What is Conflict? How to Deal With It?

This week, my friend Doug Irvin-Erickson is off in Norway for a conference on genocide prevention, so I get to teach his class on the nature of conflict. Since he actually covered much of that topic the first session, I decided to cast a very broad net to set the analytical and political agenda for the course—and for the rest of the students’ lives.

That starts with the name of the two places we both work, George Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and the Alliance for Peacebuilding. I decided to build the class around the two words and the gerund I have here in bold.


Our challenge is to present students with a mixed message.

On the one hand, they are drawn to our classes (and we are drawn to teach them) because they are worried about the world’s problems.

There are lots of ways of discussing this, the first half of the message. I use an exercise that grows out of a comment a student made to me in the 1980s when we were trying to find a final exam question for an introductory course in comparative politics.

The world is messed up. Discuss.

He, of course, used a different verb.

It produced the best—and most depressing—set of exam questions I’ve ever read. It still produces great discussions. We’ll use it this week.

The other side of the mixed message comes from a new line of research that stresses how much progress we’ve made in the last few centuries in curbing the use of violence. In documenting that, I often turn to the work of Steven Pinker, Ian Morris, and other scholars. In class, I prefer the work of the last Hans Rosling.


Of course, both interpretations are correct. As Pinker, Morris, and Rosling argued, it is precisely because our generation can build on what others did before us, it is incumbent on us to do even more to address the problems we fae today.

Over the course of the semester (remember, this is an introductory course), we’ll introduce them to two broad approaches, both of which Doug and I work in:

  • To use the words of Chuck Tilly, who was my grad school mentor, the first is contentious politics or how we produce change by trying to force policy makers to change our messed up word. It is, of course, what got me into this field in the first place fifty years ago.
  • The second involves the building of win/win outcomes, the search for reconciliation, and the other insights that peacebuilders have focused on since Mason’s S-CAR was created in the 1980s. This is mostly the realm in which I work today, although the events of the last few years have broght me back to contentious politics.


Mostly, we want our students to see that peacebuilding and conflict resolution are not easy to achieve these days. Ours is a world of “wicked problems” whose causes and consequences are so inextricably intertwined that you can’t solve them quickly, easily, or separately, if you can solve them at all.

Or, as we will put it in the first few pages of our book, there is no magic wand for producing peace.

But, they are in the class because they already have at least a gut impression that they have to do something. So, we will raise some options with them, all of which we will explore in depth before winter hits.

But, most importantly, we want to show them that there is a place for all of them. So, we’ll end with some more videos. The first, We Are the World, convinced a generation of people in the 1980s—their parents or perhaps even their grandparents—that they had to care.

The second, Radi-Aid, is a more contemporary song in the form of a spoof on We Are the World that stresses the power of what we now call local peacebuilding.

We also want them to see that you don’t have to go to Africa. So, we’ll almost end the class by briefly discussing the ADAMS (All Dulles Area Muslim Society) Center and its work countering violent extremism. Its Imam Mohamed Magid has been a leader in convincing members of his Mosque (the second largest in the United States) and others not to join ISIS and the like.


I am firmly convinced that we cannot solve the world’s problems using the tools we have at our disposal today. While we won’t have time to explore that in detail in class, I will try to get them to see that their imaginations are needed, too. And I’ll pull on their emotions by playing the last scene of The Killing Fields.

Then, Doug has to figure out what to do for the rest of the semester.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members. 


Also published on Medium.