Structure: Lenses for the Big Picture

Summary of

Structure: Lenses for the Big Picture

By John Paul Lederach

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: John Paul Lederach, "Structure: Lenses for the Big Picture," chap. in Building Peace, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 1997), pp. 37-62.

Lederach presents a framework for understanding the structure of armed conflicts. The author analyzes the actors involved on a three level model, and explains a way of understanding the interrelationships between the many issues involved in typical armed conflicts.

Levels of Leadership

Leadership occurs at three different levels: top level, the middle-range, and grassroots. Different peacebuilding activities are possible at different levels. Top level actors consist of political, military or sometimes religious leaders. These actors are highly visible, and perceived to be highly powerful. Their high public profile usually serves to lock top level leaders into their position within the conflict. The middle range consists of people whose positions of leadership are not directly dependent on the power hierarchy of the top level. Middle range leaders include heads of educational or humanitarian organizations, ethnic leaders, respected heads of business or agriculture, or internationally known figures such as Nobel- or poet-laureates. Middle range leaders often know the top leadership, and have their own connections to the grassroots constituency. They generally have a lower public profile than top level leaders. Their position does not depend on political or military power, but on social relations and activities. Because of this, middle range leaders often have preexisting relationships with leaders on the opponent's side.

The grassroots leadership operates in direct connection to the masses of people. They include refugee camp officials, NGO workers, and health workers. During armed conflict, grassroots leadership generally focuses on day-to-day survival at the local level. They often have a keen understanding of local conditions and politics.

Generally the higher the level of leadership, the more information about the overall picture is available, the broader is the impact of decisions, and the less the leaders are affected by the consequences. The lower the level, the less information and decision-making power there is, and the more strongly they suffer the consequences.

Top level peacebuilding activities focus on opening high-level negotiations to achieve cease-fires. These activities are often lead by a few highly visible mediators and negotiators. The top level approach assumes "that the key to achieving peace lies with identifying the representative leaders and getting them to agree."[p. 45] Top level leaders assume that peace will "trickle-down" from top level agreements, and that the lower levels' role in peacebuilding is simply implementing top level agreements.

Middle range peacebuilding activities include problem-solving workshops, training people in conflict resolution skills, and the formation of peace commissions. Middle range leaders may draw on their preexisting relations with members of the opposition to form balanced, insider-partial mediation teams. Because of their connections to top level leadership, grassroots constituencies, and members of the opposition, Lederach sees the middle range as a key location for peacebuilding.

Bottom-up approaches to peacebuilding from the grassroots level include formation of local peace commissions, educational work in prejudice reduction and conflict management, and counseling to alleviate postwar trauma.


Lederach adopts researcher Maire Dugan's nested foci paradigm for relating the immediate issues within a conflict to the larger systemic aspects. Issues arise within relationships, which exist within the larger context of subsystems, and ultimately society-wide systems. Dugan illustrates these contexts with the example of a school fight between Black and white gangs. In responding to the conflict one can look at the issue that sparked the fight, the quality of the relationship between the groups more generally, the aspects of the school system which contributed to the conflict, and the broader problem of racism throughout society. Limiting analysis to one stage is likely to deform the understanding of the conflict. Responses based on such flawed and limited understandings will be misdirected, and are likely to be ineffective or even harmful. Effective peacebuilding then must be sensitive to the nesting of issues within larger contexts.

These approaches to understanding issues and actors have two general features in common. First, they are both integrative, comprehensive approaches to understanding conflicts. Both point to the "need for recognition, inclusion, and coordination across all levels and activities" of peacebuilding.[p. 60] Second, both approaches indicate that the middle levels have the greatest potential for promoting and sustaining the peace process. Lederach argues that "middle range actors and subsystems and relationship foci [have] the greatest potential to serve as sources of practical, immediate action and to sustain long-term transformation in the setting."[p. 61]