Group Conflict Resolution

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To understand conflict resolution among groups it is helpful first to consider the role of conflict in and among groups. Conflict analysis of groups is divided between the study of intragroup conflict, that which happens within a group among its members, and intergroup conflict, that which happens between one or more groups where the conflict is viewed as involving the group as a whole. The study of these phenomena is closely related to the study of both group dynamics and cross-cultural relations. A further distinction is made according to the group level being studied. Here the separation is generally between group conflicts and international conflicts. Group conflicts include both communal group conflicts and workplace conflicts. Communal group conflicts can involve just about any group that provides people with social identity. Social identity is itself a group-level concept, since it is defined as the identity we gain from being part of a collectivity, a group. Since most of the hours of our days are organized around group membership, the study of groups and their interactions is central to the work of sociologists.

When groups are in conflict, the very presence of the group intensifies and changes the way conflict between individuals is perceived. Membership in the group affords the individual two perceptions that impact on the conflict: (1) that the individual is right and justified to engage in and attempt to win the conflict and (2) that the individual will be evaluated and either further embraced or rejected based on his or her performance in a conflict situation. Within groups, conflict often results in patterns of splintering or perhaps a coup d'état and expulsion. Between groups, conflict can encourage deindividuation, ethnocentrism, and diabolical imaging of the enemy. Groups often provide individuals with a way to rationalize their involvement in a conflict and perhaps to take actions they might otherwise avoid. Conflict resolution is likewise changed in a group situation.

Defining exactly what a conflict is has also been an important part of the analysis of conflict and its resolution. There are generally two accepted ways of defining "conflict": (1) realistic and (2) perceived. The former involves tangible, verifiable competing interests. The latter refers to situations where it is believed by one or both parties that the other stands in the way of achieving what is desired. Conflicts occur over resources, power distribution, and values. They are classified as latent (yet to be noticed) or manifest. A final method of defining "conflict" is as destructive or constructive. Although viewed by most people as risky and something to be avoided, conflict is often seen differently by conflict analysts. Most who study conflict and its resolution argue that conflict holds the potential to be constructive, to create positive social change. These theorists and practitioners argue that how one copes with conflict is the important distinction. If the proper structures exist (such as skilled trainers or participants), conflict can actually have creative and constructive outcomes.


The area of conflict resolution is itself an interdisciplinary field of research. Despite the great diversity of scholars involved in this work, they are brought together by a common interest in understanding how and when conflicts are resolved. What to call the work varies, including such terms as "conflict management," "conflict resolution," and "conflict transformation." A variable here is to what extent and in what way one might get involved to eliminate a conflict. Scholars in this area favor searching for nonviolent and noncontentious methods for ending conflicts, perhaps because these methods are felt to be more permanent than the cycle of escalation likely to emerge with aggressive measures for "ending" conflicts. Avoidance and repression are also considered to be negative responses to conflict.

Here we focus not generally on the field of conflict resolution but specifically on it in relation to groups. While there is much application of theory and research across the levels of study, there is not much agreement on the transferability of ideas from the interpersonal level to the group or international level. Conflict resolution among groups remains an important but understudied social process. Great strides have been taken in developing various models of conflict resolution at the interpersonal level, but among groups the process remains less easily identifiable. At the international level, only small inroads have been made in developing and testing possible methods. War or military threats remain the most common responses to conflict among nations.

Another variable is when and how conflict might be a positive social phenomenon. Functionalists may wonder about the purpose of the conflict in the larger social construct. Although much more writing exists on the negative impact of conflicts, there are many who argue for the creative potential of conflict. The positive view generally takes one of two tacks. Most common are those scholars who argue that conflict leads to greater understanding, relaying of information, and potentially new ideas and stronger relationships. For them, what matters is how conflict is handled. With proper training and skills, one can learn to turn conflict into a creative interaction. A second group argues that conflict in the form of competition can improve work quality, increase production, and improve unity. They are quick to point out that task conflict especially has this effect; interpersonal conflict rarely yields this positive effect.


Conflicts happen at all levels of society. The major classifications of levels of conflict include interpersonal, intergroup, and international. The primary distinction between intergroup and international conflicts is that nationalism provides a particular framework for and gives an intensity to conflicts that distinguish them from group conflicts in general. Intergroup conflicts may be organization based or community based, or they may stem from racial, ethnic, or class differences among groups not recognized at the nation-state level. Fisher (1990) argues that the study of group and international conflict is not nearly as well developed as the research on conflict at the interpersonal level. He cautions against assuming that analysis derived from interpersonal experiences can be generalized to other levels. He points to basic information about how groups affect conflict and suggests that these differences necessitate different strategies for addressing and reducing conflict among groups and nations.


Group conflict is typically divided into two categories: (1) intragroup and (2) intergroup. Conflict within groups is viewed as potentially harmful since it can lead to competition for leadership, loss of focus on group purpose, and membership loss. Intragroup conflicts are typically about power and control over content, purpose, and goals. It can also emerge out of recognition of intragroup inequalities that are found unacceptable by those with less power.

The primary means of limiting intragroup conflict is maintaining a strong normative structure with effective member socialization. When conflicts arise, avoidance often leads the group to dissolve. Methods for solving conflicts within groups include facilitation or problem solving led by an external professional or perhaps a skilled insider, capitulation by one party, subdivision of the group, or re-prioritization of group goals. The latter often occurs in the presence of an outside threat. In fact, a useful response to internal conflict is the identification of a common fear or enemy. External threat increases the sense of homogeneity within the group, encourages commitment to ensuring group survival, and rationalizes stern measures to limit internal challenges to the status quo.

Intergroup conflicts are typically about control and distribution of resources (objective conflicts) or threats to identity or values (perceptual, or subjective, conflicts). Realistic group conflict theory (RCT) focuses on rational mechanisms for understanding group conflict. Social identity theory (SIT) focuses on the idea that the mere perception of belonging to a discrete group is sufficient to produce intergroup discrimination. According to SIT, groups are the major basis for the formation of an individual's sense of identity. And groups produce a positive social identity by being favorably compared to other groups (Fisher 1990). As suggested above, intergroup conflicts can also emerge when there is a desire to quell intragroup conflict through the creation of an enemy.

Usually intergroup conflict is considered more dynamic, more likely to be intractable, quicker to escalate, and more in need of external intervention than interpersonal conflict. According to White, escalation of intergroup conflict is fed by (1) a diabolical image of the enemy, (2) a virile self-image, and (3) a moral self-image (cited in Fisher 1990). Misperceptions and stereotypes of those outside the group are confirmed by group members in an effort to solidify group identity and establish the boundaries of membership. According to balance theory, groups tend to minimize intragroup differences and exaggerate intergroup differences.

Social psychologists suggest that the magnification process stems from an audience effect. In a group, one has confirmation and support for one's position as right and justified. In a group, a clear leader often emerges as external threats grow. Because groups in conflict tend to prefer more aggressive leaders, leaders of groups find themselves pushed to take stances more extreme than they would as individuals. They are expected to succeed (win) or lose power or membership in the group. Leaders often find it difficult to negotiate on behalf of a group with diverse opinions about priorities. Members of the group are more inclined to follow orders in the face of an external threat and to be convinced to commit acts (sometime heinous) to ensure group survival. This may help individuals' involvement in genocide, torture, and other crimes they would not consider participating in for individual gain.


Scholars in the field point to five possible responses to conflict. The actual names of these responses vary, but they are well represented by the following terms: contending, yielding, avoiding, compromising, and problem solving (integrative solutions). These categories are appropriate for all levels of conflict—interpersonal, intergroup, and international. The first three (contending, yielding, and avoiding) tend to escalate conflict. The last two fall clearly within the purview of creative conflict resolution.

Contending behavior is when a party to a conflict seeks to solve the conflict at the other party's expense. Rubin and colleagues (1994) suggest that contentious tactics range from light to heavy, where "light" tactics result in acceptable or neutral consequences for the other party and "heavy" tactics impose or threaten severe consequences. Contending behavior is a key part of the upward spiral of escalation, since it usually evokes a defensive response from the other party. As long as a party believes it can win (benefits outweigh costs), it is likely to practice contending behavior.

Yielding responses are sometimes the partner to contending behavior. A party will yield when it is more important that the conflict be over than that the party wins. Yielding may be an initial strategy to lay the basis for getting something else that is a priority at a later time. Or perhaps the concern is just not an issue for the party that yields.

Avoiding conflict is practiced by a party that does not want to encourage the conflict to become manifest. Usually the hope is that if avoided, the conflict will become unimportant over time. While sometimes avoiding does allow space for conflict to fade, it rarely works to actually resolve those issues underlying the conflict. Therefore there is commonly a resurgence of conflict in another way or at a later time. Avoiding conflict can also be perceived by the initiating party as an act of escalation. As such, it can cause the upward spiral of conflict to begin.

Compromising about a conflict is the outcome that most people associate with conflict resolution processes. For some analysts, compromise is a sufficient method to diffuse conflict; others argue that it still falls short of the goal of a "win–win" solution. In a compromise, parties to the conflict are expected to give up some part of their needs or goals if they stand in the way of the other party's reaching important needs or goals. Each party is partially successful in achieving what it sets out to gain or protect at the beginning of the conflict. Neither one completely loses and neither one completely wins.

Problem-solving behavior entails engaging in a process with the goal of achieving a win–win solution to the conflict. A win–win solution is also called an "integrated solution" when the parties' needs and goals are different but a resolution is found that meets the concerns of both. The process of problem solving is designed to encourage conflicting parties to think creatively to establish possible joint needs and goals and to work cooperatively to solve their problems. There are various methods, such as log-rolling, expanding the pie, and bridging, that can assist in achieving a win–win solution. Log-rolling encourages parties to prioritize their needs and preferences so that lower priority requirements can be negotiated as trade offs in a win–win solution. Expanding the pie requires the infusion of additional resources—often by a party external to the conflict. This makes it possible to satisfy competing needs. In bridging, parties discover mutual definitions of their needs and a single solution leave both satisfied.


A central question in the study of conflict and its resolution involves the conditions that support constructive outcomes to conflict. According to Deutsch (1973), a cooperative environment breeds cooperation and a competitive environment encourages groups to compete. He also suggests that there are three conditions that encourage problem-solving behavior: (1) the arousal of the desire to solve the conflict; (2) conditions that permit reformulation of the issues of the conflict; and (3) the availability of diverse and flexible ideas. Rubin and colleagues (1994) suggest (as do many other scholars) that to turn from contentious behavior to problem solving, the parties must believe that the costs outweigh the benefits if they continue to fight. This may happen because resources are scarce, because the parties fear a permanent loss of their relationship, or perhaps because another party intervenes and provides an incentive (or threat) that encourages seeking a resolution. Sometimes parties in conflict are moved to problem solving by the introduction of a superordinate goal or by the emergence of a common or shared threat.

Establishing communication between the parties is an essential part of turning competitive conflict into cooperative problem solving. The dynamics of groups can make this particularly challenging to accomplish. Leaders will not want to admit that they exaggerated stereotypes and negative associations to encourage diabolical imaging of the enemy. And leaders that emerged during the escalation of conflict will worry about damaging their credibility by agreeing to enter negotiations. For most people, negotiations mean compromise, which means appearing to have lost, at least partially. Communication and understanding can also be challenging across cultures. Lederach (1995) suggests that while the general progression of a conflict and its resolution remains fairly similar from one culture to the next, the specific processes and techniques for solving problems are dramatically different from one cultural group to the next.

Although it might prove challenging to establish, in any conflict communication is essential to building trust, eliciting interests, and defining the problems and possible solutions. Trust is also built through reciprocity of positive initiatives. As Kriesberg (1998) suggests, changes at three levels—within the group, between the groups, and in the larger social context—all contribute to the initiation of deescalation. Ongoing case studies help us understand how seemingly intractable conflicts can be softened through the transformation of interparty relationships and the intraparty absorption of those changes.


Contact Theory. Much effort has gone into identifying conditions that encourage the deescalation of conflict. Organized and well-structured contact between group members is regarded as essential for breaking down stereotypes and assumptions that prevent initiating discussion of the conflict(s). It is thought that this contact needs to be not simply positive but genuinely cooperative, so that new methods of interacting can be learned. Also, the parties need to enter into the contract as equals. Two studies of groups—by Sherif and by Blake and Mouton—suggest that building trust between competing groups requires the creation of superordinate goals if the groups are to move beyond stereotypes and negative assumptions (cited in Fisher 1990). Furthermore, many researchers (Fisher 1990; Rubin et al. 1994) point to the positive function of superordinate goals or shared tasks in reducing intergroup tensions, especially bias or ethnocentrism. The cooperative nature of this structured contact can decrease perceived threat from the other group, thus supporting the reduction of bias and ethnocentrism. Much of the work in cross-cultural conflict resolution and sensitivity or diversity training operates from this belief that structured contact can be used to challenge people's assumptions about other groups.

Third-Party Intervention (Intermediaries). Here, an intermediary intercedes with the goal of influencing or facilitating the settlement of a conflict. Historically force has been the common form of intervention. However, Princen (1992) argues that the intermediary role is becoming much more diverse in the contemporary international system. As an intermediary, a party does not impose a solution or have a direct stake in the outcome. However, it is possible that an intermediary has an indirect interest that the problem be solved. Thus Princen (1992) distinguishes those with an indirect stake (principal mediator) from those with no stake at all (neutral mediator). He suggests that the motivation to intervene shapes the form and content of the intervention made by a third party.

A typology of the forms of third-party intervention in conflict resolution would certainly include the following:

  • Peacekeeping. Placement of military forces from a third party within another country on behalf of the third party or an international organization (e.g., the United Nations) to enforce or maintain a cease-fire and/or a peace agreement. While soldiers are typically armed, they limit their use of weapons to self-defense and defense of the peace agreement.
  • Arbitration. An individual or a board of arbitrators is appointed (usually by a court or someone in a position of higher power) to listen to the concerns of the parties and elicit their suggested solutions. The arbitrator crafts an agreement to address these concerns. Parties who go to an arbitrator agree to abide by the decision, regardless of whether the outcome is considered favorable to one's concerns (binding arbitration).
  • Mediation. Parties in conflict meet with an intermediary who facilitates a discussion about the conflict and each party's concerns. The mediator is expected to be neutral on the outcome of the issue and typically is a stranger to each party. There are exceptions in some international situations, where it is often a preference of the parties to know and trust the mediator prior to the meeting. And in some cases the international mediator may have an indirect interest in the outcome of the conflict (principal mediator). Regardless, the philosophy of mediation is that the parties solve their own conflict while the mediator encourages the process, especially the initiation of communication early in the discussions.
  • Conciliation. Sometimes also known as "shuttle diplomacy" or "track-two diplomacy," this is mediation work that happens without bringing the parties face-to-face. Often this is the first step in developing enough trust for the parties to meet (especially at the international level). These intermediaries must establish high levels of trust and legitimacy with the parties in order to be succeed. Often they are known to the parties, or are powerful international players, or are generally recognized for their success in international mediation.
  • Consultation. In this approach, parties are brought together by a conflict resolution specialist in a workshop format to learn problem-solving skills. Usually the entire group (or significant leadership in the group) is involved. The workshop leader works with the groups to encourage a positive motivation for solving the conflict, to improve communication between the members of the groups, to help the groups define the conflict, and to regulate interaction as the groups discuss their problems. Whereas in much arbitration and mediation the concern is for agreement, here the concern is for building new, positive relationships between the parties by changing their interactions in a controlled setting (Fisher 1990). These workshops are commonly organized around issues such as communication skills, group decision making, and cross-cultural understanding. They are commonly used with community groups or in work settings where a long-term cooperative relationship is either necessary or desirable.

Unilateral Mechanisms. Even without the intervention by a third party, sometimes a player in a conflict will initiate the deescalation process. This most likely occurs when there is apparently little to be gained (and much to be lost) by continuing the conflict. Unilateral moves typically begin with small confidence-building measures. These actions stand on their own and are done without the requirement of reciprocation (although that may be the hope). The goal is to break the upward spiral of conflict by opening a channel of communication or establishing a foundation for trust.

  • GRIT. This is the acronym for "graduated and reciprocated initiatives in tension-reduction," a strategy designed by Charles Osgood in the early 1960s that is intended to streamline unilateral measures (cited in Rubin et al. 1994). Some of his guidelines include announcing the series of unilateral initiatives ahead of time with a clear time line and continuing the announced steps even if the other party does not reciprocate. At the same time, the initiating party maintains its ability to retaliate in case the opposition responds with contentious behavior. The initiatives should reward the other party for cooperating and thus become increasingly favorable to the other party (Fisher 1990; Kreisberg 1998; Rubin et al. 1994).
  • Dialogue groups. This long-term approach to building understanding between groups entails bringing members of groups together on a regular basis for general discussion. Often these meetings bring together people not directly engaged in the conflict. Hubbard (1997) reports the use of these groups in many communities in the United States to bring together Israelis and Palestinians. The groups typically also include members unrelated to either of the conflict groups. The groups discuss issues generally or specifically, depending on local, national, or international events. Dialogue groups have also been used in international conflicts to bring together the "average, everyday" people who must learn once again to live side-by-side once the hostilities have ceased.



The field of conflict resolution is clearly interdisciplinary. With the end of the Cold War and the changing nature of conflict internationally, the field has become increasingly influential. Sociologists and social psychologists have contributed to theory building and the development of practical applications at all levels (interpersonal, group, international). The particular concern that sociologists have for group relations and for the alleviation of social inequalities (a common source of conflict) has made a natural fit between the areas of research. Conflict analysts are heirs to the work of Marx, Weber, Simmel, and many other influential sociologists.

A primary interest in both research and in the application of the field is in the area of ethnic conflict. Sociologists are working on these issues both in urban communities and at the international level. Another important area of interest is teaching conflict resolution theory and skills to young people. Mediation became well established both in the schools (elementary through university levels) and in the judicial system in the 1990s. There is also interest in an alternative to the adjudication system, an approach called "restorative justice."

A challenge to researchers and practitioners is that each conflict has its unique elements. While we have been able to isolate basic concepts and "rules" of the escalation and deescalation of conflict, the nature of human beings resists a single approach to the science of conflict resolution. Most scholars acknowledge that there is more need for study of individual cases of conflicts and for the comparison of specific conflict and conflict resolution processes. This would certainly provide more resources for the teachers and learners of conflict resolution techniques. At the same time, there is strong resistance to developing a monolithic model, since cultural, historical, and individual characteristics must be taken into account with each conflict. Much of the success of the application of the knowledge gained in the field is dependent upon the skill of the conflict resolution specialist and his or her willingness to respond to case-specific information. There is also a concern that while research is necessary to increase our understanding, the most significant work is done by those who work as practitioners of the conflict resolution process.


Deutsch, Morton 1973 The Resolution of Conflict. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Fisher, Ronald 1990 The Social Psychology of Intergroupand International Conflict Resolution. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Hubbard, Amy 1997 "Face-to-Face at Arm's Length: Conflict Norms and Extra-Group Relations in Grass-roots Dialogue Groups." Human Organization 56(3):265–274.

Kriesberg, Louis 1998 Constructive Conflicts. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield.

Lederach, John Paul 1995 Preparing for Peace. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.

Osgood, Charles 1962 An Alternative to War or Surrender. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.

Princen, Tom 1992 Intermediaries in International Conflict. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Rubin, Jeffrey, Dean Pruitt, and Sung Hee Kim 1994 Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Simmel, Georg 1955 Conflict and the Web of Group Affiliations. New York: Free Press.

Lynne Woehrle