- Thomas Aquinas
Interpersonal communication is one of the fundamental underpinnings of society.
We can define communication, as Krauss and Morsella do, as the transfer of information. In this context communication channels can be understood simply as the modes or pathways through which two parties might communicate. As population grows and technology evolves accordingly, these channels of communication change as well. Many have observed that "the world is getting smaller," referring not only to the ease of travel, but also to the ease of communication around the globe. Unfortunately, however, just because communication is easy to accomplish does not mean that it is done, or that the result is an increase in understanding.
Thus, we must distinguish between communication channels and the messages that use them. In intractable conflicts communication problems can arise from poorly communicated ideas which result in misunderstandings and/or from poor channels of communication. This building block is primarily concerned with the latter.
Communication in Conflict
Often, during an intractable conflict, there is very little communication between the involved parties and there is also little sharing of information, intents, and beliefs. The nature of intractable conflict by definition precludes the possibility that people are actively seeking conciliation.
Prior to a conflict reaching that point, however, the parties might find themselves in a period of increased tensions. There are two possible reactions to this situation.
In either case -- when communication increases or when communication decreases during a crisis -- once hostility becomes entrenched, channels of communication will degrade quickly. As stated earlier, in intractable conflicts communication may have ceased altogether.
One of the first goals in ameliorating intractable conflicts is to reestablish channels of communication. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis the leaders of the United States and the Soviet Union established direct links so that future crises could be better managed.
The Cold War held the threat of human annihilation and thus almost required channels of communication between bitter enemies. Though other conflicts may not threaten human extinction, they may threaten that for a large population in any particular region. Thus the importance of re-opening communication is very high in other conflicts as well.
Third parties are often effective at reestablishing channels of communication -- they may in fact become THE channel of communication between parties exploring conciliation. A third party can carry messages back and forth, and explore ideas for settlement that the two parties could not discuss face-to-face. Third parties have the added benefit of being able to manage the dialogue such that intent and meaning can be communicated without hostile interpretations.
 Robert Krauss and Ezequiel Morsella, "Communication and Conflict," in M. Deutsch and P. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2000), 131-143.
 Quincy Wright, A Study of War, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1967).
 Stephen Van Evera, "Why Cooperation Failed in 1914," World Politics 38, 1 (Winter 1985), pp. 80-117. Jack Levy, "Necessary Conditions in Case Studies: Preferences, Constraints, and Choices in July 1914," in G. Goertz and H., eds., Necessary Conditions: Theory, Methodology, and Applications (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 113-145.
 G. Allison, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missle Crisis, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1971).
 Krauss and Morsella "Communication," David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
 Matthew Evangelista, "Cooperation Theory and Disarmament Theory in the 1950s," World Politics Vol. 42, No. 4, (Summer 1990) pp 502-28.
 Marc Levy, "Mediation of Prisoner's Dilemma Conflicts and the Importance of the Cooperation Threshold: The Case of Namibia," Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol. 29 No. 4 (Fall 1985), pp. 581-603.
Use the following to cite this article:
Ouellet, Julian. "Channels of Communication." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/bi-essay/absence-communication>.