Conflict Resolution Field

Guy Burgess

Co-Director of the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium and the Beyond Intractability Project

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

One of the big problems with the conflict resolution field and one of the real challenges is to move beyond its table-oriented view of itself. The conflict resolution types tend to think of themselves as experts in managing what goes on around a table. I recently was reflecting on a panel I was on, a long time ago, with a guy who was a historian on the Manhattan project, he was a physicist and he was a real peace activist as a lot of people on the Manhattan Project were. He was saying that one of the real privileges of being a scientist is to understand the incredible importance of orders of magnitude. And he went on to explain that nuclear weapons are four orders of magnitude more powerful, that's a factor of 10,000, than previous weapons. That change over four orders of magnitude isn't just quantitative, it's qualitative, the whole world is different when you can do that. As Einstein phrases, "Nuclear weapons have changed everything but our way of thinking," still makes a lot of sense. I was trying to think about what else is four orders of magnitude different. The difference between an ant walking down the sidewalk and the International Space Station orbiting the Earth is about four orders of magnitude. I never really timed how fast an ant goes. Then I was thinking about a lot of the intractable contemporary conflicts that plague the world today. Take Israel/Palestine for example, this is just one of a zillion examples, it's just the one that everyone seems to want to talk about. I don't know exactly what the population is, but let's say it's about 10 million total. Then you imagine a series of interventions, and a really good people-to-people dialogue kind of process might involve a hundred people. So that's 100 to 10 million, that's five orders of magnitude difference, and when you start to think, the human mind has a hard time comprehending numbers that big. We do things at the scale of a few hundred people and we get surprised when it doesn't work on the scale of millions. We have got to start thinking in terms of conflict interventions that operate on the scale of millions. That's what Carl Rove is good at, that's what propaganda theory, the manipulation of mass media. We got really good at doing that for destructive purposes. That same kind of destructive stuff is done on the left as well as the right, though at the moment I'm finding the right to be in particular, as we are talking the day after John Kerry's defeat in his bid to beat George Bush. But thinking in terms of this scale, it isn't just making it bigger. What makes a society of millions of people is specialization. There are enormous complex structures, there are a zillion social roles, it operates in a very chaotic environment. You have to start thinking in terms of interventions and actions not just as something a facilitator can do around a table, but you've got to start thinking in terms of people in lots and lots of different roles can do to improve things. That requires a whole different image of how you think about problem solving. The United States is a country that prides itself on building gadgets. We have great engineers and a few things we excel at and one of those is gadgets. And gadgets imply that you have an engineer who goes out and knows what he wants the machine he's going to build to do, and he goes out and designs it and builds it. Then tries it out, if it doesn't work, then, "Well, yeah I forgot to do this," then he goes back and redesigns it until it works. Then they make a zillion copies of it and people start using it and if it breaks then people know how it works. You think in terms of design and there is a sense of doing that in the conflict field as well. We talk about dispute systems design as if we're going to design this whole process in which people handle disputes and when you think about the complexity and scale, it's not going to happen. The alternative strategy, and the thing about the social system and the human body are biological systems, is that nobody every designed them, the evolved and they have staggering complexity and they're chaotic. So the way doctors who've figured out how to deal with the fact that they're trying to fix a system that they don't understand is that they take a pathology treatment approach. Sometime they don't let you know that they know that they don't know everything, but the core of the medical approach is that you try to identify pathologies, which are subsystems within the human body or the larger system that are having undesirable consequences. So once you do that, then you can try to figure out ways of interrupting that disease or injury process. In medicine, there are a bunch of injuries and diseases that we know how to outright cure; you get strep throat, yet get antibiotics and you're fine, you break your leg, they set it, it grows back and you're almost as good as new. There are other kinds of diseases that we understand, hay fever comes to mind, that we can't cure, but we can provide symptomatic relief and make it not so miserable. There are others that we say, "Well, we can't cure it, but you'll get over it, you've got your own immune system that will somehow handle it." Then there are other ones that they can't cure and you get hospice care basically. The same sort of principles apply to conflict. We can't make the whole system with which society deals with conflict perfect. We can't design it. But we can identify pathological dynamics that make it especially bad. And some of these we know how to fix. There are terrible conflicts that arise out of misunderstandings and people just think someone else is doing something terrible when they're not, and we know how to fix that. There are other things were there are continuing tensions between some groups and we can provide some symptomatic relief, but we can't make everything better. What we can do is embark on a program of improved dispute resolution. So the whole image is that we're taking what is already a process. And the truth is that societies handle conflicts remarkably well. If it didn't, you wouldn't be able to have basically functioning societies among hundreds of millions of people. The fact that we exist here at all shows that we're not really all that bad, just every so often things really get out of hand. There is a potential for a "perfect storm" conflict that is catastrophic on a grand scale, especially in the age of weapons of mass destruction.