Conflict Mapping

Paul Wehr

September 2006

As conflict emerges, it produces considerable confusion. Interactions between the conflicting parties change, sometimes radically and abruptly. Levels of unpredictability, uncertainty and emotion rise. Unwise and costly decisions are made from a lack of understanding of what is occurring. Since the way in which a conflict emerges largely determines how costly it will subsequently be, those involved must have the clearest possible understanding of what is going on.

Even the simplest interpersonal conflict has many elements. Conflicts involving multiple parties, large numbers of people, and complex organizations such as governments get to be enormously complicated. Some conflict theorists, such as Kenneth Boulding [1], present general principles for analysis. Others, such as Morton Deutsch [2], take a very detailed, microanalytical approach to understanding conflict. Still others, such as Herbert Blalock [3], do both. Every conflict has certain basic elements permitting us to produce a roadmap by which a conflict opponent, a third party intervenor, or simply a student of conflict can find their way through a particular situation. [4] The primary items in this roadmap include the following:

Conflict Context: The mapper first gathers information about the history of the conflict and its physical and organizational settings. Conflict does not emerge in a vacuum. Sometimes one conflict is nested within another. A conflict between neighbors, for instance, might be nested within a larger context of racial conflict within the community or society at large. A conflict between co-workers might be affected by the corporate atmosphere of downsizing and threats to job security. In both of these (and many other cases) the "facts" may not be as simple as they seem.

Parties: Parties in a conflict differ in the directness of their involvement and the importance of its outcome for them. Primary parties are those who oppose one another, are using fighting behavior, and have a direct stake in the outcome of the conflict. Secondary parties have an indirect stake in the outcome. They are often allies or sympathizers with primary parties but are not direct adversaries. Third parties are actors such as mediators and peacekeeping forces which might intervene to facilitate resolution.

Causes and Consequences: It is not always possible to distinguish a cause of a conflict from a consequence. In fact, as a conflict emerges, cause and consequence tend to blend. Hostility might be a consequence of one phase of a conflict and a cause of the next. Perceived goals and interests incompatibility is perhaps the most basic cause of social conflict. Identity defense is also common, particularly in the contemporary world where group awareness and rights have assumed high visibility. Cultural differences and particularly language are sources of separateness and difference. They create a sense of self and self-defense which is probably the primary motive for conflict.

Contrasting beliefs and values are operating vigorously in much social conflict. These range from the negative image [enemy image] one has of one's opponent to one's opinion about a Supreme Being. Disagreement over facts characterizes much conflict and is probably the most readily resolved. Then there is conflict which occurs out of the need one or both parties have simply to fight, no matter about what. (See the article on spoilers, for example.) The conflict is a goal in itself. Finally, the explanation for the conflict may be a low capacity for cooperative conflict resolution within the conflict context.

Goals and Interests: There is an important distinction between these two concepts. Goals are the more or less acknowledged objectives of parties in a conflict. They usually can put them into words. Sometimes goals are referred to as positions; specific demands being made by one party or the other. "If you wish to end the conflict, you must do this or that." Interests, on the other hand, are what really motivate the parties, what they really need to achieve: security, recognition, respect, justice and so on. [5] An important purpose of mapping is to help opposing parties to distinguish their goals/positions from their true interests/needs and bring those goals and interests as close to unity as possible.

Dynamics: A conflict is constantly moving and changing. Even if parties are at stalemate, aspects of the conflict context will be changing. Runaway responses [6] of parties to one another are made more visible through conflict mapping. Dynamics such as unrestrained escalation and polarization carry participants away from cooperative resolution toward greater hostility. Perception changes occur within the opposing sides which reinforce the runaway responses: stereotyping opponents, seeing them as the negative mirror-image of oneself, imputing to them increasingly malign motives.

Functions: The functions of a conflict are its purposes, the positive consequences it may be having for the opposing parties. These may be simply tension release or aggressive impulses directed at a more vulnerable party. But a conflict always has some purposes for those involved. In a particularly intense university departmental conflict over tenure, minority faculty both inside and outside the department gained new visibility, solidarity, and alliances with other low-power groups in the university. The department also became a bit more unified as it defended itself against what it felt was a unfair accusation. Knowing the consequences of such functions may reveal ways other than the conflict to produce them and thus move the conflict toward cooperative resolution.

Regulation Potential: Every conflict context contains its own conflict-limiting elements. There may be third parties who could intervene. Internal limiting factors such as the simple wish of the parties to maintain their relationship can be used. External limiting factors such as law and higher authority might be introduced.

Using the conflict map: A conflict mapper can use this mapping guide in numerous ways. It can be used by each party on its own, in an effort to clarify the conflict from their own perspective. Or it can be used jointly, in an effort to understand both sides' view of the conflict. A third party (such as a mediator) could interview the conflict parties with the guide, draft a map, ask the parties to modify it from their perspectives, redraft it, and present it as a first joint step toward cooperative resolution. Alternatively, this could be done by parties on one side who would solicit cooperation from their opponents in creating an accurate conflict map.


[1] Kenneth Boulding. Conflict and Defense. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.

[2] Morton Deutsch. The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973.

[3] Herbert Blalock. Power and Conflict. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989.

[4] Paul Wehr. Conflict Regulation. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1979.

[5] John Burton. Conflict: Resolution and Provention. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

[6] James Coleman, Community Conflict. New York, NY: Free Press, 1957.

Use the following to cite this article:
Wehr, Paul. "Conflict Mapping." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2006 <>.

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