Theories of Knowledge

Michelle Maiese

September 2005


At traditional peace conferences, elders gather together with community members to share their views. "The meeting would be held in a "carnival" atmosphere, punctuated with stories, songs, dance, proverbs, etc. The name of God and the spirits would be invoked during the meeting. A bull would be slaughtered and its blood collected and sprinkled into the air as a way of binding the community to the peace covenant. As a gesture of reconciliation the whole group would eat the meat together. Thereafter, feasting, singing, dancing and celebration would continue for several days. The whole society would thus be part of the agreement and anybody who violated it could suffer some calamity." - From "Peace Building and Transformation From Below: Indigenous Approaches to Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation Among the Pastoral Societies in the Borderlands of Eastern Africa,"

The philosophical study of epistemology is concerned with the nature, sources, and limits of knowledge. An examination of the conflict resolution field reveals that that there are indeed a variety of kinds of knowledge at work and that the sources of this knowledge are numerous. In the 19th and 20th centuries, there have surfaced many attempts to analyze conflict dynamics and better understand how to deal with these dynamics in a constructive way. Scholars have begun to devote a great deal of attention to developing solutions to the increasing scale and cost of human conflict. The work of these conflict resolution "experts" has come in the form of writing academic papers, teaching at schools and universities, undertaking research programs, and sponsoring seminars and training. [1] Throughout the United States, universities, school systems, businesses, and communities have begun to establish ombuds offices and mediation services. This emphasis on formal learning has allowed increasing numbers of people to develop conflict resolution skills.

It seems clear that in the conflict resolution field, knowledge is understood primarily in terms of theoretical and observational insights gained by theorists or experts in the field. However, this is not the only useful source of knowledge about conflict. In addition to the theories and observations of academics and experts, there is also the "folk" knowledge that ordinary people have about causes and ways to deal with conflict in their particular cultural setting. Sources of knowledge include not just empirical observation, theoretical research, and systematic testing of methodologies, but also personal experience, intuition, and imagination. That which is learned is then spread through traditional socialization processes (family and peer groups), word of mouth, mass media, political and religious leaders, and literature.

It is important to consider how these different kinds of knowledge interact. Has the emphasis on expert knowledge caused those working the field to overlook the importance of "folk" knowledge? Should a variety of ways of knowing play a role in efforts to teach, train, learn, and apply conflict resolution techniques?

How We Gain Knowledge about Conflict

Mari Fitzduff talks about the need for strong leaders and the potential to learn from other conflicts.

Knowledge about conflict is spread throughout societies in a number of different ways. In addition to academic journals, books, and databases, there is the information provided by mass media, political and religious leaders, and societal traditions. There is also, of course, the knowledge of conflict that we gain through personal experience. If it is assumed that the conflict theory and practice described in academic texts is the only source of knowledge, many cultural understandings about conflict may be neglected. Already scholars have begun to recognize the importance of face saving, the role played by symbol and ritual, the function of visual and nonverbal cues, the role of the arts, and the importance of involving "elders" in conflict resolution processes. This increased awareness comes from observing the conflict resolution practices of many different cultures.

Clearly, knowledge about conflict is shaped in part by one's worldview and cultural understandings. Kenneth Boulding (1956) describes "image" as one's worldview and subjective knowledge of the world. He maintains that a person's behavior depends on their image of the world and the meanings that they attach to objects and events. [2] This sort of approach to knowledge can also be understood in terms of worldview frames. Worldviews are the shared values and assumptions that ground the customs, norms, and institutions of any particular society. These frames are typically unconscious and non-reflective and help to shape the way in which individuals make sense of their world. Insofar as people from different societies make sense of their world's meaning in somewhat different ways, it is not surprising that their ways of coming to know and understand conflict likewise are different.

As Michelle Le Baron (1998) points out, culture affects the way that people understand conflict and shapes their views about how best to intervene. Answers to questions surrounding how parties name and identify conflict, how to approach conflict, and whether members of the community or parties' extended families should be involved in conflict resolution are rooted in culture and shaped by context and experience. There are also deeply shared meanings about how to understand and interpret the way in which conflict emerges, escalates, and is resolved. [3] Beyond the knowledge gleaned from books and articles, there is also the knowledge that people have in their heads already, as a result of being situated in a particular society and culture. What Le Baron calls "cultural messages" are what everyone in a group knows that outsiders do not know. These lenses orient people to the world in a particular way and govern how they perceive and interpret the world. Thus, understandings about conflict should be understood partly in terms of culture.

Expert Knowledge and Folk Knowledge

Expert knowledge in the conflict resolution field is grounded in skills of comprehension, analysis, and application. This is what some have called explicit knowledge, which results from study, reading, research, training, and focused experience. Such knowledge consists of an ability to understand various theories of conflict and conflict intervention, analyze and synthesize different approaches, apply these ideas to concrete conflict situations, and evaluate the effectiveness of conflict resolution procedures. This is the sort of knowledge that often comes through academic pursuits, rational thinking, and book learning. Many theorists believe that the knowledge gained in this fashion is both transferable to concrete settings of conflict and universal.

Folk knowledge, on the other hand, refers to everyday, commonsense understandings accumulated through ordinary human experience. This is what some have called implicit knowledge, which draws heavily from traditional approaches and understandings of conflict. It turns out that a great deal of knowledge is unconsciously learned rather than developed through scholarly study and systematic observation. In many cultures, because conflicts are seen as events in the rhythm of social life [4], knowledge is largely a matter of commonsense, intuition, and personal experience. There is no need to analyze texts, test hypotheses, and evaluate the approach one has taken. To a large extent, gaining knowledge about how to wage conflict is not something people are reflectively aware of, but instead a life skill that they gradually learn to practice as they gain experience.[5] Those who recognize the importance of folk understandings maintain that knowledge about conflict and how to resolve it is not a neat, concentrated little package that is ready to be passed on to others. Paul Wehr points out that knowledge about conflict emerges wherever human beings live and work together and try to get along in everyday life.

Parents pass down their insights about conflict to children, so that knowledge evolves from generation to generation. This folk knowledge about how to manage conflict varies across the world's societies and cultures. For example, while white people in the United States tend to understand conflict as individually owned, people living in indigenous cultures are more likely to view conflict as a communal concern. [6] While most Americans in the United States view power bargaining as way to manage their conflicts, those living in indigenous societies tend to rely more on rituals and the wisdom of elders. In short, because culture and context are always a factor, there is no single approach to conflict that will be appropriate in all cases. Indeed, whether parties think of themselves as being caught in conflict at all is largely a cultural question

Stories, Ritual, and Moral Imagination

William Steubner suggests that when analyzing conflict, practitioners should question why conflict was not there before.

One of the most common ways in which ordinary individuals gain knowledge about conflict is through literature. This includes not only academic literature, but also material from pop culture, stories, and poetry. Much of people's folk knowledge is embedded in stories and myths. Jerome Bruner (1990) argues that one way in which people understand their world is through the "narrative mode" of thought, which deals with the dynamics of human intentions. We learn a great deal by watching others' actions and looking at what they do over time. [7] Listening to stories allows us to recognize what obstacles people encounter and see the ways in which people's intentions were frustrated. In addition, reading and hearing stories allows people to extend their experience beyond what they actually have done themselves. Coming into contact with others' stories provides us with an image of what it is like to be stuck in intractable conflict, suffer injury, and make attempts at reconciliation. Narratives may also help to reveal both the perspectives of the victims as well as the motives and perspectives of the persons responsible for the commission of human rights violations. And storytelling among enemies may help parties to heal wounds and transform conflict.

In many societies, poetry is involved in peacemaking and is widely recognized as having the power to influence opinion. In inter-clan peace conferences, for example, distinguished poets recite poems advocating peace, which often helps to move people toward reconciliation. Poetry can help identify grievances, clarify right and responsibilities, and justify the views and demands of different groups. [8] Some theorists have pointed out that in indigenous societies, poetry has an impact on public opinion similar to the effect that mass media has in more modern societies. Both serve as important sources of knowledge about conflict.

Ritual is yet another source of knowledge about conflict. Lisa Schirch (2005) describes ritual as a form of communication that heavily relies on symbols, senses, and emotions. [9] Examples of ritual include informal activities such as eating, dancing, and recreation, as well as more formal cultural and religious ceremonies and holiday traditions. Many of these rituals rely on music and art in order to heighten emotion and sensual cognition. For example, one important way in which the Holocaust has been commemorated and its full implications understood is through an appeal to sculptures, music, and ceremony. These activities often allow people to gain deeper knowledge about the dynamics of conflict and what sorts of relationships are needed if conflict is to be waged in a more constructive manner.

Rather than relying on words or rational thought, ritual is a nonverbal way of conveying messages about people's worldviews, identities, and social relationships. Ritual offers parties an opportunity to interact in a space where the conflict seems to have no currency and where the social structures that often feed conflict no longer operate. Creating and performing rituals helps people in conflict to relate to one another and engage with oppressive social structures that need to be changed. Because it relies on symbols, sensory cues, and emotional expression, it can communicate different things to different people. This may allow people with vastly different worldviews to understand their conflict in a way that is meaningful and transformative. Schirch points out that the idea of using ritual and symbolic activity in peacebuilding processes is common sense for people who know little about the academic study of conflict resolution. The notion that sitting down to a meal together can foster peace is a matter of folk knowledge.

John Paul Lederach (2005) describes moral imagination as yet another important source of knowledge about conflict. He believes that this sort of imagination consists of the capacity to recognize turning points and possibilities in order to venture down unknown paths and create what does not yet exist. In Lederach's view, the moments of possibility that pave the way for constructive change processes do not emerge through the rote application of a set of techniques or strategies, but rather arise out of something that approximates an artistic process. [10] Transformative moments in peacebuilding often resemble moments of aesthetic imagination in which something intellectually and emotionally complex is captured in an "ah-ha" moment. Valuable insight surfaces in the form of an image or in a way of describing things that resonates with the parties. Through an appeal to metaphors and images, parties are sometimes able to get at the core of a complex problem and imagine possibilities for social change. Gaining such knowledge requires serendipity, which Lederach describes as a sort of peripheral vision and an ability to watch carefully for opportunities for social change.

Integrating Different Types of Knowledge

Paul van Tongeren talks about the usefulness of the European Centre for Conflict Prevention's extensive database.

Most theorists do not claim that we ought to abandon analytical, rational modes of knowing in an effort to mange conflict. Rather, the claim is that ways of knowing that rely upon personal experience, emotion, and folk intuition should likewise play a role in efforts to understand and deal with conflict. A question arises as to just how these different modes of knowledge should be melded. Schirch argues that processes that try to organize conflict into neat, rational packages are insufficient, and that the whole idea of approaching conflict solely with analytical tools is problematic in many cultures. [11] She points out that much of people's knowledge is rooted in their various worldviews and that emotional and sensual cognition play a crucial role in efforts to make sense of conflict. However, she also notes that ritual does not replace other tools for dealing with conflict. Instead, ritual is meant to be a supplement to ways of approaching conflict in direct, rational, and linear modes.

Similarly, Lederach (1995) recommends that prescriptive and elicitive approaches to conflict resolution training be integrated. He suggests that while the expert knowledge of the trainer is central to the prescriptive approach, the everyday cultural knowledge of participants provides the foundation for the elicitive approach. The prescriptive approach assumes that the trainer is an expert who knows what the participants need and suggests that the knowledge of trainers is more valuable than that of participants. The elicitive approach, on the other hand, shows greater respect for cultural context and views cultural knowledge as the foundation on which model development is grounded. [12] This approach aims to aim to facilitate the articulation, clarification, and strengthening of existing indigenous knowledge rather than imposing the pre-set models of experts. [13] It recognizes that participants' common knowledge of their immediate situation is a crucial resource for designing the training models that emerge. In many cases, local individuals can provide external actors with in-depth knowledge of local and national dynamics and contribute to greater understanding about the root causes of the conflict and the different actors involved.

However, Lederach notes that the elicitive approach may miss important opportunities for cross-cultural exchange, learning, and growth. [14] People often attend training sessions because they want to move beyond current practices. When outside input is restricted, this limits opportunities for participants to compare and contrast their own methods with those from other settings. Thus, in Lederach's view, most training and conflict resolution processes would benefit from a combination of these two approaches. One way to integrate expert knowledge and folk knowledge is through grassroots process design and the development of community mobilization strategies. Such efforts include community leaders' workshops, participatory planning, and the implementation of broad-based dialogue processes that bring together community members and conflict resolution professionals.

It seems clear that what is needed to sustain the peaceful transformation of many deep-rooted conflicts is a long-term view that focuses not only on solutions prescribed by "experts," but also on the insights of people who find themselves in conflict settings and endeavor to build effective transformative processes. [15] Because genuine and lasting change is always grounded in the complex web of social relationships, the theoretical knowledge of experts is not enough. Efforts to deal with conflict should also draw from the folk knowledge of ordinary people who understand the context of their particular conflict and live with its reality every day.



[1] Paul Wehr, "The Development of Conflict Knowledge," University of Colorado, Conflict Research Consortium, available at:

[2] Kenneth Boulding, The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society, (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1956).

[3] Michelle Le Baron, "Mediation and Multicultural Reality," Peace and Conflict Studies, George Mason University, available at:

[4] Josiah Osamba," Peace building and Transformation from below: Indigenous Approaches to Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation among the Pastoral Societies in the Borderlands of Eastern Africa," ACCORD, available at:

[5] Wehr,

[6] Osamba,

[7] Jerome Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990).

[8] "Indigenous Conflict Management Mechanisms," Creative Associates International, available here.

[9] Lisa Schirch, Ritual and Symbol in Peacebuilding, (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, Inc., 2005), 2.

[10] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Arts and Soul of Building Peace, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[11] Schirch, 35.

[12] John Paul Lederach, Preparing For Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures, (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1995).

[13] Zachary Metz, "The Truth is in the Struggle: Striking a Balance in Conflict Resolution Training," School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, available at:

[14] Lederach, 1995, 67.

[15] Lederach, 2005, 47.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Theories of Knowledge." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2005 <>.

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