation in one functional area can foster increased cooperation and integration in other areas, an idea developed by David Mitrany (1948). Influential work also examined the bases for conflicts generally, for example the work on psychological and social psychological processes (Lewin 1948) and the functions of social conflict (Coser 1956). More specifically, analyses were done about the military industrial complex in the US and elsewhere (Mills 1956; Pilusik and Hayden 1965; Senghaas 1972). Such work challenged the idea that reliance on armed force was rationally calculated to provide defense against external threats.

Numerous research projects were undertaken that entailed the collection and analyses of quantitative data about interstate wars, notably the Correlates of War project, initiated in 1963, under the leadership of J. David Singer. The logic of game theory and the experimental research based on it also has contributed to CAR, showing how individually rational conduct can be collectively self-defeating (Rapoport 1966). Within the CAR field, game theory research has largely focused on the Prisoners’ Dilemma game, with the payoff matrix: win-lose, lose-win, and also win-win and lose-lose. Other analysts have examined a wide variety of different payoff matrices in understanding crises outcomes (Snyder and Diesing 1977). In addition, CAR-related work was conducted at Stanford University, where Robert C. North led a project examining why some international conflicts escalated to wars and others did not.

Significantly, research and theorizing about ways conflicting relations could be overcome and mutually beneficial outcomes achieved was done during this period, for example by forming superordinate goals, as discussed by the social psychologist Muzafer Sherif (1966) and by Graduated Reciprocation in Tension-Reduction (GRIT), as advocated by the psychologist Charles E. Osgood (1962).

CAR centers in Europe emerged in this period as well, but took a somewhat different form. Most began and have continued to emphasize peace and conflict research, which often had direct policy relevance. Usually, the centers were not based in colleges or universities, but received support and research grants from their respective governments and from foundations. The first such center, the International Peace Research Institute (PRIO), was established in Oslo, Norway in 1959, with the sociologist Johan Galtung as Director. Galtung founded the Journal of Peace Research at PRIO in 1964. His work has been widely influential; for example, his analysis of structural violence was important in providing a basis for conflict and a criterion for positive peace (Galtung 1969).

In Sweden, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) began operations in 1966. SIPRI was established with governmental support and publishes the widely used SIPRI Yearbook of World Armaments and Disarmament. In Switzerland, Swisspeace was founded in 1968, to promote independent action-oriented peace and conflict research. In Cape Town, South Africa, the Centre for Intergroup Studies was also established in 1968; and became a channel for meetings between officials of the African National Congress and Afrikaner leaders (van der Merwe 1989).

In what has become a central activity in the field, some academics began to apply their CAR thinking to ongoing conflicts and use this experience to further develop their ideas. They conducted interactive problem-solving workshops with government officials, or often with nonofficials, from countries in conflict (Fisher 1997). Thus John W. Burton, in 1965, organized such a workshop with representatives from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Burton, who had been Secretary of External Affairs in the Australian government, established the Centre for the Analysis of Conflict, at the University of London, in 1963. The workshops applied the ideas he and his associates were developing as an alternative to the conventional international relations approach. A key concept in this approach is based on the idea that all humans have a set of basic human needs and the thwarting of those needs results in conflict (Burton 1990).

Expansion and Institutionalization, 1970–1989

Interestingly, the rapid expansion and institutionalization of CAR began in the early 1970s, when many American pioneers in the field had become discouraged by their failure to accomplish more during the 1950s and 1960s (Boulding 1978; Harty and Modell 1991). Many of them felt that no real progress had been made in developing a comprehensive theory of conflicts and their resolution. In addition, research funds were inadequate and resistance by academic departments was strong. All this was indicated by the University of Michigan's 1971 decision to close the Center for Research on Conflict Resolution.

A remarkable change in the fortunes of the CAR field, however, started in the 1970s, attributable in good measure to the great increase in CAR practices in the US. Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) quickly expanded, partly as a result of the increase in litigation and court congestion in the 1970s and the increased attraction of nonadversarial ways of handling disputes. Community dispute resolution centers with volunteer mediators were established across the country.

The international context also changed. The effective US mediation in the Middle East in the 1970s, by Henry Kissinger and by President Jimmy Carter, raised the visibility and increased the confidence in the potentialities of mediation. During the 1970s and 1980s, numerous interactive problem-solving workshops were conducted by John W. Burton, Leonard Doob, Herbert C. Kelman, Edward E. Azar, Ronald J. Fisher, and other academically based persons; the workshops related to conflicts in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, the Middle East, and elsewhere (Fisher 1997). In addition, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were founded in this period that conducted training, consultations, and workshops to moderate and resolve large-scale conflicts.

Academic and nonacademic writing continued to be published along the lines of earlier research and theory. Some of these works developed fundamental ideas about the possibilities of waging conflicts constructively, which helped bridge the concerns about mitigating violence and yet advance justice and positive peace. This included social psychological research related to negotiation (Deutsch 1973). Analyses were also made of the ways that conflicts are fought using nonviolent action, and by applying noncoercive inducements, including positive sanctions and persuasion (Curle 1971; Kriesberg 1973; Sharp 1973). Such work contributed to understanding how even seemingly intractable conflicts could become transformed and cooperative relations established (Axelrod 1984; Kriesberg et al. 1989).

During this period, the increase in publications about negotiation and mediation is particularly striking. The book Getting to YES by Roger Fisher and William Ury (1981) remains highly popular and influential, explicating how to negotiate without surrendering and to obtain mutual benefits. Several ways to conduct this interest-based negotiation were set forth, taught, and applied. They include ways to elicit the interests underlying stated positions and to construct options that might satisfy those interests. Many empirical analyses were published about the ways negotiations are done in diverse settings, which strengthen relations between the negotiating sides (Rubin and Brown 1975; Strauss 1978; Zartman 1978; Gulliver 1979).

Mediation also was the subject of much research and theorizing, often with implications for the effective practice of mediation (Moore 1986). Research was often based on case studies (Rubin 1981; Kolb 1983; Touval and Zartman 1985; Susskind 1987), but quantitative data were also analyzed (Bercovitch 1986). The research made clear the great range of contributions mediators can make to facilitate reaching mutually satisfactory agreements efficiently.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the field made remarkable progress in becoming institutionalized within colleges and universities, government agencies, and the corporate and nongovernmental world. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation contributed greatly to this progress (Kovick 2005). In 1984, the Foundation launched a remarkable field-building strategy, providing long-term grants in support of CAR theory, practice, and infrastructure. The first theory center grant was made in 1984 to the Harvard Program on Negotiation, a consortium of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts University, and Harvard University. In the same year, it initiated publication of the Negotiation Journal. By the end of 1994, 18 centers had begun to be funded. Practitioner organizations pertaining to the environment, community and many other sectors were also awarded grants. The infrastructure for the field was strengthened, primarily by supporting professional organizations.

Graduate programs in CAR have grown greatly since 1989, spurred by the rising demand for training in negotiation and mediation (Polkinghorn et al. 2008). MA degree programs were instituted in several universities and many universities began to offer educational concentrations in conflict resolution. A major PhD program in CAR was established at George Mason University in 1987.

Several other independent centers were established in the United States, during the 1980s, applying and developing CAR ideas. In 1982, former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn Carter founded the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia; its activities include mediating conflicts, overseeing elections, and fighting disease worldwide. Also in 1982, Search for Common Ground (SFCG) was established in Washington, DC, funded by foundations and NGOs. It conducts many programs to help transform the way conflicts are waged in countries around the world. Significantly, after long Congressional debates and public campaigns, the United States Institute of Peace was opened in 1986. It conducts a growing set of programs of education, of research grants and fellowship awards, of policy-related meetings, and of consultations and analytical reports.

In Europe, too, many new CAR centers were founded, but with somewhat different orientations. Generally designated as peace and conflict research centers, they were more directed at international affairs, more closely related to economic and social development and more linked to government policies, as well as to peace movements in some instances. The international and societal contexts for the European centers also differed from those of the American organizations. After the 1969 electoral victory of the Social Democratic party in West Germany, Chancellor Willy Brandt initiated “Ost-Politik,” a policy that recognized East German and East European realities, and entailed more East–West interactions.

In 1975, the representatives of the 35 countries in the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe signed the Helsinki Accords (Leatherman 2003). The agreement incorporated a tradeoff between the Soviet Union and the Western countries. The Soviets finally achieved acceptance of the border changes following World War II, when the Soviet borders were shifted westward, incorporating part of Poland, and the Polish borders were shifted further westward, incorporating part of Germany. In a kind of exchange, the Soviets conceded recognition of fundamental human rights, including greater freedom for its citizens to leave the Soviet Union.

The new German government helped establish independent peace and conflict institutes, for example, the Hessische Stiftung Friedens und Konfliktforschung (HSFK) was founded in 1970. Additional peace and conflict institutes were established in other European countries, including the Tampere Peace Research Institute, which was founded by the Finnish Parliament in 1969 and opened in 1970. The Danish Parliament established the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute (COPRI) as an independent institute in 1985.

In the early 1970s, peace and conflict chairs and educational programs also began to be established in European universities. For example, in 1973 the Department of Peace Studies was opened at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom. In 1971 a university-based center was founded at Uppsala University, in Sweden; in 1981 the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Chair was established, and after Peter Wallensteen was appointed the chair in 1985, a PhD program was begun.

The research and theorizing in these European centers were undertaken to have policy relevance for nongovernmental as well as governmental actors (Senghaas 1970). They tried to do work that reflected and built upon the changing international context, for example developing ideas relating to nonoffensive defense. In Germany, the Peace Research Information Unit (PRIU) was established in 1984 to provide information about research findings in forms that were accessible to government officials.

The International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) was created in 1973 in Austria, as an international think-tank to bridge Cold War differences. Subsequently, in the 1980s, the Processes of International Negotiation (PIN) Project was launched at IIASA to develop and propagate knowledge about the processes of negotiation (Kremenyuk 1991; Zartman and Faure 2005).

Work in the CAR field helped in managing the Cold War. It contributed to arms control negotiations and agreements, the development of confidence-building measures, and plans for civilian conversions from military bases and production. Peace and conflict researchers in Denmark, West Germany, and other European centers significantly contributed to ending the Cold War (Kriesberg 1992; Evangelista 1999). The researchers analyzed the military structures and doctrines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and of the Warsaw Pact. Each side's forces were arrayed to ensure that a war, if it came, would be carried forward against the enemy, rather than fall back to be fought in their own homeland. Each side, studying the other side's military preparations, could reasonably believe that the other side was planning an aggressive war. The peace and conflict researchers envisaged alternative military postures, which would be clearly defensive, a nonprovocative defense (Komitee für Grundrechte und Democratie 1982). They communicated their findings to officials on both sides of the Cold War. Soviet officials considered the ideas and Mikhail Gorbachev undertook a restructuring of Soviet forces, adopting some of the language of the peace researchers. These Soviet actions helped convince the US government and other NATO governments of the reality of a Soviet transformation.

Institutions providing training in CAR methods as well as engaging in mediation and dialogue facilitation continued to be established in other countries in the world. For example, in Kenya, the Nairobi Peace Initiative-Africa (NPI-Africa) was founded in 1984 and conducts such activities in East, Central, and West Africa.

Diffusion and Differentiation, 1990–2009

The world environment profoundly changed after the end of the Cold War in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The UN became better able to act and stop conflicts from escalating destructively; as a result wars that had been perpetuated as proxy wars were settled. Many other developments contribute to limiting destructive international and domestic conflicts. These include the increasing economic integration of the world and the intensification of global communications; they also include the growing adherence to norms protecting human rights, an increasing number of democratic countries, the growing engagement of women in governance, and increasing attention to the CAR field. Indeed, after 1989 the incidence and magnitude of international wars declined (Human Security Centre 2005; Marshall and Gurr 2005; Gleditsch 2008). Civil wars, after the spike of wars in 1990–1 associated with the breakup of the Soviet Union, also declined.

The September 11, 2001 attacks carried out by al-Qaeda against the United States and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq may seem to mark the beginning of a new world disorder in which terrorist attacks, violent repressions, and profound religious and ethnic antagonisms are intensifying and spreading. The ideas that have been developing in the CAR field make that appear as not inevitable. The failure to comprehend and use that approach by leaders of al-Qaeda, and by leaders in President George W. Bush’s administration, have exacerbated erupting conflicts, increasing their destructiveness and duration.

The characteristics of large-scale violent conflicts have changed in several regards relevant to CAR. Interstate wars have become rare, while internal wars increased in the early 1990s and since have declined but remain frequent and recurrent. These conflicts more frequently now involve issues relating to religion and ethnicity, which involve sacred values and seem less amenable to rational calculations of costs and benefits leading to compromises. In addition, they are often conducted in the context of greater global attention, which contributes to more frequent external interventions. This has generated more attention in the field to the role of religious beliefs and ethnic loyalties in waging and settling large-scale conflicts.

Currently, CAR workers have returned to earlier considerations of emotions in conflicts and to new thinking about how to deal with them in ways that avoid and end destructive escalations. This is the case for example in examining feelings of humiliation and the desire for revenge (Fontan 2008). Current work on identities in conflict has become attentive to their fluidity and potential for transformations that contribute to conflict regulation and resolution (Jenkins and Gottlieb 2007; Coy and Woehrle 2000). The roles of cultural narratives, rituals, enactments and other symbolic manifestations in de-escalating and recovering from violent conflicts has also become a focus for scholarly work (Ross 2007). Indeed there is evidence that symbolic concessions can be more effective than material concessions in reaching mutually satisfactory peace agreements (Atran et al. 2007).

Since 1990, the CAR field has flourished within its established arenas and expanded into new spheres of endeavor. More specialized applications and research activities were undertaken as external interventions and negotiated agreements increased, ending many protracted international and civil conflicts (Wallensteen 2002). Even after violence was stopped or a negotiated agreement was reached, the frequent recurrence of wars made evident the need for external intervention to sustain agreements. Governments and international governmental organizations were not fully prepared and lacked the capacity to manage the multitude of problems that followed the end of hostilities. They increasingly employed nongovernmental organizations to carry out some of the needed work of humanitarian relief, institution building, protection of human rights, and training in conflict resolution skills. The number and scope of NGOs working on such matters grew quickly, many of them applying the CAR approach.

Some CAR methods developed earlier to help prepare adversaries for de-escalating steps began to be employed at the later stages of conflicts as well. These include small problem-solving workshops, dialogue circles, and training to improve capacities to negotiate and mediate. Such practices help avert a renewal of vicious fights by fostering accommodations, and even reconciliation at various levels of the antagonistic sides. Ideas about reframing conflicts help account for conflict de-escalation and transformation. Government officials have become more attentive to the CAR approach and the significance of NGOs and grass roots engagement in managing conflicts and in peace building.

Concurrent with such applied CAR developments, numerous publications described, analyzed, and assessed these applications. An important development, linking theory and applied work, is the assessment of practitioner undertakings. Empirically grounded assessments of CAR applications increasingly examine what kinds of interventions, by various groups, have diverse consequences (Anderson and Olson 2003).

A growing literature focuses on post-agreement problems and solutions, relating to external intervention and institution building (Stedman et al. 2002; Paris 2004). The role of public engagement and attention to participatory governance also has increased in the CAR approach. Another trend is greater attention to conflict prevention and to establishing new systems of collaborative governance to minimize ineffective and destructive conflicts. These developments are related to the growing view that CAR should go beyond focusing on negotiating settlements and examine the broader transformation of conflicts, which occurs at many levels over an extended time span (Lederach 1997; Saunders 1999; Botes 2003; Kriesberg 2006).

Since 1990 the CAR field has spread around the world. The diffusion is not in one direction; rather ideas and practices from each part of the world influence the ideas and practices in other regions. For example, the attention given in traditional societies to restoring relations after their disruption by conflicts has become increasingly recognized in the field. Similarly the roles of ritual in peacemaking in many societies drew attention to the uses of various symbols in overcoming the legacies of destructive conflicts. Analyses and reports about CAR methods and approaches in diverse cultures increased, for example in African and Arab societies (Malan 1997; Salem 1997).

The internet provides increasingly important ways of conducting CAR education and training transnationally. TRANSCEND, led by Johan Galtung, is a “peace and development network for conflict transformation by peaceful means” and it operates the Transcend Peace University, online. The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, based in Barcelona, also offers graduate degrees in conflict resolution, online. In addition, many websites provide information about the CAR approach as well as analyses of specific conflicts; as noted in the section about online resources below.

Numerous educational programs related to the field exist; as of 2007, 88 graduate programs were active in the United States, but PhD programs remain few (Botes 2004; Polkinghorn et al. 2008). In addition, certificate programs associated with professional schools have greatly increased. CAR programs are emerging in many other countries, notably in Europe, Canada, and Australia. In Latin America there are many certificate mediation training programs and several Master's programs (N. Femenia, personal communication, Jan. 15, 2007). This is associated with the proliferation of ADR programs as many countries reformed their legal systems to include mandatory mediation (Ormachea-Choque 1998).

CAR ideas, practices and institutions are also developing in Africa and Asia. For example, the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD), based in Durban, South Africa, was founded in 1991 and operates throughout Africa. In Asia, CAR developments are notable in South Korea and Japan. Thus the increased freedom in the civil society in South Korea and the decline in the “high context” or “collectivist” character of its culture, which had contributed to conflict avoidance, have raised interest in adopting CAR methods (H.-W. Jeong, personal communication, Dec. 3, 2006). In Japan, CAR has been less in demand for domestic issues, but more developed in foreign policy circles and development aid groups.

Core Concepts

As the CAR field evolves, the salience of the various ideas constituting the field changes and the meaning of basic concepts is debated. Despite this, some fundamental ideas are widely shared in the field. They are discussed in this section, noting some contemporary variations in their interpretation. Recent handbooks delve into these matters comprehensively (Bercovitch et al. 2009; Sandole et al. 2009).

General consensus exists, among persons who regard themselves as working in the field as practitioners, researchers, or teachers, that the field emphasizes conflict processes that generate solutions yielding some mutual gains for the opposing sides. In addition, the contemporary CAR approach builds on academic research and theorizing, as well as traditional and innovative practices. It tends to stress relying minimally, if at all, on violence in waging and settling conflicts. It tends to emphasize the role of external intermediaries in the ending of conflicts. These and other core ideas are variously interpreted, as discussed below.

Analyzing Conflicts

There is longstanding general agreement that the initial step in engaging or in studying a conflict is to analyze it (Wehr 1979). This includes identifying the parties in the conflict and the issues in contention. In any large-scale conflict, each party is highly differentiated, with some variation among different groups within each entity regarding the contentious issues. Moreover, many other parties have an indirect interest in the conflict and are affected by its course; therefore they may become directly engaged or withdraw from engagement in the future. Consequently, the partisans in a conflict are likely to be affected by the possible as well as actual interventions of external actors.

The nature of the analysis that is made can and does vary among different CAR analysts. Persons engaged in a conflict whether as partisans or as intermediaries tend to focus on the overt views of the parties in the conflict, and how they are acting in the conflict. Persons less directly engaged may give less attention to the agency of the persons and groups waging the conflict and give more attention to the structure of the relationship among the adversaries and the social context of their conflict. The former kinds of analyses tend to emphasize factors that are amenable to change in the short term; the latter kinds of analyses tend to emphasize structural factors that are less malleable in the short term.

CAR self-identifiers also differ in their time perspectives regarding particular conflicts. Frequently, CAR academics stress long-term changes and strategies for conflict transformation, while practitioners tend to focus on short-term policies of conflict management. Theoretical work tends to focus on major factors that affect the course of conflicts, which often do not seem amenable to change by acts of any single person or group. Persons engaged in ameliorating a conflict feel pressures to act with urgency, which dictates short-term considerations; such pressures include fund-raising concerns for NGOs and electoral concerns for government officials. More recognition of these different circumstances may help foster useful syntheses of strategies and better sequencing of strategies.

Asymmetry between adversaries in a conflict greatly affects the course of their conflict and how it is waged and ended. Workers in the CAR field stress the multi-dimensional character of asymmetry and its fluidity, since it varies with different issues (Mitchell 1995). Reducing certain asymmetries, then, is not necessarily conducive to transforming a conflict and settling it constructively. That depends in good measure on the direction in which a particular asymmetry is reduced (Mitchell 1995). Thus, if one side has greater solidarity and cohesion than the other, asymmetry that is reduced by raising the other side's ability to act effectively to change policies would be conducive to mutual conflict transformation. On the other hand, if one side has greater commitment to the issue in contention, asymmetry that is reduced by that side lessening its unyielding commitment would be conducive to a mutually acceptable conflict transformation.

The changing character of power differences and other kinds of asymmetry are crucial for choosing appropriate forms of interventions. Thus certain kinds of mediation may not be advisable when the asymmetry in resources between adversaries is very great, if equitable accommodations are sought.

Methods of Waging Conflicts

It is a cardinal point in the CAR field that social conflicts are inevitable and are often necessary to improve peoples’ rights. The critical matter in this regard is the way the conflict is conducted and the methods used by each adversary. Commonly, conflicts are defined as struggles in which each side tries to hurt the other to advance toward its goals. A basic CAR insight, however, is that efforts to achieve a contested goal are not only coercive, involving only negative sanctions (Boulding 1989; Kriesberg 2007a). Positive sanctions can be powerful inducements to obtain desired goals. A third kind of inducement is to use persuasive appeals and arguments, relying on shared values and identities. These three kinds of inducements are combined in many ways to constitute a particular strategy at a given time.

Interestingly, this idea has recently been articulated by leading public figures who are not identified as workers in the CAR field. Thus Joseph S. Nye (2004) has influentially written about the use of “soft power” in world politics, referring to the many noncoercive inducements that the United States can and does use effectively in foreign affairs. Armitage and Nye (2007) further elaborated the use of “soft power” together with “hard power,” particularly military power, which would constitute “smart power.” Hillary Clinton, at her January 13, 2009 confirmation hearings to become Secretary of State, spoke clearly about the importance of using smart power and not relying solely on military power.

As the field has expanded to address how adversaries may be brought to the negotiating table more attention and thought has been given to using coercive forces in ways that would avoid destructive escalation. One strategic method that has become increasingly examined and used is nonviolent action (Schock 2005; Sharp 2005). Recourse to nonviolent sanctions can avoid dehumanizing the enemy and can hold out the promise of future mutual benefits.

Conflict Fluidity and Subjectivity

A central understanding in the CAR approach is that conflicts are not immutable; even intractable conflicts change in their intractability, becoming more tractable or less as circumstances change. This is the case as conditions within the adversaries, in their relationship, and in their social context change. This understanding is manifested in the recognition that conflicts move through a series of general stages. There is little consensus about the names for the stages, but they may be identified by terms such as emergence, escalation, de-escalation, termination, and recovery. Of course, the stages are not clearly bounded and do not always proceed in the same sequence without moving backward at times. Furthermore, different groups engaged in the conflict are not in the same stage at all times. Nevertheless, it is analytically useful to distinguish between different stages to give attention to the particularly relevant CAR factors and processes at each stage, as examined later in this essay.

Conflicts Are Interlocked

One important reason for conflict fluidity is that each conflict is interlocked with many others (Dahrendorf 1959). Many conflicts are nested in larger and larger conflicts, the larger ones encompassing smaller ones. Conflicts are generally also linked sequentially, each arising from a previous one. In addition, each party in a large-scale conflict has numerous internal conflicts, among different factions, ranks, and identity groups (Colaresi 2005). Furthermore, each party is simultaneously engaged in numerous conflicts with a variety of adversaries.

Consequently, as the salience of one conflict increases, it tends to reduce the salience of other conflicts. Enemy number one may slip to being enemy number two, making de-escalation in that secondary conflict easier and likelier. Partisans and intermediaries may base strategies that are intended to alter the salience of a conflict and speed its peaceful resolution.

Multiplicity of Actors

CAR workers are sensitive to the reality that conflicts are not simply between two homogeneous, unitary entities. Rather, many parties are involved directly or indirectly in every conflict. Even when there appear to be only two sides, in actuality each side has some characteristics of a coalition. Divisions among the members of each party in a conflict, particularly among leaders and other groups, significantly affect the course of a conflict. External conflict can strengthen internal solidarity, but not always and not forever (Wilkenfeld 1973).

As a conflict de-escalates and moves toward resolution, some factions or allied groups may resist the movement or even reject a signed agreement. They are spoilers, unsatisfied with the terms of the accommodation with the adversary, or unsatisfied with their portion in that accommodation (Stedman et al. 2002). The parties making the agreement then may try to placate and co-opt the rejectionists or isolate, marginalize and overwhelm them. In varying degrees, this is a widespread phenomenon. Attention to it is often critical in undertaking de-escalation, constructing an equitable accommodation and sustaining it.

In addition, many actors who are not directly engaged in a conflict affect the course of a conflict (Ury 2000). They are potential or actual intermediaries, allies, and antagonists. The actions of those who are directly engaged in a conflict are affected by concerns about the potential interventions of external actors. In the CAR field, the possible effects of a mediator in facilitating and hastening a negotiated end to a conflict are a major topic of study.

Conflict Stages

The modern field of CAR initially focused on negotiating the ending of conflicts, sometimes with mediation. Soon, concern about prior and later stages increased. Greater attention was directed at getting adversaries to the negotiating table and the quality and sustainability of agreements that are reached. With the increase in outside intervention in internal societal wars and attention to nonstate actors, the field of CAR expanded to include greater attention to preventing the outbreak of warfare and to recovering from past outbreaks. The field presently incorporates the full range of conflict stages, with workers in the field often specializing in particular stages. The ideas and practices particularly important at each conflict stage are discussed next.

Conflict Emergence

The idea of conflict emergence draws attention to the underlying conditions that precede an overt conflict. Thus conditions of structural violence, of unsatisfied human needs, and of exploitation are often pointed to as crucial in characterizing a latent conflict, preceding the outbreak of a conflict (Dahrendorf 1959; Burton 1990). However, in actuality, conflicts often break out by the actions not of the most oppressed, but of the more powerful. While the oppressed may have reason to fight, they may lack a conviction that some particular group is responsible for their poor circumstances and that they can possibly change those others in a way that will improve their condition. The more powerful, on the other hand, have reason to believe that they can readily get even more of what they want from the weaker party. Acting on such reasoning, they may provoke resistance and a violent conflict.

Adversary beliefs about collective identities, perceived capabilities of each side, judgments of what is fair and just, and the chances of achieving sought-for goals jointly determine if and when a conflict becomes manifested in deeds. That is why the ideologies that are constructed and adopted by members of a collectivity are critical in conflict emergence. Leaders can utilize a suitable ideology to mobilize supporters against an enemy and influence the means to be used in the struggle against that enemy. This also is relevant for conflicts relating to differences in religious or political systems of thought.

Conflict Escalation

How a conflict emerges affects the future course of its escalation, influencing how quickly and destructively it escalates. Often a burst of violence at a conflict's initial manifestation results in a rapid and sustained escalation, which can entrap the adversaries to keep fighting in order to justify the losses already experienced (Brockner and Rubin 1985). A careful proportional, tit-for-tat series of exchanges, however, often contains the scale of escalation and results in cooperation (Axelrod 1984). The way adversaries interact is the basic determinant of the duration and destructiveness of a conflict's escalation (Dayton and Kriesberg 2009).

External interventions, often in the form of mediation and consultation, for example by representatives of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other international governmental organizations, helped avert destructive escalation in Eastern Europe after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Möller 2006; McMahon 2007). External actions or the threat of them can also contribute to containing a conflict, inhibiting wide-ranging violent attacks. They can also help channel the means of struggle to electoral politics or nonviolent actions. Conflict resolution training and facilitation of workshops can contribute to such channeling.

Conflict De-escalation and Settlement

Research and theorizing about de-escalation was relatively neglected prior to the emergence of the CAR approach. Now there is a robust body of work on the factors and processes that contribute to de-escalation and conflict settlement, particularly negotiating agreements.

Processes and factors which are internal to each adversary, which pertain to their relationship, and which are components of the external context all can contribute to turning an escalating conflict around. Internally, some groups come to believe that the burdens of continuing to fight for some contested goals are more costly than those goals are worth. The relationship between adversaries may change as conciliatory gestures by one side are convincingly made (Mitchell 2000). Changes in the global system's power relations or salient norms can help shift a conflict toward de-escalation.

The transition from confrontation to de-escalation is a matter of high interest in the field. The idea that a turning point is reached when the adversaries are locked in a hurting stalemate is an influential one (Touval and Zartman 1985). Indeed, members of the opposing sides often come to believe that neither side can impose the settlement it would like and begin to search for a settlement that they can accept. The discovery or construction of a new option may then appear highly attractive. There is an interplay between the conflict conditions at a given time and the particular options that marks the suitable time for a particular solution to be proposed and accepted.

Sustaining Peace

As discussed earlier, beginning in the 1990s, there has been a growing literature about the content of peace agreements, recovering from violent societal conflicts, reconciliation, building legitimate institutions of governance, and other matters pertinent to fashioning an enduring and equitable peace (Bar-Siman-Tov 2003; Pouligny et al. 2007). Issues relating to implementation of agreements are increasingly matters of analysis, since agreements are often not fully implemented and break down.

Current and Future Issues

Given the diversity of CAR's sources and the changing topics of inquiry and realms of work as the field has evolved, it is to be expected that many issues are presently energetically discussed among workers in the field. For example, see the Berghof Handbook Dialogue series, issued by the Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management.

Universal or Cultural

An enduring matter of controversy relates to the universality of particular ideas in the CAR approach. As discussed earlier regarding conflict emergence, some workers in the field emphasize a particular set of universal human needs, which when unsatisfied result in conflicts. Other CAR workers stress that ways of negotiating, forms of mediation, styles of confrontation, and many other aspects of conducting and settling conflicts vary in degree among different national cultures, religious traditions, social classes, gender, and many other social groupings (Cohen 1997; Abu-Nimer 2003; Faure 2005). Moreover, within each of these groups, there are subgroupings and personal variations. The differences between groups are matters of central tendencies, with great overlaps of similarities. More needs to be known about the effects of situational as well as cultural effects and of the ease with which people learn new ways of contending and settling fights.

The UN declarations and conventions about human rights can offer CAR analysts and practitioners standards that indicate a general consensus of fundamental needs, which can help guide CAR practice and yield equitable and enduring settlements.

Discipline or General Approach

A major internal issue in the CAR field concerns the extent to which CAR is and should be a focused discipline or a broad general approach. The vision for many workers in the field in the 1950s was of a new interdisciplinary field with a shared research-grounded theory, but that has not been realized. Some CAR workers continue to work toward this vision and some programs and centers are relatively focused on negotiation.

Considerable agreement exists about particular conflict processes and empirical generalizations. Without a comprehensive theory, however, inconsistencies among various generalizations and propositions are not reconciled. Moreover, without a comprehensive theory or theories of the middle range, it is difficult to know under what conditions a particular social process or empirical generalization is or is not operative, and difficult to focus the application of such knowledge to practice. On the other hand, the more general and necessarily abstract theories about social conflicts lack the precision needed for reliable applications. Despite these considerations, empirical generalizations and knowledge of relevant conflict processes can be useful guides to effective actions that minimize the destructiveness of conflicts, if used in conjunction with good information about a particular conflict.

A complicating matter in the CAR approach is the dual nature of the field between theory and practice. Each has varied in prominence within the field and both have been regarded as important, in principle. In actuality, however, they have not been well integrated. Theory has rarely sought to specify or assess major theoretical premises or propositions. Often it is largely descriptive of patterns of actions. Recently more research is being done on assessing practice, but this has been focused on particular interventions and within a short time frame. Overall, much more work is needed to integrate these realms more closely.

Nonviolence or Limited Violence

Another contentious issue relates to the use of violence in waging conflicts. There is widespread agreement among CAR analysts and practitioners that violence is wrong, particularly when violence is used to serve internal needs rather than for its effects upon an adversary. They generally agree that it is morally and practically wrong when it is used in an extremely broad and imprecise manner, and when it is not used in conjunction with other means to achieve constructive goals.

However, some CAR workers oppose resorting to any violence in conflicts, while others believe that limited violence is necessary and effective in particular circumstances. These differences are becoming more important with increased military interventions to stop destructively escalating domestic and international conflicts and gross violations of human rights. More analysis is needed about how specific violent and nonviolent policies are combined and with what consequences under various conditions.

Neutral Process or Good Result

A longstanding issue in the field is whether the emphasis should be on the process by which a conflict is settled or on the qualities of the settlement. If the process is emphasized, the value of neutrality by the intermediary is stressed and less attention is directed at the nature of the conflict to be settled. This matter is particularly acute in considering when and how mediation is best undertaken (Laue 1982). Some workers in the field stress the neutrality of the mediator and the mediator's focus on the process to reach an agreement; while others argue that a mediator either should avoid mediating when the parties are so unequal that equity is unlikely to be achieved or should act in ways that will help the parties reach a balanced and just outcome (Nader 1991).

External Relations

The way the field of CAR relates to other fields and to its social context raises several issues. As the number and variety of would-be intermediaries in large-scale conflicts increase, the relations among CAR-associated organizations and other kinds of governmental and nongovernmental actors becomes more problematic. The engagement of many organizations allows for specialized and complementary programs but also produces problems of competition, redundancy, and confusion. Adversaries may try to co-opt some intermediary organizations or exploit differences among them. For example human rights and conflict resolution organizations can complement each other, but they may also interfere with each other's work (Babbitt and Lutz 2009).

To enhance the possible benefits and minimize the difficulties of relations among many intervening organizations, coordination of some sort can be helpful. Research indicates that a variety of measures may be taken, ranging from informal ad hoc exchanges of information, to regular meetings among organizations in the field, and having one organization be the “lead” agency (Nan 2008).

Funding for CAR work usually comes from external sources, which raises another set of issues. The Hewlett Foundation ended its 20-year program of support for conflict resolution programs in 2004, and no comparable source for sustaining programs of theory, research, and applications has appeared. Tuition charges help support education and training, service fees help sustain NGOs doing applied work, and government agencies and various foundations provide funds for particular research and service projects. All this keeps the work relevant for immediate use. However, the small scale and short duration of such kinds of funding hamper making the long-term and large-scale research assessments and theory building that are needed for creative new growth and appropriate applications.

Autonomy or Dependence

Finally, issues relating to autonomy and professional independence deserve attention. CAR analysts as well as practitioners may tailor their work to satisfy the preferences, as they perceive them, of their funders and clients. This diminishes those goals that in their best judgment they might otherwise advance. These risks are enhanced when tasks are contracted out by autocratic or highly ideological entities. Furthermore, as more NGOs are financially dependent on funding by national governments and international organizations, issues regarding autonomy and co-optation grow.

On the other hand, the CAR ideas are increasingly picked up by people who do not consider themselves as being in the CAR field. For example, the evidence that countries with democratic political systems do not fight wars with each other has been used as a reason to try to make countries democratic, even by warfare. Obviously, officials and other actors, who do not accept the CAR approach as a whole, may use elements of it selectively. Such usage sometimes appears to be misusing the approach and making it ineffective. Nevertheless, as people who do not think of themselves as being in the CAR field adopt particular methods and ideas of the field, those methods and ideas are diffusing into society and give credibility to them.

In closing, some observations about the future of the field are ventured. The breadth of the endeavors in the field will continue to expand both by deepening the work at each conflict stage and in expanding the variety of conflicts where work is done. Therefore the field will continue to become more differentiated, with workers in the field specializing in particular aspects of conflicts and particular methods of conflict resolution.

The CAR field will continue to grow in size and societal penetration in the future. The need and the potentiality for growth are great in many regions of the world, notably the Middle East, parts of Asia, and in western and central Africa. In addition, the need for increased knowledge and application of the CAR approach is growing since intensifying world integration is a source of more and more potentially destructive conflicts, as well as a source of reasons to reduce and contain them. The cost of failing to prevent and stop destructive conflicts is rising and CAR can help foster more constructive methods to wage and resolve conflicts. Global and societal changes will both pose new challenges and offer new opportunities for workers in the CAR field. In meeting those challenges and seizing those opportunities, the field will inevitably keep changing.


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                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management. At, accessed July 2009. The Center was established to explore constructive procedures and models for dealing with ethnopolitical conflicts. It produces research that can generate ideas, tools, and resources for the practice of conflict transformation.

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