Guy Burgess
Michelle Maiese

July 2004
Updated by Heidi Burgess in June, 2015.

Sources of Complexity

Additional insights into complexity are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Many intractable conflicts are extremely complex processes with large numbers of actors using many different strategies to pursue many different objectives over a long period of time. The ability of people to deal constructively with these conflicts is largely determined by how well they understand the situation. If the parties do not understand who is involved, what they are doing, and why, it is very easy for them to adopt strategies that are unlikely to succeed.

Complexity theorists often distinguish between complex systems and complicated systems.  Complicated systems are ones that have lots of parts that are interrelated in complicated ways, but they are "determined." This means that a change in one area will always create a change in another area, because the two things are linked in predictable ways. This is the way machines work (or sometimes break). The brake pedal in a car is connected to the brake line, which is ultimately connected to the brakes. So when you push on the brake pedal, the car slows to a halt--almost every time, unless the brake system is broken. 

Complex systems are not as predictable. One side can make a conciliatory offer to another side, and it is hard to predict what will happen. They may accept it and make a reciprocal gesture, they make ignore the offer, decry it as a trick, or try to take advantage of it to gain power in the confrontation. Even if one knows how the opponent has responded to similar situations in the past (which is helpful), that is no guarantee of how they will respond in this situation at the present time. This is the nature of complex systems. Complexity makes conflict dynamics difficult to understand or predict. Thus, the fact that a conflict involves complex elements often contributes to its intractability.

Everything tends to be interrelated in complex systems. So a change in one thing is likely to cause other changes throughout the system, many of which are hard to predict or even to trace once they occur. This makes effective intervention -- by third parties and by the disputants themselves much more difficult. There are two major areas in which complexity presents serious difficulties--technical complexity and procedural complexity.

Technical Complexity

Technical complexity involves difficulties in fact finding, technical information, and the systematic identification and analyses of options and their likely consequences. For example, conflicts involving the technical analyses of risks (of nuclear power plants, chemical plants, oil refineries, agricultural herbicides and pesticides) are often so complex that neither the decision makers nor the public really understand the issues or the decisions they have to make. Even experts do not understand these systems completely. Some aspects of them may be determinant, but "risk" means there is a "chance" something bad will happen, but there is a chance it will not. The best scientists can do is estimate the magnitude of the risk. People then make a choice about whether to accept that risk or not--and if they decided not to, that often implies accepting a different risk, because outcomes are unpredictable in complex systems.

Conflicts over the economic effects of alternative trade policies or the environmental and economic impacts of mining, logging and other extractive industries are similarly complex. In these and countless similar situations, careful analyses by highly trained experts can play a crucial role in helping the parties decide which options are worth fighting for and which ones are worth fighting against.

Problems arise, however, when different experts come to opposite conclusions, as often happens when each side hires its own experts. While bias may be part of the cause of such differences, so too can be different interpretations of the same data, or different scientific techniques used to collect, measure or analyze data. To avoid this, it is often useful to develop a data mediation or joint fact-finding process, in which the experts cooperate in demystifying the complex technical information as much as possible. Similar expert-based, fact-finding procedures can be used to help the parties assess their military, political, and/or legal options in a particular conflict situation. All of these are areas where the judgment of trained professionals can help the parties make wiser decisions, even when clear, deterministic answers cannot be found.

Procedural Complexity

Conflict complexity also has an impact on procedural issues. Negotiation strategies that can reliably help small numbers of people find win-win solutions to small-scale problems can easily break down in situations involving large numbers of parties and issues. Public-policy conflicts are often extremely complex processes that may have hundreds or even thousands of actors taking an active role in the dispute process. These actors are likely to be organized into many different interest groups, creating multi-party conflicts that cannot be effectively approached using a simple two-party conflict methods.

In addition, it may be difficult to identify all of the stakeholders. Some of the parties with a stake in the conflict, such as the people who are advocating a policy change, and the vocal people or groups that oppose that change, are obvious. However, there are often many other parties that remain largely hidden, yet are likely to be affected by and therefore concerned about, any decision that is made. If these people are left out of the decision making process, but are adversely affected by the decision that results, they may become angry and try to reverse the decision or block its implementation.[1]

In addition to failing to identify people or groups who might be (or become) involved in a conflict, disputants can also overlook issues which are important to others, but are not important to themselves. Often people will not realize that there is more than one way to see a situation, and that other people or groups may see the conflict differently than they do.[2] Parties may also fail to identify all of the options that are available to their opponents. This is especially true in highly escalated and intractable conflicts.

As conflicts escalate the number of issues in dispute tends to increase. Initially, a dispute may focus on a particular event or problem, which is very clear. As the dispute goes on, however, the parties bring up more and more related problems, expanding the number of issues in contention. In the case of intractable conflicts, some of which have gone on for years, the numbers of issues may be in the tens or even hundreds. Sometimes the initial issues may recede in importance, being replaced by completely different problems and issues. In other cases, the conflict consists of a series of interlocking disputes in which parties' efforts to advance their interests in unrelated areas create additional points of conflict in these related disputes. It can become very difficult to even identify all of the issues in conflict, let alone solve them. Yet if important issues are not identified, it is impossible to develop solutions to the conflict that will successfully resolve it.

Finally, often disputes that appear to be "new" are actually repeated situations or continuations of an underlying conflict or problem that has been going on for a long time. When the parties involved are the same, the relationship to past similar disputes is usually fairly obvious. However, individual parties may change, or particular circumstances or precipitating events may change, leading the disputants to believe theirs is a new or unique situation when actually it is not.

Dealing with Complexity

When disputes are part of a long-running conflict, they are often more complex, and more deep-rooted than disputes which really are arising for the first time. For this reason it is important to be aware of the dispute and conflict history, and realize the impact that history has on the current situation and the parties' interpretation of that situation. Understanding who was involved, what the old issues were, and how the conflict was handled in the past is key to being able to confront the conflict effectively in the present. Without a thorough conflict assessment, disputants are likely to misinterpret what is currently going on, and may well try to implement solutions that won't work or will make the situation worse, not better. The same thing is true if disputants ignore current, related disputes or conflicts. Sometimes several related disputes are going on at once with overlapping parties or issues. Sometimes broader political, economic, or social trends impact on a smaller-scale dispute. If the impact of the related disputes or ongoing political, economic, or social dynamics is ignored, the chances of effectively responding to the immediate dispute situation are greatly reduced.

Complex conflicts are likely to involve a long series of often overlapping dispute episodes addressing different aspects of the overall conflict. In some cases, these individual disputes may be negotiated or mediated. Other disputes may be addressed through legal or political processes, public demonstrations, or police or military action. Often several of these processes are pursued simultaneously or sequentially, further complicating the process. Dealing with complexity requires effective conflict analysis or mapping, first, to clarify as much as possible about what is going on, particularly focusing on what the relationships and conflict dynamics are (in addition to more static parties, interests, and needs).  Then responses must be designed that not only improve the targeted part of the system, but ideally will reverberate in constructive ways in other parts of the system and in relation to other interventions.  

Such constructive interataction between interventions requires intervention coordination. This coordination may be intentional and overt, or it may be more just a norm among the parties to stay abreast of what others are doing, establishing relationships between different "third siders" and trying to work together or in concert as much as possible to magnify the effect of any one intervention. Many conflict scholars today are calling for "meta-conflict resolution," in which all the different aspects of a conflict, including social, political, economic, psychological, legal, and other factors are all addressed simultaneously by different actors working in parallel (with varying degrees of coordination) to bring about positive change. 

Another key to dealing with procedural complexity is not to promise to do more than can be done. It is unrealistic to expect a single effort to resolve every problem. Promising "resolution" at all may be unrealistic; it may make more sense to just try to "examine the issues" or resolve one aspect of the conflict, or work to improve intergroup communication or understanding, before one tries to deal with the entire conflict. As with most incremental approaches, it is useful to analyze the full scope of conflict, identify those conflict problems that are having the most severe adverse effects, and develop interventions designed to limit those problems. In some cases this may involve a negotiated resolution of some of the sub-issues. In other cases, it may involve efforts to limit escalation, open channels of communication, or expose parties to nonviolent strategies for better advancing their interests. An intervention that is modest, realistic, and works is superior to an overly ambitious plan that fails and undermines the parties' confidence in conflict resolution processes overall.

Also likely to be useful are approaches which handle a group of related conflicts with a standard procedure. By designing a dispute management system, related disputes can be grouped together and handled in the same way, simplifying the process and the cost of individual dispute handling. In addition, skill building or capacity building projects which improve the ability of individual people to deal with their own conflicts can help deal with complexity from the "ground up." Relying on local knowledge embodied in grassroots dispute resolution systems can often be an effective way to deal with complexity.


[1] For more on this dynamic, see the knowledge base essay on "spoilers."

[2] For more on this, see the knowledge base essays on framing.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Guy and Michelle Maiese. "Complexity." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2004 <>.

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