Disputants (Stakeholders or First Parties)

Heidi Burgess

January 2004

Who are the Disputants?

Disputants (also called "stakeholders," "partisans," or "first parties" and "second parties") are the people who have a stake in the dispute -- they care about the outcome. They may be primary, or active parties, meaning they are actively engaged in the conflict, oppose the other side(s) and are trying to prevail through persuasion, negotiation, and/or force. These are the parties that one commonly associates as being "involved" in the dispute.

Then there are secondary parties. These people have an indirect stake in the outcome -- they may be affected by the way the conflict comes out, but are not directly involved. For instance, they may be allies or sympathizers with primary parties but are not direct adversaries.[1] They may get pulled into the conflict, and become primary parties, however, if they have alliances that require them to come to the aid of an ally who is under attack.

Identifying the Disputants

Identifying all of the parties to the conflict can be surprisingly difficult. Sometimes they are apparent, as they are when two nations or identity groups are in conflict. But at other times, for example, in many environmental conflicts, there are groups that start out as secondary parties, but they become primary parties later on in the conflict, when they realize that their interests are being threatened. When efforts are made to resolve such conflicts through consensus, it is important that the facilitators or mediators make a concerted effort to find these secondary parties. If these people are left out of consensus-building processes, but then later decide that the agreement reached hurts them, they can prevent implementation. 

Distinguishing Between Disputants

One common error that is made by disputants is to assume that their adversary is homogeneous, in other words, that all of them correspond to their worst stereotypes. But unless the opponent is one individual (or perhaps a small group), disputants can generally be divided up according to their stance towards the other side. We divide interest groups into moderates, hardliners, external supporters, conflict profiteers, and spoilers. Often the assumption is made that all of the opponents are hardliners. It is assumed that "the enemy" takes extreme positions, is unreasonable, and cannot be worked with. This may be true of some of the opposition, perhaps even the leaders, but it is seldom true with everyone. Thus figuring out who can be worked with and who cannot is often a way to begin to make inroads into what would otherwise be an intractable situation. One must deal with the other kinds of parties differently as well; the essays on each of those types of parties give more details.

[1] Paul Wehr, "Conflict Mapping" in the Online Training Program on Intractable Conflicts, available at http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/peace/treatment/cmap.htm. (This was the forerunner to this Knowledge Base Project.)

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi. "Disputants (Stakeholders or First Parties)." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: January 2004 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/disputants>.

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