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Introduction

Protracted social conflicts continue to undermine the security and well being of societies worldwide. In 2005, twenty major armed conflicts were waged around the globe, with 40% of intrastate armed conflicts lasting for 10 years or more and 25% of wars lasting for more than 25 years (see Marshall & Gurr, 2005). Such conflicts seem immune to concerted attempts at intervention and thus are often considered intractable (Coleman, 2003). They escalate and deescalate, change form, spread into new groups, and can be passed from generation to generation.

The specific issues around which intractable conflicts revolve can change, as can the parties and policies associated with the conflict. An intractable conflict can develop and be maintained independently of the intentions of the parties involved. In effect, they can take on a life of their own, becoming self-sustaining patterns of thought and behavior on the part of individuals and groups.

Intractable conflicts are defined in a straightforward manner as those that are persistent and destructive despite repeated attempts at resolution (Kriesberg, 2005). However, the current literature in this area presents a challenging picture of such problems (see Crocker, Hampson, and Aall, 2004; 2005; beyondintractability.org, 2006).

First, they tend to be complex; with many different sources of hostilities located at multiple-levels (individual, group, communal, etc.), which often interact with each other to feed or sustain the conflict (Sandole, 1999; Coleman, Vallacher, Nowak, and Bui- Wrzosinska, 2007).

Second, intractable conflicts are often situated in places where other community problems (such as poverty, unemployment, and poor housing) and the suffering brought on by the conflict interact, resulting in long-term patterns of misery, animosity, and trauma (see Wessells and Monteiro, 2001).

Third, the sources of hostilities in these settings, be they the key issues, leaders, policies, popular attitudes, or the political will of the masses, are dynamic; changing continually and at any given time may be more or less determining of the conflict (Mitchell, 2005; Putnam & Peterson, 2003).

And fourth, each case of intractable conflict is different; they each have their own unique set of dynamic factors responsible for their persistence, which makes generalization and learning from one case to another difficult.

Theory and research on intractable conflict is still in its infancy, but important advances have occurred over the last decade (Coleman, 2004). One particularly promising approach to the study of intractability is through the lens of dynamical systems theory (DST). DST is an increasingly influential paradigm in many areas of science (cf. Johnson, 2001; Nowak and Vallacher, 1998; Strogatz, 2003), and offers an innovative set of ideas and methods for conceptualizing and addressing protracted conflict.

DST is oriented to the phenomenon of complex systems that evolve and change overtime, and thus is ideally suited to capture the complexity and volatile dynamics associated with protracted social conflict. This website presents the work of a team of top conflict and complexity scholars and students who have begun to identify the foundational principles of what is arguably the most complex and dynamic of all social phenomena: protracted social conflict.

The Dynamics of Conflict: Frequently Asked Questions