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Last Updated: 03/11/2011
Conflict Analysis and Resolution: Socio-cultural and Intrapersonal Perspectives
Emmanuel Mutisya

Much of the literature on peace building and conflict transformation focuses on socio-economic analyses, while relatively little research addresses the psychological causes and impacts of violence and insecurity. This paper seeks to refine existing models of conflict analysis through the explicit inclusion of psychological and cultural perspectives in order to better identify the core interests of parties to conflict, and to understand the mechanisms through which conflicts are produced, protracted, and, ultimately, resolved.

Contemporary research and theories of conflict analysis and resolution have focused primarily on political and economic perspectives; therefore, political and economic methods have been used to address many recent conflicts. As Stewart (1998) shows, policies formulated to address conflicts from this perspective require the inclusion of governments politically, economically, and socially.

However, the increasingly multiple and complex causes of conflicts, which further include cultural and psychological dimensions, have provided peace practitioners with another lens through which today’s conflicts can be viewed. With various external and internal actors and factors playing key roles in the exacerbation of conflicts, unearthing the root causes, which is a main objective in conflict resolution, has also become especially difficult.

There is no universally accepted definition of conflict resolution, as scholars emphasize slightly different aspects and approaches. Swingle (1990) defines it as the measurable reduction in mutually agreed upon indicators of violence, but not as a cure of conflict itself, as conflicts are inevitable and not universally negative, providing normal, proper, effective, just, and meaningful processes of life. According to Peter Wallensteen (2002), conflict resolution is a situation where the conflicting parties enter into an agreement that solves their central incompatibilities, accept each other’s continued existence as parties and cease all the violent action against each other. Bill Warters (2000) defines conflict resolution as the processes by which systems handle and resolve conflicts, involving legal processes, contract negotiations, problem-solving agreements, human relations, and ethical concerns, among others. Ronald J. Fisher (1997) argues that conflict resolution is a complex process of de-escalation and reconciliation that develops over time to the point where new qualities and mechanisms exist in the relationship to allow for the constructive settlement of disputes. Ann Sanson & Di Bretherton et al. (2001) further point out that conflict resolution provides techniques to deal with disputes in a manner which is non-violent, avoids dominance or oppression by one party over the other, and rather than exploiting one party, aims to meet the human needs of all.

In this paper, I will adopt the definition of John Burton et al. (1991, pp.71-72) which defines conflict resolution as a process of change in political, social, and economic systems; an analytical and problem-solving process that takes into account such individual and group needs as identity and recognition, as well as institutional changes that are required to satisfy these needs. It is the termination of conflicts by methods that are analytical and that get to the root causes of the problem, pointing to an outcome that is perceived by the parties involved to be a permanent solution to the problem.

Many may argue that this definition is too simplistic and that conflict resolution is a more multi-faceted process than what is defined here. It is indeed difficult to reach a definition that would be wide enough in its coverage, abstain from value judgments, and serve analytical purposes. However, I argue that this definition captures the essence of the phenomenon, and has the advantage of being tractable in an analysis of its causes and effects.

All of these definitions imply, to some extent, that it is of paramount importance to understand the social, cultural, and psychological links, however, this paper seeks to bring these connections to the forefront of the current discussion. As such, developing a more complete model of conflict analysis and resolution requires a strongly coordinated effort to stitch together these socio-cultural and psychological features for a multi-faceted and well founded conflict resolution process. To this end, this paper seeks to refine existing models of conflict analysis through the explicit inclusion of psychological and cultural perspectives in order to better identify the core interests of parties to conflict, and to understand the mechanisms through which conflicts are produced, protracted, and, ultimately, resolved.

Culture and Conflict

When it comes to conflicts and conflict resolution, culture remains an issue of paramount importance. The abstractness of cultures arises because cultures keep on changing, however, it is through culture that we make meanings in life and identify ourselves as who we think we are, and it poses great influence to people’s identities.

Bates and Plog (1990) define culture as the system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through social learning (p7). Culture, in this sense, is not limited to language, dressing, and food customs but extends to concepts of race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, sexual orientations, political and religious affiliations, gender, and many others. It refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.

Human relationships are the cornerstones of culture, as they are of conflicts. Therefore, cultures are intrinsically attached to conflicts, and the two may complicate each other, or provide tools and insights for the betterment of human relations.

Because of varied and different cultural beliefs between and within societies, it should be understood that culture remains a major source of misunderstandings. Therefore, many cultural factors perpetuate conflicts. As Michelle Labaron (1994) points out, cultures are embedded in every conflict as conflicts originate from relationships between people, and express themselves where we tend to make out meaning or hold our identities. For example, many of the violent conflicts within the great lakes region of Africa are not only rooted on territorial, boundary, or sovereignty issues, but also on acknowledgment, representation, and the legitimization of different identities and ways of living.

It is through identifying the role culture plays in any given conflict that we can come closer to bridging the gaps within and between individuals, societies and communities as this can help people make more intentional choices to bring out positive outcomes in any given situation. This involves a more conscious understanding of communication, ways of framing the conflict, approaches to meaning making, and identities and roles.

Social Perspective

Understanding conflict in terms of actual or perceived needs, values and interests allows social scholars to explain many aspects of social life such as misunderstandings and disagreements, conflicts of interests, and fights between individuals, groups, or organizations.

Coser (1956) defines a social conflict as a struggle between opponents over values and claims to scarce status, power and resources, whereas Schelling (1960) points out that these are conflicts that are strategic and are essentially bargaining situations in which the ability of one participant to gain his/her desired outcome is dependent on the choices or decisions that the other participant will make. Conflicts, therefore, often involve a process in which two or more parties attempt to frustrate the other's goal attainment. The factors underlying such conflicts are threefold namely interdependence, differences in goals, and differences in perceptions. There is a perceived divergence in interests or belief that the parties' current aspirations cannot be achieved simultaneously. In other words, this would generally occur from the interaction of interdependent people who perceive incompatible goals and interfere with each other’s attempts to achieve those goals. Social conflicts, therefore, involve the confrontation of social powers.

According to North, Koch, and Zinnes (1960), conflict is always concerned with the distribution of power. Indeed, an exertion of power is prerequisite to the retention of a share in the determination of future relations – as well as for the acquiring or retaining of other benefits perceived as the "reasons" for conflict. It is under this point of view that I would argue that the Great Lake African countries have been tied to long term civil wars and violent conflicts; the competition for power is so strong between the different power institutions that violent conflicts have become inevitable.

This power confrontation can take many forms within these institutions. As R.J. Rummel (1976) points out, power can be assertive, altruistic and manipulative, coercive and physical, and so on. Some are intentionally directed, as are assertive and bargaining powers; one is directed wholly towards a person's body, as is force; and others are directed through another self, as are inductive and intellectual powers. All these powers may conflict; all can manifest conflict.

Social Positions

Social position and roles in the society are created primarily through competition, but also through cooperation. The competition for scarce positions would in many times lead to a war of words, which may escalate to a violent conflict. Positions are created to be filled by a small group within any given society and with communities being composed of different groups, the confrontation to attain the power of another group(s) has been witnessed over and over again.

For instance, leadership and governance issues, and fight for clan supremacy, have prolonged the conflict in Somalia for many years. The post-election violence experienced after the general presidential elections in 2007/08 in Kenya also depicts what power means to many leaders within different institutions. The supporters of the two sides clashed leaving thousands killed, injured or displaced. Each party wanted nothing short of the presidency. A solution was finally accomplished through a power sharing agreement. But was the conflict adequately resolved? Many other conflicts have followed the same path. The Kashmir war, the Rwanda genocide, the Darfur crisis, the Northern Uganda war, the Chad Conflict, the Israel/Palestinian conflict, and many others are creations of power clashes between the concerned parties. Social positions are therefore a major factor in the origin and escalation of many conflicts around the world.

Interests and Identities

All social conflicts involve interests and identity. According to Burton (1991), interests are related to the occupational, social, political, and economic aspirations of the individual. Understanding the interests of any warring parties is a strong starting point for prescribing the best tools to resolve a conflict successfully.

Identity can be described as the norms, beliefs, practices, and traditions with which one engages one's environment. Self-perception underlies the notion of identity, a pivotal component of social-psychological analysis. Identity and perceptions of the self provide the lens through which one views others. Identity is not an immutable concept, rather, it forms and changes depending on the particular historical moment.

The mutability or adaptability of identity gives it vast potential as a tool for conflict management. Increasing awareness of the self and supporting a more equitable perception of others can be facilitated through cross-cultural exchanges, or high-level and highly visible dialogues. Sharing of each group's unique history, traditions, and culture are all positive initiatives that mutually reinforce one's own and the other's identity. It is through understanding all these and other social aspects of conflicts in any resolution process that an approach to sustainable conflict resolution can be arrived at.

Psychological Perspective

A clash of interests, values, actions or directions often sparks conflict. Psychologically, a conflict exists when the reduction of one motivating stimulus involves an increase in another, so that a new adjustment is demanded. The word is applicable from the instant that the clash occurs. Even when we say that there is a potential conflict we are implying that there is already a conflict of direction even though a clash may not yet have occurred.

Certainly, the psychological approach to conflict resolution has already influenced the field in general, however, the integration of disciplines has not been fully realized. There are two reasons for this. One is the complexity of conflict. Psychologists have worked hard to overcome this, but have lacked applicable tools to deal with violent conflicts which are as much socio-cultural as psychological phenomenon and involve crucial ethical questions (Rummel, 1976). Another reason, also mentioned by Rummel, is that a common framework in psychological research of conflicts is required in order to create a realistic analysis, and psychologists are still debating this point among themselves.


Perceptions are formed though social interactions between and within groups, and tend to become more rigid over time. Values, power distribution, and resource control contribute to these perceptions. The realist school of thought describes conflict as a result of a shift in power and the display of relative strength. In social-psychological terms, it is the perception of power, rather than the actual possession of power, which is important. This allows, at least theoretically, for conflicts over power to be settled on the level of perception, when material or resource based resolutions are impossible. Perceptions, however, are not perfect images of reality as they can change through social experience. New perspectives can be learned and values and interests can be shared. One of the dangers with perceptions is that, while they are drawn from reality, over time they create reality- the self-fulfilling prophecy.[1]

Kelman's exposition of mirror image theory describes how parties develop parallel images of the other, with self-perceptions largely positive and perceptions of the other mostly negative. Violence and aggression become associated with the other party while virtue and justice are qualities possessed by oneself or one's own group. Deutsch's folk theory of war, in which one side perceives itself as only good and the other side as only evil can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where violence rapidly escalates. In both cases the best tools to counter the negative effects of mirror-imaging and the good-versus-evil dialectic is empathy[2], a capacity rarely found in the realm of international relations. Exchange programs and group workshops can be valuable opportunities to learn empathy, build trust, open communication, increase sensitivity, and augment appreciation for the other.


Aggression refers to behavior that is intended to intimidate or influence others through the threat of harm or pain. Behavior that accidentally causes harm or pain is not aggression. Implied in conflict resolution is the proposition that aggressions and conflicts are the direct result of some institutions and social norms being incompatible with inherent human needs. The argument is that aggressions and anti-social behaviors are stimulated by social circumstances. There are human limits to the ability to conform to institutions and norms, as the human person is not fully malleable. On the contrary, the needs that are frustrated by institutions and norms require satisfaction. They will be pursued in one way or another. These needs would seem to be even more fundamental than food and shelter – needs such as personal recognition and identity that are the basis of individual development and security in a society. Denial by society of recognition and identity would lead, at all social levels, to alternative behaviors designed to satisfy such needs, be it ethnic wars, street gangs, or domestic violence. This perspective is conspicuously absent in traditional fields of conflict resolution, such as Law, which expects obedience and considers that human beings have an obligation to obey.

Sociologists have been greatly concerned with the socialization of the individual into the norms of the society. Psychologists are concerned with the adjustment of the person to the social environment. Failure is an abnormality. Indeed, there is a widespread resistance to including any such human factor in social analysis because it is vague, non-quantifiable and therefore not “scientific.” There is built-in thinking that the human person is wholly malleable. Economic man and other constructs that ignore problems in relationships and attribute them to a lack of individual adjustment and social consciousness are more manageable.

The traditional and widespread view is that such interest-based systems have evolved because by nature, “man is aggressive”. This view, however, contains within it a false assumption. While not clearly stated, the assumption seems to be that “man is aggressive” primarily in the pursuit of material acquisition, especially resources and territories which are in limited supply. But now both experience and theory suggest that material acquisition is rarely if ever the primary source of conflict. There is room for conflict over physical acquisition, especially when there are likely to be costs of conflict. For this reason it has been possible to introduce into societies appropriate legal and bargaining institutions and processes (Burton, 1991).

Theorists differ over whether aggression is based in biology or is caused by environment. Sociobiologists argue that aggression is a basic part of our biological makeup, and is elicited or repressed by various circumstances. Deviance studies have found violence associated with various physiological conditions. They have also found that aggression produces physiological changes. However, most violence is committed by physiologically normal individuals.

Behavioralists view aggression as a learned response. The legal system displays such an approach when it relies on punishment to deter violence. However, punishment is only effective under very specific conditions; it must be swift, certain, and severe. Social learning theorists see aggressions as learned from personal experience and from role models. They emphasize environmental sources such as violent families and media portrayals of violence. Nonviolent behaviors will also be learned if they are effectively modeled. Social cognition approaches view aggression as the result of flawed or inadequate behavioral decision-making, and categorize aggression into two types. Reactive aggression occurs in response to perceived provocation. Reactively violent people may be overly sensitive to provocation or misinterpret situational cues. Proactive aggression occurs when violence is the preferred response to social challenge. Proactively violent people may lack knowledge of or competency with alternative responses or may simply have an inappropriately positive evaluation of aggression. Cultural and social context plays a significant role in determining what kinds and degrees of aggression are acceptable or even admirable (Opotow, 2000)[3].

Conflict Analysis and Resolution

Conflict is a dispute in a situation defined by the parties' underlying goals and beliefs, mutual perception and communication and the facts involved. The conflict itself is a process of communication--an engagement of fields of expression. Passions and beliefs become evident and the nature and intensity of hidden interests surface. In the process of achieving a new structure of expectations, conflict integrates underlying goals and mutual perceptions into a balance among the central interests at stake, the resolution and the ability of the parties to support them. The balancing process can be shortened, and the resulting expectations made more realistic by clarifying the conflict situation. Under this, four rules should help the parties.

  • Uncover the underlying or hidden goals and beliefs by looking beneath the conflict. A dispute really may be about hidden and perhaps even unconscious beliefs and values.
  • Determine the facts as fact finding is essential to resolving conflict for often conflicts are generated by a misperception or misunderstanding of the facts involved.
  • Be sensitive to the other's position and perspective. See the conflict through his/her eyes. Resolving conflict is partially empathizing with the other, understanding his/her frame of reference, and sensing this reading of one's field of expression.
  • State the other's argument and demands. Miscommunication and misperception can play a large role in conflict. One way to reduce these problems is to seek mutual agreement on the issue, claims, and justifications.

These four rules (looking underneath, looking at the facts, looking at oneself, and looking at the other) alone will not make peace but they help to focus on the real issues and reduce the emotional content.

Conflict resolution should take into account our bio-psychological nature, our socio-cultural existence, and our environmental context. Our view of it depends on our perspective; our attempts to understand it presuppose an epistemology, and our solutions manifest our ethical system. To consider the inevitability of violence requires attention to the most fundamental philosophical questions, the most central issues about our nature and society, and our ultimate ethical dilemmas.

Effective conflict resolution has four stages: diagnosis, implementation planning, implementation, and evaluation. Diagnosis requires identifying victims of violence, identifying their motives and background, and understanding how violence spreads from level to level. Since the causes of violence are multiple, complex, and interconnected, strategies for countering violence must be comprehensive, coordinated multiparty approaches.


A lot of literature on conflicts and their resolution exists today. Many methods to resolve conflicts have been used with success while others have fallen short of the requirements. Managed well, conflict resolution can bring a stronger positive relationship between the involved parties than ever before. This can as well lead to a stronger and more inclusive society and the creation of positive social identities and roles.

However, if the process is wrongly and poorly administered, real and legitimate differences between people can quickly spiral out of control, resulting in situations where other conflicts sprout up, consequently leading to adverse effects such as prolonged violence. This is particularly the case where the wrong approaches to conflict resolution are used, and when the psychological needs and behaviors of human beings are ignored.


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Burton, J. (1991), Conflict: Resolution and Prevention. London: Macmillan.

Coser, L.A. (1956), The Functions of Social Conflict, Free Press, New York and Collier-Macmillan, London.

Fisher R.J. (1997), Interactive Conflict Resolution. Washington DC, United States Institute of Peace Press

LeBaron, M. (1994), Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approach for a Changing World. University of British Columbia

Morton D. (1973), The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes.New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

North C.R. (1960), The integrative functions of conflict. Sage publications, Inc

Optow S. (2000), Aggression and Violence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers

Rummel R.J. (1976), Understanding Conflict and War: Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix-Chapter 27 -Conflict In The Socio-cultural Field. Beverly Hills, California: Sage Publications

Sanson A. & Bretherton D. et al (2001), Conflict Resolution. New Jersey

Schelling T.C. (1960), The Strategy of Conflict, Maryland

Stewart, F. (1998). "The Root Causes of Conflict: Some Conclusions," Working Paper 16. Oxford: Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford

Swingle P.G. (1989), The Resolution of Conflict, Canadian Psychological Association, University of Ottawa

Wallensteen, Peter. Understanding Conflict Resolution: War, Peace and the Global System. London: Sage

Warters B. (2000), Thinking about Variation in Campus Mediator Style, Wayne State University, Detroit

[1] The self-fulfilling prophecy is a statement that alters actions and therefore comes true. For example, a person stating “I’m probably going to have a lousy day,” might alter his actions so that such a prediction is fulfilled by his actions. This may be an unconscious gesture. A person who might espouse a self-fulfilling prophecy in a positive way “I’m going to have a great day” might act in ways that will actually make this prediction true.

[2] Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s state of mind or emotional condition. It is to emotionally put yourself into the situation of another person. It brings about healthy conflict management, good relationships, emotional intimacy, and happy marriages.

[3] Opotow defines aggression as "any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment."(p. 404) Aggression has many forms and purposes. Direct violence is overt and is committed by, and directed at, particular individuals. It can be contrasted to structural violence, which occurs when basic resources are distributed unfairly, depriving some of decent lives. Violence occurs at every level, from individual through family, community, nation, and world.

Emmanuel Mutisya is a writer and researcher on sustainable development, peace and conflicts, international development, microfinance, and urban planning and is affiliated with the University of Tokyo. He currently also works with United Nations University on sustainability projects in Africa