OTPIC Officially Retired

As of December 2, 2005, the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict (OTPIC) has been officially retired, and is no longer open to new registrations.

The successor to OTPIC is a course called Dealing Constructively with Intractable Conflicts (DCIC). The new curriculum is built around one of our major projects, Beyond Intractability, and offers a much more extensive and informative set of learning materials than that available through OTPIC.

The Development of Conflict Knowledge

Paul Wehr


Homo sapiens has been learning about conflict since its origin as a species. That knowledge, then, is not a neat, concentrated package ready to be passed along or handed down. It is spread across humanity. It resides wherever humans live, work and play. It is what we would call "folk knowledge," used continuously in everyday life, in every society--in commerce, family relations, government, sport, child-rearing. The ways of "doing" conflict in and between societies around the world are legion. It is passed down from parent to child, from generation to generation. It is transmitted from one life experience to the next. It is created within generations, as humans learn better how to regulate their interaction with minimal cost. We do this pretty much unconsciously. Doing conflict is simply one of the life skills we learn and practice. Some of us do it better than others.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, humans have become more conscious of how conflict is done, have tried increasingly to understand it and how to deal with it in constructive ways. They have done this in numerous abstract and formal ways: writing, teaching, schools, universities, research programs, seminars, training. This effort was not simply curiosity, it was a search for a solution to the increasing scale and cost of human conflict. With each new wave of violent conflict in the world, there was a renewed effort to understand it and control its harmful effects, a crisis-response pattern. (See Figure 1)

The expansion and intensification of conflict since 1800 (to pick a somewhat arbitrary date) can be traced to several developments: expanding populations; the growth of science and technology and its application to weaponry; the growth of the nation-state and its capacity to mobilize resources for control and violence. Population pressure might be the leading cause of conflict increase, if one sees each human newborn as additional human need and thus conflict potential.

As conflict has steadily increased, so too has human response to explain and manage it. Large scale civil unrest and total war presented human society and the state with problems that neither governments nor social theorists could ignore. Such events as the Napoleonic wars and the revolutions of 1848 brought conflict and violence on a scale not even imagined before. Napoleon had invented total war, an institution so devastating in its consequences that in 1815, Europe's governments created the Concert of Europe to prevent such unbridled interstate conflict in the future. The science and the art of diplomacy became the initial step in the human attempt to apply analysis and reason to managing conflict between nation states.

Conflict between groups was the second stimulus to the early development of conflict analysis and management. The industrial revolution had, by the mid-19th century, produced enormous demographic dislocations, extreme poverty and a wide gulf between worker and owner. Karl Marx was representative of the resulting conflict scholarship which produced credible and powerful analyses of conflict between classes. Marxist theory quickly became ideology as experiments in political revolution were created to manage, even eliminate (it was thought and hoped) social conflict by restructuring economic and social relations.

In the latter 19th century, ethnicity joined class as a focus of conflict scholarship. Powerful ethnonationalism was being encouraged to serve various national policies. European governments were increasingly using ethnic identity and myths of racial superiority to carve out colonial empires in other continents. And within Europe, diverse ethnic groups artificially bound into nations were ever more restive. Theorists like Georg Simmel were building theories about intergroup conflict as an objective process to be analyzed.

By 1900, huge areas of the world were controlled by the colonial powers of Europe. As a select few from these areas were brought to the colonial capitals for European education, it was inevitable that conflict theory and practice then developing would influence them and motivate them to expand, apply and reinvent it on behalf of liberating their people from the colonial yoke. They had some earlier colonial rebels such as Simon Bolivar and Toussaint l'Ouverture to follow. One of the most interesting and widely applied theoretical and practical challenges to colonialism was Gandhi's satyagraha approach, the disciplined and principled nonviolent resistance to domination. Gandhian conflict knowledge was unique in that it provided a means to engage in inevitable struggle without the spiralling violence and mutual harm that violent revolution produced. And satyagraha was to be applied not only to free India from Great Britain, but to eliminate violent caste and communal structures within India itself. After Gandhi's death, the Gandhian movement has continued through the land gift (Bhoodan), self-help (Sarvodaya) and peace brigade (Shanti Sena) movements. The Gandhi Peace Foundation continues to study ways to apply his theory and method.

Gandhi had himself learned from the conflict practice of the labor movement and the theory of Marx, Thoreau and others that witholding one's cooperation through strikes, civil disobedience and the like was a powerful method of struggle. In fact, industrial warfare became another major stimulus for and producer of conflict knowledge as the 20th century unfolded. By the 1920s, general strikes and armed conflict between workers and owners were more and more often characterizing the industrialized world. In the United States, an economic depression and a new national government willing to intervene in labor wars brought about a process known as collective bargaining. National law would henceforth require and protect formal industrial conflict management. Workers rights to unionize and strike would be protected within this procedure. Negotiation of contracts, review of grievances, prevention of violence...all of these would be regularized and monitored by the federal Department of Labor and its expressly created Mediation and Conciliation Service. Collective bargaining stimulated a new body of conflict knowledge. Schools and programs of industrial relations sprouted throughout the university world. Legions of skilled mediators and arbitrators emerged as industrial conflict was tamed. The American Arbitration Association has long been a conflict management fixture in US society, a symbol of expanding conflict knowledge.

Twentieth Century technology and bureaucratic organization permitted leaders of modern states to take Napoleon's total war methods to undreamed of extremes. Two horrendous world conflicts, the first producing the next, transformed civilians from accidental victims of war into strategic targets. The culminating events in World War II-- the incineration, vaporization, and extermination of millions of humans-- evoked a new surge of intellectual and practical efforts to moderate conflict. With the introduction of nuclear weapons, the concept of total war took on a yet more ominous significance. The United Nations, peace research and the peace movement were all examples of this new determination to understand and control international conflict. The Peace Research Institute-Oslo and the Center for Conflict Resolution were the first of a long line of academic centers to be established. Ultimately, even governments would create their own programs such as the United States Institute of Peace and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

World War II ushered in a period of further political awakening and action of subject peoples. In the United States, African Americans created new forms of resistance to racial segregation and discrimination. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was only the first of several movements of liberation to characterize the last half of the twentieth century. Gender, the natural environment, ethnicity, physical disability, public policy each produced new pressure for new mechanisms within communities for resolving conflict. The US Department of Justice created the Community Relations Division to mediate interracial disputes. That office and the commitment to nonviolence of civil rights leaders must be credited with the largely peaceful desegregation of the South.

Liberation from colonial subjugation was occurring elsewhere in the world in the 1960s. As newly independent states in Africa and Asia appeared, civil conflict among ethnic and tribal groups required that new forms of international intervention be developed to moderate conflict. The policies of colonialism had ensured that civil conflict would occur in these new states. The European powers had carved up their colonial territories with little regard for the African political arrangements in place. Boundaries sliced nations in two, creating politically unviable minorities. They also applied the "divide and rule" principle, using some peoples to control others. The resentments of group against group in such an arrangement were bound to produce post-independence conflict. Departing colonial powers also sought to retain as much of their economic investments in those countries as possible and manipulated group against group to do so. To intensify civil conflict still further, the old colonials were replaced from 1960 on by the Cold War imperialists, the United States and the Soviet Union. Ideological allegiance, economic hegemony and strategic and military influence were the new stimulators of proxy civil wars in the developing world. Viet Nam, Cambodia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Angola, Somalia, Congo are prime examples of such residual colonialist conflict. The United Nations has intervened to moderate many of these civil wars, developing successively peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding as major additions to the body of human conflict knowledge.

The group empowerment movements of the 1960s and 1970s in the United States had produced a large increase in intergroup, interpersonal and individual-with -organization conflict. More and more of this conflict was ending up in court. The consequence was a court crisis of huge proportions and subsequently a movement to facilitate out-of-court settlement of disputes. Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) uses various third-party approaches--problem solving, mediation and arbitration--and has made its way into organizations, professions and communities throughout the nation. Tens of thousands of persons have received formal training in mediation and other conflict management techniques. Several hundred peace and conflict studies programs in colleges and universities appeared in the 1970s and 1980s. Ombudsman offices and mediation services have been created in thousands of universities, school systems and communities. The possibility for formal learning in conflict knowledge has motivated increasing numbers of people to develop personal conflict skills. Some use these professionally in law, public policy, family mediation and the like. Others simply wish to create an informal peacemaker role for themselves. They act as neutral third parties in family disputes, neighborhood conflict, and in the 1980s and 1990s as intervenors in international disputes. Citizen peace teams have been active in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Bosnia, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Iraq and elsewhere.

In conclusion, we should say that this is a United States-centric perspective. Conflict analysts from other nations and areas would present quite different views. Those views would center around different historical experience. A Central American might build around the Esquipulas peace process of the 1980s and 1990s. A Southern African might center around apartheid, liberation and conciliation. Europe would emphasize the building of the European Community, and so on. Each national and regional experience expands the conflict knowledge pool.

Our two organizing principles, however, are probably useful in a general way. 1) Each major conflict crisis in human affairs produces an intellectual and practical effort to understand and resolve it. The knowledge produced in each crisis-response episode, both contributes and draws from the knowledge pool. 2) Formal conflict knowledge seems to have worked its way down from the level of state to group to individual. This expansion of conflict knowledge at the individual level is particularly important. Each new human should increase not only the potential for creating conflict, which we all do by presenting new demands on scarce resources, but for resolving it as well.


Copyright 1998 Conflict Research Consortium  -- Contact: crc@colorado.edu