The Core Causes of Intractable Conflicts

Michelle Maiese

October 2003

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This essay was written 14 years ago, but almost every paragraph seems to apply to the political conflict waging in the U.S. as well as many other democratic countries experiencing "populist" movements in 2017. More...


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Intractable conflicts are ones that remain unresolved for long periods of time and then become stuck at a high level of intensity and destructiveness. They typically involve many parties and concern an intricate set of historical, religious, cultural, political, and economic issues.[1] These matters are central to human social existence and typically resist any attempts at resolution. In fact, parties often refuse to negotiate or compromise with respect to such issues. As a result, each side views the rigid position of the other as a threat to its very existence. They may develop a mutual fear of each other and a profound desire to inflict as much physical and psychological harm on each other as possible.[2] This sense of threat and hostility often pervades the everyday lives of the parties involved and overrides their ability to recognize any shared concerns they might have.

As conflict escalates, any tangible issues may become embedded within a larger set of values, beliefs, identities, and cultures. Disputes about land, money, or other resources may take on increased symbolic significance.[3] Over the course of conflict, the original issues can even become irrelevant as new causes for conflict are generated by actions within the conflict itself. Those on opposing sides come to view each other as enemies and may resort to highly destructive means. Eventually, the parties become unable to separate different issues and may see no way out of the conflict other than through total victory or defeat.[4]

Why do some conflicts become intractable? Many describe intractability in terms of the destructive relationship dynamics that govern the adversaries' interaction. For example, if one party resorts to inhumane treatment in waging conflict, this deepens antagonism and may lead the opposing side to seek revenge.[5] Likewise, when extremist political leaders appeal to ethno-nationalist ideology to arouse fear, this may increase support for the use of violence and contribute to intractability. Other factors that make some conflicts extremely difficult to resolve include the vast numbers of people involved, the large number of complex issues to be resolved, and a previous history of violent confrontation. But what are the underlying causes of these destructive conflict dynamics?

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What is common to all intractable conflicts is that they involve interests or values that the disputants regard as critical to their survival. These underlying causes include parties' moral values, identities, and fundamental human needs. Because conflicts grounded in these issues involve the basic molds for thought and action within given communities and culture, they are usually not resolvable by negotiation or compromise.[6] This is because the problem in question is one that cannot be resolved in a win-win way. If one value system is followed, another is threatened. If one nation controls a piece of land, another does not. If one group is dominant, another is subordinate.

While sharing is possible in theory, contending sides usually regard compromise as a loss. This is especially true in societies where natural fear and hatred is so ingrained that opposing groups cannot imagine living with or working cooperatively with the other side. Instead, they are often willing to take whatever means necessary to ensure group survival and protect their way of life. Below are brief summaries of some of the central underlying causes of intractable conflict.

Moral Conflicts

In general, conflicts over intolerable moral differences tend to be intractable and long-lasting.[7] The substantive issues are often a matter of rigidly held moral beliefs, based in fundamental assumptions that cannot be proven wrong.[8] These fundamental moral, religious, and personal values are not easily changed, and people who adhere to a particular ideology may very well be unwilling to compromise their world view. In addition, because parties to such conflicts often have great difficulty in describing the substantive issues in shared terms, they will find it difficult to reach some sort of compromise even if they are willing.

Such conflicts tend to result from a clash between differing world views. One group's most fundamental and cherished assumptions about the best way to live may differ radically from the values held by another group.[9] Parties may have different standards of rightness and goodness and give fundamentally different answers to serious moral questions.[10] When groups have different ideas about the good life, they often stress the importance of different things, and may develop radically different or incompatible goals. In some cases, one group may regard the beliefs and actions of another group as so fundamentally evil that they exceed the bounds of tolerance and require active, committed opposition. (This is the case with parties on both sides of the abortion controversy in the United States, for example.) Because values and morals tend to be quite stable, people are often unwilling to negotiate or compromise with respect to these topics. Indeed, if the basic substantive issues of the conflict are deeply embedded in the participants' moral orders, these issues are likely to be non-negotiable.[11] Parties to such conflicts tend to have great difficulty in imagining a win-win resolution.

Those involved in moral conflict may even regard perpetuation of the conflict as virtuous or necessary. They may derive part of their identity from being warriors or opponents of their enemy and have a stake in the continuation of the conflict because it provides them with a highly desirable role.[12] In addition, because struggles over values often involve claims to status and power, parties may have a great stake in neutralizing, injuring or eliminating their rivals. They may view any compromise about their most cherished values as a threat to their basic human needs and their sense of identity. In intractable conflicts, the continuation of a conflict may seem preferable to what would have to be given up in order to accommodate the other party.[13]

Additional insights into the underlying causes of intractable conflicts are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Issues of Justice

Because the desire for justice is one that people tend to be unwilling to compromise, assertions of injustice often lead to intractable conflicts as well. An individual's sense of justice is connected to the norms, rights, and entitlements that are thought to underlie decent human treatment. If there is a perceived discrepancy between what a person obtains, what she wants, and what she believes she is entitled to, she may come to believe she is being deprived of the benefits she deserves.[14] This can occur when either a procedure or outcome is viewed as unfair. When people believe that they have been treated unfairly, they may try to "get even" or challenge those who have treated them unjustly.

Indeed, a sense of injustice often motivates aggression or retaliation. Individuals may come to view violence as the only way to address the injustice they have suffered and ensure that their fundamental needs are met. This is especially likely if no procedures are in place to correct the oppressive social structures or bring about retributive or restorative justice. However, the powerful often respond by attempting to quell the disturbance and maintain the status quo.[15] This can lead to ongoing violent conflict.

Conflicts that center on issues of justice tend to be intractable in part because reaching an agreement about what qualifies as injustice is often exceedingly difficult. Those who benefit from injustice often perpetuate it, often without being fully aware that they are contributing to injustice. Not surprisingly, victims are typically more sensitive to injustice than victimizers.[16] What seems fair to one person may not seem fair to another, and these perceptions are often affected by self-interest. However, parties often speak of justice in absolute terms, as some independent and objective standard of fairness that can be used to determine who is right.[17]

Not surprisingly, once one group has framed the conflict in terms of justice, it becomes much more difficult to resolve. If one or both groups advance their claim as a matter of justice, moderate positions become less likely. Parties who believe they have suffered injustice may claim a higher moral ground for themselves, hardening their position to the point of inflexibility.[18] People are typically unwilling to compromise on justice issues, or even enter into dialogue with those whose points of view differ from their own.[19] Negotiation and problem solving thus become more difficult, and actual interests are obscured as the conflict becomes framed as win-lose.[20] People who believe that their cause is just are unlikely to back down or to begin the process of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In fact, those who feel they have been the victims of injustice or unfair treatment may grow extremely angry and feel justified in seeking revenge. Or, they may blame members of the other group and denigrate them as morally inferior, paving the way for dehumanization and more violence.[21] This may simply lead to further injustice and cause the conflict to escalate out of control. If vengeance becomes the primary goal, attention may be shifted away from addressing the central justice issues that gave rise to conflict in the first place.


Rights-based grievances likewise contribute to intractability. A dispute begins when one person or group makes a claim or demand on another who rejects it. One way to resolve disputes is to rely on some independent standard of perceived legitimacy or fairness.[22] However, if both groups advance their claim as a "right," moderate positions become less likely and it becomes difficult to compromise or reach consensus. Rights talk can foreclose "further communication with those whose points of view differ from our own."[23] This is in part because people treat rights-based arguments as "trump cards" that neutralize all other positions. A tendency towards absolute formulations in rights talk promotes unrealistic expectations and increases the likelihood of conflict. It also ignores social costs and the rights of others, and inhibits dialogue that might lead to the discovery of common ground or compromise.[24] For example, abortion is typically framed as pitting two interests against each other in an all-or-nothing contest. This sort of absolute, win-lose framing is typically not conducive to problem solving.

People's assumptions that they are entitled to certain rights can also result in self-centeredness. Transforming something into a right gives bearers of the supposed right the ability to demand its realization from those who have a "duty" to realize it.[25] However, such demands may make it more difficult to modify one's claims in the face of reasonable claims of others. Indeed, rights talk often leads parties to forget that their liberties are limited by the stipulation that they do not harm others.[26] When parties do not balance their rights claims against the rights of others, their conflict is likely to become intractable.

Linked to justice issues, many have noted the strong interdependence between human rights violations and intractable conflict. Violations of political and economic rights are the root causes of many crisis situations, which in turn generate further human rights abuses. When rights to adequate food, housing, employment and cultural life are denied, and large groups of people are excluded from the society's decision-making processes, there is likely to be great social unrest. Such conditions often give rise to justice conflicts, in which parties demand that their basic needs be met. Indeed, many conflicts are sparked or spread by violations of human rights. For example, massacres or torture may inflame hatred and strengthen an adversary's determination to continue fighting. Violations may also lead to further violence from the other side, and can contribute to a conflict's spiraling out of control.

On the flip side, armed conflict often leads to the breakdown of infrastructure and civic institutions, which in turn undermines a broad range of rights. When hospitals and schools are closed, rights to adequate health and education are threatened. The collapse of economic infrastructure often results in pollution, food shortages, and overall poverty.[27] The breakdown of government institutions results in denials of civil rights, including the rights to privacy, fair trial, and freedom of movement. In many cases, the government is increasingly militarized, and police and judicial systems are terribly corrupted. Abductions, arbitrary arrests, detentions without trial, political executions, assassinations, and torture often follow.

These various forms of economic breakdown and oppression violate rights to self-determination and often contribute to further human tragedy in the form of sickness, starvation, and lack of shelter. In cases where extreme violations of human rights have occurred, it is difficult to carry out peace negotiations or begin the reconciliation process.[28] This is because it is difficult for parties to move toward conflict transformation and forgiveness when memories of severe violence and atrocity are still in their minds.

Unmet Human Needs

Human needs theorists argue that many intractable conflicts are caused by the lack of provision of fundamental human needs. These include basic needs for food, water, and shelter as well as more complex needs for safety, security, self-esteem, and personal fulfillment.[29] These more complex needs center on the capacity to exercise choice in all aspects of one's life and to have one's identity and cultural values accepted as legitimate. The need for both distributive justice and the ability to participate in civil society are also crucial. All of these needs are fundamental requirements for human development.[30] Thus, while interests can be negotiated when they come into conflict, needs cannot.

Various types of structural violence jeopardize individuals' physical safety and security. Poverty, environmental degradation, poor health care, and lack of adequate housing often lead to the denial of their basic needs for dignity, safety, and control over their lives.[31] Likewise, conflicts that develop around issues of identity, ethnicity, religion, or culture are often grounded in unmet human needs. Because all individuals are driven to fulfill these essential needs, they will fight indefinitely to achieve them and will not give up until their goal is attained. Indeed, individuals, groups and entire societies are affected by peoples' unstoppable drive to fulfill unmet human needs.[32] For example, the conflict between Israel and Palestine involves the threatened identity of individuals as well as groups and nations. A deep-rooted and intractable conflict has grown out of both groups' unmet need for recognition and security.

Identity Issues

Identity is one of the fundamental human needs that underlies many intractable conflicts. Conflicts over identity arise when group members feel that their sense of self is threatened or denied legitimacy and respect. Because identity is integral to one's self-esteem and how one interprets the rest of the world, any threat to identity is likely to produce a strong response. Typically this response is both aggressive and defensive, and can escalate quickly into an intractable conflict. Because threats to identity are not easily put aside, such conflicts tend to persist.

Intractable conflicts are often maintained by the development of polarized collective identities among group members.[33] Group memberships form along the lines of nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, or whatever other categories are relevant to the conflict. Individuals identify with those in their own group and begin to organize against those in the opposing group. While collective identities may initially form around issues such as resisting oppressive social structures or staking claims to territory, they eventually take on meaning and value of their own. As the conflict escalates, the opposing groups become increasingly polarized and develop hostility towards those in the out-group. A high level of in-group identification, together with a high degree of perceived threat from the other group, leads to a basic impulse to preserve oneself and destroy the opponent.[34]

Identity is the primary issue in most racial and ethnic conflicts. It is also a key issue in many gender and family conflicts, when men and women disagree on the proper role or "place" of the other, or children disagree with their parents about who is in control of their lives and how they present themselves to the outside world. These conflicts center on matters of security, fair treatment, and a sense of control over one's life.[35] Because identity-based concerns are tied to fundamental human needs, conflicts surrounding identity often threaten parties' very existence. Such conflicts are typically more intense than interest-based conflicts. This is because the issues in interest-based conflicts are typically more clearly defined and have greater potential for compromise. Identity conflicts, on the other hand, are based on people's psychology, culture, basic values, shared history, and beliefs. These issues tend to be more abstract and are connected to people's basic needs for survival.

In addition, rigid collective identities may make it more difficult for groups to compromise. When they feel that another group poses a threat to their authority or legitimacy, they may lash out. Those in the out-group may be excluded, which limits contact between identity groups and contributes to the development of negative stereotypes and intergroup violence.[36] Parties view their adversaries as evil or even nonhuman and regard their views and feelings as unworthy of attention. Because merely sitting down with the opponent can be seen as a threat to one's own identity, even beginning efforts at reconciliation can be extremely difficult. Furthermore, the negation of the opposing group often becomes a fundamental aspect of one's own identity.[37] During the Cold War, for example, an important aspect of identity for many United States citizens was being anti-Communist.

Some identity conflicts are grounded in nationalism. Nationalism as an ideology affirms the existence of peoples or nations whose members share a common history and destiny. Nationalist sentiments often lead individuals to see their own group or nation as superior to other groups. This can also lead group members to denigrate or dominate other peoples and countries. Because any challenges to one's nation are regarded as a threat to one's very existence, nationalism can act as a source of intractable conflict.

Finally, intractable identity conflicts typically involve a history of colonialism, ethnocentrism, or racism and emerge out of a history of domination and perceived injustice. Colonization, in particular, often has serious socio-economic and moral implications that tend to persist. Where there is a severe imbalance of power, the more powerful party may exploit or abuse the less powerful party.[38] Minority groups may be denied effective political participation or lack opportunities for cultural expression. If their identity is denied or simply unrecognized by the majority, these oppressed groups may recognize these power hierarchies as unjust and rebel against them.[39] This leads to intractable conflict.

High-Stakes Distributional Issues

Conflicts surrounding who gets what and how much they get also tend to be intractable. The items to be distributed include tangible resources such as money, land, or better jobs, as well as intangible resources such as social status. If there are plenty of resources available, then everyone simply takes what they need and no conflict develops. However, when there is not enough of a given resource to satisfy everyone's needs or wants, and no more can be found or created, the conflict becomes a "win-lose" situation. The more one party gets, the less the other party gets (or the more he or she "loses"). When the item in question is very important or valuable, these conflicts tend to become very intractable.

For example, conflicts over water in arid lands are high-stakes classic distributional conflicts. In the Western United States, as well as many other arid regions, water is extremely valuable, as life cannot exist without it. Because there is not enough water to go around, endless conflicts arise about who gets what amount of water for what purpose. Although individual disputes get resolved, another dispute over the same water will almost certainly arise again later on.

Domination conflicts are a special type of high-stakes distributional conflict in which the resource to be distributed is social status. Because most groups want to be on top of the social, economic, and/or political hierarchy, there is often a perpetual struggle between those at the top and those at the bottom. Conflicts over social status can occur between individuals or between nations. Because issues of social status are connected to matters of unequal economic power, the divide between the rich and poor has contributed to intractable conflict both within nations and across international society as a whole. These conflicts tend to be very difficult to resolve because no one wants to be on the bottom, and few are willing to share the top level of the social hierarchy.

While those in weaker positions want to gain more power and reverse the relationship, those with the most power do not wish to give up the benefits associated with their position. Unless those people at the top are willing to share their privileges with everyone else, such conflicts are likely to continue. Even if those with low social or economic status are able to reverse the situation and assume a leadership position, the conflict will continue as the new group on the bottom strives to gain status.

Current Implications

This essay was written 14 years ago, but almost every paragraph seems to apply to the political conflict waging in the U.S. as well as many other democratic countries experiencing "populist" movements in 2017.  For example, in the U.S., both Republicans and Democrats are steadfastly refusing to compromise; and many on both sides seem to  be more interested in harming the other than working together to solve the nation's problems.  

Certainly, as Maiese says in paragraph one, "this sense of threat and hostility is pervading the everyday lives of the parties and overrides their ability to recognize shared interests."

Or look at her sentence in paragraph three: "when extremist political leaders appeal to ethno-nationalist ideology to arouse fear, this may increase support for the use of violence''--this too is very visible in the U.S. after Donald Trump was elected.

Or look at the first paragraph discussing justice conflicts, particularly the last sentence:  "When people believe that they have been treated unfairly, they may try to "get even" or challenge those who have treated them unjustly."  Many of the people who voted for Trump felt that the "establishment" had treated them unjustly, and they thought Trump was going to get rid of the "establishment."  Now both "the establishment" -- as embodied by the "cosmopolitan elite" -- and many minority groups are feeling as if the Trump administration is treating them unfairly, and the revenge cycle is likely to to on and on.

More examples abound--I will leave them to you to find. -- Heidi Burgess. Feb. 11, 2017.

Back to Essay Top

[1] Peter Coleman, "Intractable Conflict," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc., 2000), 428. Updated (2011) edition available here.

[2] Ibid, 430.

[3] Peter Coleman, "Characteristics of Protracted, Intractable Conflict: Towards the Development of a Meta-Framework," Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2003. <>.

[4] Ibid, 29.

[5] Louis Kriesberg, "Intractable Conflicts," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing Co., 1998), 334. <>.

[6] Coleman, "Characteristics of Protracted, Intractable Conflict," 20.

[7] W. Barnett Pearce and Stephen W. Littlejohn. Moral Conflict: When Social Worlds Collide. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Inc., 1997), 68. <>.

[8] David P. Barash and Charles P. Webel. Peace and Conflict Studies. (California: Sage Publications, 2002), 234. <>.

[9] Pearce and Littlejohn, 49.

[10] Otomar J. Bartos and Paul Wehr. Using Conflict Theory. (New York : Cambridge University Press, 2002), 41. <>.

[11] Pearce and Littlejohn, 50.

[12] Ibid, 70.

[13] Ibid, 70.

[14] Morton Deutsch, "Justice and Conflict," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, M. Deutsch and P. Coleman, eds. ( San Francisco : Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 44. Updated edition (2011) available here.

[15] Coleman, "Characteristics of Protracted, Intractable Conflict," 16.

[16] Deutsch, 45.

[17] William Ury, J. Brett, and S. Goldberg, Getting Disputes Resolved: Designing Systems to Cut the Cost of Conflict. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1988), 7. <>.

[18] Deutsch, 55.

[19] Mary Ann Glendon. Rights Talk. The Impoverishment of Political Discourse. (New York: Free Press, 1993), 9. Updated edition (2008) available here.

[20] Deutsch, 52.

[21] Ibid, 55.

[22] William Ury, J. Brett, and S. Goldberg, 7.

[23] Glendon, 9.

[24] Ibid, 14.

[25] Antonio Cassese. Human Rights in a Changing World. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990), 63. Updated edition (2011) available here.

[26] Amitai Etzioni. The Spirit of Community: Rights, Responsibilities, and the Communitarian Agenda. (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993), 7. Updated edition (2013) available here.

[27] "Human Rights Today: A United Nations Priority," The United Nations, 2000. <>.

[28] Michel Veuthey, "International Humanitarian Law and the Restoration and Maintenance of Peace." African Security Review, Vol. 7, No. 5, Institute for Security Studies, 1998. <>.

[29] Jay Rothman. Resolving Identity-Based Conflict in Nations, Organizations, and Communities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997. <>.

[30] John Burton. Conflict Resolution and Provention. New York: St. Martins Press, 1990. <>.

[31] Coleman, "Intractable Conflict," 433.

[32] Terrell A. Northrup. "The Dynamic of Identity in Personal and Social Conflict." In Intractable Conflicts and their Transformation, ed. Louis Kriesberg, Terrell A. Northrup and Stuart J. Thorson, 55-82. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989. <>.

[33] Coleman, "Characteristics of Protracted, Intractable Conflict," 31.

[34] Ibid, 33.

[35] Coleman, "Intractable Conflict," 431.

[36] Coleman, "Characteristics of Protracted, Intractable Conflict," 29.

[37] Ibid, 33.

[38] Coleman, "Intractable Conflict," 433.

[39] Coleman, "Characteristics of Protracted, Intractable Conflict," 15.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Causes of Disputes and Conflicts." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <>.

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