Conflict resolution, in general, deals with ways of eliminating, terminating, or settling all kinds of conflict. Conflict can be broadly defined as a state of opposition, incompatibility, contradiction, or disharmony of statements, beliefs, goals, interests, or values among or within individual or collective actors, and the observable processes of dealing with these differences. The notion of conflict thus has two aspects: (1) the “state of opposition,” which can be established and analyzed without any reference to the behavior of the parties; for example, opposing interests or contradictory claims of the parties to a conflict, and (2) the actual “conflict behavior” of the parties; for example, physical force or verbal dispute. The first aspect relates to the causes or motives behind the conflict; the second to observable action. Conflict behavior may take two forms: physical action, as in the use of force, and communicative action, as in arguments or disputes.
Types of Conflict
Conflict is ubiquitous and not even restricted to social interaction. It can take place within individuals (intrapersonal cognitions or emotions), between individuals (partners, neighbors), between societal groups (religious or ethnic groups, social strata), and between more or less organized collectives (e.g., in industrial relations), most notably, states (international conflict and war; Intercultural and Intergroup Communication). The objects of conflicts are manifold: scarce commodities, money, income and property distribution, power positions, individual or political goals, values, ideologies, religion, and so forth.
Given this background and depending on research interest, various typologies of conflict have been proposed. Examples of simple dichotomous typologies are the distinctions of latent or manifest, antagonistic or nonantagonistic, and functional or dysfunctional conflict. An early and encompassing typology was provided by Dahrendorf (1959), who divided conflict according to the affected actors, reaching from the individual to the nation state into role, group, class, party, and international conflict. Holzinger (2004), concerned with the communicative resolution of social conflict, distinguishes three types according to the substance of conflict: conflict over facts, over values, and over interests. Game theoretic typologies classify various constellations of conflict according to the degree of opposition of interests: the level of conflict is highest in zero-sum games while nonzero-sum games (such as the prisoners’ dilemma or the battle of the sexes game) include also motives for common action. Coordination and harmony games, by contrast, do not include any conflict of interest (e.g., Rapoport et al. 1976; Scharpf 1997).
Types of Conflict Resolution
Like conflict behavior, conflict resolution may take the two basic forms of physical action and communication. Physical force may be used to terminate conflicts. However, in a more demanding meaning, any resolution of conflict will have to rely on communication. The notion of conflict resolution or dispute settlement may imply various meanings. First, the most ambitious is an understanding of conflict resolution that aims at the elimination of the causes or the motives behind the conflict. If the causes are eliminated, no future outbreaks of conflict behavior are to be expected. One example is the clearing up of a misunderstanding leading to conflict behavior. Another example is the misperception of a conflict constellation by the parties. A classical story used in the literature on mediation may illustrate this. Two sisters quarrel over a lemon until the mother joins in and finds out that one of the sisters wants the juice while the other one wants the peel for baking a cake (Amy 1987). Perceived conflict turns out to be no conflict in the first meaning outlined above, although there was conflict behavior. We can thus assume that such a solution is stable.
Second, a less ambitious notion of conflict resolution aims at the termination of destructive conflict behavior. There are basically two ways of achieving this. First, the parties in conflict can voluntarily come to an agreement they can live with. The conflict is settled. However, there remains a problem of implementation and compliance, as there may be incentives to deviate from the agreement. The solution is thus not stable; the conflict behavior may break out again. Second, one party may have the power to impose a particular “solution” on the other. The manifest conflict is terminated, but it is not “resolved” in any demanding meaning of the term. Examples of this kind of termination are decisions taken by the winner of a war or by the superior party in a hierarchical setting. There will usually be winners and losers in such a situation. The solution is less stable than in the case of voluntary agreement discussed above, because the inferior parties will be dissatisfied with it.
Modern societies have developed sophisticated mechanisms for the resolution of conflict. These mechanisms include:
- Hierarchies and physical force: conflict resolution by power and force or in hierarchies will usually lead to winners and losers and will terminate a conflict rather than dissolve it. The stability of the solution will certainly depend on the power difference of the parties, but also on the legitimacy of a hierarchical relationship.
- Laws and courts: dispute resolution by laws and courts, based on general rules and their interpretation by a neutral party, possesses legitimacy and will thus produce more acceptance and stability, although it might also create winners and losers.
- Majority voting: the same is true for the resolution of a conflict by majority voting. It has democratic legitimacy but creates losers. Conflict will not be eliminated; however, it can be settled and terminated, at least for some time.
- Negotiation and consensus-based procedures: the highest potential for reaching a stable settlement has unanimity or consensus as a decision rule. As all parties must agree with the solution found, there are no clear winners or losers. All parties win something, but usually do not get everything they wanted. In negotiations, a compromise can be reached by the willingness of the parties to make concessions. Bargaining usually does not strive for the elimination of the conflict of interest, but for only its settlement. In procedures based on argumentation or deliberation, a consensus can be achieved by reasoning and by convincing the other parties of one’s own position. Consensusoriented arguing has the potential to eliminate those aspects of a conflict that result from opposing views on values or facts, and may thus lead to the full resolution of a conflict. However, mechanisms based on unanimity are very demanding in terms of finding a solution at all.
- The involvement of a neutral party: such mechanisms as arbitration in industrial relations build on the ideas of fairness and impartiality. Whether these procedures lead to a stable resolution of conflict depends not only on the quality and the impartiality of the arbitrators’ proposal, but also on whether it is obligatory. If it is accepted by the parties, it has a better chance of surviving.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
Apart from these classical mechanisms of conflict resolution in society, various so-called alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms have been developed during recent decades (Pruitt & Carnevale 1993; Goldberg et al. 2003). There are many different models of ADR – negotiation, moderation, conciliation, mediation, round tables, policy dialogues, consensus conferences, planning cells, participatory technology assessment, deliberative discourse, just to name a few.
Four elements are constitutive of ADR procedures, although they are not all present in each model. First, they are built on communicative strategies of problem solution – information exchange, rationality, and “de-emotionalization” play a great role. The hope is that conflict can be eliminated altogether (or at least in some aspects). Second, they are consensus-based and aimed at win–win solutions. Nobody should be worse off after an agreement has been found, so there are no losers. Third, many of them include the presence of a neutral third party in various roles, as a moderator, mediator, or arbitrator. This contributes to the objectivity, impartiality, and, thus, acceptability of the solution. Finally, most ADR models are based on enhanced participation; that is, not only elected representatives but all stakeholders, or even all citizens, should have a chance to take part in the procedure. These four elements imply an ambitious notion of conflict resolution: if possible, the mechanisms should lead to the complete elimination of the conflict; if this is not the case, they should produce an agreement that is as stable as possible.
The Role of Communication
Any attempt to resolve a conflict or to terminate conflict behavior will usually be accompanied by some communication – which need not necessarily contribute to the resolution. There are three functions for communication in dispute settlement. First, it provides information on facts related to the object of conflict and information on the values, goals, interests, beliefs, and emotions of the parties. Second, communication takes the form of bargaining such as demands, offers, threats, and concessions signaling the willingness of the parties to agree to a compromise. Third, it can take the form of arguing. Arguments are exchanged and reasons are given in order to convince the other parties of the validity of one’s claims and to come to a consensus (Holzinger 2004).
Two abstract models of communicative conflict resolution have become especially influential: the Harvard concept of negotiation (Fisher et al. 1997) and the theory of communicative action and discourse ethics by Habermas (1984, 1993). The Harvard concept proposes four principles for objective negotiation. First, the parties shall learn to distinguish between the substantial problem and the emotional aspects of the conflict. Second, the parties shall concentrate on their interests, not on positions. Third, the parties shall develop options advantageous for both sides. Fourth, neutral criteria shall be applied in order to find a fair solution. These rules imply that the parties should not sacrifice their interests but try to find a fair compromise. The third and fourth rules ask for the search for information and for argumentation and justification. The hope is that the parties find a solution that is welfare-enhancing (win–win) and fair.
Habermas proposes a procedure for the justification of norms and values in a society. The procedure is called the “ideal discourse” or the “ideal speech situation,” within which verständigungsorientiertes Handeln – that is, consensus-oriented argumentation – can take place. The goal is the rational justification of norms; i.e., it is about collective decisions over rules valid for the whole society. The ideal speech situation is subject to a range of normative conditions. It has to be public; all concerned shall take part; the participants have to be equal; they have to be truthful and not opportunistic; the participants shall be impartial and their interests “generalizable”; and their preferences must be open to change. It is only the “power of the better argument” which counts. A norm is valid if all participants of a practical discourse achieve a consensus that this norm is valid (“principle of discourse ethics”). The consensus can be achieved as a result of the “principle of universality,” which secures impartiality. A valid norm must satisfy the condition that the consequences following from general compliance to it for each individual’s interests will be accepted by all concerned individuals.
The Harvard concept conceives of the process of conflict resolution as a bargaining situation. It focuses on the settlement of a conflict of interests, and emphasizes compromise and the willingness to concede. Communication serves to create more information and generate impartiality and objectivity. However, discourse ethics focuses on argumentation and reasoning. Habermas is concerned about conflict over values and norms in society and emphasizes the role of justification, persuasion, and consensus. The two concepts vary more strongly in which kinds of conflict they have in mind than in the normative rules they develop. Both rely on information, justification, and impartiality. The main difference is that the Harvard concept accepts opposing interests as given and looks for ways of accommodation, whereas Habermas requires the parties in a conflict to be willing to sacrifice their personal interests.
Research in conflict resolution is very dispersed in social science. It takes place in many disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, law, political science, and economics, and it comprises normative and analytical approaches. Although there are interdisciplinary research centers, such as the Harvard Program on Negotiation, research areas as different as studies in international conflict and peace, in the resolution of social and institutionalized political conflict, on ADR, or on personal conflict so far lack a common analytical framework. Future research would gain by doing more systematic comparison of the performance of the different conflict resolution mechanisms for various types of conflict.
- Amy, D. (1987). The politics of environmental mediation. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Bercovitch, J. (ed.) (2002). Studies in international mediation. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.
- Dahrendorf, R. (1959). Class and class conflict in industrial society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (1997). Getting to yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in. London: Arrow.
- Goldberg, S. B., Sander, F. E., & Rogers, N. H. (eds.) (2003). Dispute resolution: Negotiation, mediation and other processes. New York: Aspen.
- Habermas, J. (1984). Theory of communicative action. London: Heinemann.
- Habermas, J. (1993). Justification and application: Remarks on discourse ethics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Holzinger, K. (2004). Bargaining through arguing: An empirical analysis based on speech act theory. Political Communication, 21, 195 –222.
- Pruitt, D. G., & Carnevale, P. J. (1993). Negotiation in social conflict. Buckingham: Open University Press.
- Rapoport, A., Guyer, M. J., & Gordon, D. J. (1976). The 2 × 2 game. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
- Scharpf, F. W. (1997). Games real actors play: Actor-centered institutionalism and policy research. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
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