An intractable conflict is a conflict that is so severe in nature that the conflict seems impossible to resolve and can result in violence. This lesson discusses the characteristic of these conflicts and some examples.

Intractable Conflict Synopsis

An intractable conflict is not a small conflict about who likes oranges and who doesn’t. These conflicts are severe in nature, and essentially both sides believe there is no resolution to the conflict. This unwillingness to give in to resolve the conflict has to be on both sides to the degree that neither will budge, thus inciting intense anger. This results in violence in many cases because the immense emotional strain is just bubbling until it has to come out in some way, which can end in wars and death.

Characteristics of an Intractable Conflict

There are several characteristics of intractable conflicts. These type of conflicts are like chemicals combined together, where each chemical is added, making the mixture more volatile until it explodes.

Background and history of conflict – The first characteristic is that the conflict has to have a long and complex history to it.

  • For example, the history of Ireland and England. England has tried to invade and colonize Ireland over and over throughout history. This constant conflict has created anger towards the English people. Add to this the fact that part of Ireland is under the sovereignty of England, and due to the inability to survive economically on their own, they stay as an English state. This angers the Northern Irish people, and there are violence and an intractable conflict.

Collective memory/identity – This conflict turns into a collective memory for people. Essentially becoming how they see the world, even though the conflict was generations ago, the younger generations are brought up to believe in this conflict and the self-righteousness that is felt. Additionally, there is a community in hatred of the same thing. If you belong to a community that is in conflict with someone, then you fall into line with those feelings because you want to belong and join the community. The history eventually becomes a part of who you are and your identity, so it becomes impossible to separate pieces of your identity, which is why it is hard to see any way to resolve the issue. This is actually what can lead to xenophobic mindsets and fear because of the environment of an intractable conflict.

  • For example – Many countries within the United Kingdom mock and judge Wales as a lesser country. However, to ask a British person why they have these feelings, they may not even know, it was just their upbringing and their environment. To feel differently would be weird and not cohesive with the group.

Intense conflicts – An intractable conflict has to be immense in nature; we are not talking soda versus pop. Although it does not have to be large in population, it does need to be in feeling. The people on either side have to hate the other; simple dislike would not come to this point.

Resolution attempts gone awry – To go along with the long and arduous history, there have to be previous resolution attempts that did not work. So now, each side of the argument feels like the other is lying or manipulating the situation by offering a resolution. The cynicism of each other’s motives makes it impossible for either side to concede.

  • For example – Picture a divorce, a husband and wife get divorced because ever since they got married, both sides cheated on the other. They fought, and there was domestic abuse from both sides. The couple stays married for 20 years, going to counseling and seeking help. However, every time they try to resolve their conflict, one catches the other cheating yet again. Eventually, the desire to resolve the issue is gone, and now all there is, is anger.

Assistance – The last characteristic is that, in intractable conflicts, both sides will try to bring in help. Because each side feels self-righteous about their cause, they will found allies that will also agree with their side so that they have support in the conflict. The problem with this is it can make a singular conflict into a larger scale war.

  • For example – Each of the World Wars started with one intractable conflict that was exacerbated by assistance and support from other countries, which pitted parts of the world again the other, even if the original conflict had nothing directly to do with them.

Lesson Summary

Intractable conflict consists of the following characteristics:

  • Background and history of conflict
  • Collective memory/Identity
  • Intense conflicts
  • Resolution attempts gone awry
  • Assistance

These aspects create a volatile mix of anger and inability to see any way to resolve the issues, which ends up in violence, whether physical or emotional. Although, these conflicts can be severe, some can be resolved; however, it usually take objectivity and third parties to intervene in the conflict, which is also dangerous.