Most people probably do not recognize a distinct difference between the terms “conflict” and “dispute.” However, many conflict scholars do draw a distinction between the two terms. As is unfortunately common in this field, different scholars define the terms in different ways, leading to confusion.
One way that is particularly useful, however, is the distinction made by John Burton which distinguishes the two based on time and issues in contention. Disputes, Burton suggests are short-term disagreements that are relatively easy to resolve. Long-term, deep-rooted problems that involve seemingly non-negotiable issues and are resistant to resolution are what Burton refers to as conflicts. Though both types of disagreement can occur independently of one another, they may also be connected. In fact, one way to think about the difference between them is that short-term disputes may exist within a larger, longer conflict. A similar concept would be the notion of battles, which occur within the broader context of a war.
Following Burton’s distinction, disputes involve interests that are negotiable. That means it is possible to find a solution that at least partially meets the interests and needs of both sides. For example, it generally is possible to find an agreeable price for a piece of merchandise. The seller may want more, the buyer may want to pay less, but eventually they can agree on a price that is acceptable to both. Likewise, co-workers may disagree about who is to do what task in an office. After negotiating, each may have to do something they did not want to do, but in exchange they will get enough of what they did want to settle the dispute (see compromise).
Long-term conflicts, on the other hand, usually involve non-negotiable issues. They may involve deep-rooted moral or value differences, high-stakes distributional questions, or conflicts about who dominates whom. Fundamental human psychological needs for identity, security, and recognition are often at issue as well. None of these issues are negotiable. People will not compromise fundamental values. They will not give up their chance for a better life by submitting to continued injustice or domination, nor will they change or give up their self-identity. Deep-rooted conflicts over these types of issues tend to be drawn out and highly resistant to resolution, often escalating or evolving into intractable conflicts.
A Clarifying Example — The Cold War
While many disputes stand alone and are settled permanently, others are part of a continuing long-term conflict. Looking back at events that represent concrete manifestations of the Cold War between the United States and U.S.S.R. provides a good example of this idea. For example, each round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S.-Vietnam War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan all constitute disputes within the broader conflict of the Cold War. The Vietnam War was extremely serious and relatively long, but nonetheless was a short-term conflict or “dispute” in the context of the Cold War, which played out over more than 40 years. However, as this example illustrates, even the most resolution-resistant conflicts can be transformed and resolved. While the U.S. and Russia are not “best friends” today, their relationship is certainly much more positive now than it was during the Cold War. Moreover, expectations for a U.S.-Russian war are now far more remote.
Other Distinctions between Conflict and Dispute
Costintino and Merchant1 define conflict as the fundamental disagreement between two parties, of which a dispute is one possible outcome. (Conciliation, conflict avoidance, or capitulation are other outcomes.) This is similar to Douglas Yarn’s observation that conflict is a state, rather than a process. People who have opposing interests, values, or needs are in a state of conflict, which may be latent (meaning not acted upon) or manifest, in which case it is brought forward in the form of a dispute or disputing process. In this sense, “a conflict can exist without a dispute, but a dispute cannot exist without a conflict.”2
Implications for Intractable Conflicts
Although all of these definitions have merit, most scholars agree that intractable conflicts are deep-rooted, protracted, and resistant to resolution. However, there are ups and downs in the life of such conflicts. Episodes occur in which the fighting (physical or psychological) is intense; at other times it subsides. The view that each intense period is a dispute which ends when the dispute (though not the conflict) is settled or resolved is a useful way to distinguish the normal ebb and flow of intractable conflicts.
See, for example, the figure below. This figure illustrates the relationship in an imaginary dispute between two ethnic groups in a post-colonial society named Dufountain.3 The two groups in this hypothetical country are the “Duists” and the “Fountists.” Time runs from left to right. Each of the sets of fat arrows represents one “dispute.” In this illustration, five disputes occur. The first one results in improved policies for the Duists (shown by the solid black arrows going up toward the top of the page). The next two benefit the Fountists. The fourth one benefits the Duists, while the final dispute on this diagram favors the Fountists again. None of the disputes resolves the long-term, underlying conflict (represented by the thick horizontal arrow at the bottom of the diagram; the dispute settlements only alter social policies for a time in a way that favors one group more than another. Whenever the losing group believes that it has gained enough power to prevail in a later dispute, it will most likely try again to engage the opponent and force an outcome that is more favorable to them than the earlier dispute outcome was. For this reason, dispute settlement is not the same thing as conflict resolution. One is a temporary settlement of an immediate problem; the other is a long-term settlement of an underlying long-running conflict.