Within-Party Differences

Heidi Burgess

January 2004

Disputants and outside observers often assume that one or both sides are basically homogeneous. If a few vocal people on the opposition are outrageous, threatening, or seemingly dangerous, there is a tendency to believe that all members of the opposition are like that. Enemy images are developed that assume the worst of everyone on the other side, and strategies for dealing with the opponents are based on these worst-case assumptions. [1] [2]

In most cases, however, when the opposition is a group, organization, or nation-state, there is considerably divergence in views among the members of the opposing groups. While some might be characterized as "hardliners," and might deserve at least some of the negative stereotypes often attributed to them, many others are likely to be less extreme. Such "moderates" form what Louis Kriesberg calls "constituencies for de-escalation."[3] These people can often be better reached with conciliatory gestures or confidence building measures, rather than confrontational or escalatory moves.

Louis Kriesberg describes the complexity of conflicts, explaining that many people are interacting in many different ways and every individual CAN make a difference.

Another way to differentiate among opponents and by-standers is to divide them into four groups:

  • persuadables,
  • reluctant persuadables,
  • traders, and
  • hardliners.

Persuadables are people who can fairly easily be persuaded that you are right. With a little bit of reason or a moral or emotional appeal, they are likely to join your side or support you in the conflict.

Reluctant persuadables are people who also might be persuaded that you are right, but it will take more effort. You will have to work harder to convince them of your views, describing those views, as much as possible, in a way that is consistent with their belief systems, which may well be different from yours.

Traders are people who may not be persuaded that you are right, but they are willing to negotiate with you anyway. If you can give them something they want, they are likely to give you what you want, even if they do not necessarily believe in your reasons for wanting it.

Hardliners are people who are not going to change their beliefs or behavior, no matter what. Persuasion won't work, nor will negotiation, as they refuse to negotiate regardless of what you offer. Some hardliners might be "conflict profiteers," people who are benefiting or profiting from the continuation of the conflict. These may be the leaders, who gain their reputation and power from being "tough" and standing up to the other side, military leaders whose reputation has been (or is being) earned by battle victories, or even low-level military personnel who have no other way of making a living. Other conflict profiteers are arms dealers who make money by selling weapons, sometimes to both sides at once.

Other hardliners are the extremists who hold extreme religious, nationalistic, or prejudicial beliefs that say they are superior, and the opponent inferior, even non-human and deserving extinction. Such beliefs lead to what Guy Burgess has called "into-the-sea" framing, in which the goal is to figuratively -- or almost literally -- drive the opponents into the sea.[4] (The term originally referred to the Palestinian's stated desire to destroy the state of Israel, leaving the Israelis nowhere to go, but into the sea. But the term is equally relevant to any genocidal situation, where people are not drowned, but killed in any other way.)

Since the extremists and other hardliners usually gain the most press coverage, it is easy to come to the conclusion that everyone on the other side feels that way. This leads to extremely hostile tactics, as extremists are not worth trying to persuade or negotiate with. But if one has a more accurate image of the differences on the other side, sometimes persuasion or negotiation is possible. Eventually the extremists will still have to be dealt with, but if one has developed a large number of allies on the other side, that job will be considerably easier to do.


[1] Paul Wehr, "Misperceptions" in the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflict, Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess, Eds., Available online at http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/example/wehr7486.htm.

[2] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflict, Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefiled. 2012. p. 127-131 <http://www.amazon.com/Constructive-Conflicts-Escalation-Louis-Kriesberg/dp/1442206845#reader_1442206845>. Original citation to pages 142-143 of 2003 version.

[3] Kriesberg. Original citation to pages 294 of 2003 version.

[4] Guy Burgess "Into the Sea Framing" Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, available online at http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/problem/intosea.htm.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "Within-Party Differences." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/within-party-differences>.

Additional Resources