Hilary Smith

Juliana E. Birkhoff, Ph. D.

Conflict Resolution 501

30 September 2013



  1. Frustration aggression

Frustration aggression is the idea that feelings of frustration can lead to acts of aggression, causing conflict. How or on whom aggression is directed depends on the intent of the frustrated party. Where a party directs its frustration aggression is not always clear. Frustration may turn to aggression on the party or thing causing the frustration, may be turned inward, or may be directed on a scapegoat. This concept is important to conflict theory and resolution because it constitutes one internal factor that contributes to the basis or causes of conflict. Understanding this psychosocial view of the root of conflict clarifies analysis of the causes for conflict which can lead to a better resolution strategy. In sum, frustration aggression is where blocked intention leads to aggression and is a social psychological explanation for the causes of conflict which helps elucidate the conflict leading to more effective resolutions.

  1. Zero sum game

Zero sum game is where what one side wins, the other side loses in a contest or a conflict. This is rooted in game theory and most simply represented in Louis Kriesberg’s Constructive Conflicts: from Escalation to Resolution in the form of coin tosses. If after two tosses, if the coin landed on the same side both times, one party gets the coin. If the coin lands on different sides, the other party gets to keep the coin (8). Therefore, what one party wins the other party loses. This is important to conflict resolution because conflicts tend to erupt more easily when parties consider themselves in a zero sum relationship, where what one party receives, the other loses. This often happens in situations of perceived or actual scarcity. If parties believe that there is not enough water, customers, arable land, or opportunity to go around, conflict to obtain these scarce resources more easily break out. However, if a perception of expansion prevails, parties do not have a reason to enter into conflict and can seek their desired resource elsewhere.

Understanding if parties see their situation in terms of zero sum is important to resolution as well. Knowing that one cause of conflict is a belief in the zero sum relationship of parties helps analysts and practitioners to address that issue to more completely resolve the conflict. In short, zero sum game is where what one party gains the other must lose and it is a mindset commonly adopted by conflict parties and readily leads to conflict, especially in areas of scarcity.

  1. Prisoners’ dilemma

Prisoners’ dilemma is a classic scenario in game theory demonstrating the relationship between acting in self-interest and acting based on trust. As presented in Louis Kriesberg’s Constructive Conflicts: from Escalation to Resolution, this story explains the choices of two prisoners caught in committing a serious crime. With insufficient evidence to convict each of a greater crime, but enough information to hold them for a lesser crime, the prisoners are separated and offered different choices. If they each confess, they receive the maximum sentence with a few years knocked off for cooperation. If one confesses and the other does not, the confessor will receive the maximum sentence while the other walks away. If both do not confess, a minimal sentence for the lesser crime will be given (9). The dilemma presented in the text is recreated below, with the numbers referring to years in each possible prison sentence (9). Each prisoner experiences the dilemma of whether or not the other can be trusted. If the each party feels the other cannot be trusted, then each will act in his or her own self-interest, which will give them one of the highest sentences.


  Prisoner A
Prisoner B   Confess Not Confess
Confess -9, -9 -12, 0
Not Confess -12, 0 -1, -1


This is important in conflict resolution because it shows the relationship and costs of cooperative trust versus self-interest. If both prisoners could cooperate, each would ensure a low sentence. If each side works in his or her self-interest, both are worse off than if they work cooperatively. However, if one side works cooperatively and the other does not, then the cooperative side receives the maximum sentence. Few want to make the mistake of trusting an untrustworthy counterpart when stakes are so high.

It is important to understand the prisoners’ dilemma because it aids in understanding self-interested choices. Kriesberg compares this to nuclear arms races during the Cold War (9). If the U.S. and Soviets both add to their nuclear armaments, both receive less benefit than if they cooperate and are able to trust the other side to not increase their arms. However, if one side trusts the other to not increase their nuclear arms but its counterpart defaults on its promise, the side the trusted stands to suffer the most. Thus, both nations being able to trust each other to not increase weapons stockpiles is of greatest benefit and greatest risk. Therefore, the self-interested choice of increasing stockpiles so as to gain the most or lose the least is the course of action taken unless cooperative trust is established.

  1. Structural violence

First championed by Johan Galtung, structural violence is where there is a gap between the potential to meet a need and a system’s actual meeting of that need. With a Hobbesian view of humanity, Galtung claims that institutions tend toward inequality. The gap between possible and actual widens unless, Galtung asserts, people and institutions actively strive for greater equality. Inequality in a system produces unequal treatment, widening the gap between possible and actual benefit delivered, thus increasing structural violence. This violence is often not noticed. A simple example of structural violence is inoculations. If a societal structure could provide a high percentage of inoculations to its population, but does not reach that percentage, then those that die due diseases that could have been inoculated against are considered victims of structural violence.

For peace to be nurtured, it is important to decrease both structural violence and personal violence (violence inflicted directly by one person on another). Galtung suggests the institutions naturally drift toward inequality and after that structural violence. Therefore it is important for institutions to actively take steps to ensure equality.

  1. Negative peace/positive peace

Galtung also postulates ideas about positive and negative peace. Put simply, negative peace is defined as absences of physical violence and other related elements whereas positive peace is an absence of both physical and structural violence. Positive peace entails the presence of social and political structures and relationships that actively promote justice, equality, and well-being. These institutions and relationships are not the natural product of humanity, according to Galtung. He takes a somewhat Hobbesian view of humanity in saying that humans and their institutions tend toward violence naturally. However, he believes humanity may actively strive for conditions that produce positive peace. He espouses individuals and societies actively choosing and working toward peace through developing values like equality, justice, care, and other aspects that help produce a positive peace. This is important to conflict resolution because it illuminates an area of previously unacknowledged violence that simmers and causes conflict. It also describes a way for thinking about peace in terms of what it is and how to create it instead of what it is an absence of and how to avoid it.

  1. Basic human needs

Set down by John Burton, basic human needs, which he defines as a need for security, recognition, personal development, and expressing identity, are fundamental and must be met before conflict resolution may occur. He distinguishes a difference between interests and needs. Interests are negotiable whereas needs are discrete, non-negotiable, and must be provided before lasting resolution may take place. He theorizes that most conflict comes in response to a threat to one of these needs. For example, a conflict over removing the phrase “The South will rise again” from the ‘Ole Miss fight song threatened two opposing parties’ basic needs (“Ole Miss: Facing,”). The KKK was opposed to it. The same line appears on their emblem, and removing it from ‘Ole Miss helps to delegitimize their emblem. This, in turn, threatens their existence as a group and their identity. Similarly, a student group supported removing the line, because for some it also felt like a threat to their security and it recalled a time where social institutions threatened their identity as a free people. In situations where basic human needs are threatened, Burton suggests traditional diplomacy cannot be used to negotiate these non-negotiable needs. He suggests problem-solving workshops in which dialogue and greater understanding can be used to provide for these needs.



  1. Lewis Coser in The Functions of Social Conflict, quoted in the Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. The overall idea of this quote is similar to the purpose behind a cleansing fire occurring in an old growth forest: conflict’s purpose is to help stagnant systems adjust to new social norms. As characterized here, conflict is a natural process whereby social systems that have grown defunct and disassociated may reform to meet new social needs. Conflict is thereby a mechanism for rebirth, just as a wildfire through an old growth forest stimulates and creates space for new plant life. This concept is important in conflict resolution theory, research, and practice. In the case of theory, this idea of conflict aids in understanding and predicting causes and cycles of conflict. Viewing conflict as a purging flame helps theorists model conflict as a somewhat predictable process. In norm-readjusting conflict, indicators can be flagged that lead to conflict. Some of these indicators have been identified by John Burton in his human needs theory, stating that failure to meet human needs, such as security and personal development, will lead to conflict.
  2. James A. Schellenberg in Conflict Resolution: Theory, Research, and Practice. The overall idea of this quote is that good conflict resolution comes from good analysis. Acting in a conflict situation without understanding the systems the conflict is taking place in, how it came to that point, what the causes, interests, needs, parties and other considerations of the conflict are, leads to inept and futile resolution. This concept of understanding a conflict before attempting to resolve it is foundational to master in conflict resolution theory, research, and practice.

Short Answers:

  1. Does human biology, such as an aggressive instinct, cause conflict?

Human biology, such as an aggressive instinct, is not currently theorized to cause conflict but it contributes to the escalation process of conflict. In the 1950’s, conflict was theorized to be a result of human nature or that conflict and aggression are natural and innate to humanity. As the incipient field of conflict resolution evolved, the perspective on biology and conflict changed to reflect the nuance that conflict is natural. It is not necessarily human nature, but it is a natural process. Later, the notion of frustration-aggression formed, where the gap between rising expectation and lagging achievement leads to frustration that is expressed through aggressive action. In Glasl’s Nine Stage Model of Conflict Resolution, aggression caused by frustration plays a role in the escalation process; however, the frustration and aggression are caused by differences and disagreements, not initially by aggressive acts themselves. As conflict escalates, the original disagreement becomes less and less important while the desire to be right and administer aggressive or punishing acts begin to fuel the conflict. In short, conflict is generally agreed to be natural, but not necessarily in human nature and human biology, particularly aggression, are not causes of conflict, however, they do help fuel it.

  1. John Burton argues that coercive diplomacy doesn’t work. Why not?

John Burton argues that coercive diplomacy does not work because there is a fundamental difference between disputes and conflicts and the processes used to resolve them are different. Disputes are a disagreement in interests. These interests are negotiable. Conflict is where basic human needs are not met. These are non-negotiable. Therefore, in conflict (where human needs are not met), engaging in a semantic exercise involving persuading or strong arming an opponent to a negotiated agreement will not meet the needs of those in conflict and will not resolve the conflict in a meaningful or lasting way. Burton proscribes the necessity of meeting these human needs (including security, expressing identity, personal development, and recognition) before disputes over negotiable interests (such as wage increases, debt limits, contract details, etc.) can be accomplished. He recommends problem-solving workshops, an open ended, dialogue style of hearing and communicating with an opposing side.

  1. According to Chris Moore (based on Coser, Kriesberg, and Wehr) there are five sources of conflict. What are they? Why is it important to differentiate the causes of conflict?

The five sources of conflict according to Chris Moore and other authors are:

  • Facts: conflict arises over access to data, interpretation of data, different data sets, etc.
  • Interests: conflict arises when people have different goals, demands, or needs that are viewed as being contrary to or opposed by another side
  • Relationships: conflict emerges through various historic, personal, political, social, or other kinds of relationships
  • Identity and Values: conflict arises if identity or religious, cultural, or social values or the expression of these things is limited, threatened, or opposed
  • Structures: unequal, corrupt, or destructive social or political institutions are a cause of conflict.

It is important to differentiate the causes of conflict because good conflict resolution stems from good conflict analysis. Understanding the root of a conflict allows for solutions that will address that root and resolve conflict more comprehensively. For this reason, it is important to unpack and differentiate the causes.



  1. Marx, Weber, and other structural theorists explain that social structures shape who we are, the causes of conflicts, and how conflicts progress. Using a current conflict situation or an historical conflict situation, apply a structural theory of conflict to the situation. What does the theory illuminate? What does it not explain well?


Social structure theories from such thinkers as Weber, Marx, and others, describe the story of conflict, how it starts, the processes it follows, and participants’ identities, through a social structural lens. In these theories, conflict can best be explained through understanding the social structures in which the conflict is taking place. Applying structural theories to the Arab Awakening in Anbar province in the Iraq War from 2006 to 2007 offers insight to how social structures helped shape the identity of participants and influenced both the causes of conflict and how the conflict progressed.

The dominant social structure in Anbar province is a tribal structure. Tribalism is a system in which extended family structures provide the basis for government and social interaction in a population. Patriarchy (deferring to the judgment of men and elder members of tribes) and honor-shame culture (an extremely high value placed on community honor, abhorrence to shame, and a belief that the most sacrosanct honor is tied to the chastity tribal women) are key characteristics that afford a view into tribal governance. Another key element necessary to understand about Iraqi tribal culture in Anbar are allegiance patterns and protecting women. Allegiance in tribal structures is given first to those most similar or related to the tribe, and progressively goes to those least related and similar. Secondly, women in tribal societies usually marry within their own tribe. This is both a protection for women and an economic boon for the tribe. Any wealth that follows the bride into her new home will stay in the larger tribal family. It also serves as a protection for women who, in a strictly patriarchal, honor-shame culture, will enter her husband’s family’s home and socially occupy a place just a few social steps the pets. If a woman marries within the tribe, her family can better protect her from ill treatment (Stansfield 2007; Fontan 2008).

With a basic understanding of tribal structure, conflict in 2006 and 2007 fell along tribal fault lines. The U.S.-led invasion of 2003 deposed the Sunni dominated government and replaced it with a predominantly Shi’a government. Losing their place within the Iraqi socio-power structure left Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province of western Iraq feeling dispossessed and vulnerable. Most looked to their dominant and most basic social structure, the tribe, for protection and power against a Shi’a government and foreign invaders. Tribes followed the traditional tribal structure in forming alliances with those most similar and related, which, after inter-tribal alliances formed, extended to outside groups. One of the most similar or related outside groups operating in the region at the time was Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). AQI was Sunni, making them a more natural ally for the Anbar’s Sunni tribes than the Shi’a-dominated centralized government. AQI members were also from areas either in or around Iraq, which made them a more natural ally than U.S. and coalition invasion forces. In 2006, the combined forces of AQI and Sunni tribes made Anbar one of the bloodiest theaters in the Iraq War (Ricks 2009).

Social structures influenced the emergence of conflict and the allies chosen in Anbar, but they also influenced the course and resolution of the conflict as well. The conflict began to shift in favor of coalition forces as coalition forces began operating within the social structures of Anbar Sunnis. Recognizing the reasons these tribesmen had for allying with AQI and understanding that these allegiances were changeable, coalition forces changed tactics from overwhelming force and imposing centralized government (notions inherent in Western social structures), working within the Sunni social structure. Through dialogues on mutual territory, delivery of aid packages, and granting credence to Sunni tribal leaders or Sheikhs, the course of the conflict began to shift. The conflict changed as coalition forces worked within existing social structures, tribalism, to resolve the conflict.

Simultaneous to U.S. efforts to work within the tribal social structure to sway the conflict in their favor, AQI was committing grave errors that went against the grain of the tribal structure and distanced their allies from them. AQI’s greatest missteps occurred when AQI members demanded the privilege or marrying a certain sheikh’s daughters. When the sheikh refused (admittedly on grounds explained through social structures: tribal women marry within the tribe) AQI members killed the sheikh. This act, which violated the tenets of tribal structures, precipitated the end of the alliance between Sunni tribes and AQI.

Social structural theory illuminates how social structures shape individuals and helps explain how conflicts emerge and are resolved. This theory, however, does not explain well the details around how conflict in Anbar started to shift. These details are better explained through social process theory. Social process theory explains that conflicts arise as a result of processes in the interaction between groups or individuals. Individual leaders, including Col. MacFarland and key Sheikhs, played crucial leadership roles in initiating relationships that led to a Sunni-Coalition alliance (Ricks 2009). When a few individual U.S. leaders began leading their organizations to reach out Sunni Sheikhs, and when a few individual Sheikhs began leading the way in a turn toward coalition forces, the conflict changed and a tribal culture made strange allies with an ethnically, religiously, and organizationally different entity. Social structure theory explains a lot of what happened at the outset of conflict and at key turning points, but many of those turning points are better explained through social process theory.




Works Cited

Fontan, Victoria. Voices from Post-Saddam Iraq: Living with Terrorism, Insurgency, and

New Forms of Tyranny. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008.

Kriesberg, L. (2007). Constructive conflicts: From escalation to resolution. (3rd ed.). Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield.

“Ole Miss: Facing the Change.” Not in Our Town. http://www.niot.org/node/4690 (accessed September 25, 2013).

Ricks, Thomas E. The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008. New York: Penguin Press HC, The, 2009.

Stansfield, Gareth. Iraq: People, History, Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007.