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.

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International Online Training Program On Intractable Conflict

Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, USA

Incompatible Frames

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Conflict scholars use the term "framing" to mean the process of describing and interpreting an event. Since so many different factors influence how a conflict is framed, it is very common for people in conflict to frame the situation in very different ways, depending on who they are, what their personal situation is, and how what their hopes and fears are for the future. For example, a school district in the Western U.S. advocated closing down several schools that were not fully utilized, in order to be able to sell the buildings and get enough money to finance the construction of several other schools in locations where the population was growing rapidly and the school were over-crowded. The threat of closing down schools created a very serious conflict, made worse by the fact that different people framed the conflict very differently.

Parents in the schools that were going to be closed were very angry. They argued that their neighborhood schools were the focal point of the community. They did much more than provide an education, but they provided a center where the entire community gathered for social events. If the school were closed, the community's sense of unity and closeness would suffer, as children (and their parents) would disperse to other schools around the city. Further, they argued, their children would live so far away from the other schools that they would never be able to socialize much with their classmates and would thereby remain "outsiders" in their own school. Thus, these parents framed the conflict in terms of the need for identity and the value of community integration and unity.

Parents in the schools that were overcrowded, however, saw the problem in terms of equity. It wasn't fair, they argued, that their children were in classes of 30 or 40 children with one teacher, while children at the other schools were in classes of 15 or 20 children per teacher. Their children had a right to an equal education, and the quality of education has been clearly linked to class size, they argued. Thus, they framed the conflict in terms of rights.

Voters who did not have school-age children did not care about either of these factors; rather, they were concerned about money. They did not want the schools to be wasting tax-payers' money by running under-utilized schools; at the same time they didn't want to have to pay for new schools for newcomers to the community either. They advocated a tax on new houses that would have the new people pay for their own new schools, while also arguing that inefficient schools should be closed.

Not surprisingly, this was a very difficult problem to manage. Many contentious public hearings were held, and the school board itself engaged in divisive debates. Finally, two schools were closed, but the board members that made that decision were voted out of office in the next election, and the community remains divided over where to build the new schools.

When disputants frame conflicts differently, constructive conflict management is very difficult. People tend to talk at cross purposes-saying things that are meaningful to them, but are irrelevant, confusing, or threatening to others. Incompatible frames are especially difficult when one person or group frames the conflict in terms of values, while others focus on rights, interests, or needs (or any other combination of these core issues). Since value conflicts need to be approached differently from rights-based conflicts or interest-based conflicts, if one party defines the conflict one way, and their opponent defines it another way, the conflict management or resolution mechanism will not be the same for both. In order to make any progress in this situation, the parties must first somehow get together and at least come to an understanding, if not an agreement about, how each side sees the conflict and what they need in order to feel it has been dealt with adequately. Sometimes this will yield a more unified image of the situation; other times it will not. But without at least an understanding of how each group frames or defines the conflict, the conflict most likely will get worse, not better.


Links to examples of this problem:

John Paul Lederach - From War to Peace
John Paul Lederach analyzes the cause of the Persian Gulf war, in part, as a problem of incompatible frames. The way Iraq saw the problem differed tremendously from the way the U.S. framed the situation, making negotiation all but impossible.
Rudy Friesen- A Mohawk Confrontation in Canada
This is a conflict between the Quebec, Canadian government and the Mohawk tribe over an extension of a golf course. The Mohawks framed the situation as a violation of their sovereignty-a rights based issue, as well as an environmental problem. The government, however, focused on what it perceived to be criminal acts on the part of the tribe, and confronted the conflict in those terms alone. Not surprisingly, negotiations were not successful.
Raymond Cohen--Negotiating Across Cultures: Communication Obstacles in International Diplomacy (The Sale of Nuclear Fuel Between the U.S. and India)
This essay shows how framing a conflict in moral terms can prevent its resolution.


Links to possible treatments of this problem:

Joint Reframing



Analytical Problem Solving


Links to related problems:

"Into the Sea Framing"

Not my Problem

Failing to identify all of the relevant issues/assuming that everyone else defines the problem the same way you do.

Differing Definitions of "Justice"

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