Summary of "Public Conflict Resolution: A Transformative Approach"

Summary of

Public Conflict Resolution: A Transformative Approach

by Frank Dukes

Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: "Public Conflict Resolution: A Transformative Approach," Negotiation Journal. 9:1 (January 1993), pp. 45-57.

The Management Approach

This approach seeks to manage the present 'crisis of governance,' the seeming gridlock that plagues governmental and judicial authorities. This 'crisis of governance' rests on a utilitarian worldview. From the utilitarian viewpoint, individuals pursue their own self-interests, and the public good is best achieved by private competition. Dukes notes that "within management practice the goals most stressed are saving money, reducing court loads, eliminating delays, and reducing demands on government."[p. 46]

Duke argues that the management approach is limited in six ways. First, its very practical focus tends to exclude more basic philosophic questions about the meaning of mediation. Second, the need to market conflict resolution services prompts practitioners to discuss those services almost solely in terms of their concrete usefulness. Third, the management approach generally does not concern itself with issues of justice, but assumes that efficient competition, through negotiation, will promote the public good. Fourth, management practice tends to define conflicts as allocation issues, taking both interests and resources as fixed. Fifth, the narrow focus on reaching a successful reallocation of resources rules out consideration of other significant issues. Finally, the management approach is limited in the types of conflicts it can address. Conflicts which cannot be framed in terms of resource allocation are ignored or delegated to the private sphere.

The Transformative Approach

The field of public conflict resolution has potential to promote social justice and transformation. Dukes argues that the transformative approach can be "a vehicle for changing governing practices and institutional culture of agencies, public officials, citizenry, and communities."[p. 47]

A transformative approach would seek to directly address the problems of modernity. These problems fall into three broad categories: disintegration of community, public alienation from governmental institutions, and an inability to resolve public problems and conflicts. Transformative practice would have the corresponding goals of nurturing and sustaining an engaged community, a responsive government, and a public capacity for conflict resolution and problem-solving. It would pursue these goals in conjunction with other broader social movements.

The transformative approach supports an engaged community by encouraging individuals to transcend narrow self-interest, and by fostering commitment to common goals and to relationships with each other. It encourages inclusion and participation by creating dialogues in which people are empowered to express their needs and explore their differences.

The transformative approach will promote responsive government by first reconceptualizing the government's role as responsive to the people, rather than as directive. It seeks to strengthen institutions' capacities to recognize and respond to public, and it encourages meaningful public participation in institutions of governance.

A transformative approach will enhance the public capacity for conflict resolution and problem-solving by first recognizing that "underlying many disputes are struggles over power, status, and human needs such as identity, recognition, and security."[p. 49] This approach seeks out and identifies power disparities and injustices. It situates and addresses specific disputes within their larger social contexts.

Transformative Practice

Dukes describes several characteristics of transformative practice. First, the transformative approach to public conflict reconceptualizes disputes and dispute resolution. It sees disputes as dynamic entities, rooted in basic human needs. Resolution should strive toward creation of sustainable relationships between parties and groups. Transformative practice emphasizes relatedness between parties and groups, and shared responsibility for common interests.

The transformative approach also reconceptualizes third-party neutrality. The transformative practitioner is an advocate for the process. If necessary, she should represent the interests of stakeholders who are not or cannot be at the table.

A third characteristic of transformative practice is that it addresses issues currently overlooked in most cases. For example, transformative practice pays attention to racial and gendered aspects of conflicts.

The transformative approach employs revised criteria of intervention success or failure. Transformative criteria include such considerations as accessibility and affordability of the process, and the justice and finality of the outcome. It assesses the inclusiveness of the process, the degree of improvement in parties' self-understandings, and in their ability to deal with future disputes.

Transformative practice also incorporates consideration of broader philosophic questions about the meaning of mediation practice into the ongoing research and practice in the field.

Areas for Further Development

The future of the transformative approach to conflict rests on continuing research and development. Dukes suggests several areas which merit further development. First, Dukes emphasizes the need for ongoing reflection and investigation into values and practices of transformative mediation. Recognizing that conflict resolution is a social movement, transformative practitioners should continue to foster links or ties within the conflict resolution community, and with practitioners in other fields. They should also foster links with other social movements, such as ecoactivism, peace action, and feminism.

Second, Dukes stresses the need for ongoing education in negotiation skills, in the sources and structures of violence, and in promoting social change. Educational work should also seek to recognize cultural biases in the field and work to recruit minorities into the field. Finally, Dukes cautions against the dangers of increasing professionalization in the field.


Management and transformative approaches are not completely mutually exclusive. However, overemphasis of the management approach does undermine the transformative potential of the field.