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Understanding Conflict


The life-cycle of a conflict
Conflicts are processes, a cluster of events taking time to evolve and reshape. They are always complicated - after all, they are part of the complex lives of human beings. But there are distinct stages which conflicts have in common, through which they pass, sometimes over and over again.

Life-cycle 1. Beginning
A conflict begins to take shape as the differences between the conflicting parties become clearly defined and people begin to take sides openly. The language of 'us and them' starts being widely used, and the idea of a 'cause' to support emerges on both sides. There is no violence at this point.

If a society is strong and its leaders enlightened, a conflict can be dealt with in a constructive and positive way at this stage, and violence and a worsening situation can be avoided.

Life-cycle 2. Early growth
But if there are no existing ways of dealing with social tensions and divisions, the conflict grows worse. The two sides express open hostility, so that 'us and them' now become 'the enemy' to each other. Each side increases its demands, and its sense of grievance swells. Each side looks for allies from outside the conflict area, for moral and physical support. Acts of violence begin. If violence is not repressed, the opposing sides hit back at one another and a destructive and deadly spiral begins.

If one of the sides has greater forces (as governments backed by armies do, for example, when suppressing civilian opposition) it may at this stage suppress its opponents, but the underlying causes of conflict remain to break out another day.

Life-cycle 3. Deadlock
Now the two sides are openly at war. Each side perceives the other as the aggressor on whom blame for the conflict falls. Each side regards itself as having the just cause. The lawlessness of war takes over, as inhibitions and restraints on violence are abandoned. Three possible situations can now be reached: (a) a stalemate with each side matching the other in violence; (b) a surge of violence on one side; (c) exhaustion of strength and resources on both sides ( this has been called 'a mutually-hurting stalemate').

Situation (a) continues the spiral of violence, or may halt it at a particular level which both sides keep up.
Situation (b) can make a change: for example, one side's increased power may cause the other side to change its tactics. The conflict may return to earlier stages and repeat them. If a side now decides to withdraw, the conflict remains unresolved and is likely to begin again later.
Situation (c) is the position from which the conflict can most readily move to its next stage.

Life-cycle 4. Looking for a way out
If and when the conflict reaches a stage where both sides are unhappy with the state of things - many losses, dwindling resources, no achievable 'result' - they may enter into ceasefire agreements. These provide a pause, which is often used for resting and regrouping before embarking on the earlier stages again. Sooner or later, however, both sides decide that ending the conflict is a problem they must both solve, though it has to be done without loss of face. At this point a third party can be introduced to mediate and negotiate. This can be done, at first, without the leaders of the two sides having to meet each other.

Life-cycle 5. Settling the dispute or resolving the conflict?
Settlements involve compromise, often with bitter arguments over what the compromises will be. They seldom lead to a solution in which the two sides can collaborate to establish a firm peace. Settlements establish ways in which either side is prepared to end conflict at least for the time being.

Conflict resolution, however, looks at the underlying causes which started the conflict and deals with them, so that the risks of future conflict are removed, or initially reduced. Both sides join together to achieve this outcome.

Complete resolution of a conflict is difficult after such great hostility, but may be reached after the passage of healing time if everyone has this aim.

Life-cycle 6. Working together
Now the agreement has to be put into effect. Both sides need to create a new order together, rebuilding homes, restoring jobs and education, establishing enlightened management/government, disarming fighters and allowing refugees to return home. Even more important, the two sides have to face up to the past, share their griefs, and reconcile their differences. This needs sensitivity, courage, and, above all, immense patience.

Discussion. Choose a conflict that interests you and collect information so that you can map its life-history. If possible, choose two - one national or international, the other local to you (perhaps it's a part of your neighbourhood's history). Perhaps the conflicts you are discussing haven't yet ended. If they seem to have done so, have the risks of renewed conflict been dealt with, do you think?

NEXT: understanding peace



underlying causes of conflict
life-cycle of a conflict
understanding peace
handling conflict short term
handling conflict long term


see also:
- nonviolence
- pacifism



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