Conflict Stages

It has become common to describe conflicts as passing through a series of phases.[1] Different authors name and describe these stages differently, but most include, at a minimum:

       No conflict

       Latent conflict

       Emergence

       Escalation

       (Hurting) Stalemate

       De-Escalation

       Settlement/Resolution

       Post-Conflict Peacebuilding and Reconciliation

These phases are frequently shown on a diagram that looks something like this, although the accompanying text will always explain that the progress from one stage to the next is not smooth and conflicts may repeat stages several times.

 

 

 

These stages are described briefly in this introductory essay, and then each is discussed in more depth in other essays.

The potential for conflict exists whenever people have different needs, values, or interests; this is the « latent » conflict stage. The conflict may not become apparent until a « triggering event » leads to the emergence (or beginning) of the obvious conflict. Emergence may be followed quickly by settlement or resolution, or it may be followed by escalation, which can become very destructive.

Escalation, however, cannot continue indefinitely. De-escalation can be temporary or can be part of a broader trend toward settlement or resolution. Or escalation may lead to a stalemate, a situation in which neither side can win. If the pain of continuing the conflict exceeds that of maintaining the confrontation, the parties are in what Zartman calls a « hurting stalemate, »[2] which often presents an ideal opportunity for negotiation and a potential settlement. Finally, if and when an agreement is reached, peacebuilding efforts work torepair damaged relationships with the long-term goal of reconciling former opponents.

Some scholars add other phases to this list. For intractable conflict, in particular, Kriesberg adds failed peacemaking efforts after escalation, and institutionalization of destructive conflict after that.[3] This latter stage is closely linked with the hurting stalemate.

Alker, Gurr, and Rupesinghe distinguish between six phases:

       dispute (equivalent to conflict emergence);

       crisis (equivalent to escalation);

       limited violence;

       massive violence;

       abatement (equivalent to de-escalation); and

       settlement.[4]

These stages are similar to those set out by the Complex Emergency Response and Transition Initiative (CERTI) project:

       conflict,

       crisis,

       chaos,

       complex emergency,

       recovery.

The related Health as a Bridge for Peace (HBP) project defines five phases:

       impending crisis,

       outbreak of violence,

       war,

       post-crisis, and

       stable peace (which is one stage beyond the final phase of the first list above).[5]

All of these models are idealized. Actual conflicts usually do not follow a linear path. Rather, they evolve in fits and starts, alternatively experiencing progress and setbacks toward resolution. The lack of linear progress helps to give the conflict a sense of intractability. Escalation may resume after temporary stalemate or negotiation. Escalation and de-escalation may alternate. Negotiations may take place in the absence of a stalemate. However, these models are still useful, because most conflicts pass through similar stages at least once in their history.

Delineating different stages is also useful in efforts to resolve conflict. By recognizing the different dynamics occurring at each stage of a conflict, one can appreciate that the strategies and tactics for participants and interveners differ depending on the phase of the conflict.

Note that the stage of a conflict is determined subjectively by those involved. Some participants may see the conflict as escalating, while others believe it is de-escalating; one side may perceive itself to be in a hurting stalemate, while the other side believes it can prevail through continued force. Determining each party’s assumptions regarding the stage of the conflict is thus important, before one can design a conflict management, transformation, or resolution strategy.

In addition, Kriesberg observes that the sequence of the phases differs from group to group. « Moderates, hardliners, spoilers, and various other factions within each camp tend to be in different phases of intractability at any given time. Therefore, shifts in the relative size and influence of these factions will produce changes in the conflict’s course. »

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