Distinguishing Resolution Terms

Explaining the meaning of resolution, in the arena of conflict research, demands a discussion of several terms that refer to different ways of dealing with conflict.

Conflict scholars draw distinctions between certain terms that others often use interchangeably. For example, disputes and conflicts are often considered to be different phenomena, based on their nature and duration (see conflicts and disputes). Scholars also draw distinctions between dispute settlement, conflict management, conflict resolution, and conflict transformation. The first three terms are commonly used and have fairly straightforward meanings, while conflict transformation represents a departure from the other approaches.

Dispute Settlement

Disputes are generally considered to be disagreements that involve negotiable interests. Such issues can be settled through negotiation, mediation, or adjudication. They are generally short-term and, given the right process, lend themselves to the development of mutually satisfactory solutions. Dispute settlement therefore refers to the working out of a mutually satisfactory agreement between the parties involved. Dispute settlement is primarily concerned with upholding established social norms (of right and wrong) and is aimed at bringing the dispute to an end, without necessarily dealing with its fundamental causes.1 Thus, although the particular dispute might be settled permanently, another similar or related dispute may arise again later if the underlying causes are still there.2

Conflict Resolution

Incompatible interests are not the only things at issue in more severe conflicts. Conflicts last longer and are more deeply rooted than disputes. They tend to arise over non-negotiable issues such as fundamental human needs, intolerable moral differences, or high-stakes distributional issues regarding essential resources, such as money, water, or land. To truly resolve a conflict, the solution must go beyond just satisfying the parties’ interests as in dispute settlement. To end or resolve a long-term conflict, a relatively stable solution that identifies and deals with the underlying sources of the conflict must be found. This is a more difficult task than simple dispute settlement, because resolution means going beyond negotiating interests to meet all sides’ basic needs, while simultaneously finding a way to respect their underlying values and identities. However, some of the same intervention processes used in dispute settlement (i.e., mediation) are also used to achieve resolution.

True conflict resolution requires a more analytical, problem-solving approach than dispute settlement. The main difference is that resolution requires identifying the causal factors behind the conflict, and finding ways to deal with them. On the other hand, settlement is simply aimed at ending a dispute as quickly and amicably as possible. This means that it is possible to settle a dispute that exists within the context of a larger conflict, without resolving the overall conflict. This occurs when a dispute is settled, but the underlying causes of the conflict are not addressed

There are many reasons why underlying causes of conflict may not be addressed. Often, the underlying causes of conflict are embedded in the institutional structure of society. Achieving complete resolution of a conflict can require making significant socioeconomic or political changes that restructure society in a more just or inclusive way. Changing societal structures, such as the distribution of wealth in society, is a difficult thing to do and can take decades to accomplish.3 Thus, fully resolving conflict can be a long, laborious process. As a result there are other conceptions of ways to deal with, but not necessarily “resolve,” conflicts.

Conflict Management

Conflict management involves the control, but not resolution, of a long-term or deep-rooted conflict. This is the approach taken when complete resolution seems to be impossible, yet something needs to be done. In cases of resolution-resistant or even intractable conflict, it is possible to manage the situation in ways that make it more constructive and less destructive.4The goal of conflict management is to intervene in ways that make the ongoing conflict more beneficial and less damaging to all sides. For example, sending peacekeeping forces into a region enmeshed in strife may help calm the situation and limit casualties. However, peacekeeping missions will not resolve the conflict. In some cases, where non-negotiable human needs are at stake, management is the most feasible step.

A Critique and Alternative: Conflict Transformation

A number of conflict theorists and practitioners, including John Paul Lederach, advocate the pursuit of conflict transformation, as opposed to “conflict resolution” or “conflict management.” Conflict transformation is different from the other two, Lederach asserts, because it reflects a better understanding of the nature of conflict itself. “Conflict resolution” implies that conflict is bad, and is therefore something that should be ended. It also assumes that conflict is a short-term phenomenon that can be “resolved” permanently through mediation or other intervention processes. “Conflict management” correctly assumes that conflicts are long-term processes that often cannot be quickly resolved. The problem with the notion of “management,” however, is that it suggests that people can be directed or controlled as if they were physical objects. In addition, “management” suggests that the goal is the reduction or control of volatility, rather than dealing with the real source of the problem.5

Conflict transformation, as described by Lederach, does not suggest that we simply eliminate or control conflict, but rather that we recognize and work with its “dialectic nature.” First, Lederach argues that social conflict is a natural occurrence between humans who are involved in relationships. Once conflict occurs, it changes or transforms those events, people, and relationships that created the initial conflict. Thus, the cause-and-effect relationship goes both ways — from the people and the relationships to the conflict and back to the people and relationships. In this sense, “conflict transformation” is a term that describes the natural process of conflict. Conflicts change relationships in predictable ways, altering communication patterns and patterns of social organization, altering images of the self and of the other.6

Conflict transformation is also a prescriptive concept. It suggests that the destructive consequences of a conflict can be modified or transformed so that self-images, relationships, and social structures improve as a result of conflict instead of being harmed by it. Usually, this involves transforming perceptions of issues, actions, and other people or groups. Conflict usually transforms perceptions by accentuating the differences between people and positions. Lederach believes that effective conflict transformation can utilize this highlighting of differences in a constructive way, and can improve mutual understanding. From the perspective of conflict transformation, intervention has been successful if each group gains a relatively accurate understanding of the other. In the end, improving understanding is the objective of conflict transformation, in spite of parties differing or even irreconcilable interests, values, and needs (for a more in-depth discussion, see the essay on conflict transformation).7

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by Brad Spangler
1 John Burton and Frank Dukes, Conflict: Practices in Management, Settlement & Resolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 83-87. 
2 John Burton, Conflict: Resolution & Provention (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 5. 
3 For a more in-depth discussion of the challenge of changing social and economic institutions in ways that would help societies avoid conflict, see Chapter 5 of: John Burton, Conflict: Resolution & Provention (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 66-82. 
4 For a more in-depth discussion of constructive and destructive conflict resolution processes, see: Morton Deutsch, The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973). Deutsch’s introduction offers a brief explanation of the difference and the ensuing chapters offer in-depth examinations of constructive and destructive aspects of conflict and its resolution. 
5 John Paul Lederach, Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995), 16-17. 
6 Ibid, 17. 
7 Ibid, 18.

Brad Spangler is an Associate at Resolve in Washington, D.C. His primary area of interest is public policy dispute resolution. Brad Spangler 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.