Causes of Conflicts and Dispute

Disputes and conflicts can be caused by many things: simple misunderstandings, competition for scarce resources, conflicts of interests, feelings of injustice or denied rights or needs, and struggles for status or power. Typically, disputes are simpler: they have fewer underlying causes and these causes can be relatively easily resolved.


For example, many disputes are created when one person says something and another interprets it in a way it was not intended. If the recipient of the « negative » comment gets angry and lashes back, the conflict can escalate. But if the recipient uses active listening to clarify what was said, the dispute can often be solved relatively quickly and easily. Or if a dispute is caused by an apparent conflict of interest, it can often be solved using interest-based bargaining, where positions are distinguished from interests, and the parties cooperate to find areas of mutual gain. This doesn’t always work, of course, but it often does–and if it doesn’t, enlisting the assistance of a third party (a mediator, for example) will often help facilitate reaching a settlement.


Conflicts generally have deeper, and more complex causes. As discussed in the previous article, those causes often include fundamental moral disagreements, high-stakes distributional conflicts (that are not amenable to a win-win solution), and status or power conflicts. As conflicts escalate, any tangible issues may become embedded within a larger set of values, beliefs, identities, andcultures. Disputes about land, money, or other resources may take on increased symbolic significance.[1] Over the course of conflict, the original issues can even become irrelevant as new causes for conflict are generated by actions within the conflict itself. Those on opposing sides come to view each other as enemies and may resort to highly destructive means. Eventually, the parties become unable to separate different issues and may see no way out of the conflict other than through total victory or defeat.[2]


This degree of escalation often makes conflicts intractable–meaning they remain unresolved for long periods of time and then become stuck at a high level of intensity and destructiveness. They typically involve many parties and concern an intricate set of historical, religious, cultural, political, and economic issues.[3] These matters are central to human social existence and typically resist any attempts at resolution. In fact, parties often refuse to negotiate or compromise with respect to such issues. As a result, each side views the rigid position of the other as a threat to its very existence. They may develop a mutual fear of each other and a profound desire to inflict as much harm on each other as possible.[4] What are the underlying causes of these destructive conflict dynamics?


What is common to all intractable conflicts is that they involve interests or values that the disputants regard as critical to their survival. These underlying causes include parties’ moral values, identities, and fundamental human needs. Because conflicts grounded in these issues involve the basic molds for thought and action within given communities and culture, they are usually not resolvable by negotiation or compromise.[6] This is because the problem in question is one that cannot be resolved in a win-win way. If one value system is followed, another is threatened. If one nation controls a piece of land, another does not. If one group is dominant, another is subordinate.


While sharing is possible in theory, contending sides usually regard compromise as a loss. This is especially true in societies where natural fear and hatred is so ingrained that opposing groups cannot imagine living with or working cooperatively with the other side. Instead, they are often willing to take whatever means necessary to ensure group survival and protect their way of life. Below are brief summaries of some of the central underlying causes of intractable conflict. These causes are also causes of much simpler disputes and tractable conflicts as well. Intractability becomes increasingly likely as more of these factors are present.


Moral Conflicts


In general, conflicts over funamental moral differences tend to be intractable and long-lasting.[7] The substantive issues are often a matter of rigidly held moral beliefs, based in fundamental assumptions that cannot be proven wrong.[8] These fundamental moral, religious, and personal values are not easily changed, and people who adhere to a particular ideology may very well be unwilling to compromise their world view. In addition, because parties to such conflicts often have great difficulty in describing the substantive issues in shared terms, they will find it difficult to reach some sort of compromise even if they are willing.


Such conflicts tend to result from a clash between differing worldviews. One group’s most fundamental and cherished assumptions about the best way to live may differ radically from the values held by another group.[9] Parties may have different standards of rightness and goodness and give fundamentally different answers to serious moral questions.[10] When groups have different ideas about the good life, they often stress the importance of different things, and may develop radically different or incompatible goals. In some cases, one group may regard the beliefs and actions of another group as so fundamentally evil that they exceed the bounds oftolerance and require active, committed opposition. (This is the case with parties on both sides of the abortion controversy, for example.) Because values and morals tend to be quite stable, people are often unwilling to negotiate or compromise with respect to these topics. Indeed, if the basic substantive issues of the conflict are deeply embedded in the participants’ moral orders, these issues are likely to be non-negotiable.[11] Parties to such conflicts tend to have great difficulty in imagining a win-win resolution.


Those involved in moral conflict may even regard perpetuation of the conflict as virtuous or necessary. They may derive part of theiridentity from being warriors or opponents of their enemy and have a stake in the continuation of the conflict because it provides them with a highly desirable role.[12] In addition, because struggles over values often involve claims to status and power, parties may have a great stake in neutralizing, injuring or eliminating their rivals. They may view any compromise about their most cherished values as a threat to their basic human needs and their sense of identity. In intractable conflicts, the continuation of a conflict may seem preferable to what would have to be given up in order to accommodate the other party.[13]


Issues of Justice


Because the desire for justice is one that people tend to be unwilling to compromise, assertions of injustice often lead to intractable conflicts as well. An individual’s sense of justice is connected to the norms, rights, and entitlements that are thought to underlie decent human treatment. If there is a perceived discrepancy between what a person obtains, what she wants, and what she believes she is entitled to, she may come to believe she is being deprived of the benefits she deserves.[14] This can occur when either a procedure or outcome is viewed as unfair. When people believe that they have been treated unfairly, they may try to « get even » or challenge those who have treated them unjustly.


Indeed, a sense of injustice often motivates aggression or retaliation. Individuals may come to view violence as the only way to address the injustice they have suffered and ensure that their fundamental needs are met. This is especially likely if no procedures are in place to correct the oppressive social structures or bring about retributive or restorative justice. However, the powerful often respond by attempting to quell the disturbance and maintain the status quo.[15] This can lead to ongoing violent conflict.


Conflicts that center on issues of justice tend to be intractable in part because reaching an agreement about what qualifies as injustice is often exceedingly difficult. Those who benefit from injustice often perpetuate it, often without being fully aware that they are contributing to injustice. Not surprisingly, victims are typically more sensitive to injustice than victimizers.[16] What seems fair to one person may not seem fair to another, and these perceptions are often affected by self-interest. However, parties often speak of justice in absolute terms, as some independent and objective standard of fairness that can be used to determine who is right.[17]


Not surprisingly, once one group has framed the conflict in terms of justice, it becomes much more difficult to resolve. If one or both groups advance their claim as a matter of justice, moderate positions become less likely. Parties who believe they have suffered injustice may claim a higher moral ground for themselves, hardening their position to the point of inflexibility.[18] People are typically unwilling to compromise on justice issues, or even enter into dialogue with those whose points of view differ from their own.[19]Negotiation and problem solving thus become more difficult, and actual interests are obscured as the conflict becomes framed as win-lose.[20] People who believe that their cause is just are unlikely to back down or to begin the process of forgiveness andreconciliation.


In fact, those who feel they have been the victims of injustice or unfair treatment may grow extremely angry and feel justified in seekingrevenge. Or, they may blame members of the other group and denigrate them as morally inferior, paving the way for dehumanizationand more violence.[21] This may simply lead to further injustice and cause the conflict to escalate out of control. If vengeance becomes the primary goal, attention may be shifted away from addressing the central justice issues that gave rise to conflict in the first place.




Rights-based grievances likewise contribute to intractability. A dispute begins when one person or group makes a claim or demand on another who rejects it. One way to resolve disputes is to rely on some independent standard of perceived legitimacy or fairness.[22] However, if both groups advance their claim as a « right, » moderate positions become less likely and it becomes difficult to compromise or reach consensus. Rights talk can foreclose « further communication with those whose points of view differ from our own. »[23] This is in part because people treat rights-based arguments as « trump cards » that neutralize all other positions. A tendency towards absolute formulations in rights talk promotes unrealistic expectations and increases the likelihood of conflict. It also ignores social costs and the rights of others, and inhibits dialogue that might lead to the discovery of common ground or compromise.[24] For example, abortion is typically framed as pitting two interests against each other in an all-or-nothing contest. This sort of absolute, win-lose framing is typically not conducive to problem solving.


People’s assumptions that they are entitled to certain rights can also result in self-centeredness. Transforming something into a right gives bearers of the supposed right the ability to demand its realization from those who have a « duty » to realize it.[25] However, such demands may make it more difficult to modify one’s claims in the face of reasonable claims of others. Indeed, rights talk often leads parties to forget that their liberties are limited by the stipulation that they do not harm others.[26] When parties do not balance their rights claims against the rights of others, their conflict is likely to become intractable.


Unmet Human Needs


Human needs theorists argue that many intractable conflicts are caused by the lack of provision of fundamental human needs. These include basic needs for food, water, and shelter as well as more complex needs for safety, security, self-esteem, and personal fulfillment.[29] These more complex needs center on the capacity to exercise choice in all aspects of one’s life and to have one’s identity and cultural values accepted as legitimate. The need for both distributive justice and the ability to participate in civil society are also crucial. All of these needs are fundamental requirements for human development.[30] Thus, while interests can be negotiated when they come into conflict, needs cannot.


Various types of structural violence jeopardize individuals’ physical safety and security. Poverty, environmental degradation, poor health care, and lack of adequate housing often lead to the denial of their basic needs for dignity, safety, and control over their lives.[31] Likewise, conflicts that develop around issues of identity, ethnicity, religion, or culture are often grounded in unmet human needs. Because all individuals are driven to fulfill these essential needs, they will fight indefinitely to achieve them and will not give up until their goal is attained. Indeed, individuals, groups and entire societies are affected by peoples’ unstoppable drive to fulfill unmet human needs.[32] For example, the conflict about immigration (legal and illegal) in the U.S. involves threats to both the identity and security of the immigrants, and is seen by some U.S. citizens to also be a threat to their livelihood.


Identity Issues


Identity is one of the fundamental human needs that underlies many intractable conflicts. Conflicts over identity arise when group members feel that their sense of self is threatened or denied legitimacy and respect. Because identity is integral to one’s self-esteem and how one interprets the rest of the world, any threat to identity is likely to produce a strong response. Typically this response is both aggressive and defensive, and can escalate quickly into an intractable conflict. Because threats to identity are not easily put aside, such conflicts tend to persist.


Intractable conflicts are often maintained by the development of polarized collective identities among group members.[33] Group memberships form along the lines of nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, or whatever other categories are relevant to the conflict. Individuals identify with those in their own group and begin to organize against those in the opposing group. While collective identities may initially form around issues such as resisting oppressive social structures or staking claims to territory, they eventually take on meaning and value of their own. As the conflict escalates, the opposing groups become increasingly polarized and develop hostility towards those in the out-group. A high level of in-group identification, together with a high degree of perceived threat from the other group, leads to a basic impulse to preserve oneself and destroy the opponent.[34]


Identity is the primary issue in most racial and ethnic conflicts. It is also a key issue in many gender and family conflicts, when men and women disagree on the proper role or « place » of the other, or children disagree with their parents about who is in control of their lives and how they present themselves to the outside world. These conflicts center on matters of security, fair treatment, and a sense of control over one’s life.[35] Because identity-based concerns are tied to fundamental human needs, conflicts surrounding identity often threaten parties’ very existence. Such conflicts are typically more intense than interest-based conflicts. This is because the issues in interest-based conflicts are typically more clearly defined and have greater potential for compromise. Identity conflicts, on the other hand, are based on people’s psychology, culture, basic values, shared history, and beliefs. These issues tend to be more abstract and are connected to people’s basic needs for survival.


In addition, rigid collective identities may make it more difficult for groups to compromise. When they feel that another group poses a threat to their authority or legitimacy, they may lash out. Those in the out-group may be excluded, which limits contact between identity groups and contributes to the development of negative stereotypes and intergroup violence.[36] Parties view their adversaries as evil or even nonhuman and regard their views and feelings as unworthy of attention. Because merely sitting down with the opponent can be seen as a threat to one’s own identity, even beginning efforts at reconciliation can be extremely difficult. Furthermore, the negation of the opposing group often becomes a fundamental aspect of one’s own identity.[37] During the Cold War, for example, an important aspect of identity for many United States citizens was being anti-Communist.


High-Stakes Distributional Issues


Conflicts surrounding who gets what and how much they get also tend to be intractable. The items to be distributed include tangible resources such as money, land, or better jobs, as well as intangible resources such as social status. If there are plenty of resources available, then everyone simply takes what they need and no conflict develops. However, when there is not enough of a given resource to satisfy everyone’s needs or wants, and no more can be found or created, the conflict becomes a « win-lose » situation. The more one party gets, the less the other party gets (or the more he or she « loses »). When the item in question is very important or valuable, these conflicts tend to become very intractable.


For example, conflicts over water in arid lands are high-stakes classic distributional conflicts. In the Western United States, as well as many other arid regions, water is extremely valuable, as life cannot exist without it. Because there is not enough water to go around, endless conflicts arise about who gets what amount of water for what purpose. Although individual disputes get resolved, another dispute over the same water will almost certainly arise again later on.


Domination conflicts are a special type of high-stakes distributional conflict in which the resource to be distributed is social status. Because most groups want to be on top of the social, economic, and/or political hierarchy, there is often a perpetual struggle between those at the top and those at the bottom. Conflicts over social status can occur between individuals or between nations. Because issues of social status are connected to matters of unequal economic power, the divide between the rich and poor has contributed to intractable conflict both within nations and across international society as a whole. These conflicts tend to be very difficult to resolve because no one wants to be on the bottom, and few are willing to share the top level of the social hierarchy.


While those in weaker positions want to gain more power and reverse the relationship, those with the most power do not wish to give up the benefits associated with their position. Unless those people at the top are willing to share their privileges with everyone else, such conflicts are likely to continue. Even if those with low social or economic status are able to reverse the situation and assume a leadership position, the conflict will continue as the new group on the bottom strives to gain status.


Laisser un commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:


Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Google+

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Google+. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l'aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s

%d blogueurs aiment cette page :