Conflict Transformation

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A number of conflict theorists and practitioners, including John Paul Lederach, advocate the pursuit of "conflict transformation," as opposed to "conflict resolution" or "conflict management." Conflict transformation is different from the other two, Lederach asserts, because it reflects a better understanding of the nature of conflict itself. "Conflict resolution" implies that conflict is bad--hence something that should be ended. It also assumes that conflict is a short term phenomenon that can be"resolved" permanently through mediation or other intervention processes. "Conflict management" correctly assumes that conflicts are long term processes that often cannot be quickly resolved, but the notion of "management" suggests that people can be directed or controlled as though they were physical objects. In addition, the notion of management suggests that the goal is the reduction or control of volatility more than dealing with the real source of the problem.

Conflict transformation, as described by Lederach, does not suggest that we simply eliminate or control conflict, but rather recognize and work with its "dialectic nature." By this he means that social conflict is naturally created by humans who are involved in relationships, yet once it occurs, it changes (i.e., transforms) those events, people, and relationships that created the initial conflict. Thus, the cause-and-effect relationship goes both ways--from the people and the relationships to the conflict and back to the people and relationships. In this sense, "conflict transformation" is a term that describes a natural occurrence. Conflicts change relationships in predictable ways, altering communication patters and patterns of social organization, altering images of the self and of the other.

Conflict transformation is also a prescriptive concept. It suggests that left alone, conflict can have destructive consequences. However, the consequences can be modified or transformed so that self-images, relationships, and social structures improve as a result of conflict instead of being harmed by it. Usually this involves transforming perceptions of issues, actions, and other people or groups. Since conflict usually transforms perceptions by accentuating the differences between people and positions, effective conflict transformation can work to improve mutual understanding. Even when people's interests, values, and needs are different, even non- reconcilable, progress has been made if each group gains a relatively accurate understanding of the other.

Transformation also involves transforming the way conflict is expressed. It may be expressed competitively, aggressively, or violently, or it may be expressed through nonviolent advocacy, conciliation, or attempted cooperation. Unlike many conflict theorists and activists, who perceive mediation and advocacy as being in opposition to each other, Lederach sees advocacy and mediation as being different stages of the conflict transformation process. Activism is important in early stages of a conflict to raise people's awareness of an issue. Thus activism uses nonviolent advocacy to escalate and confront the conflict. Once awareness and concern is generated, then mediation can be used to transform the expression of conflict from "mutually destructive modes toward dialogue and itnerdependence." (Lederach, 1989l p. 14)

Such transformation, Lederach suggests, must take place at both the personal and the systemic level. At the personal level, conflict transformation involves the pursuit of awareness, growth, and commitment to change which may occur through the recognition of fear, anger, grief, and bitterness. These emotions must be outwardly acknowledged and dealt with in order for effective conflict transformation to occur.

Peacemaking also involves systemic transformation--the process of increasing justice and equality in the social system as a whole. This may involve the elimination of oppression, improved sharing of resources, and the non-violent resolution of conflict between groups of people. Each of these actions reinforces the other. In other words, transformation of personal relationships facilitates the transformation of social systems and systemic changes facilitate personal transformation. Key to both kinds of transformation are truth, justice, and mercy, as well as empowerment and interdependence. These concepts are frequently seen to be in opposition to each other; however, they must come together for reconciliation or "peace" to occur, Lederach asserts.

[click here] for a discussion of the interplay between peace and justice

[click here] for a discussion of the interplay between peace, justice, truth, mercy, and reconciliation

[click here] for a discussion of how these four variables relate to Bush and Folger's empowerment and recognition.

[click here] for additional readings

Peace and Justice

Peace and justice are both very abstract terms that mean different things to different people. Some people think justice is primary and peace is secondary. This is the view embodied in the frequently-heard phrase "if you want peace, fight for justice." Others think that peace (read "conflict resolution") will bring justice. This is the view held by many mediators who believe that consensus-based conflict resolution processes not only end conflicts (i.e., bring peace), but in so doing, render justice that is often more just than that delivered through adversarial, political, or legal systems.

This debate is reiterated in the oft-heard debate between activists and advocates on the one hand, and mediators on the other. Both see themselves as pursuing "justice," but advocates charge that mediators sacrifice justice for peace by down-playing social structural or justice issues, while mediators charge that advocates sacrifice peace for justice by intentionally escalating conflicts to win converts to their own cause.

This dichotomy is a false one, John Paul Lederach asserts. Drawing from diagram in Making Peace by Adam Curle, Lederach suggests that advocacy and activism is the approach of choice in situations where power is unbalanced and the awareness of the conflict is relatively low. Advocacy helps to raise awareness (on both sides) and to balance power. Once this is done, then mediators can take over to enable the parties to negotiate successfully to obtain both peace and justice simultaneously. (See Lederach, 1989)


Peace, Justice, Truth, and Mercy

Just as justice and peace are often seen as being in opposition to each other, so are justice and mercy. Justice, according to Lederach, involves "the pursuit of restoration, of rectifying wrongs, of creating right relationships based on equity and fairness. Pusuing justice involves advoacy for those harmed, for open acknowledgement of the wrongs committed, and for makiing things right. Mercy, on the other hand, involves compassion, forgiveness, and a new start. Mercy is oriented toward supporting persons who have committed injustices, encouraging them to change and move on." (Lederach 1995, p. 20).

Often it is assumed one does on or the other, but not both. Justice, it is often assumed, requires determining the truth and punishing the guilty party. Mercy, on the other hand, implies forgiveness. Thus, if one prosecutes and punishes the guilty, mercy at best can involve leniency in the sentence. Punishment, however, seldom results in either reconciliation or restitution. Thus, the resulting justice is illusory. The challenge, according to Lederach is "to pursue justice in ways that respect people, and [at the same time] to achieve restoration of relationships based on recognizing and amending injustices." (Ledearch, 1995, p. 20.) Thus, Lederach argues that reconciliation involves the identification and acknowledgment of what happened (i.e. truth), an effort to right the wrongs that occurred (i.e., justice) and forgiveness for the perpetrators (mercy). The end result is not only reconciliation, but peace.

[Click here] to read a full-text article by John Paul Lederach on this topic


A Comparison of Lederach's "Conflict Transformation" with Bush and Folgers' Transformative Mediation

These two approaches to conflict resolution were developed independently for use in different contexts. Bush and Folger's transformative mediation was developed, at least initially, for interpersonal (often two-person) conflicts such as family conflicts or community conflicts. Most of Lederach's work has been at the intergroup and international level. He has spent his life trying to moderate and mediate highly intractable conflicts between warring ethnic groups. The relationships between these two approaches, however, is striking.

Lederach calls for the acknowledgment of harm (parallel to Bush and Folger's recognition) and for the empowerment of the disputants to make things right. Ledearch defines empowerment as "overcoming the obstacles and making possible the movement from 'I cannot' to 'I can.'" This is very similar to Bush and Folger's conception of empowerment, as is Lederach's definition of transformation: "Transformative peacemaking, then, empowers individuals and nurtures mutuality and community." (Mutuality and community can be seen as parallel to mutual recognition.)

Another similarity is the primacy of process over outcome. Again quoting Lederach, "process matters more than outcome. . . .At times of heated conflict too little attention is paid to how the issues are to be approached, discussed, and decided. There is a push toward solution and outcome that skips the discipline of creating an adequate and clear process for achieving an acceptble result. Process, it is argued, is the key to the Kingdom." (Ledearch, 1995, p. 22) This view very much parallels the notion of transformative mediation that problem-solving mediation is too focused on the outcome (i.e., settlement) and that a better approach focuses more on the process of dialogue itself (which transformative mediation does).


Lederach, John Paul. Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. Syracuse University Press, 1995.

For More Information: Contact: Guy Burgess or Heidi Burgess, Co-Directors, Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Campus Box 327, Boulder, Colorado, 80309-0327, E-mail: Phone: (303) 492-1635; Fax: (303)492-2154.

Copyright 1997 by Conflict Research Consortium