Theoretical Approaches II- Conflict as a Process

The understanding of conflict as a process is inherent in much of the literature discussed above. By treating a conflict as a process it can be better understood in terms of its origins, escalation, de-escalation, and eventual resolution or transformation. In order to understand this three models that describe conflict in terms of a process are presented below. As with the theories presented in Theoretical Approaches I there are more and the reader is encouraged to explore the source material further.

At the most basic level, a conflict can be understood to progress over time and vary in intensity throughout its existence. Beginning with its initiation a conflict will be of low intensity, becoming more intense as it escalates and plateaus into a high intensity entrapment. As the conflict de-escalates and eventually terminates the intensity is reduced. Clearly actual conflicts do not follow such a simple and linear process as conflict spirals will occur within the stages and it is difficult to be clear when a new stage has begun, however, conflicts will generally undergo such a process. Nor does termination mean that the conflict will not be initiated again as the outcome of the current conflict has an impact on the emergence of future conflict(s).

 Adam Curle- The Progression of Conflict (1971)

According to Adam Curle, conflict can be treated in terms of a matrix that compares two aspects of the relationship between the parties to a conflict. The first is the level of power between them and the second is the level of awareness of their conflicting interests and needs. This is along a continuum that moves from un-peaceful to peaceful means through four stages; latent conflict (hidden conflict due to unawareness of equality), confrontation (where inequality is recognised and addressed), negotiation (mutual recognition and cooperation) and more peaceful relations (restructuring of the conflict relationship. Curle’s emphasis on the power relations between parties has become increasingly relevant in the analysis of contemporary conflicts where there is a clear disparity in power relations evident as drivers behind intra-state conflicts and a corresponding inequality in the relationships between parties.

Christopher R Mitchell- The Developmental Stages of Conflict (1981)

A conflict situation does not require violence to take place, nor is a conflict situation necessarily evident in the relations between parties, as they may have underling tensions that affect their relationship. Christopher R Mitchell outlines the stages by which a conflict progresses from a state of isolation or cooperation, through incipient and latent conflict to a state of being manifest in the form of conflict behaviour between parties, or suppressed, where one party is unable to challenge a stronger opponent and is effectively coerced into accepting status quo. At the stage of isolation or cooperation the parties have either not met or have complementary goals, effectively making conflict between them non-existent. Once a goal incompatibility arises, the stage of incipient conflict is reached, in which incompatible goals exist but one or more parties do not recognise them. This becomes latent conflict when the parties have mutually incompatible goals but are not pursuing strategies in pursuit of their goals. Finally, the stage of manifest conflict is reached when the parties have incompatible goals and are pursuing opposing overt strategies in order to achieve their goals. Once the parties have reached the stage of latent conflict a conflict situation has developed between them, distinguished only by the absence of the overt behaviour that makes it a manifest conflict situation. Mitchell presents the stages of conflict as a progression through incipient, latent, and manifest conflict to termination, although these are analytical and not all conflicts have to pass through all stages. Also, conflict between parties can go through repetitive cycles that produce spirals where one conflict outcome produces the substantive issues that drive the next.

Louis Kriesberg- The Conflict Cycle (2003)

A third example of an approach to conflict as a process is provided by Louis Kriesberg in which a conflict develops across seven stages. These are: underlying conditions (bases), 2) manifestation, 3) escalation, 4) de-escalation, 5) settlement, and 6) consequences. The first of these, bases are the underlying conditions that have the potential to result in overt conflict, although most such situations have the potential to result in manifest conflict it does not follow that they will. Manifestation occurs when one or more parties realises that they are adversaries have incompatible goals and start to mobilise supporters and/or try to directly influence the other party. Escalation is characterised by the pursuit of incompatible goals, usually, although not exclusively, through violence, but the scope of participation is wider and the severity of inducements used increases. De-escalation occurs in all conflicts, if only temporary, and will come about due to changes between parties, within parties and/or external parties. Generally de-escalation involves a long term commitment by the parties involved and is characterised by reduced antagonism.  The move to settlement of a conflict may come about through one party abandoning the fight, a unilateral imposition of a resolution by the stronger party or compromise, possibly with outside assistance from third parties. However, this does not mean that the conflict is resolved to the extent that it will not escalate again in the future. The consequences of a conflict’s outcome are important, what is a resolution or transformation to one conflict may hold the bases for another. For this reason Kriesberg emphasises that seeing conflict as a cycle is misleading, it would be more accurate to perceive it in terms of a spiral, with consequences from a conflict forming the bases of the next.

The above has presented three different approaches to understanding the process of conflict and some brief conclusions can be drawn. Firstly, conflict is a part of everyday life and when carried out constructively need not be violent. Secondly, when conflict is addressed as having stages prior to those involving violence there is potential to identify and address the factors that need to be addressed to prevent the use of violence. Thirdly, the resolution of a conflict or its transformation to non-violence can result in changes that in time will bring about a re-escalation or a new conflict based on competing goals. Fourth, and last, and as Curle, Mitchell and Kriesberg all state, conflict does not have to develop in a linear fashion, moving from one stage to the next: stages can be missed, conflicts can revert back to a previous stage, or can be resolved or transformed without passing through the stages in which conflict is overt. The value of process models of conflict is that they allow the analyst to identify at what stage the conflict is at and the methods and techniques that can be applied to change a given conflict from one of violence to non-violence.


Jeong, HW (2008) Understanding Conflict and Conflict Analysis (Sage Publications Ltd: London).

Kriesberg, L Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution 2nd Edn (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc: Oxford: 2003).

Lederach, JP (1997) Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (United States Institute of Peace: Washington D.C).

Mitchell, CR (1981) The Structure of International Conflict (The Macmillan Press Ltd: Basingstoke).