A Complexity-Oriented Approach to Intractable Conflict

The Moving Beyond Intractability seminars take what we call a complexity-oriented approach to intractable conflict and responses to it.  While our primary focus is on very large-scale conflicts (the kind that involve millions of people), much of what we have to say is also applicable to smaller scale conflicts. 

We believe that the development of a much more sophisticated, complexity-oriented approach to intractable conflicts is the key to successfully transforming them. Only by using a complexity-oriented approach can we address the underlying issues and dynamics that are driving the conflict and keeping it alive, and come up with remedies that make the situation better instead of having unintended negative consquenses or little effect at all.

Blueprint / Bird Flock Graphic

In issue which we explore early on in the Frontiers Seminar is the critical distinction between "complicated systems" and "complex adaptive systems"— a concept we first learned from Wendell Jones's contribution to Beyond Intractability. In "complicated systems," the system elements are known, and the connections between the elements are understood and predictable. That means that the components of the system react to each other and to changing conditions in consistent, predictable ways.  System components do not have their own goals; they do not make independent decisions.  It makes sense to think of such systems in terms of mechanical metaphors--machines that work the same way every time (at least until something breaks).

In "complex systems," many independent actors, each with their own goals and decision making processes, seek to advance their own interests based on their image of the environment and their own rational and non-rational decision making strategies. The actors, the relationships between the actors, and the behavior of the actors are much less understood and predictable. Complex systems develop through evolution; they are not designed.  So, there are no central control points, no firm connections, no firm rules of behavior for the system as a whole.  As a result, an action in one part of the system will affect other parts of the system in indeterminate ways.

The big idea here is that large-scale intractable conflicts are complex, not complicated systems. This means these conflicts are much harder to understand, predict, or influence in predictable ways. Many traditional conflict resolution strategies are premised on actors behaving in rational, predictable (interest-based) ways with the expectation that, if a solution can be found that will meet each sides’ interests, then a negotiated, win-win resolution can be obtained. Often, the assumption is that, if things don't work out, the reason is that the process was flawed and that all one needs to do is redesign the process. If, for example, the problem is that the actors aren't thinking rationally, then the solution is to structure a process that will enable (or force) them to put anger and other emotions aside and get them to start thinking rationally.

One example is the conflict over guns in the U.S. Every time a mass shooting occurs, large number of people call for increased gun control, believing that the way to stop such tragedies is to get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.  Gun-control advocates argue that gun supporters just aren't being "rational," but rather acting on the basis of selfishness or fear.  An equally large number of people go out and buy (or fight to keep) their guns, believing equally strongly that the only way to stay safe is to arm oneself. These people accuse the other side of being irrationally afraid of guns and naive in thinking that=guns can be controlled. ("If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns," they argue.)  Both views see the situation as either simple or at best complicated, but not complex. Neither approach (strong gun control or arming everyone who wants a gun) is likely to stop mass shootings in this country.  To do this, we need to develop a much more complexity-oriented understanding of the nature of the problem, and a multi-dimensional response that addresses the many different elements that are driving the shooters and allowing these events to occur over and over again. 

Complex adaptive systems are much more like biological systems in that they evolve, change, and adapt. While we can intervene in biological systems with some success, we are often surprised because our interventions don’t work out in ways that we expected. So interventions in complex systems must be flexible and adaptable, and continuous monitoring of the system is important. This is true in human conflicts as well. We can try things, based on our imperfect understanding of the elements and dynamics of the conflict system. But then we need to carefully watch to see the results of our efforts (particularly unintended results) and adapt appropriately.

We also need realistic goals and, unfortunately, full resolution is often not realistic.  More, realistic, and still enormously beneficial, objectives tend to be more modest and focused on promoting more constructive conflict interactions while limiting those that are destructive or escalate the conflict further.

Most of the intractable conflicts we look at on BI are very large scale.  Certainly family conflicts can be intractable, and much of what we suggest on this site applies to them too. But the kinds of conflicts we are concerned with here--the ones that are threatening the well-being of whole communities, countries, or the globe--involve thousands or, more often, millions of people.  This requires, at a minimum, the ability to navigate the enormously complex web of relationships that connect negotiators with their constituents and each other.  So efforts to move beyond intractability need to happen at a much larger scale than the typical negotiation or dialogue table.  We must develop processes that involve thousands or even millions of disputants, not just a few.  

This means that we need to supplement our field's well-honed ability to manage conversations around the table, with mass media-based efforts to manage and transform conflicts at a community or even societal-level scale.  We can't realistically expect conflict and peace professionals to be able to solve today's big problems for us---there simply are not enough of them.  We need to find better ways of helping grassroots citizens move up the conflict learning curve more rapidly in ways that increase their ability to constructively deal with their own conflict problems.  We hope Beyond Intractability and the Moving Beyond Intractability Seminars will enable more people to discover more constructive approaches to difficult and intractable conflicts, enabling them to improve their own conflict interactions, or following a train-the-trainer model, take the ideas further to reach as many people as possible.

As a species distinguished by our tool-making ability and a dazzling array of technological accomplishments, we humans tend to approach our problems as a tool- making challenge.  That means we try to design a complicated system that can be relied upon to produce the desired result. Unfortunately, the complexity of intractable conflict processes limits the utility of this approach.  What's needed, and what the Conflict Frontiers Seminar, especially, and the MBI project more generally, intend to explore, are strategies for building a complexity-oriented approach to these problems.