Theoretical Approaches I – Core Theories


The use of theory is very important when analysing armed conflict as it provides a method by which information can be gathered and organised, compared, and most important of all, criticised. Science and knowledge cannot progress without the discussion and criticism of existing knowledge.

There are three core theories of CAR presented below, each unique in its understanding of conflict, and they allow the analyst to organise the gathering of information and to compare different conflicts. There are other theories, by which conflict can be analysed, and some will introduced in Theoretical Approaches II & III, however, the three presented here have proved influential and have been used by academics and practitioners in the field of conflict resolution. They are also very different in how they approach the subject.

The Conflict Triangle.

The ABC triangle was developed by Johan Galtung. This has three aspects: the attitudes (A) of the actors involved, their behaviour (B), and the contradiction (C). The contradiction (conflict) is defined by the actors involved in terms of the incompatible values or goals between them. The three aspects are interrelated and any one of them may be the starting point for the development of a conflict. An incompatibility in goals, for example over a territory, may lead to hostile attitudes, then behaviour. It is also the case that hostile behaviour can lead to hostile attitudes and create an incompatibility of goals. Likewise, hostile attitudes between actors can result in behaviour that creates an incompatibility of goals. What at first is a simple proposition that a conflict can start at one of three points (but must involve all three) becomes more complex when we consider what the attitudes, behaviour and contradiction are, and how they actually interrelate.

The ABC triangle is an excellent model for both the beginner and the expert to use when attempting to understand a given conflict. This is because the original model is straightforward and the non-specialist can apply it in order to understand what the underlying contradiction is, the attitudes to each other of the actors involved, and their behaviour as a result of the contradiction and attitudes. As the analysis can begin using any of the aspects as a starting point there is potential for the analyst to identify what is driving the conflict and how the conflict can be deescalated. An example is territory, a frequent focus of conflict, as while a dispute over territory is a clear incompatibility of goals, an analysis of the attitudes and behaviour may reveal that the territory itself is not important to the actors but their wish to keep it out of the hands of the other is, revealing that the source of the conflict lays in their attitudes to each other and drives their behaviour. A second advantage of the model is that it can be applied to all types of conflict and multiple actors, and so is a genuinely ‘general’ model in its application. The model is also very adaptable as it encourages the analyst to consider exactly what the nature of the attitudes, behaviour, and contradiction are, so encouraging the application of expert knowledge. Taking attitudes as an example, a psychologist will have a wealth of specialist knowledge, which they can apply to understanding the attitudes aspect of the conflict triangle. This in itself will aid an understanding of only one aspect, but collaboration with other specialists, for example sociologists and historians, will reveal more about the other aspects. Put simply, the model can be used by you and I, people in conflict situations, and specialists, all using the same model as a point of reference: the ABC triangle can be as straightforward or complex as the user decides.

Human Needs Theory and Protracted Social Conflict

The human needs approach was developed by John Burton, who based his approach on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a model of psychological motivation, in which needs range from physiological to self-actualisation. Put another way, from the essential needs required to survive to the realisation of one’s potential. As such, Burton’s approach is an example of the application of an established theory from one area of knowledge (psychology) to another (conflict resolution). Maslow’s model has also been widely used in business and management training.

For Burton, human needs are universal and if they are not met within society frustration and then conflict will occur. He argued that for a state to be legitimate it needs to fulfil human needs (for example, growth and development), values (customs and beliefs), and interests (relating to material goods). Needs are universal and primordial in nature, whereas interests relate to the aspirations of both the individual and identity groups, meaning that needs, values and interests are a hierarchy ranging from the essential of needs and values to the desired of interests. Needs and values are non-negotiable whereas interests are negotiable as needs and strongly held values are drives for human survival and development. In terms of conflict resolution, where a conflict is at the level of human needs it is likely to be intractable as situations that involve needs do not respond to negotiation, bargaining, or coercion.

The Human Needs approach was focused on the state as the unit of analysis, with the state serving to either satisfy or frustrate basic communal needs, and so promoting or preventing conflict. It was developed further by Burton and Edward Azar to explain protracted social conflicts, in which the unit of analysis is the identity group- race, racial, religious, ethnic, cultural, and others. It is the denial of such identities, which are basic needs, which drove identity related conflicts. These had been on the increase after the Second World War and were of a social, prolonged and violent nature. Moreover, such conflicts were occurring in what was then known as the ‘Third World’ where people were seeking to develop a collective identity that was recognised by others.  The human needs approach has been very influential and Azar’s concept of protracted social conflict not only provided insight into the conflicts of its time but also is arguably explanatory of the conflicts of the twenty-first century. It has also proved durable. The recent textbook Contemporary Conflict Resolution draws on and develops Azar’s work and while human needs theory has generally fallen out of use in the literature on conflict analysis and resolution its influence can still be felt through Azar’s protracted social conflict. This is, to some degree, a consequence of the dominant forms of conflict between the end of the Cold War and now being driven by non-state actors and taking place within and across state borders.

Conflict transformation

The intractability and protracted nature of some conflict situations has led to thinking beyond conflict resolution towards transforming conflicts so that they are pursued through non-violent means. This represents an attempt to treat conflict as a situation that is multilevel and multidimensional: where conflict is complex attempts at conflict resolution need to be comprehensive enough for the analyst to understand conflicts involving multiple sub-state and state actors, driven by multiple causes, and occurring across state borders with varying levels of society involved. The Conflict Triangle and Human Needs approaches presented above are ‘pragmatic’ in that they work better in structured and organised societies such as states where the number of actors involved in a conflict are small and the written and unwritten rules governing behaviour are clear. When the actors are brought together for talks and negotiation it is clear who they represent and they have the authority to act on behalf of the people they represent and make agreements. Where society is disorganised, without common rules and there are multiple actors representing varied groups crossing state boundaries pragmatic approaches do not work as well. Here a ‘holistic’ approach is required which treats the transformation of conflict as deep and profound, works at the grassroots level (but does not exclude the others), and has as its goal profound change that takes time to occur. It can be seen that the transformative approach is a long term commitment involving all levels of society.

The emphasis on a grassroots approach does not mean that other levels are excluded, as evidenced by the approach taken by John Paul Lederach. Here a population affected by a conflict is presented as a pyramid, with three levels: the grassroots leadership, numerous and living day to day; the middle range leadership who have some influence; and the top level leadership who have power but are highly visible and as a consequence locked into their positions. While it is the grassroots that drives transformation, it is the middle level that serves as a link with the top level. Peace building, via methods appropriate to the level, can be pursued at all levels and emphasises a focus on what Lederach terms the ‘epicenter’ of a conflict: the web of relational patterns from which ‘episodes’ of conflict emerge. The idea that a conflict can be transformed from violence to a non-violent conflict is a major conceptual development beyond that of human needs theory. Lederach does not reject ‘pragmatic’ conflict resolution outright, instead including it in a more ‘holistic’ framework. The aim is to transform the conflict to one where there is recognition and inclusion at grassroots, middle, and top levels of leadership with the grassroots driving transformation.

The above has presented three unique theoretical approaches to CAR and the reader will have come to the conclusion that when we talk of conflict analysis and resolution we are implicitly referring to conflict analysis and resolution and transformation. As such, conflict becomes an accepted state of affairs, but violent conflict does not, and the focus for the analyst becomes one of enabling the transformation of armed conflict to one in which violence is not used as a means of achieving incompatible goals.


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