Latent Conflict Stage

Eric Brahm

September 2003

When the "stages of conflict" are listed by conflict scholars, the first phase is often listed as "latent conflict" or "unstable peace," It exists whenever individuals, groups, organizations, or nations have differences that bother one or the other, but those differences are not great enough to cause one side to act to alter the situation. Differential power, resources, differing interests or values all have the potential to spark conflict if a triggering event occurs. Citing Collins, Paul Wehr observed that, "social life is above all a struggle for power and status regardless of the type of structure. An inevitable power differential between groups, and between individuals, produces latent conflict in all social relations."[1]

Yet the seeds of conflict may exist for long periods of time without actors being aware of them.[2] Often one side, most likely the privileged one, is largely unaware of the existence of tensions. While the less-privileged party may be aware of the situation, and may even consider it unjust, the conflict does not "emerge" until they act to change the situation.

Latent conflict is often rooted in longstanding economic inequality, or in groups' unequal access to political power. The government may be unresponsive to the needs of a minority or lower-power group. Strong value or status differences may exist. Any of these issues could emerge as an open conflict after a triggering event.

Sometimes, however, the conflict never emerges. An alienating social structure tends to suppress the emergence of social conflict.[3] According to Wehr, Marx saw capitalism as alienating workers from their labor and from one another, thus inhibiting open class conflict. In addition, culture hides this alienation, advocating beliefs and values that support the maintenance of the dominant group's position.[4] "When race is added to political, economic and cultural control in a society, as often occurred in the colonized world, obstacles to a conflict's emergence are even more considerable."[5]

If destructive conflict has not yet emerged, steps can be taken to minimize its potential.[6] Taken together, these steps are typically called "conflict prevention" or "violence prevention."[7] Such steps include:

If such steps are not taken, however, the situation can fester until a triggering event transforms the latent conflict into a manifest, "erupted," or "emerged" conflict.

[1] Paul Wehr "Conflict Emergence, "in the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict. and Randall Collins, Conflict Sociology (New York: Academic Press, 1975).

[2] Morton Deutsch, The Resolution of Conflict (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).

[3] Paul Wehr "Conflict Emergence," in the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict.

[4] Antonio Gramsci Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 1971

[5] Wehr, op.cit.

[6] Louis Kriesberg, "Nature, Dynamics, and Phases of Intractability," Draft.

[7] We prefer the term "violence prevention," as conflict is normal and even beneficial if it is conducted well. It cannot and should not be prevented. However, destructive conflict must be prevented if possible.

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Latent Conflict Stage." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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