Dealing with Conflict

Paul Wehr

Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Colorado

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

A: We began here at the university a graduate concentration in social conflict. That was done within the sociology department. It was one of the few graduate level programs at the time, where the student could essentially specialize in the study of harmless conflict. The approaches to doing conflict in ways that would not have harmful consequences. Not always totally non-violence, but the principle of minimizing harm and maximizing the possibility of reconciliation as you were actually in conflict with your opponent.


So there's this kind of inertia of the status quo. Yet that status quo is always going to be challenged by those who have less, the less privileged, the poor, those who don't have the power. So that means that conflict is inevitable, and it's always going to occur, because you're always going to have some structure of more and less power, more and less privilege. So conflict is inevitable. You're going to have to have a way to deal with it. And that approach to dealing with it is going to be more destructive, or less destructive, more harmful, or less harmful. 

So the idea then is to find the less harmful ways of doing conflict. I like to use the term Harmless conflict- how to do harmless conflict. This doesn't exist; it's an ideal type. It's a concept. One can approach it, but one can never attain it because we are humans and we are imperfect. Human approaches to problems are never perfect and you never get a full solution to the problem. But I think that idea of this harmless conflict movement, if you will, the conflict knowledge movement, is to make the inevitable conflicting parties aware of the options out there, that there are many more options than weapons, then military force, than forcing your opponent, humiliating your opponent, reaching so called peace that way, because of course that's no peace at all and that doesn't work.

I think that the whole movement that we've been involved in for the last 30-40 years is to study, apply, test, try out, publicize, give people information about the many ways of doing conflict, many ways of making it less harmful, less costly, just try to get it out there. Just so more and more people can try it and talk about how they can do successfully, but also talk about ways that it has been tried and hasn't worked, and why it hasn't worked. Well, maybe they didn't do it this way, and they should have, whatever. The ideal behind it is a just and non-violent world. We are very far from that now. Humans have to improve on how they do conflict, simply because it's too costly not to. So we are a part, we hope, of that improvement process.