"Tractable" vs. Intractable Conflicts

Peter Coleman

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: What does intractable mean in that sense, I mean what makes them different from other conflicts?

A: I define them most simply as conflicts that endure in a destructive manner. I have this paper, which I won't give you, but I have a paper that I just wrote which tries to differentiate intractable from tractable, and I do it falsely. I say look, I'm separating these things and I'm putting them for conceptual purposes in these two categories because we tend to see in intractable conflicts these kinds of variables and not in these kinds of conflicts. But ultimately my position is that they emerge that conflicts that continue and they continue in a fairly destructive place, again, may change in intensity and violence, the roles may change, the leadership may change, the issues may change, but ultimately they stay in this negative protractor space.

It's the endurance and the malignant nature of them that defines them whereas other

other conflicts go away because the people change, because the issues change or ultimately there are positive possibilities from engagement that create new opportunities to interact so the space changes. But intractable conflicts don't. Now, in the paper I do talk about how some issues, you know in a relationship you'll have a multitude of issues, some are competitive, some are cooperative, some are win-win, possibility, and then you may have some issues that are not negotiable in any sort of the way. And to think of them like that is apart of the problem.

And like Pearson and Littlejohn write about this in their book Moral Conflict, where they really talk about some things, perhaps like the debate on abortion in this country, are not resolvable in the way that we think about resolving things. To attempt to do so is part of the problem, that there are some things that we have to accept as dialogic in that some ways they are sort of permanent, polarized entities that you just have to tolerate.