What is Conflict Escalation?

Escalation refers to an increase in the intensity of a conflict and in the severity of tactics used in pursuing it. It is driven by changes within each of the parties, new patterns of interaction between them, and the involvement of new parties in the struggle. When conflicts escalate, more people tend to become involved. Parties begin to make bigger and stronger threats and impose harsher negative sanctions. Violence may start, or if violence has already occurred it may become more severe and/or widespread as the number of participants involved in the conflict increases, and a greater proportion of a state’s citizens actively engage in fighting.

Conflict theorists Dean Pruitt and Jeffrey Rubin list five changes that occur as a conflict escalates.

First, parties move from light tactics to heavy tactics. Light tactics include such things as persuasive arguments, promises, efforts to please the other side, while heavy tactics include threats, power plays, and even violence.
Second, the conflict grows in size. The numbers of issues in contention expands, and parties devote more resources to the struggle.
Third, issues move from specific to general, and the relationship between the parties deteriorates. Parties develop grandiose positions, and often perceive the other side as “evil.”
Fourth, the number of parties grows from one to many, as more and more people and groups are drawn into the conflict.
Fifth, the goal of the parties changes from “doing well” to winning, and finally, to hurting the other.

Under certain circumstances, escalation is the rational thing to do. If a party has overwhelming power over its opponent, it makes sense to use this power to overcome the opponent’s resistance. Parties might also intentionally escalate the conflict in order to pressure the other side, involve third parties, or rally more people to their cause. In many cases, this sort of tactical escalation can have positive effects and help move parties toward a mutually beneficial relationship.

However, a great deal of conflict escalation is inadvertent, and occurs without the parties having fully considered the implications of their actions. Sometimes this is a result of perceived crises and time pressures that compel the parties to act before they have considered alternative courses of action or have a full understanding of the situation. The use of force and threats, if regarded as too extreme, can ultimately backfire and provoke retaliation. It is in these cases that conflicts have the potential to spiral out of control and have terribly damaging effects. Destructively waged conflicts typically involve great losses for one or more of the contending parties, and tend to persist for a long time. To avoid these negative consequences, a better understanding of the dynamics of escalation is needed.

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by Michelle Maiese

Michelle Maiese is a graduate student of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is a part of the research staff at the Conflict Research Consortium. Michelle Maiese is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.