On Conflict Resolution: Grasping Some Terms

Having rudimentarily addressed the nature of contemporary conflict, we shall now glance at some conflict resolution (CR) vernacular. Most of us are likely familiar with many of CR’s common terms, such as negotiation, mediation, problem-solving, etc. Though we do not always have well-articulated definitions of these terms, we essentially “know them when we see them.” Other concepts, though, may be less familiar. Thus, we will look briefly at the following:

  • destructive vs. constructive conflict,
  • negative vs. positive peace,
  • soft vs. hard power.


Morton Deutsch identifies essentially two different types of conflict: destructive  and constructive.[1] His was the notion that some form of conflict is inevitable within society as people engage with one another, and not all occurrences of conflict are negative. Rather, some forms of conflict can benefit society, such as conflict to rectify injustice. In his book by the same name, Louis Kriesberg defined constructive conflict as follows:

Conflict outcomes are constructive insofar as the parties regard them as mutually acceptable…[and] insofar as they provide a basis for an ongoing relationship in which future conflicts tend to be waged constructively.[2]

In other words, as long as both sides are OK with the resolution, and as long as the conflict lends itself to further positive interactions between the two sides, then it is constructive.

Within the realm of destructive conflict, researchers commonly make further distinctions between armed conflict and violent conflict, the former usually denoting the use of violence on both sides while the latter can include one-sided violence like genocides.[3] Within the category of armed conflict, distinctions go even deeper, as is evident in John Paul Lederach’s summation of Wallensteen and Axell’s “delineation of categories for assessing armed conflict.”[4] For instance, assessing via fairly rigid quantifications of statistics (e.g. death tolls), researchers distinguish between minor armed conflict, intermediate armed conflict, and war, with the variations depending primarily on the number of people killed annually.

It is destructive conflict that CR seeks to resolve. According to Ramsbotham, et al, CR has traditionally “defined itself in relation to the challenge of understanding and transforming destructive…conflicts” by offering approaches that are:

  • Multilevel
  • Multidisciplinary
  • Multicultural
  • Both analytic and normative
  • And both theoretical and practical.[5]


Within the jargon of CR, we find the terms negative and positive peace, phrases coined by one of CR’s founding theorists, Johan Galtung.[6] Galtung understood negative peace to be the ending of physical violence (i.e., people are no longer killing, or trying to kill, each other). Positive peace includes this cessation of direct violence, but moves beyond structural and cultural forms of violence as well. It embraces such processes and realities as “an equitable and just social order, as well as ecological harmony.”[7]

But make no mistake here: negative peace is not actually negative. The ending of physical violent conflict is very much a positive notion. Rather, negative peace should not be the end goal, as mere ceasefires – while important – are insufficient in and of themselves. When discussing peace in terms of international relations, the realist notion prevails: that is, peace exists insofar as nations are not at war with each other.[8] But in my mind, this is an altogether unhelpful definition of peace, and thus Galtung’s distinction is important. I will say more about this in the final post.

In terms of conflict stages or approaches, negative peace is often coupled with conflict settlement while positive peace would be more in line with conflict transformation. I will elaborate on these distinctions in the next post.


The role of power in CR is contested. Those with access to strong militaries might opt for the hard, or coercive, power approach. Kenneth Boulding calls this “threat power”, as in “do what I want or I will do what you don’t want.”[9] More conducive to the positive peaceful transitions out of conflict is the soft, or persuasive, power tactic. Here Boulding goes further, distinguishing between the soft power approaches of “exchange power” (“do what I want and I will do what you want”) and “integrative power” (“together we can do something that is better for both of us”).[10] I will say a bit more about soft and hard power in my next post discussing critiques of CR.

What are your thoughts on these distinctions? Do you find the notion of positive peace helpful, or do you think that negative peace is a sufficient goal? Is it helpful to hold on to possibilities for hard power intervention, or should they be unilaterally rejected in favor of soft power pursuits?

[1] Ramsbotham, 8.

[2] Qtd. in Ibid., 124. See also Jeong, 13-15.

[3] Ibid., 31.

[4] Lederach, 4.

[5] Ramsbotham, 8.

[6] Ibid., 11.

[7] Barash, Webel, 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Qtd. in Ibid., 22.

[10] Ibid.

Works Cited

Barash, David P., and Charles P. Webel. Peace and Conflict Studies, 2nd ed. Los       Angeles: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009.

Jeong, Ho-Won. Understanding Conflict and Conflict Analysis. London: SAGE Publications, 2008.

Lederach, John Paul. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies . Washington, D.C.: United States Intitute of Peace Press, 1997.

Ramsbotham, Oliver, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall. Contemporary Conflict Resolution, 3rd ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011.



  1. Jonathon says:

    Good article. I’m not sure I understood the difference between armed conflict and violent conflict, though.

  2. mtmcray says:

    Thanks JV. Armed conflict usually refers to violent engagement by both conflicting parties, while violent conflict (though it can certainly include those conflicts in which both sides waged armed struggle) refers also to situations of one-sided violence. Take Rwanda. That could certainly be labeled a violent conflict, as one side used violence against the other, but it may not be categorized as an armed conflict. Does that helpful?

  3. David McRay says:

    This is helpful information. The “negative” and “positive” distinctions are meaningful. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the use of force is deeply ingrained in the way people “relate” to one another – individually and collectively. So, it (force) is likely to remain central to the way societies and states relate as well. Unless those of you committed to studying and practicing CR can effect meaningful change! May the force be with you!

    I might find it helpful to nuance your observation that considering peace to be the absence of war is “altogether unhelpful”. I agree that it is sorely lacking and unimaginative. Yet, peace as the absence of war is still a very helpful and productive place to start, it seems. One would always, I think, choose the absence of war over the presence of war. (This statement, too, would need examination and is probably not universally applicable, at least not for all readers.)

  4. mtmcray says:

    Thanks for commenting! I would agree actually that the term “unhelpful” was not the right choice there. I find defining peace solely as the absence of war is terribly insufficient, but as you say, it is a better starting place than the presence of war. So, “peace as the absence of war” is more inadequate than unhelpful.

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