SOCY 4025
About the Course

Welcome to SOCY 4025-3: Conflict Management and Social Systems. This is a University of Colorado at Boulder credit course offered as independent study via the World Wide Web.

Face to face meetings are not required; students and instructor conduct all interaction at a distance.

Because this is one of the first courses that we have offered via the World Wide Web, there are surely things that we didn't think about when we prepared it. You should always check the What's New page whenever you work on the course. There you will find announcements of those things we've thought of now, comments from the instructors, Dr. Guy Burgess and Dr. Heidi Burgess, and interesting URLs related to the course and to studying in general. We will probably also post messages and comments from students who are taking the course, and FAQs.

This course provides a broad overview of state-of-the-art conflict resolution techniques such as negotiation, consensus building, mediation, and arbitration as well as special strategies for dealing with intractable conflicts which defy resolution. In addition to providing a broad overview of the field, the course gives students an opportunity to focus their efforts upon the application of general conflict management techniques to specific conflict situations. This is an advanced course for people who want a comprehensive overview of the field. However, it does not assume students will have had a previous introduction to the field--the introductory material is included also.


Human conflict is an enormously complex and varied social process running the gamut from simple disputes involving two people to geo-political confrontations which quite literally divide the planet. At one extreme, you have "positive-sum" conflicts which can be resolved in ways which leave all parties better off. These are the so-called "win-win" solutions. At the other extreme you have deeply intractable conflicts over high-stakes issues which have an unavoidable win-lose character. In other words, these are conflicts for which win-win solutions simply don't exist. In some cases, these intractable conflicts involve fundamental moral conflicts and the belief that intolerable evil must be opposed. (Examples include the homosexual rights and abortion conflicts). Other cases may involve high stakes distributional conflicts over "who gets what" or "who shall be rich and who shall be poor." There are also intractable conflicts over status and relative position within the social hierarchy. These arise because not everyone can be superior to everyone else.

Conflicts also vary according to their level of escalation. At one end, you have disputes which are being addressed through business-like negotiations conducted in the spirit of true collaborative problem solving. At the other extreme, you have highly escalated conflicts, in which efforts to sensibly and fairly deal with the underlying issues are forgotten amidst increasingly bitter, personal, and emotional confrontations. Here the cycles of hostility and, all too often, violence intensify the conflict to the point of all-out confrontation.

Conflicts also vary according to the nature of the underlying substantive issues. There are, for example, important differences between family conflicts, commercial disputes, labor management conflicts, environmental disputes, national security conflicts, and racial and ethnic conflicts.

As different as human conflicts are from one another, there is also much that they have in common. Lessons learned in dealing with one type of conflict often directly apply to other very different conflicts. This fact makes studying the full range of human conflict a profitable endeavor and a sensible way to organize this course.

Throughout the ages, people have recognized that human conflict, especially when it escalates to violence and war, is extremely destructive. People have also recognized that conflicts arise through the efforts of individuals to protect and advance their interests. At many times and in many places, conflicts have been resolved by brute force and the dictatorial power of the tyrant. In fact, much of the struggle against tyranny has revolved around efforts to develop alternative ways of dealing with conflict so that societies can be organized in ways which are able to resist the tyranny. While different societies have taken different paths toward this goal, notable steps, at least from the perspective of the United States' society, include the Bill of Rights with its guarantees of individual liberty, the Constitution with its democratic procedures for resolving public policy disputes, our federal structure of governmental organization with its multiple jurisdictional levels, and the principles of civil law with their origins in English common law.

As important as these developments have been, however, time consuming, costly, and destructive conflicts have remained a problem. While the courts have always provided one means of dispute resolution, they have become increasingly bogged down. In an effort to address this problem, the conflict resolution movement has developed a series of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes designed to better deal with conflicts in a broad range of settings. Many of these techniques have now been formally institutionalized into the court system, business relationships, and other aspects of society. These techniques include (among others): mediation, arbitration, facilitation, negotiation, active listening, and consensus building.

This course covers the accomplishments of ADR movement and examines its current frontiers. We should be clear that this is a survey course that offers only a broad introduction to the field. While the course provides many useful insights that will help you deal with day-to-day conflicts, truly mastering the field is a major undertaking. Accordingly, we urge you to seek additional training if you would like to pursue this as a full or part-time profession.

Overview of the Course

Based upon the dimensions of conflict outlined above, human conflict can be arranged along a continuum-from the simplest to the most difficult. We use this progression as a basis for organizing the first part of the course.

Assignment Overview

There will be no tests for this class. Instead, you will be asked to write a series of short essays or "position papers" outlining how the ideas presented in the readings should be applied to specific conflict situations. These short writing assignments are an especially useful preparation for a world in which most people don't take time to read anything longer than an executive summary and the ability of you to advance your interests depends upon succinct and persuasive presentations.

It is also important that you remember the role that these assignments play in the grading process. You need to demonstrate that you have read and understood each set of readings and that you are able to identify the key insights and apply them to actual conflict situations. For this reason, you are required to include at least ten explicit references to each unit's readings. Your essays need to be more than a disconnected string of footnotes that could be put together by rapidly skimming the book. You will be judged on you ability to integrate each unit's central ideas into your own thinking. Formal footnotes are not required. All that is needed are informal statements such as, "...this is where Fisher, Ury, and Patton's interest identification process makes an important contribution..."

We recognize that there will be some inevitable uncertainty about exactly what is required. For that reason, you have an opportunity to submit a revised version of any two assignments for regrading without penalty.


The percentages listed with each assignment indicate the proportion of your grade that will be based upon that assignment.

Grading for the class is based upon the following principles. First, solid completion of each assignment to the point where there are no clear deficiencies yields a "B." To earn an "A" you are required to do something extra that goes beyond the basic assignment by either

  1. exhibiting some creative or more sophisticated application of the assignment's basic ideas,
  2. integrating the assignment's ideas with other things that you have learned,
  3. additional reading, or
  4. a more extensive write-up.

Students need to remember that, in doing this extra work, they still need to be sure to demonstrate that they have mastered the basic assignment and readings. A grade of "C" is given to acceptable but clearly deficient assignments. Lower grades are reserved for people who clearly didn't take the assignment seriously.


Students with special problems, such as scheduling problems or a difficulty with English, should contact the instructors directly and we will do whatever we can to accommodate your needs.


In cooperation with the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium, the course also offers a very useful collection of online resources for those that have access to the Internet.

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