Last semester I made the decision to change my major from Political Science to Peace and Conflict Studies. Although a “Peace Studies” program has existed in my University’s graduate school for almost a decade now, the undergraduate department is brand new, myself being the first declare it as a major. The past few months I have been thrust into the unfamiliar realm of Peace Studies. Without a thorough understanding of what exactly the study would involve, I was a bit nervous to find out what I’d signed up for.
Due to the size of our department, most of my classes consist of only a handful of students. Consequently, the bulk of the courses are taught through group discussion, a dynamic that feels particularly comfortable to me. I graduated from a high school with a student population of about 50. Each class never had more than 15 students. Everyone in the room knew each other and no one felt uncomfortable talking in front of the group. For me, this is the most beneficial learning environment and my time within this program has been a great reminder of that. Fortunately, my ADD hasn’t been able to compete with captivating material of the courses and the engaging atmosphere in the classes. Even though I have a long way to go before I get my hands on a degree, I feel like I’ve already discovered a vast amount through my courses.
One of the first things that struck me about this study was the attitude toward conflict. I had been vaguely familiar with the concept of Conflict Resolution, but I quickly learned that this way of thinking had been abandoned by scholars in the field. The reason is that “Conflict Resolution” treats conflict as innately negative. The objective is basically to extinguish dispute whenever it festers, make both sides as content as possible, and leave the situation alone. On the surface, this might appear to be helpful. We’ve all witnessed schisms that quickly become out of hand, debates that erupt into arguments, arguments escalate into violence. Conflict Resolution is about eliminating each seperate conflict and then starting over.
Years ago, John Paul Lederach, a professor at Notre Dame University and an icon in the Peace Studies field, coined the term “Conflict Transformation”. It describes a collection of common sense theories that explain the origin of conflict and outline how it should be handled. Gradually, this new way of thinking has begun to replace the theory of Conflict Resolution in academic circles.
Conflict Resolution holds a linear model; conflict erupts, it escalates, is correctly dealt with and then denigrates. Conflict Transformation realizes that conflict is much more than the immediate situation. It is an endless cycle, constantly in motion whether it’s being experienced or not.
Unlike Conflict Resolution, Conflict Transformation doesn’t see conflict as an intrinsically destructive phenomenon, but a natural happening that has the potential to affect people and their surroundings both positively and negatively. Conflict can drag us down into despair, but it’s also conflict that propels us forward and inspires us to be better. Governmental conflicts can teach us about characteristics of power structure and the need for democratic processes. One could argue that it was the conflict between central power and grassroots democracy that spawned federalism. Inner personal conflicts can lead individuals to great epiphany and direct them towards deeper understandings of themselves. Often in relationships we become closer with each other through wrestling with conflict.
That might all seem elementary, but in the heat of a conflict, it’s the idea of a resolve that seems most desirable, not a drawn out transformation. The reason is that Transformation recognizes conflict’s inability to resolve and rejects the notion of a “quick fix”. Consequently, Transformation takes the focus off the short-term and places priority on the long-term relational development within a conflict.
Transformation realizes that a reasonable objective in conflict intervention is moving forward, while pursuing avenues away from violence and towards inclusivity. From The American Civil War to Reconstruction to Civil Rights, the race relations conflict in the United States has transformed throughout our history but still exists. While all of these events occupied different time periods, it’s not difficult to see that they stem from the same underlying conflict.
If any of this is interesting to you whatsoever, I encourage you to follow UNC Greensboro’s Peace and Conflict Department’s official Twitter account: @UNCGPEACE (the account may or may not be managed by me).
Thanks for listening