Understanding Conflict Resolution I: The definition(s)

A short background about the next five posts can be found here.

Conflict Resolution-How to define it?

Conflict resolution (CR) implies that in order to resolve conflicts[1], we first need to analyse and understand them.[2]

It works like most other disciplines, say for example medicine: we could not cure the flu if we did not know what caused it, the characteristics of the virus, what would weaken it or make it go away.

Unfortunately most conflicts nowadays are not as easy to cure as the flu, and they are more like a cold sore. Once you get it, it will stay in your system, and might ‘erupt’ when you least expect it, especially if you are near someone who has it[3]. The more challenging conflicts get, the more we have to reflect on our theories and practices. Therefore, the field is constantly evolving.

The fact is:

Conflict Resolution is based on theory and practice (it requires a multidisciplinary approach for the theory and a multitude of skills for the practice).  Should you want to look up definitions of the term ‘conflict resolution’, you will find an intense academic debate[4].

The definition below is in itself a concise version of the first definition of the field[5], with the purpose of making it structured and approachable.

What I propose:

[By conflict resolution I understand] the study and practice of theories and actions, at different levels (individual, community, national, international), and cross-cultural (ethnic, religious, racial), which ultimately aim to address and solve the root causes of conflicts and achieve sustainable peace[6]. The actions can be categorised into different subfields[7], which are interconnected and integrated into the field of conflict resolution, and take place at various times during the course of the conflict (while it escalates and de-escalates in intensity, see conflict escalation graphic below)[8].

Conflict resolution in the dictionary:

One of the first sources I consulted for a definition was the Oxford Dictionary of Politics. There, Alistair McMillan explains that [Conflict Resolution consists of]” The methods and process of negotiation, arbitration, and institution building which promote the peaceful ending of social conflict or war”[9].

This definition is vague, and narrow, mainly just focusing on the time-frame of de-escalation. Conflict Resolution here is defined from a strictly practical, diplomatic approach, which is only one of the steps we take to resolve conflicts.

Including this definition in a dictionary, which should always give objective and scientific definitions of terms, is a mistake. Or is it not?

In the next post, I will explore this debate by focusing on two terms which are claimed to be separate fields, different from CR: Conflict Management and Conflict Transformation.

[1] When I refer to conflict it is useful to note that I study state conflicts, and I usually, but not always, focus on intrastate conflicts. Also, conflict in this context can be either violent, or a frozen conflict (whose root causes haven’t been resolved yet, i.e Cyprus).

[2] Peter Wallensteen, Understanding conflict Resolution (London:Sage, 2012), pp 13-17

[3] This example, on one hand emphasises how conflicts can be passed down from the old to the new generations (i.e prejudices and stereotypes in Bosnia and Northern Ireland are some of the reasons why the societies are still divided). On the other hand, the concept of spillover, when conflict spreads from one state to another, i.e Former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda.

[4] Roger MacGinty and Andrew Williams, Conflict and Development (London and New York: Routledge, 2009) pp 92-121

[5] Oliver Ramsbotham, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall, Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The Prevention, Management and Transformation of Deadly Conflicts (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), p: 8

[6] Ho-Won Jeong, Peace and Conflict Studies-An Introduction,(England: Ashgate:2000), p.37

[7] ibid. pp167-203.  In order to focus on a concise explanation of the CR field, I made a table with what I refer to as “subfields”. A more detailed account can be found at the source.

[8] Eric, Brahm, “Hurting Stalemate Stage”, Beyond Intractability, Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/bi-essay/stalemate> [accessed 24th October, 2012]

[9] Ian McLean and Alistair McMillan, Oxford Dictionary of Politics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)


2 thoughts on “Understanding Conflict Resolution I: The definition(s)

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