Why Chain Exercise

By Heidi Burgess

September, 2019


This is an exercise to illustrate that intractable conflicts and "wicked problems" are much more complex than they are sometimes thought to be.  "Why chains" are a simple version of graphical conflict maps--if students are encouraged to link the chains together to form "why webs," those essentially are conflict maps.

Time Needed:  30-60 minutes

Materials Needed:  

  • Paper and pencil (ideally a big sheet of newsprint and fine-tipped markers), but 8 1/2 x 11 paper and pencils will do.
  • Fairly detailed information about a particular conflict.  When I assign this in my classes, I have students read a case study as background. (For variety, I give them a choice of three different ones to read, and then they can learn about three different cases when they discuss their why chains in class.) Over 100 case studies are available online on the Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base.


This post is part of the
Constructive Conflict
MOOS Seminar's

exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.



  • While this exercise can be done individually, I think it is more fun and students learn more if they do this in groups of 2 or 3.  So, if desired form students into small groups, grouping people who have read the same conflict case study for background.
  • Step 1: List on a piece of paper at least five different steps that needed to be taken in the case they read to consolidate the peace or reach resolution to the conflict described.
  • Step 2: Then ask (if each of these steps happened) what made that possible?  If the step didn't happen, ask "why not"?  If, for example, one of your initial steps was disarming the combatants, and that didn't happen--ask yourself why it did not happen. Perhaps combatants refused to disarm because they didn't trust that they would be secure if they did, and also, perhaps, because the funding wasn't there to oversee disarmament, and/or disarmament was politically motivated and it happened in some cases but not in others. allowing the tribes with arms to attack the disarmed ones, causing those who disarmed to re-arm. (This actually happened in South Sudan--see the BI article on that if you are interested, written by a Sudanese student at Kroc, Notre Dame.
  • Step 3: Then look at your "whys" and ask "why" that was (or wasn't) the case.  For example, why didn't the combatants trust the security guarantees--and what would need to be done to help build that trust?
  • Step 4: Then ask "why" that step did or didn't happen...  Follow the "why chains" as far as you can (based on the information given in the case study) for at least two of your initial elements--more if you have the time and inclination.
  • Step 5: Then try to draw a picture of these "why chains" showing that one one "failure" led to another "failure" led to another "failure" etc., or alternatively, one "success" led to another "success" to another "success" or  (Multiple reasons can be attached to any one element.) (Note: Students in face-to-face classes can do this with paper and pencil; students in online classes can easily do the same with MS Word or Power Point which allows one to draw boxes and arrows which is all you need here.) 
  • Step 6:  Write a 500 - 750 word essay explaining your "why chain" and what this says about the complexity of the case you looked at. Alternatively, show your "why chain" to the class and discuss what it implies about the complexity of the case.