Conflict analyses wanted, for news production

This text is part of my MA dissertation, which is currently under review.

The complexities in analyzing conflicts have been constantly recognized and expanded on the theoretical field. There was a time when conflicts were framed as motivated either by ‘greed’ or by ‘grievances’ – related to political and economic power or to historical traumas and ethnic divides. In 2002, Paul Collier, working with the World Bank, and Anke Hoeffler, with the Centre for the Study of African Economies, analyzed the different influence that the two ‘fuels’ – greed or grievance – could have on civil wars, concluding that factors which determine financial and military viability of war are more important than objective grounds for grievance.[i] Soon, this dichotomy became too simplistic to fit in conflict analysis, an effort involving ever more levels and dimensions of a reality where social or political conflicts, for example, escalated onto armed violence.

Mary Kaldor analyzes the current conflicts under the light of a ‘new wars’ theory, which is also questioned for the description she makes of the motivations and methodologies used nowadays – not that different from earlier and hence, not that ‘new’. She argues that the globalization had a great influence on the changes that low intensity conflicts have suffered, which are, in general: the finance sustaining war, especially based in international crime; the claims motivating wars, centered on identity and not on territories; and the tactics, now based in guerrilla warfare and in terror.[ii] Besides the questionable ‘newness’ of this description, it can be argued that international crime is not the most important ‘viability’ guarantee for wars; the heavy military-industrial complex maintaining military spending – also known officially as ‘Defense spending’, international arms trade and, consequently, wars, would be an important example.

Identities could also be questioned as the central claims motivating current wars. It is certainly one of the tools more commonly used on the process of mobilization, which means that political and religious leaders, for instance, have a tendency – again, nothing new – to ‘instrumentalize’ differences and historical constructions or perceptions of the other, using them as motivation for violence. In that sense, it could be overwhelmingly complex to analyze conflicts, having in mind all the questions that could be raised regarding every general model. Authors like Vicenç Fisas, from the School for Peace Culture, in Barcelona, Spain, suggest different levels of analysis to understand conflicts: their apparent causes, characteristics and classifications; the actors involved in the conflict – those with or without voice in the media – and the third parties directly or indirectly involved; the negotiation and mediation process between the parties; the state of hostilities and the tracks chosen for the conflict transformation, or for the peace process.[iii]

Another way to put some of the aspects that should be taken into account when analyzing a conflict could be the identification of the primary and secondary actors; their motivations and underlying worries; the phase in which the conflict is at the time of the analysis; an account for the history of peacemaking efforts; and so on. An important visual tool was suggested by Michael S. Lund, who calls it ‘The Curve of Conflict’. According to him, the development of ‘disputes that become violent conflicts is traced in relation to two dimensions: the intensity of conflict (the vertical axis) and the duration of conflict (the horizontal axis).’[iv]

Moreover, on a technical level, the retro-alimentation of various factors should also be taken into account, ranging from the causes and incentives for violence, the opportunities – or the spark that lead to violence, such as political or economic crisis – and the viability or capacities enabling or favoring collective action.[v] And on a more analytical level, getting back to the basis of social realities, Johan Galtung suggests the approach to three kinds of violence, conforming what he builds as a ‘triangle of violence’: cultural violence – myths, glories and traumas that justify violence; structural violence – maintaining injustice, inequality and power relations between groups; and direct violence, either physical or psychical.[vi]

In that sense, conflict resolution is another theoretic field still constantly being revised, making theorists ever surer that there is not a static model, or a template to be followed. According to Morton Deutsch, for example, a constructive conflict resolution could be an effort centered on: skills for establishing an effective, open, trusting working relationship between the parties; skills for establishing a cooperative problem-solving approach to the conflict; skills for developing effective group processes and decision-making processes; and on substantive knowledge of the relevant issues, which brings us back to the importance of an as accurate as possible conflict analysis.[vii] Still, conflict resolution and conflict transformation are notions sometimes divergent for the capacity that conflicts have to enable change in situations of injustice and social inequality, therefore being transformed into solutions through cooperation, and not solved, as if it would mean ending conflicts.

Some important and problematic aspects should be considered here, unfortunately not as deeply as needed. In conflict resolution – or at least in its dominant version involving liberal peace values, installed by the United Nations (UN) – mediation and negotiation are fundamental steps in bringing parties to the conflict to a settlement. One of the well known questions raised in conflict resolution is about the timing for negotiations, and this too is very clear in media coverage; W. Zartman, for example, suggests analyzing it from a ‘ripeness perspective’, taking into account two important conditions: situations of mutually hurting stalemate, in which the lack of negotiations is perceived by the parties as more costly than its avoidance; and situations of mutually enhancing opportunities, when the possible outcomes from negotiations are perceived by the parties as attractive enough.[viii]

Unfortunately, when having in mind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it seems that a more complex approach should be envisioned. The asymmetry between the parties enables Israel to transmit the culpability for the lack of agreements onto Palestinians, and also maintain the questionable position that they have less to worry about for the stalemate than their counterpart. From there, another general problem is on the ‘format’ that negotiations usually assume; John Paul Lederach, for example, focus it on the analogy used by conflict resolution theorists and practitioners: ‘the table’, or the circles where negotiations take place. To Lederach, the problem is that, around the table, only few actors can take place, supposedly representing a variety of perceptions, interests and positions.[ix] A fair representation and therefore the viability and sustainability of a peace process, hence, will be highly unlikely.

Still, Donohue suggests the approach to a Relational Order Theory (ROT) to understand the interpersonal limits associated to negotiation, or to the lack of agreement. The relational dimensions of interdependence or power and of affiliation interact to define relational frames: competition or aggression – high interdependence, low affiliation; isolationist peace – low affiliation, low interdependence; conditional peace – high affiliation, low interdependence; and unconditional peace – high affiliation, high interdependence. Donahue suggests that analyzing these dimensions can be elucidative about the communication strategies implemented during negotiations processes.[x] Providing another tool to establish the basis for this analysis, Lund builds a table for the interpretation of relational orders, of contexts and challenges for the parties to the dispute as well as for third parties, both in pre- or low-violence stages and in violent stages.[xi]

As mentioned ahead, it can be said that the language used by actors involved in the negotiations away from ‘the table’ can reflect or frame the conditions of negotiations. Donahue recalls a variety of authors when saying that ‘the ability of communicative frames to influence relational outcomes between parties in conflict relies upon the power of communication to create and maintain social reality.’[xii] According to him, ‘one manner of assessing communicators’ use of power and affiliative messages to frame the negotiated relationship is through observing the motive narrative used in language.’[xiii] It will also be evidenced ahead, when conflict discourses and the justification of violence will be briefly analyzed, considering the context suggested by this work.

Back to the broader picture, Oliver P. Richmond questions the liberal peace notions of conflict resolution, starting with the assumption that ‘liberal institutionalism, security sector reform, democratic institutions, liberal notions of civil society and a rule of law, together with market development, offer a silver bullet from the “new world order”.’[xiv] Furthermore, recalling the frame that the UN and other international institutions, such as the World Bank, have established for conflict resolution, statebuilding is also highly questionable as a pre-condition. Building governance institutions, democracy mechanisms, market economies and security sector reforms – amongst many others conditions in which statebuilding programs are centered – with the direct intervention of foreign actors, or ‘donors’, is an experiment that affects ‘millions of people’s lives often carelessly and in a way that makes little sense to them.’[xv]

Mentioning it having in mind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not only agreeable in essence; this kind of model for statebuilding would seem even cynical, and the difference between theory and practice is that clear very often. As well known, the UN have already stated through resolutions and other discourses that the Palestinians have the right to a sovereign State, and a number of countries around the world have already recognized the Palestinian State. Even so, apparently it cannot be that simple, not even with political consultancies, foreign aid and maintenance of a Palestinian National Authority by the members of the UN, supposedly aimed at statebuilding efforts and as security assurances to Israel, since a variety of programs dedicated to the training of police officers and to the maintenance of a security apparatus conform one of the fundamental aspects of this policies.

On the other hand, both Lederach and Richmond, along with many other authors, advocate for the importance of infrapolitics peacebuilding, efforts basically centered in local actors and practices but not often recognized by international actors, who are still dangerously overlooking local agency and capacities extremely needed to guarantee and sustain conflict transformation. As Richmond puts it:

       The anchoring of peacebuilding to globalization has failed. It is time to start anchoring it to localization and peacebuilding’s infrapolitics, as well as to transnationalization (…). This is a basis for the emergence of      emancipatory discourses about peace free of their current prescriptive baggage.[xvi] 

 In that sense, using media as tool is a recourse that many peacebuilders are investing in. Sandra Melone, reporting on the experience of the NGO Searching for Common Ground, dedicated to conflict transformation through media, enhances the recognition of local capacities. She argues for the need to focus in local media structures, ‘creating an open media culture that allows different voices to emerge and be heard, enhancing professional training and education for journalists, and supplying technical equipment to local media institutions.’[xvii] Once more, it is evident that media cannot be neutral towards peace; as Melone puts it, ‘tensions frequently escalate in situations where information is scarce.’[xviii] Investing in the diversity of voices, opinions, and efforts ‘would therefore be a de-escalating measure.’[xix]

Still, it has already been argued that making disputes public by the media could be a way to assure the parties’ involvement in negotiations, because they engage in providing interviews for the media and also compete for attention. In effect, as put by William Donahue and Gregory Hoobler, ‘the negotiation’s ecology is richly recorded and commonly referenced by parties as they move forward in their deliberations both at the table and in caucus sessions.’[xx] Moreover, the media are routinely used as means for ‘signaling’ intents and reasserting positions both in the conflict escalation and de-escalation processes, which is also why the media’s relevance to ‘multi-track diplomacy’ is often remembered.[xxi] In one of these ‘tracks’, Eytan Gilboa brings ‘media diplomacy’ to attention:

       Policymakers usually prefer secret negotiations but in the absence of direct channels of the communication, or when one side is unsure how the other would react to conditions for negotiations or to proposals for conflict resolution, officials use the media, with or without attribution, to send signals and messages to leaders of rival states or non-state actors.[xxii]

All this is said to reaffirm the importance of media for conflict transformation – enabling dialogue and cooperation but also providing fair assessments on the power relations. On the other hand, it also reasserts the determining role that the media play on the maintenance of violent discourses, and on transmitting, uncritically, the ‘justification’ of violence.


[i] Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, Greed and Grievance in Civil War (Oxford: Centre for the Study of African Economies, 2002). Viewed 20 February 2011. <http://economics.ouls.ox.ac.uk /12055/1/2002-01text.pdf>

[ii] Mary Kaldor, New and Old Wars: Organized violence in a Global Era (Oxford: Polity Press, 1999).

[iii] See, for example, Vicenç Fisas, Cultura de Paz y Gestión de Conflictos. (Barcelona: Icaria Editorial y Unesco, 1999).

[iv] Michael S. Lund, Preventing violent conflicts: A strategy for Preventive Diplomacy, (Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1996).

[v] Fisas, Cultura de Paz y Gestión de Conflictos.

[vii] Morton Deutsch, ‘Constructive Conflict Resolution: Principles, Training, and Research’, in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), 199-216.

[viii] I. W. Zartman and J. Z. Rubin, ‘Symmetry and asymmetry in negotiation’, in eds. I. W. Zartman and J. Z. Rubin, Power and negotiation (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 271-293.

[ix] John P. Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1997).

[x] W. A. Donahue, ‘Managing equivocality and relational paradox in the Oslo Peace negotiations’in Journal of Language and Social Psychology 17, 1998, 72-96.

[xi] Lund, Preventing violent conflicts. See Annex I: Tables ‘Factors Affecting the Parties to a Dispute’ and ‘Factors Affecting Third Parties’.

[xii] W. A. Donahue and Gregory D. Boobler, ‘Relational Ripeness in the Olso I and Oslo II Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations’, in Media and conflict: Framing issues, making policies and shaping opinions, ed. Eytan Gilboa (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, 2002), 70.

[xiii] Ibid, 71.

[xiv] Oliver P. Richmond, ‘Liberal peace transitions: a rethink is urgent’, in Open Democracy, November 19, 2009. Viewed 20 February 2011. <http://www.opendemocracy.net/oliver-p-richmond/liberal-peace-transitions-rethink-is-urgent&gt;

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Richmond, ‘Liberal peace transitions’.

[xvii] Sandra Malone, Georgios Terzis and Ozsel Beleli, ‘Using Media for Conflict Transformation: The Common Ground Experience’, in Berghof Handbook for Conflict Transformation (Berlin: Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management, March 2002).

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Donohue and Boobler, ‘Relational Ripeness’.

[xxi] On ‘multi-track diplomacy’, which involves efforts in different levels, from official actors to the civil society, in conflict resolution, see: L. Diamond and J. McDonald, Multi-track Diplomacy: A Systems Approach to Peace. 3rd Edition. (West Hartford, CT: Kumarian Press, 1996).

[xxii] Eytan Gilboa, ‘Media Diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli Conflict’, in Media and conflict: Framing issues, making policies and shaping opinions, ed. Eytan Gilboa (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publishers, 2002), 197.

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