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Understanding Intractable Conflicts
Peter T. Coleman, Nicholas Redding & Joshua Fisher
Editors’ Note: In the second chapter of our complex-case trilogy, the authors summarize recent findings from complexity science and dynamical systems theory, showing how the new insights provide the possibility of innovative levers for change. Their key findings are presented as a set of five guidelines. This follows the more general explanation in Coleman and Ricigliano on Getting in Sync and is also closely related to the next chapter, Influencing Intractable Conflicts, which also presents a set of five guidelines: this time, for actually working on a conflict which, on the surface, appears impossible to influence.
Scholars report that between five and eight percent of contentious relationships between nations become intractable: they intensify, become locked-in, and persist for an average of thirty-six years (Diehl and Goertz 2001). Similar patterns of entrenched conflict are found in families, organizations and communities. These destructive dynamics wreak havoc and bring considerable suffering, cost and instability to the families, communities, nations and regions involved. For negotiators and conflict resolution practitioners working with parties to resolve these types of conflicts, traditional negotiation tactics are at best insufficient, and at worst can serve to perpetuate or exacerbate existing tensions. This chapter and the next one illustrate how recent findings from complexity science and dynamical systems theory can be applied to these seemingly intractable conflicts, offering new insights into innovative levers for change. The key findings are summarized as a set of guidelines, five in each chapter.
Conflict is about change. It revolves around disputants’ needs or desires to address tension from incompatible activities (contrasting interests, beliefs, values or desires) by changing situations, relationships, the balance of power, the other disputants’ actions, values, beliefs or bargaining position, or a third party’s wish to change a conflict from low-intensity to high (as with some activists), or from high-intensity to low (as with negotiators and mediators). Conflicts often emerge from changing circumstances and relationships and, in turn, change those circumstances and relationships. Therefore, how we think about and approach change—or in the case of intractable conflicts, how we understand social systems that appear to doggedly resist change—is paramount.
There are many theories of change, and disputants as well as conflict resolution practitioners all operate within one or more of these theories, whether implicit or explicit, simple or complex, formal or informal (Coleman 2004). Four hundred years of mostly atomistic, linear, cause and effect approaches to science have left our understanding of conflict and change dynamics largely decontextualized, short term and piecemeal (Coleman 2011). Although many research findings from this paradigm have proven fruitful, and the practices informed by these findings are effective in some contexts, they have infused our theorizing, research and practice with a set of assumptions that severely limit their generalizability and practical utility in our increasingly complex, dynamic world. These include:
■ Relating fluid things (conflict dynamics) to fixed things (static attitudes or beliefs).
■ Thinking about change only in linear, cause-and-effect terms.
■ Privileging effects on short-term outcomes over long-term patterns in research and practice.
■ Framing complex conflicts in narrow, disciplinary or sectoral ways.
■ Focusing primarily on problems and pathologies (violence and war) in lieu of solutions and healthy states (cooperation and peace).
■ Marginalizing the role of emotions in our science and practice.
■ Over-simplifying or over-complicating our models and methods....
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