Summary of "The Development of the Conflict Resolution Field"

Summary of

The Development of the Conflict Resolution Field

By Louis Kriesberg

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Louis Kriesberg, "The Development of the Conflict Resolution Field" Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, eds. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen, Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997, pp. 51-77.

Kriesberg offers an overview of the history of the field of conflict resolution. He sees the field as having developed in four distinct phases.

Kriesberg identifies 1914-1945 as a precursor period. World wars and fascism had undermined people's belief that democracy and economic development would lead to peaceful coexistence. Researchers began to study revolution and class struggles, organizational conflict such as business-labor conflict, and to analyze the causes of particular wars. Some of the first social-psychological analyses of conflict were made. Human relations and collective bargaining models of conflict resolution were developed.

The period from 1946 to 1969 saw a rapid increase in conflict resolution research. Game theory was developed. Quantitative studies analyzed the incidence of international war and cooperation. Researchers examined traditional diplomacy, and the uses of nonviolent action. Sociologists studied conflict processes, exploring the similarities and difference between various types of conflict, and distinguishing between constructive and destructive processes. Peace researchers examined the social and institutional bases of war, and developed the Graduated Reciprocation in Tension-Reduction (GRIT) technique for deescalating prolonged conflicts. Conflict resolution practice saw increases in unofficial diplomacy internationally, and in the use of nonviolent action and mediation domestically.

From 1970 to 1985, the practice of conflict resolution flourished, and consensus was reached on many of the core ideas of the field. Scholars agreed on the importance of reframing conflicts as shared problems with mutually acceptable solutions, on the usefulness of intermediaries in resolving conflict, and on the importance of training for mediators and negotiators. Feminist theory and social movement theory added important new insights to the field. Work continued in the areas of game theory and social psychology. Conflict resolution became a social movement in the U.S., fostered in part by peacemaking activities of religious groups, and by the rise of ADR in the legal system. By the end of the Cold War, it had become a global movement. Problem solving workshops became a popular form of Track Two diplomacy.

In this present phase, the field has extended its focus to include conflict prevention and post-settlement reconciliation. The nature of international conflicts is changed in the post-Cold War world, and researchers have struggled to understand the new world dynamics. New work has been done on dispute systems design, on the nature of identity conflicts, and on ways to address the emotional aspects of conflict. Conflict resolution practices have been extended into new settings, and have become increasingly institutionalized in the U.S. Internationally, the use of intermediaries and intervention is increasing.

Currently the field is marked by both areas of broad consensus and sharp disagreement. Scholars agree that different strategies are appropriate for different types and stages of conflicts. They agree in emphasizing the influence of the adversarial parties on conflict escalation and de-escalation. And there is increasing recognition that social conflicts involve many parties and issues, and so are often interlocked. Scholars still differ broadly in their emphasis on conflict resolution, or dispute settlement. They differ in their approach to power and force; some see coercion as an inevitable element of any resolution, while others view force as antithetical to genuine conflict resolution. Finally, they disagree over which strategies are appropriate for which types and stages of conflict.

While the fields of conflict resolution and international relations are converging in some areas, they should remain distinct (and complementary) in others. Both fields share an emphasis on seeking win/win outcomes. International case studies have improved both fields' understanding of mediation. Similarly, institutional studies have improved both fields understanding of what is involved in achieving a durable conflict outcome. The increase in non-state actors on the international scene has also drawn the fields together. In their practices, the fields of conflict resolution and international relations are often complementary. Unofficial Track Two diplomacy provides a useful complement to official diplomacy.

Kriesberg concludes by observing that many of the disagreements in the field of conflict resolution stem from value differences. People assign different priorities to values such as freedom, economic well-being, justice, empowerment, or fairness. What they value most shapes their preferred approach to conflict resolution. The field itself cannot resolve such moral differences. However, the field can and does offer a wide variety of perspectives and methods from which to choose.