What is Into-the-Sea Framing?

Conflict scholars use the term "framing" to mean the process of describing and interpreting what a conflict is about. Conflict framing helps the parties understand what is going on in a particular conflict and what they should do about it.

The way individuals interpret conflict is based on many factors beyond what "actually" happened. This includes the history of what has happened to these people in the past, what values are important to them, and whether they see the situation as a threat or a potential benefit. Individuals' knowledge and life experiences serve as a background that shapes their view of the world and helps them to make sense of new events.

The way one frames a conflict is important, in part, because this helps to determine what one will do about a conflict situation. Often disputants frame conflicts in adversarial or win-lose terms. They assume that they have a conflict of interests and that the only way to get what they want is if the other party does not get what he or she wants. Rather than seeking a win-win solution, they therefore seek ways to build their power so that they can force the other side to give in. When both sides do this, the inevitable result is escalation, a hardening of positions, and an increased danger of destructive or violent confrontation.

When two opposing groups live in the same territory, they may either seek to find a way to live together, or one or both groups may decide that the only way to resolve their conflict is to make the other group just "go away" or "disappear." This results is what Guy Burgess has labeled "into-the-sea" framing (a reference to Yassir Arafat's threat to push the Israelis "into the sea"[1].)

Into-the-sea-framing often occurs in cases where ethnic and cultural distinctions result in the formation of extreme "in-group" and "out-group" thinking, where members of different races, religions, or cultures view each other, not only as separate, but alien, evil, and often less-than-human. The formation of rigid identity groups can lead one group to become convinced that many of its problems are the fault of the other group, and that all of those problems would be resolved if only the other group no longer existed, or at least didn't exist anywhere near themselves.

Results of Into-the-Sea Framing

Into-the-sea framing is the ultimate "zero-sum" or "win-lose" approach. The only way for one side to "win" is to eliminate the other side. Needless to say, this way of framing a conflict is a recipe for disaster. There is almost never a place for the other side to go, nor would they want to go if they could.[2] Framing the conflict in this way assures a highly destructive and protracted conflict that will not allow anyone to win.

This kind of framing can easily lead to genocide, "ethnic cleansing," or to efforts to force opponents into exile. In less extreme situations, this problem may lead a party to demand concessions that their opponent cannot possibly accept. One group may come to completely dominate or dehumanize an opposing group. When conflicts are approached in this way, protracted confrontation becomes inevitable. Once the contending parties have de-humanized one another, catastrophic confrontations become a real possibility.

For this reason, it is essential that peacemakers work with conflict parties to convince them to reframe the problem in terms of finding strategies for co-existence and abandon their wish to eliminate the other side.

How Can it be Avoided or Transformed?

The principles of coexistence and tolerance are important as bases for building mutually acceptable relationships between highly diverse communities within a larger society. If people of different religious, ethnic, and racial groups are to live together peacefully, they must exhibit a certain level of tolerance and at least what Helen Chauncey (of the Co-Existence Initiative) calls "passive co-existence." Here parties must make a commitment to live together while respecting their differences and to resolve their conflicts nonviolently.

One of the key ways to transform intractable identity conflicts is to humanize people on the other side and to encourage parties on both sides to realize that their opponent is human and shares many of the same values, emotions, and concerns that their own side does. (This can be done as a preventive measure, before significant de-humanization takes place, or as a reframing and humanization effort after into-the-sea attitudes have taken hold.)[2]

Also important are conflict analysisreality testingcosting, and trust building. If people are helped to analyze the nature of their conflict with a skilled mediator or facilitator, they may come to understand that the problem is not just the evil enemy, but is rather the social system that they are both caught up in and contributing to. They can then develop new approaches for transforming or modifying that social system to get out of the entrenched conflict.

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By Guy Burgess, Heidi Burgess, & Michelle Maiese


1] This quote has been circulating for years. We found it in print, however, in the excellent chronicle of life in Israel, Home To Stay, by Daniel Gordis. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2003.

[2] In addition to the essay on humanization, see the interviews with Columbian peasants who described how they humanized the violent extremists in their country in order to reduce the level of violence and try to transform the conflict there into a nonviolent one.

Guy Burgess is a Founder and Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Information Consortium. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology and has been working in the conflict resolution field, as a scholar and a practitioner, since 1979. His primary interests involve the study and management of intractable conflicts, public policy dispute resolution, and the dissemination of conflict resolution knowledge over the Internet. He is one of the primary authors and creators of the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, and is the Co-Director of CRInfo -- the Conflict Resolution Information Source. Dr. Burgess has edited and authored a number of books and articles, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution (with Heidi Burgess, ABC-Clio 1999). www.beyondintractability.org