On Conflict Resolution: Between Resolution and Transformation

Belfast, N. Ireland

Important in understanding conflict resolution is addressing the ongoing debate in the field between the terms resolution and transformation. Advocates of transformation language might suggest that the word resolution contains shortsighted tendencies toward quick-fixes. In my estimation, since the introduction of the term conflict transformation in the 1980s by John Paul Lederach, conflict resolution theorists and practitioners have tried to incorporate the tenets of a transformative approach into the definition of conflict resolution. It seems they want to maintain the familiarity of conflict resolution but adopt the ethos of conflict transformation. What follows here is a surface look at the debate between the two.


Critiques by Transformation Advocates

Since Lederach first coined the term conflict transformation (CT), it seems appropriate to begin with his observations on CR. Lederach explains that CT language emerged from his experience in Central America, where his Latin colleagues expressed suspicion with CR as they felt it risked “co-optation” and an attempt to avoid conflict when legitimate issues needed addressing.[1] They wondered if resolution was just a gloss to avoid dealing with much-needed changes. For Lederach, conflict can be imagined as a vast mountain range, with peaks and valleys all around.[2] The tendency of CR, he explains, is to see the mountain which we currently climb as the whole of the conflict, and thus when we reach the peak, we are finished. Conflict resolved – never mind all the other mountains. According to Contemporary Conflict Resolution, Lederach critiques CR as – among other things – being focused on content rather than relationship dynamics and seeking only immediate agreement between conflicting parties.[3]

The most common critique of CR seems to be this equating of CR with conflict settlement (CS), or the “reaching of an agreement between the parties to settle a political conflict, so forestalling or ending an armed conflict.”[4] Whether regarding violent conflict or not, CS suggests finality, even though the underlying issues of the conflict may never have been addressed and thus are likely to reemerge. Those in favor of CT language often see close linkage between CR and CS, and thus believe that CR approaches do not dive deep enough or see the bigger picture.

 Defense of CR

Those who hold on to the language of CR claim that CR does in fact address the deeper roots of conflict. Ramsbotham, et al, describe CR as a comprehensive approach to conflict that contains all the other terms: prevention, settlement, containment, transformation. They claim that “conflict resolvers and conflict transformers are essentially engaged in the same enterprise.”[5] Essentially, they – along with many others, such as Mayer[6] and Malan[7] – seem to suggest the difference between CR and CT is matter of semantics, as those using CR as an umbrella term explicitly call upon transformative language therein.




Those who resist adopting the term CT do so for many reasons.[8] Ramsbotham, et al, suggest that while CT is actually the deepest level of CR, the term itself is “indeterminate” without further qualification as it does not indicate the transformation’s direction.[9] Mayer discusses the critique that seeking to address structural inequalities and transform interpersonal relationships is “patronizing” as it assumes the disputants incapable of making right decisions and repairing relationships on their own.[10] Further critiques state that explicitly pursuing transformation may very well inhibit it as it tends to carry therapeutic connotations that many may resist if they seek a conflict settlement and not necessarily an exploration of the deeper issues.[11] Others still have suggested that transformation seems too “value-laden…idealistic…airy-fairy and new-age.”[12]

Defense of CT

Lederach holds to the term CT as he sees himself “engaged in constructive change efforts that include, and go beyond, the resolution of specific problems.”[13] Thus, in much the same way that Ramsbotham, et al, see CR as all-encompassing, so Lederach sees CT. Resolution, Lederach might argue, if we were to call upon medical imagery, seeks primarily to stop the bleeding of a wound, while transformation looks for what lies beneath the skin that may cause such a wound to reopen later, or perhaps may result in a fresh wound elsewhere.

In the end, it is indeed a game of semantics, as both camps define their fields quite similarly but choose different terms to identify their pursuits. I will address this more in the final post.

Which language do you find more accurate based on appropriate roles in conflict engagement?

[1] Lederach, 3.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ramsbotham, 9.

[4] Ibid., 31. See also Kelman, 111-112.

[5] Ibid., 9.

[6] Mayer, “The Nature of Resolution,” in Dynamics of Conflict Resolution, 97-118.

[7] Malan, 456.

[8] Ramsbotham, 9.

[9] Ibid., 9-10.

[10] Mayer, 111.

[11] Ibid., 110.

[12] Lederach, 4.

[13] Ibid.

Works Cited

Kelman, Herbert C. “Reconciliation as Identity Change: A Social-Pscychological Perspective.” In From Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation, edited by Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, 111-124. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Lederach, John Paul. The Little Book of Conflict Transformation. Interocurse, PA: Good Books, 2003.

Malan, Jannie. “Traditional and Local Conflict Resolution.” In People Building Peace II: Successful Stories of Civil Society, edited by Paul van Tongeren, Malin Brenk, Marte Hellema, & JulietteVerhoeven, 449-458. Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2005.

Mayer, Bernard. The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.

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

1 Comment

  1. […] Protests are one thing, transformation is another. I am heartened to hear about a phrase, “conflict transformation,” as distinguished from “conflict resolution.” Whereas the latter can be myopic, advocating quick fixes for existing problems, conflict transformation asks us to widen the context, enlarges the frame within which one views a conflict. According to the inventor of the phrase: […]

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