Summary of "Conflict Resolution among the Bushmen: Lessons in Dispute Systems Design"

Summary of

Conflict Resolution among the Bushmen: Lessons in Dispute Systems Design

By William L. Ury

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

William L. Ury, "Conflict Resolution among the Bushmen: Lessons in Dispute Systems Design," Negotiation Journal vol. 11, no. 4 (October 1995), pp. 379-389.

Ury presents a preliminary analysis of traditional dispute resolution methods among the Bushmen. He argues that their traditional methods actually constitute a complete and effective dispute resolution system

Basic Functions of Dispute Systems

An effective dispute resolution system performs six basic functions. First it should seek to prevent disputes from arising. Further functions focus on resolving disputes. In the second place it should resolve disputes by healing the parties' emotional wounds. Third, it should act to reconcile the parties' divergent interests. Fourth, effective dispute systems should determine the parties' rights. As in a court of law, an effective dispute system must determine the facts of the case, determine which rights and norms are at stake, and decide which norms have precedence. Fourth, a dispute system must test the parties' relative power. Effective systems will avert the use of power-based strategies when possible, and offer lower cost power-based alternatives when not. Finally, effective systems will contain unresolved disputes to prevent escalation into violence, and steer them back into the system for further resolution.

Ury's analysis suggests that the Bushmen's traditional approaches to handling conflict fulfill these six basic functions.


Bushmen children are taught to fear and avoid violence. They are also taught to avoid disputes. For instance, parents and elders emphasize sharing good fortune as a way of showing appreciation for that good fortune. Adults continue this practice of sharing through hxaro--the systematic practice of gift exchange. Hxaro fosters friendly relations among the Bushmen. Children are also given a strong sense of respect for community norms, and Bushmen society is characterized by its members' strong social discipline. Members of the community are generally alert to the early signs of conflict or tension. Friends and relatives of the parties will intervene early in an incipient conflict and encourage the parties to discuss their problem. They will also actively seek out the advice of community members who are experienced in resolving disputes.

Healing Emotional Wounds

When the parties cannot talk out their disagreement on their own, the community elders will convene a xotla--a public meeting to discuss the issue. All the adult members of the community attend, and the parties are allowed to express their grievances and feelings publicly before the assembled community. One key function of the xotla is to give the parties a sense of being heard. Ury notes that the xotla can go on for days, until the parties have literally exhausted their negative feelings.

Group tensions may by resolved through a "trance dance." Again all adult members of the community attend. People sing and clap rhythmically while the dancers dance themselves into a hypnotic trance. The tranced people are believed to receive divine advise, which they then transmit to the rest of the community. The trace dance process unites the community behind the common purpose of resolving tension. It also gives participants a broader perspective on the dispute. Bushmen tradition also emphasizes apologies and forgiveness. The offending party may apologize publicly and ask for forgiveness. This publicity tends to discourage private grudges and grievances from continuing.

Reconciling Interests

The xotla also serves as a forum for consensual decision-making. Concerned parties are alerted to the coming meeting ahead of time, and so have time to consider the problem and possible solutions. The goal of the xotla is to reach "a solution that meets the needs of everyone and that everyone can support."[p. 382] The xotla itself is an open and inclusive process. Anyone can speak, and can question the parties. Bushmen culture is strongly egalitarian, so much so that individuals tend to avoid assuming authority, or even being the center of attention. This mutual deference helps insure that everyone in the community has a say in decisions, and the any opposition is discovered and heard. Elders act as facilitators rather than arbitrators, and have the task of voicing the emerging consensus.


Violations of community norms are dealt with by confronting the offender with witnesses. For a first offense the aggrieved party will gather three members of the community and show them the evidence of transgression. They will then go to the offender and admonish him not to violate the norm. A repeat offense is responded to with additional witnesses. The goal is to educate the offender regarding the norms. Given the social interdependence of the Bushman, and their intense socialization to respect social norms, this approach is usually sufficient. More complex or serious cases may be resolved in the xotla. In recent times the Bushmen have also used the neighboring Tswana people as a court of last resort.

Testing Relative Power

The above techniques attempt to avert the use of power-based strategies for resolving disputes. The Bushmen also have relatively low cost power-based alternatives for dealing with conflict. Relative power is tested by figuring out who needs whom the most. Bushman society is fairly egalitarian, with power being evenly and widely dispersed. This makes coercive bilateral power-plays (such as war) less likely to be effective, and so less appealing. A common unilateral power play is to simply walk away from a dispute which resists resolution. Travel among groups and extended visits to distant relatives are common. As Ury explains, Bushmen have a good unilateral BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). It is difficult to wage war on someone who can simply walk away. Trilateral power plays draw on the power of the community to force a settlement. The emphasis on consensual conflict resolution and egalitarian ethos means that Bushmen communities will not force a solution on disputing parties. However the community will employ social pressure, by for instance ostracizing an offender, to encourage dispute resolution.

Containing Violence

All adult male Bushmen have a bow and poisoned arrows. The poison is deadly and agonizing, but is slow acting and so allows its victim time for retaliation. The Bushmen then have very good reason to contain violence, since it can easily escalate to deadly levels. As noted above, Bushmen children are socialized to fear and avoid violence. War is unknown. However, impulsive violence and even murder does occur among the Bushmen. When temper flare between adults, their friends and relatives will often find and hide the poisoned arrows. People will actively intervene to break up fights. If violence occurs or tensions remain high, one or both groups will be asked to move away. Separating the parties allows tempers to cool, and social norms to reassert control. Ury recounts the extreme case of a serial killer. "In the 1940s a man named Twi who had killed two people and was possibly psychotic was ambushed by his community and was fatally wounded. After he was dead, all the men and women stabbed him with spears, thus symbolically sharing the responsibility for what had amounted to a collective execution."[p. 386]


Ury concludes that "the secret of the Bushmen for managing conflicts is the vigilant, active, and constructive involvement of the community."[p. 386] The community acts as a third force in all conflicts, and actively intervenes to preserve the community's collective unity. Community norms tend to prevent serious disputes. The community works to create a favorable emotional climate for resolving disputes. The community as a whole participates in reconciling the parties interests to achieve a consensual settlement, and in witnessing and responding to violations of rights and norms. Finally, conflicting parties are under social pressure to resolve their disputes. Unlike states or governments this third force is not a superior dominant force. The Bushmen community serves as an active context or background for conflict resolution. Its force is pervasive and horizontal.