Continued from Part 1.

Graphical Conflict Mapping

An alternative which we find even more useful for understanding complex conflicts is graphical mapping. Graphical mapping techniques to do a better job of capturing and succinctly conveying the complex structure of intractable conflicts. Such maps can be constructed on giant pieces of paper (or on regular paper with very small type). Better yet, we think, are computer-based that can be built with familiar programs (including Powerpoint and Prezi) or more specific dynamic modeling programs which range from open source, free programs to expensive commercial programs. Since such programs change frequently, we do not list these here, but refer users to Wikipedia that has an impressive list that is frequently updated:

The advantage of graphical mapping is that one can get a lot of information together in visually understandable forms. You can start with a ""zoomed out"" big picture of the entire conflict system at a macro level, and then ""zoom in"" on particular parts of the system to explore details. This ""zoomed in"" section can then serve as a basis for deliberate efforts to improve some aspect of the conflict.

What to Map: While different conflict situations will, obviously, generate very different maps, there are still a number of key topics that ought to be considered and, if appropriate, addressed in most maps. These topics include: (1) The primary parties (the folks who are fighting); (2) The principal issues in dispute (positions and underlying interests, values, and needs); (3) Institutional settings in which the conflict is being played out (e.g. the courts, legislatures, elections, the battlefield) (4) sources of power of each of the parties and power strategies they are using; (5) conflict dynamics, including both destructive and constructive dynamics, and (6) the potential role of intermediaries (mediators, arbitrators, and facilitators who may be able to help the parties handle the conflict more constructively). Information about all of these elements is found in more detail below.

Core Substantive Issues in Conflict

After identifying the parties, the next step is to ask the obvious question, what are the parties fighting about? Here, it makes sense to focus on the core issues – the things that really matter. However, it can be surprisingly difficult to figure out what, exactly, those are. In fact, the parties themselves are often unclear. Goals are typically stated as positions–parties advocate or demand a particular outcome–for instance, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or Israeli retreat from all its West Bank settlements. Both of those are positions–and they tend to be diametrically opposed to the positions of the other side, making resolution all but impossible. But underneath the positions are more fundamental issues–interests, values, and needs. People sometimes dont even recognize what those more fundamental goals are, and they lose track of the fact that their position is actually taking them farther away from those interests, values, and needs, than achieving them. So defining ones underlying interests, values, and needs and the optimal way of pursuing them is of high importance.

In the most difficult and intractable conflicts, interests, values and needs tend to cluster into four primary kinds of conflicts: distributional conflicts, moral conflicts, status conflicts, and identity conflicts.

Justice / Needs

A similar set of problems revolve around the concept of human needs which encompass (in addition to such basics as food, clean water, and shelter) the social-psychological needs of identity and security. People who feel that their ability to satisfy these basic needs is being threatened are, of course, likely to respond quite defensively. The frustrations of those with chronically unmet needs are also a frequent source of tension and misery. Not surprisingly, understanding all of this is at the core of understanding conflict.

Distributional Conflict

The underlying goals associated with many conflicts focus around distributional questions over ""who gets what."" These questions can, in turn, be divided into two principal groupings. First, there are those that fall within the ""zone of possible agreement"" (ZOPA) meaning opportunities exist for resolving the distributional questions in a ""win-win"" way that benefit both parties. In ""tractable"" conflict situations, this may be done by finding ways to ""enlarge the pie"" (what game theorists call a positive-sum game) or by negotiating mutually beneficial trade-offs in which the parties trade something that they have, but dont really want or need, for something that the other party has but doesnt really want or need.

Other, ""intractable"" situations fall outside the ZOPA because win-win opportunities and potential trade-offs have already been exhausted or because such opportunities never have existed. In these cases, you have a much more contentious ""win-lose"" game (that game theorists call ""zero or negative sum"") in which the only way to get ahead is by taking something from someone else – a sure formula for divisive confrontation.

Moral Conflict

Moral conflicts involve fundamental questions of right and wrong and good and evil and are, therefore, much less amenable to win-win compromises than distributional conflicts. In many cases, however, moral conflicts can be resolved in a spirit of tolerance and coexistence where contending groups simply ""agree to disagree"" and let others live as they choose in return for being granted the same freedom. This is why ""freedom"" is so critical to the success of diverse societies.

This principle has limits, however, and these limits are the focal point for some of the worlds most intractable and destructive conflicts. Such problems arise when one group feels that the actions or beliefs of another group are so morally repugnant that they cannot be tolerated and must be actively opposed. The belief that abortion is equivalent to infanticide is one obvious example. In this case, the conflict revolves around the appropriateness of using governmental power to enforce a particular set of moral beliefs. Moral conflicts also tend be extremely intense when questions arise about whose values public institutions will convey to the next generation. Here the problem seems to be an inherent conflict between the right of families to feel secure in their cultural beliefs and the rights of children to consider and perhaps make changes in what they believe. Also important is the process through which cultural beliefs which are thought by some to be outmoded can be challenged.

Status / Oppression Conflicts

Also at the core of a great many conflicts are questions of status and who is more and less valued and respected by the community. To some degree, status conflicts reflect the simple desire for power and the ability to use that power to command broader allegiance to ones moral values and a larger distributional share of a societys resources. However, status conflicts are more than this. They involve fundamental social and psychological questions that go to the core of an individuals sense of self-worth and the deep distaste that we all have when we sense that we are being disrespected or humiliated. Also tied up with status is the competitive, "power over" orientation that many people have toward social interactions where their self-worth is measured by ones place on the "pecking order."

In all too many cases, status differences become extreme and widely seen as illegitimate. This results in conflicts between those challenging what they regard as oppression and those striving to defend their privileged positions.

Identity / Security Conflicts

Finally, there are identity conflicts which tend to subsume distributional, moral, and status issues into very long-running conflicts between social groups that, over time, come to view their identity as being in opposition to the other group. In this context, anything that advances their group is good news as is anything that hurts the other group. A great many of the world’s most dangerous tensions fall along identity group lines – Hutu and Tutsi, Shiite and Sunni, Democrats and Republicans, for example. Closely related to identity is security. If one’s personal or group security is threatened, either by violence or social-psychological threats to one’s well-being, this tend to elicit very strong and prolonged responses.

Conflict as the Engine of Social Learning

Conflicts over these core issues are not, in and of themselves, bad. They perform an important social function by allowing people to challenge ways of living that they see as wrong and propose alternatives that they regard as superior. The goal should not be the suppression of such conflicts (which could lead to catastrophic social tensions), but to ensure that such conflicts are handled as wisely, equitably, and efficiently as possible. Ideally, we want to accept changes that make things better and reject those that do not. Put another way, continuing conflict over these core issues is inevitable and potentially constructive – provided that a wide range of destructive conflict dynamics can be successfully controlled. Identifying and limiting or reversing such destructive dynamics is key to successful complexity-oriented peacebuilding.

For more information see PACS 4500 course materials.

Destructive Conflict Dynamics – And Constructive Responses

In general, the strategy for promoting more constructive conflict focuses on identifying and then limiting the many destructive conflict dynamics that often come into play. We call these dynamics "overlay problems," because they overlay the core issues in ways that undermine prospects for constructive debate. In some cases–particularly simpler "disputes,"-- all the problem consists of is overlay problems. (There isnt really a core.) In these cases, removal of the overlay problems can lay the groundwork for complete resolution. In other cases, however, one must successfully address the "overlay" problem in order to be able to constructively address the underlying core issues. The sections that follow introduce the major types of overlay problems and offer links to resources that more fully describe these problems and potential solutions.


There are a wide range of conflict dynamics that commonly give the parties an image of the overall situation that is so distorted that they are likely to decide to pursue strategies that are unwise (unable to successfully advance their interests), unnecessarily antagonistic (dramatically, and unnecessarily, increasing levels of opposition and the cost of conflict); and/or inequitable (treating others in ways that they would normally be consider unfair). Here, we are not talking about the limited understandings that we all have to live with because we simply dont have the time to really find out whats going on. We are talking about dynamics that systematically bias our image in destructive ways.

In contemporary society, there are a staggering number of destructive conflict dynamics that distort the flow of information in this way. Efforts to limit these distortions are badly needed. While those working in the field have developed a number of very effective techniques addressing these problems, these approaches work best in small-scale, interpersonal, ""table-oriented"" settings. Mass communication-based options for doing the same things at a much larger scale are badly needed. This is an area where creative new ideas could make a major contribution.

Destructive, Partisan Framing

One of the ways in which information is systematically distorted is through partisan "framing." Framing refers to the complex cognitive process of "sense making" through which we organize our observations of our environment into a consistent narrative or worldview that helps us think through the challenges we face and decide how best to respond. Framing is both ubiquitous and essential–there is far too much information available to take it all in. So framing helps us be selective in what we pay attention to and how we interpret it. In conflict situations, however, framing often has perverse effects. People typically frame others who are "like them" and agree with them as "good," "fair," "smart," and "right," while they frame people who are different or think different things as "bad," "unfair," "stupid," "misguided," or even "evil." Other frames determine whether one focuses more on gaining benefits or avoiding loss (gain/loss frames), how one approaches conflict (conflict management frames and process frames), and the amount of risk one is willing to take (risk/information frames). An understanding the way in which the parties frame conflict situations is, therefore, critical to an understanding the conflict problem correctly, and making an accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of alternative conflict handling strategies.

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).