Maire Dugan's "Nested Theory of Conflict"

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

October, 2016

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video describes a theory about how one can most effectively intervene in societal level conflicts by focusing on the different levels of the conflict. Written in the 1990s, by conflict scholar Maire Dugan,  this was one of the early uses of systems analysis to develop ways of intervening in intractable conflicts that goes beyond simple "table-oriented" mediation to a more systemic approach.

Discussion Questions: 

(1) What other ideas from Maire Dugan have you found to be particularly useful in your work?  Put another way, what are her core ideas that have influenced the way you work or think about conflict problems?

(2) What other people should we include in this "literature review" of the "founders" of the complexity-oriented approach to peacebuilding?  What key ideas of theirs have you found particularly useful or influential?  Can you give us citations to sources that talk about ideas?

Discuss both these questions in D12.

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Things to Think About

  • Think about a conflict in your own community.  Can you identify the different systems at which this conflict occurs?
  • What level of system would be most appropriate for intervention? 
  • How might that be done and by whom?

Full Transcript

Hi. This is Heidi Burgess, and in this video, I'd like to talk about Maire Dugan's nested theory of conflict. Maire's one of the early conflict theorists, and she published an article in a leadership journal-- and it will become clear by the end of this video why it was there-- on a nested theory of conflict in Women in Leadership that came out in 1996.

The article starts out with a story of how she was asked to intervene in a high school that had suffered from quite a few racial conflicts between the students. And after one fight broke out, that was one of many, she was asked to come in and do something. The expectation was that she would mediate between the students who were involved in the fight and try to de-escalate the situation.

But she quickly figured out that just mediating the specific issue between those boys wasn't going to help very much, and she developed what she called the “nested theory of conflict,” with four levels of conflict, and interventions suggested on all four levels, which is what was necessary to effectively deal with the situation in the high school. So what she came up with was this.

The specific issue was a racial confrontation at a Virginia high school over clothing. One or perhaps a few of the white boys were wearing clothing with the Confederate flag on it, and the black boys found this to be very disrespectful and provocative. Well, she realized that in addition to discussing that specific instance, she needed to address the relationships between those particular boys and between all of the students in the school.

This was not an isolated incident. There was racial tension between most of the students. There were identity issues. There was a case of disrespect between the different racial groups. And there were clearly differing values over the relative roles of blacks and whites, the interpretation of history, and whether one should be proud of the Confederacy or not, that sort of thing.

And then, what most people, including Maire, at the beginning, jumped to, is what she considered the structural systemic level, which looked at the broader relationships between races in Virginia and the United States more broadly. This isn't a problem that just strikes one high school. It isn't a problem just of one state. It's all over the United States. There's racism. There's inequality. There's what we call structural violence, which is aspects of the social structure such as patterns of where people live, access to school, access to jobs, that are still very unfair and very unequal.

Well, Maire realized that she really wasn't going to be able to deal with anything that big. She wasn't going to, as an individual person, be able to affect racism in the United States, or inequality or structural violence. But she could, she realized, have an effect on what she called the subsystem level. And that was the level of the high school.

So she could look at inequality, she could look at racism, she could look at structural violence at the level of the high school and work with the students and the teachers and the administrators to come up with a structural plan to change relationships, that would hopefully change the way individual students interacted.

So her solution in this case, and she writes it up in this article as a solution that can be applied in many other situations as well, is to focus not on the specific issue initially, not even on the relationships initially, but on the subsystem level, and do this with one of the fairly standard conflict resolution techniques that's called analytical problem solving.

And here you'd get all the parties who contributed to the situation at the subsystem level, at least representatives of them. You can't get everybody in the high school to sit down at a table. But representatives of the different student groups, of teachers, of administrators, perhaps some community members, to sit down and examine the nature and the sources of the problem. Look at the specific issue, look at the relationships, and look at the structural situation in the school to determine the sources of the problem. Then develop ideas for addressing and use a rational cost-benefit analysis to choose one solution and to implement it and see how it works. And if it doesn't work, tweak it so it can work better.

She also suggested using Elise Boulding's futures invention workshops. Elise is-- was, she's no longer alive, sadly-- a leading peace theorist who worked during the Cold War and had people do futures workshops where she asked them to envision a future 30 years hence in which there were no nuclear weapons. So she asked people to imagine what the future would be like based on their greatest hopes, rather than their greatest fears. And after people came up with a notion of what their hopeful social system would look like, she then would help them work backwards to the present try to figure out what changes would have to come about to bring their desired future to fruition.

Maire did the same thing at this school, asking people, what would this school look like if there were not racial tensions, and then working backwards to try to figure out what they'd have to change at the subsystem level, at the relational level, and the issue-specific level to make that happen. So the key idea here is that you can analyze conflicts at at least four different levels. Maire suggests that intervening at the subsystem level is the most practical and the most effective.

And it also jives very closely with some of John Paul Lederach's theories, which I'll talk about in a forthcoming video. And in fact, in his book, Building Peace, Lederach builds on Maire's nested theory of conflict, as do other people as well. This was kind of the beginning of a number of different system theories that took Maire's ideas and went further with them.

We'll be covering some of those theories in future videos.

Referenced Resources

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