What Makes Conflicts Intractable?

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess


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This video introduces the distinction between core conflict factors and what Guy and Heidi Burgess call "complicating" or "overlay" factors.  Both contribute to the likelihood that a conflict will become intractable--the more such factors involved, the more likely that is the outcome.  When these factors are present, a key to addressing the conflict effectively is to figure out how to reduce each of the overlaying factors, hence enabling more attention to be paid to the core factors which often become obscured.  How to do that is explored in much more depth in the two related videos, Key Ideas: Conflict Core and Overlay Factors, Part I, and Key Ideas: Conflict Core and Overly Factors Part II.

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Full Transcript 

Hi, this is Heidi Burgess. And today I want to talk about conflict core and overlay factors. In a previous video, I introduced folks to Peter Coleman and his book, The Five Percent, which is about intractable conflicts or what he calls 5% conflicts. In that book, he talks about how he spent two years before he wrote it reading everything he could find on intractable conflicts in social psychology books and journals, international relations journals, and the conflict resolution literature looking for what Kurt Levin called the ”essence of the phenomenon” of intractable conflicts.

On page 31 of his book, Coleman says "the good news is that I was able to find the essence of the problem of intractable conflicts. The bad news was that there are roughly 57 of them." So he has a list of 57 different things that tend to make conflicts intractable. At the same time that he was doing this, Guy and I were doing something similar, but we were just looking at the conflicts ourselves, rather than looking at the literature about them.

We determined that there were many fewer factors that tended to be what we call, “at the core” of the conflict, the central ideas. And then there were a number of other factors, many of which were in Coleman's list of 57 essences, that we called “overlays”. And I'll explain the difference in just a minute. The terms came from Guy's background in geology, originally. The core of the earth is very, very small and it's very hot. And that's a lot like the core conflict factors.

Usually there's, at least at the beginning, relatively few of them, not 57. And they're extremely important, metaphorically extremely hot. But then there's lots of lots of layers that go over the core. And you can see layers here in the Grand Canyon. So there's all these layers of factors that obscure the core, make it harder to see and make it more difficult to reach to deal with. The way we suggest that you deal with the core and the overlay is to peel away the overlaying factors until you can clearly see the core and thus be able to deal with it.

So that brought us to the second metaphor of the onion. If you want to consider the center of the onion to be the core, then in order to get there, you have to peel away all those outer layers to get to the center. In their book, Grasping the Nettle, Crocker, Hampson and Aall have a quote that explains something very similar. They say “no matter what the issues form the foundation of the initial conflict,” in other words no matter what the core factors are, “a number of other elements will come into the mix to augment or even supplant the original disputes.”

And that's what we called overlay, or later we called them “complicating factors.” We came up with the term “complicating factors” when we started to teach seminars to students whose native language was not English. And we realized that the notion of overlay might be fairly hard to translate. So we changed it to complicating factors. But we tend to use both terms now and they both mean the same thing.

Our initial formulation of the core factors actually just had three. The original ones were 1) high stakes distributional issues—in other words, conflicts over who gets what when it really, really matters. 2) Fundamental moral or value differences, where you care deeply that other people at least allow you to live out your values, if not follow your values the way you wish them to. And finally, 3) what I called status or Guy called “pecking order” conflicts: who's on top and who is subservient to the leaders or the elite.

At the time Peter Coleman's book came out, I went down through his 57 essences and found that I could put most of them into these three bins. And I found these three bins to be much more intuitively understandable and easier to remember than 57 essences. But there were some things that didn't fit. So we ended up expanding our list and this is our current list of core factors, which, again, is what the conflict is really about.

Included in the core are the interests. And we will have a couple other videos that talk about the difference between interests and positions. But interests are what you really want to attain out of a conflict. Very fundamental interests are human needs. This is originally based on Maslow's concept of fundamental human needs. But John Burton and other scholars in the 1980s, I guess, started to formulate the notion of fundamental human needs in conflict.

And they focused particularly on identity, security and recognition, which are very fundamental interests. But they're different from interests because interests can be negotiated and needs cannot be. People don't negotiate away their security. They don't negotiate away their identity.

Another core factor is rights. If people believe that they have a fundamental right, a human right or a legal right to something, they're not going to give that up and they're going to fight for it, which makes it part of the core.

Fundamental value differences is the same as what I talked about before, as is high stakes. If the stakes are low, the conflict isn't likely to become intractable because people don't care that much. But if the stakes are high, then people tend to fight harder to attain what they want. Lastly, there's pecking-order issues related to power and respect. And closely related to that are identity issues and the linked notions of oppression, inequality and inequity.

So that's our current list of things that constitute core factors in intractable conflicts. Then things that can get lain over the core are lots of other factors that complicate what's going on. Different ways of framing the conflict and the issues. Misunderstandings and bad communication. Procedural differences, when procedures that are expected aren't followed.

Factual disagreements, escalation, bad geography, both buffer states like Turkey, that is on the border between very different regions, very different cultures. That complicates all the core factors enormously. Bad neighbors, such as you have in the Middle East makes the whole area dangerous to be in. Past treatment can lead to collective memories and a conflict ethos that is very difficult to overcome and tends to lead to future fears.

Bad leaders can get people into a lot of trouble. We'll talk in another video about the notion of zero-sum framing and into-the-sea framing, which is the notion that there's no way to win the conflict unless you drive your opponent, figuratively at least, into the sea. Totally get rid of them. And somewhat related to that are the notions of siege mentality and victim mentality, when you think everybody is against you and you have to fight for your life because everybody is trying to do you in.

And that you're not the least bit at fault at any conflict, that you're the victim. We will be talking about all of these things more in future videos but I just wanted here to introduce the notion that these factors tend to be at the core. And the more you have conflicts over fundamental needs, rights, values, high stakes, identity, none of those things can be negotiated. So it tends to make conflicts more intractable.

And the more overlay or complicating factors you lay on top of that, the harder it is to get down to the core, the harder it is to see what the real issues are, the harder it is to effectively work on them. So we drew this diagram many years ago to make a distinction between a core conflict with unlimited complicating factors, lots and lots of layers over the core that are thick and make it hard to see the core and hard to address it.

And on the bottom, a core conflict where you have limited complicating factors, haven't made them go away entirely. You seldom can. But if you limit them, then you can make it easier to get down to the core. And if you can get down to the core, then you stand a chance of successfully dealing with it. We will have a whole lot more videos about how to limit the overlay issues and how to deal with the core once you get there in the future.

Let's stop with this idea now and introduce a few more fundamental ideas before we go on to how to start drilling down through the core. Thanks. 

Referenced Resources

Peter Coleman, The Five Percent. Public Affairs. 2011.

Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson, and Pamela Aall, Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict.   United States Institute of Peace (February 2005)

Abraham Maslow  Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper. 1954.

See Also:

The Beyond Intractability Knowledge Base has many articles on this topic.  See, for example:

Photo Credits

Slide 5: Earth: File from Wikipedia: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Earth_poster.svg.  Permission/attribution: By Kelvinsong (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Slide 7: Red Onion. File from Wikipedia: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/06/Red_onion%2C_half.jpg. Permission/attribution: By J.smith (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.