(17 May 1968, nonviolent draft board raiders burn draft files with homemade napalm in an effort to offer coercive yet nonviolent inducements to stop conscripting young American men to go kill and die in Vietnam)
“Conflict behavior occurs in a specific interaction content and is best described as a means by which each party proposes to achieve its goal” (Bercovitch, Kremenyuk, & Zartman, 2009, pp 8-9).
What separates the field of conflict resolution from all others?
Most in our field propose that we are simply looking at how conflict is managed and methods by which we might attenuate the damages associated with it. I want to suggest a different perspective, one that more clearly and crisply separates us into a field of scholarly inquiry and teaching.
But first, I want to reject the term conflict resolution, something that is so rarely achieved as to be all but meaningless, except as a convention by which we can refer to a field of study. If a convention is a helpful shorthand, keep it. Conflict resolution has lost its utility, however, and some are using conflict transformation as a far more useful term. I want to promote that, because it’s accurate and helps us move toward a better definition of our work.
Conflict transformation is the inquiry into nonviolent and constructive means by which we can manage and move forward in conflict.
Inquiry requires research, practice, assessment and evaluation. Research involves both quantitative and qualitative studies, with many more of them a mixed methodology approach. All this helps us discuss our field more accurately and productively. Practice is both informal and formal, done in our lives both personally and professionally, and is done as a vocation and as an avocation. It is done as an observer, as a third party neutral, or as a party to conflict, and involves reflection. Assessment is both formal and informal, and occurs as one is entering into a conflict scenario, and as one attempts to help adaptively manage that conflict. It is also a portion of helping to transform a dissensual, worldview conflict into a consensual, interest-based conflict that is far more likely to achieve the holy grail of our field, i.e., a win-win outcome. Evaluation is how we bring all our elements together as we prepare for the next step in our inquiry. It may be a section of a research report or paper, a final chapter in a book, or a conclusion and preparation for action by a practitioner or group of practitioners.
Still, I would assert, it is our focus on exclusively nonviolent means that distinguishes our field from all others. The moment we allow for the use of violence we become melded into political science, security studies, international relations, law enforcement or other related fields and disciplines. Ultimately, then, we seek distinction and value; nonviolence is it.
Let us be clear here that nonviolence and conflict transformation frequently involves force, even force that injures others in some fashion, usually economically or politically, never by physical, bodily pain or injury or death. Never. But when the behavior of a party to a conflict is inflicting violence or injustice upon another, such means are perfectly appropriate in the field of conflict transformation, even though some in the field draw far more strict lines around behaviors of which they personally might approve. For example, a Gandhian scholar in our field may eschew all coercion, as Gandhi frequently claimed he did. A vegetarian may be opposed to food aid that can assist in conflict transformation but that includes meat. A feminist may object to a text by a non-feminist. Still, all these conflict transformation scholars should permit us to include in our field the study of conflict transformation by means that might include economic boycott, gifts or loans of livestock for feeding people meat, or a nonviolent but patriarchal Brudenhofer intervention to stop direct violence. Our tent can be quite large and simply exclude direct, physical violence as a component of our disarmamentarium.
Does this mean we assume nonviolence will always be successful? Of course not. Neither are the means by which we treat cancer. This is only an attempt to limit our inquiry into conflict transformation from destructive to constructive management methods and to define those methods that interest us as nonviolent, which will then offer us clarity in defining our field, a clarity often lacking.
Bercovitch, Jacob; Kremenyuk, Victor; & Zartman, I. William (Eds.) (2009). The Sage handbook of conflict. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.