4 Tutorials that teach Intractable Conflict
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Intractable Conflict

Intractable Conflict

Author: Marlene Johnson

At the end of this tutorial, the learner will understand the concept of intractable conflict.

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Video Transcription

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When we look at conflict on the world stage, it's hard not to note that there are some conflicts that seem very difficult to resolve. In fact, they seem to have perpetuated over the years. I'm Marlene, and today I'd like to talk with you about something called intractable conflict.

Intractable conflict-- this is a term for those kinds of conflicts, conflicts with very long histories where the attitudes and positions have escalated over the years or perpetuated the conflict. And we've seen examples of this. I think a very obvious one is the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Also, the conflict in Bosnia could be considered an intractable conflict, or some of the conflicts in Africa.

There are some common characteristics to intractable conflicts that I'd like to talk with you about. When we're talking about intractable conflicts, they all do have a long history, as I mentioned. They may go back years. And if we're talking about cultures, it might even be sentries that you've had two peoples in conflict. So there are many perceived offenses by both sides in terms of what the other side has done.

And when you have people who have built up over the years this sense of having these offenses committed against them, there is a strong need for justice. So you have both sides seeking justice and feeling that they deserve justice. Their positions are very strong here in terms of what they're looking for in terms of justice. And this sense of justice, the length of the history here with the conflict, helps establish the conflict itself as an actual worldview. It becomes a cultural worldview.

We've talked about worldviews, cultural worldviews, as being a way that a people can make their decisions in the world. It's considered the beliefs that are considered right, true, proper are all cultural worldviews. So being in this conflict becomes part of the way we see the world, particularly if you were born into this conflict, and your parents were part of it, and your grandparents, and you've heard stories about your great grandparents.

This becomes a part of how you see the world, and it greatly affects your identity. So identity and worldview go together here. And your identity is your sense of self. So part of your sense of self is seeing this other nation as a rival. This isn't just a friendly rival. No, there are very strong negative feelings between the people who are involved in this intractable conflict.

I wrote strong negative feelings here. You could probably use the word "hate." In many cases, this would be an appropriate word to describe the feelings between people or between the governments. And often, the strong negative feelings can lead to violence. And we've seen that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where there things might even be simmering for a while, and then there will be an escalated violence from one side or the other.

Certainly not everybody in either of those countries is going to have those strong negative feelings or that sense of identity that encompasses the worldview of being in conflict. You don't stereotype everybody in a particular country. But in general, these are characteristics of people and of a nation who are part of an intractable conflict.

Also, another characteristic here is that each side will seek allies. So they will be looking for countries who are indirectly affected by this conflict and trying to bring them over on their side, because these countries may have a vested interest in the outcome. And many countries will be stepping in trying to resolve the conflict, wanting it to be resolved. And of course, the countries who are in conflict will be resisting that conflict resolution.

It's another one of the characteristics. I didn't actually write it here. But when it comes to conflict resolution, typically there's a lot of resistance to it. And this is because the conflict itself has become entrenched as a cultural worldview, part of the identity a group of people has. And cultural worldviews are very slow to change. They can change, but change takes time. So any resolution here will go through multiple stages.

There will be escalations and de-escalations. I think we can see this in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for there have been peace accords, and there has been a movement forward, but then there will be a movement backwards. So you take a step forward and a step back. There are many attempts at conflict resolution with intractable conflicts around the world, and progress is being made. It's just that it does take a very long time.

One other thing to say about intractable conflict is that typically these conflicts might take place in an area where there is a country that is called a buffer state. This would be a country that's actually right between the two countries that are in conflict. And the existence of this buffer state is thought to reduce the conflict opportunities between these two greater powers who are having this conflict.

Once again, an intractable conflict is one that has a very long history and is characterized by the need for justice by the countries and the people adopting a real cultural worldview and identity that has a lot of negative feelings towards the other side. Conflict resolution is difficult. There's resistance to it in these cases. But there is always the chance that progress is going to be made, and it has been made. It's just that it goes through many stages and takes a very long time.

Thank you, and I look forward to next time.

Terms to Know
Buffer State

A country situated between two larger, more powerful countries; the existence of a buffer state is thought to reduce conflict opportunities between the two greater powers.

Cultural Worldview

The way a person interprets and makes decisions about his or her environment (world), including beliefs and assumptions about what is considered right or normal.


A person's sense of self; the way an individual defines himself or herself.

Intractable Conflict

A conflict which has a long history, in which the attitudes, positions, and worldviews of involved parties have escalated or perpetuated conflict.


The established right of a recognized government to determine internal policy and law of its country.