Unrest Magazine began its insurrection in the halls of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (now the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution) in the fall of 2009. Our first communiqué declared the need for a Critical Conflict Resolution (CCR) to address systems of violence inherent in our present moment. As the vanguard for this new movement, we proselytized, organized, and agitated. We may have been unsure of the specific form CCR should take, but we knew it began by demanding that conflict resolution reexamine its relationship to the State, the liberal peace agenda, and the ways in which militarism continued to undermine our efforts. We were emboldened and set out to reshape the future of conflict resolution as the world wrestled with the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Conflict resolution had a duty to confront the crises of capitalism, but how should it go about doing this?
Then a little more than a year later came Tunisia. Egypt. Madison. The Arab Spring. The Indignants in Spain. Occupy Wall Street. Global revolt was in full swing. It was clear that neoliberalism and American imperialism were contributing factors to these conflicts and that Unrest was waiting at the site where these events converged with conflict resolution. At that time, the role the field of conflict resolution could play in relation to these systemic events was unclear. Unrest recognized a need for the field to engage at a systems level, yet we were often confronted with the opposite impulse from our well-meaning colleagues who did not understand what we were advocating. They asked, shouldn’t conflict resolution practitioners address Occupy Wall Street by mediating or facilitating within the occupations or proposing dialogue between the police and the protestors? In the case of Syria, many sided with the opposition and demanded regime change. The United States Institute of Peace began facilitating workshops to help prepare for a post-Assad Syria. Conflict resolution was acceptable for working through issues with the opposition, but deemed unsuitable for creating an inclusive process in the pre-civil war period to address the situation. And it was in this moment that we began to realize that while our impulse to push for a Critical Conflict Resolution had been correct, we needed to articulate a convincing alternative approach that would help the field move beyond its own limitations and consider the impact of particular systems on the way we analyzed conflicts and practiced conflict resolution.
Conflict resolution has a role to play in these struggles, but we need to rethink how we investigate and engage with them. It is from this recognition that the search for a Critical Conflict Resolution has moved from a stage of agitation to one of reflection. For the past two years we have worked to build a foundation from which CCR could develop new forms of theory and practice while appreciating the insights of our traditional approaches. Even though Unrest Magazine serves as the vehicle for the ideas and associations we think should inhabit the CCR universe, we have not put forth anything codifying our views as to what Critical Conflict Resolution is or could be. The brief essay that follows is our attempt to provide an overview of the project as it currently exists and where it might go in the future. As CCR continues to grow and develop, part of our objective becomes to provide clarity on its lexicon and to distinguish the ways in which it offers a substantive difference from other forms of practice and analysis. This essay will attempt to clarify a number of key terms and concepts as they relate to that objective.
While the authors are responsible for the version outlined below, these ideas have developed as part of a collaborative effort involving many people. Much of our thinking emerges out of conversations with our comrades at Unrest Magazine and as part of lecture, film, and readings groups hosted by Unrest on related topics. For the past two years, we have also taught Critical Conflict Resolution, a graduate level course developed to explore these impulses in a more traditional academic setting. We have been extremely grateful for the insights and contributions of our students who have helped push this endeavor to the next level. We have also been blessed to have the encouragement and guidance of Richard Rubenstein, whose scholarship and ideas are integral to this project. We owe a debt of gratitude to the faculty of the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and former Dean Andrea Bartoli who have graciously supported (or in some cases, politely tolerated) our insurrection. Parts of the material covered within were recently presented at the 2013 Association for Conflict Resolution conference under the title, “Critical Conflict Resolution: Practice in the new normal.”
Why CRITICAL Conflict Resolution?
One of the first difficulties we encountered related to a lack of clarity about the nature of the word critical in Critical Conflict Resolution. What makes conflict resolution critical and how is this different than non-critical conflict resolution? Our hope is that one day there will be no difference; the field will evolve to the point where critical work is part of what it means to do conflict resolution. However, at this juncture a distinction is necessary between what we refer to as “traditional conflict resolution” from more contemporary forms, including those grounded in complementary approaches such as narrative and insight. We see critical work as something unique from both narrative and insight, but we also find much overlap and inspiration in these strains.
Our starting point requires a distinction between critical thinking and critical theory. When CCR invokes the term critical, many assume that we are using it in a generic sense. There are two common misunderstandings that result as a consequence: we are either critical of conflict resolution or we are simply promoting critical thinking. The first assumes that by critical we are positioning ourselves as negatively criticizing the field. This would be incorrect. We are highly supportive of the efforts of conflict resolution and view our work as a contribution to its growth and development. Our goal is to improve conflict resolution so that it remains relevant, not to tear it apart.
The second understanding of critical, as in critical thinking, is also incorrect. While there are many ideas about what it means to think critically, critical is often a signal meant to imply that the person doing the thinking is somehow required to perform extra cognitive activity. Not only must they think, they must think critically! This sometimes translates into the idea that to think critically is to be skeptical of any presentation of information or to perform hard, time consuming, or difficult mental work. All of those are healthy attitudes and abilities to possess in a world churning with ideas and competing claims to the truth. While we support the development of critical thinking skills, the manner in which we understand the objective of critical thinking is more particular and emerges from a relationship with what we will describe below as critical theory. Critical thinking in CCR is one component of the critical approach. Following Freire and hooks, we see it as a dialectical process of interacting with the world and reflecting on those experiences. This is a specific activity through which individuals evaluate and process information about the world they live in in order to draw their own conclusions about their place in it and the ways in which the world might be transformed. Critical thinking is important, yet alone it is not sufficient as a foundation for CCR.
In the same way that critical thinking is more than just skepticism, critical theory is more than just theories that cast doubt on a particular way of knowing or understanding. The critical in CCR is a reference to a specific critical theoretical tradition in philosophy and social science most commonly associated with the Frankfurt School. Much has been written about the Frankfurt School, so in lieu of an introduction to their work we will quickly cover the key points that we feel connect this project with that tradition. To adopt a critical position is to acknowledge that our project builds from categories initially identified by Marx and extends forward in conversation with scholarship broadly categorized as Marxist. This means we accept the basic tenets described by Marx and Engels as to the emergence of the class struggle, the class character of the State apparatus, the globalizing nature of Capital, and the tendency of the market economy towards crises. These basic insights are not enough to explain the critical approach, however.
Two dimensions of the distinction between traditional and critical theory elucidated by Max Horkheimer are necessary here. In Traditional and Critical Theory, Horkheimer builds from Kant and Marx the idea that critical theory is first that which attempts to understand the totality of society. Critical theory is not the theory of universal social laws, but the analysis of how a social formation appears as it does at a specific moment in time. Critical theory sets about this task by trying to integrate all areas of social knowledge and philosophy, and is therefore, inter-, multi-, trans-, and perhaps even anti-disciplinary at its core, while also being tied to the specific history of the moment.
Horkheimer’s second distinction relates to the normative orientation of theory. While traditional theory seeks what it construes to be objective understanding, critical theory must go beyond this “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them.” CCR begins from an assumption that those involved in CCR are engaged in a normative practice, which is likely true of most conflict resolution practitioners and scholars. For CCR the normative assumption is that conflict resolution should not further systems of oppression and domination and, where possible, should work to change those systems. A critical practice is focused on understanding and explaining how systemic issues are translated into material conditions that produce different forms of violence and how those conditions are maintained to reproduce the desired relationships within the system. As a result, its interventions must be practical and not instrumental.
What is Critical Conflict Resolution?
Critical Conflict Resolution is an emerging branch of conflict resolution theory, research, and practice concerned with systemic conflicts. It is made up of three separate functions of intellectual work and practice all focused on systemic conflicts, situations where political, social, and economic inequalities are transformed into antagonistic, asymmetric power relationships that are sustained and reproduced through violence. Two of these functions focus on practice, but it is easiest to understand CCR by looking first at the scholarly activities that make up its empirical and theoretical component.
CCR research and theory is focused on conflict reproduction, systemic violence, and system reflexivity. Although conflict can be seen in many different situations, CCR begins its analysis by looking specifically for conflict reproduction, by which we mean the performance of political, social, and economic inequalities in what appear to be mundane conflicts. These conflicts are mundane in that they are experienced as part of daily life and as such, mask contradictions at the system level that produce and sustain them. To identify systemic conflict is not to focus on unique or one-off incidents; instead, we concentrate on problems that persist over time and/or spread from neighborhood to neighborhood or county to county, as well as, the way seemingly unrelated conflicts are actually related. While the manifestation of these conflicts is often seen case-by-case, the recognition that they are reproducing systemic inequality allows us to step beyond the immediate conflict to view the larger, more obscure systemic one that connects them.
Understanding and addressing manifestations of violence underlies the practice developed from CCR, but what CCR research and theory focuses on is systemic violence. Drawing from Johan Galtung’s distinction of direct, structural and cultural violence, CCR sees a further distinction between systemic and non-systemic violence. Systemic violence occurs in three forms: repressive, oppressive, and hegemonic. In each of these the violence serves the purpose of perpetuating an existing, unjust system. Repressive violence is direct (physical) violence serving this function. This type of violence is most visible when committed by agents of the State (the police, the military) or groups that support a particular ideology (lynch mobs, extremist political groups). Its visibility makes it the easiest to identify.
We recognize that not all structural violence is system-perpetuating, and view oppressive violence as structural violence built into the organization of a system to conserve the distribution of power and resources. This type of violence is clearest when seen as discriminatory policies, a lack of access to or within the justice system, or the exclusion of groups from political participation. It is also evident in persistent “social problems” such as poverty or crime.
As Galtung sees direct and structural violence being supported through the meaning systems of cultural violence, we recognize that there is a strong meaning component to the maintenance of oppressive systems. This recognition allows us to identify the resonance of Galtung’s approach and Gramsci’s notion of hegemony.  As such, CCR sees hegemonic violence as the beliefs and practices that legitimatize the system and the violence it produces. This is closely entwined with the concept of ideology. Ideology in this context is the mediated understanding of individuals in the system, in the form of “common sense,” as evidenced by their actions. The important element in both of these cases is that the system is naturalized and experienced as ahistorical.
While looking for repressive, oppressive, and hegemonic violence in the context of conflict reproduction, CCR must recognize that the systems that it studies (as well as those within which it operates) are not static. Instead, they contain system reflexivity. Systems exist in a paradox; they are both dynamic and resistant to change. Dynamic systems are adaptive and respond to challenges emanating from outside and within. The movement of these systems is toward stability. Yet once established, they are difficult to transform. For CCR, the tension between resilience and adaptation is situated in a broader conversation about the possibility for system transformation. How do we begin to engage systems that are violent, oppressive, or exploitative and to what degree can these systems be altered?
Critical Conflict Resolution Practice
We see the process of CCR as a cycle of practice and theory/research, as illustrated in Figure 1. This is not the two-step relationship between theory and practice most commonly envisioned in conflict resolution, but a multi-step process characterized by three distinct stages of work aimed at addressing the different levels at which systemic conflicts operate. The three movements in the cycle are emergent practice, research and theory development, and evolutionary practice, all of which will be explored briefly below. Although the general flow of the cycle is from emergent practice to research and theory to evolutionary practice, this should not be taken as absolute. Information can flow between any of the three. Additionally, while we explicate unique roles for practitioners in each of these categories, the categories themselves are not defined by hard lines of inclusion and exclusion. Instead, the categorical distinctions reflect what we consider to be the primary focus of the roles in that area. There is no reason to presume that a single actor must be limited to only one component of CCR.
The starting point for the cycle is always the manifestation of systemic conflicts in daily life. Emergent practice responds to direct manifestations of conflict occurring within the system. In this sense, these practitioners are first responds who tend to operate in traditional third party roles and deal with what appear to be mundane cases. However, what separates emergent practice from traditional practice is that the emergent practitioner engages in critical observation. By this we mean a process that is a step beyond what some describe as reflective practice; in addition to personal reflection, the emergent practitioner also incorporates an awareness of system level issues into their work. They see beyond the immediate case and look for instances of systemic reproduction. While they might not be able to directly address these systemic issues from their current position, it is the knowledge of multiple cases and the transfer of these insights gained from confronting them that grounds CCR theory in the actual lived experiences of people.
Emergent practitioners communicate their knowledge/insights to and work closely with CCR theorists and researchers. This second stage plays a crucial role in the practice cycle since it facilitates the dispersion of information from a specific to a more general audience interested in these issues. CCR theorists and researchers have a number of tasks typical of traditional academic work. They gather, analyze, and make available empirical data. They formulate new models and theories for understanding the structure and function of relevant systems. CCR theorists and researchers are specifically interested in three areas – systemic contradictions, the intersection of multiple systems, and systemic reproduction, all within the context of contemporary experience. Each of these areas focuses on a unique aspect that contributes to the production of manifest conflicts. Finally, these individuals serve as a bridge between emergent practice and evolutionary practice.
Evolutionary practice attempts to intervene at the system level to reduce systemic violence and produce positive change. We imagine evolutionary practice as a diverse set of roles united by the intent of their intervention. The four primary modes are defined as the public intellectual, the agitator, the educator, and the artist. The public intellectual intervenes at the level of the public discourse and “common sense.” This work is largely aimed at elites and the policy making crowd who play a major part in developing these discourses and shaping them for public consumption. Classic figures that have played this role are C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse. The agitator supports those most harmed by systemic violence and is the most vocal in calling for systemic change. The agitator is a mixture of social activist, organic intellectual, and prophet. Examples of this role can best be seen in the figures of Angela Davis, Cornell West, and Saul Alinsky. The educator teaches against violent systems. Peace education and critical pedagogy are part of this tradition and best exemplified in the work Maria Montessori, bell hooks, Paulo Freire, and Henry Giroux. Finally, the artist intervenes at the level of representation. This role concerns itself with destabilizing the normalization of violence, challenging the representation of subjects within the system, and creating new representations for those impacted by systemic violence through art, music, literature, and journalism. Comics journalist Joe Sacco, novelist Arundhati Roy, playwright Bertolt Brecht, street artists like Banksy and JR, feminist electro-punk musicians Le Tigre, graphic novelist Sue Coe, and hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy all represent models of this work.
The Future of Critical Conflict Resolution
It should be clear that while this essay provides an outline of one approach to systemic analysis and practice, it is in no way a complete guide. Given the increasing interest in critical theory and its potential for conflict resolution, we thought it important to document our project as it currently stands as both a marker of work done and as an invitation to join us on the development of CCR. We look forward to working with others, both within Unrest and in the larger conflict resolution community, to further cultivate these concepts, fill in open spaces, and to make positive change to the systems in which we live.