Nature of Intractability

Louis Kriesberg

October 2003

Additional insights into the nature of intractability are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Designating particular conflicts as intractable or not can be contentious for many reasons. Every conflict changes over time: some gradually come to be regarded as intractable; many of them later appear to become less so; and others subsequently again become highly intractable. Consequently, a conflict's characterization as intractable depends on the time perspective that is used, as well as the qualities of the conflict that are deemed to characterize intractability. Furthermore, the conflict may be intractable for some members of one or more sides, but not for others.

These issues about designating particular conflicts as intractable indicate the dynamic and complex nature of intractability, which has multiple dimensions and varies over time and among various adversary groups. Nevertheless, the concept of intractable conflicts incorporates certain core elements.[1] Essentially, intractable conflicts persist for a long time, in a way that is objectionable to at least some partisans or interveners and despite their efforts to end or transform what they view as objectionable.

Nature of Conflicts and their Intractability

Since intractability is a quality of particular social conflicts, one must be clear about the definition of social conflicts and the major ways in which they differ. I adopt a broad meaning of social conflict here: it is a relationship in which at least one party believes it has incompatible goals with another.[2] This may be manifested in many ways, changing over time. So defined, many conflicts are conducted in accord with rules the adversaries regard as legitimate. This is true in most domestic conflicts, waged within the context of political and judicial institutions. Furthermore, such conflicts are widely viewed as serving the interests of the adversaries and the welfare of society as a whole. Thus, Americans generally value their court systems and hold their decisions to be legitimate.

Defining Intractable Conflicts

Intractability, like the concept of social conflict itself, is variously defined. For some observers it is an analytic concept, but partisans and intermediaries may use the term to characterize a conflict and so try to affect its future course. In this essay, the concept is treated analytically and three dimensions are stressed:

  • intractable conflicts are protracted conflicts, persisting for a long time;
  • they are waged in ways that the adversaries or interested observers regard as destructive, and
  • partisans and intermediaries attempt, but fail, to end or transform them.

Admittedly, what constitutes a "long time" may be disputed. Some fights may be regarded as protracted if they persist for a year, when the issues in contention are usually resolved in a matter of days or weeks. Social expectations are important in judging a conflict's persistence. Analytically, however, it is useful to set some parameters, and for large-scale social conflicts persistence beyond one social generation is appropriate. That indicates that the parties in the conflict are likely to have learned and internalized reasons to continue their fight with each other. Conflicts certainly vary in length of time, but such measurements depend on the identification of the parties on each side of the conflict.

Not all long conflicts are considered intractable here. Thus, conflicts between workers and managers, or between people of the right and of the left, may seem interminable, but in many circumstances are well managed and therefore not regarded as intractable. When the persistent conflicts are, or threaten to be, conducted with extensive violence or otherwise destructive behavior, observers and partisans are prone to regard them as intractable. Conflicts certainly vary in their degree of intensity, in the imposition of injuries, and in the expression of hatred and hostility.[3]

In addition, if conflicts are long and destructive, efforts to end or transform them are likely to be made; but their failure contributes to the conflicts being regarded as intractable. The de-escalating efforts may be undertaken by partisans of one or more sides in the conflict or by outside intermediaries. The magnitude of the efforts, in terms of parties engaged, the resources used, and the frequency of peacemaking attempts made, characterizes variations in this dimension.

These three dimensions jointly define intractability. No one alone suffices. A conflict, manifested in economic or political strife, may endure for generations but at such a comfortable level of rivalry that it is not viewed as intractable. Or, a conflict may explode in a terribly destructive outburst, which is clearly terminated, perhaps by the destruction or dissolution of one of the parties.[4] Finally, a conflict may be subjected to many attempts at resolution, but may be regarded as below the level of severity or longevity necessary to be characterized as intractable.

These dimensions, however, are not independent of one another. In many ways, high levels in one dimension tend to produce high levels in other dimensions. Thus, a destructively conducted struggle tends to be prolonged and the target of many failed peacemaking efforts. Similarly, as a conflict goes on, it is likely to be waged increasingly destructively and with more unsuccessful efforts to end it. Finally, failed efforts at peacemaking often result in hardened antagonistic positions, increasing the difficulties of reaching a mutually acceptable accommodation.

The character of a conflict changes as it becomes more or less intractable. The changing character may be seen as variations in the core components of every conflict.

I stress four components of social conflicts:

  • the identities or conceptions the adversaries have of themselves and of their adversaries;
  • the grievances they hold against each other;
  • the goals they set to change the other to reduce their grievance; and
  • the means they use to achieve their goals.

Some conceptions of self and others, certain grievances, various goals, and particular conflict methods are especially conducive to a conflict becoming and remaining intractable.

The way in which members of each side in a conflict view their collective self is shaped by their conception of other collectivities and by how those others view them. Thus, during the Cold War, many Americans regarded being anti-Communist as an important component of being American. In general, members of one or more sides often rank themselves as superior to the other side's members, which fosters intractable conflicts. In the extreme, one side may view another group as subhuman or as evil, and as appropriate targets for destruction.[5]

Members of one or more sides in every conflict have grievances, some of which contribute to intractability. This is the case when members of one side feel grossly wronged by the oppression and injustices imposed by the other side, or feel that their very existence is threatened. Such feelings tend to be found in conflicts that are intractable.

Members of one side may formulate goals that the opposing side's members regard as particularly damaging and costly, and do not appear to be subject to compromise. Such goals are associated with protracted conflicts. Finally, members of one or more sides may believe that the other side will yield only to force, and that they have the capacity to inflict extreme violence that will coerce the other side to yield. These methods tend to be reciprocated and to contribute to the conflict's destructiveness and intractability.

[1] Putnam, Linda and Julia M. Wondolleck, "Intractability: Definitions, Dimensions, and Distinctions" in Making Sense of Intractable Environmental Conflicts. Roy Lewicki, Barbara Gray and Michael Elliot, eds. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003. <>; Louis Kriesberg, Terrell A. Northrup and Stuart J. Thorson, Intractable Conflicts and Their Transformation. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 1989. <>.

[2] Kriesberg, Louis, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution, Third Edition. Boulder: Rowan and Littlefield. 2007. Fourth Edition (2011) available here.

[3] For a more detailed discussion of the nature of intractable conflicts, see: Louis Kreisberg, "Nature, Dynamics, and Phases of Intractability" in Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases Of Intractable Conflict. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, Pamela R. Aall, eds. 2005. <>.

[4] Mexico in 1968 and 1972

[5] Terrell Northrup, "The Dynamics of Identity in Personal and Social Conflicts", in Louis Kriesberg, Terrell A. Northrup and Stuart J. Thorson, Intractable Conflicts and Their Transformation. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press. 1989. <>; Patrick Coy and Lynne M. Woehrle, Social Conflicts and Collective Identities, Lanham, Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2000. <>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Kriesberg, Louis. "Nature of Intractability." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <>.

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