Beyond Intractability Essays

Heidi Burgess
Guy M. Burgess

November 2003

Current Implications

The term "intractable" was controversial when we started to use it; it still is.  However, more and more of the conflicts our communities and countries seem to be embroiled in now seem to fit this definition. More...


"Intractability" is a controversial concept, which means different things to different people. Some people on the initial BI project team intensely dislike the term, as they saw it as too negative: intractable conflicts are impossible to resolve, they say, so people think they are not worth dealing with. "Do not use a term that undermines everything we are trying to do," argued project member Andrea Strimling.[1] 

Nevertheless, all BI participants that we have talked to (which includes many 100s) agree that  there is a set of conflicts out there that are hard to deal with. "Protracted." "Destructive." "Deep-rooted." "Resolution-resistant." "Intransigent." "Gridlocked." "Identity-based." "Needs based." "Complex." "Difficult." "Malignant." "Enduring."

All of these words capture some of what we are trying to get at, but none capture it all. As we see it, intractable conflicts are those that lie at the frontier of the field -- the conflicts that stubbornly seem to elude resolution, even when the best available techniques are applied. Examples abound: abortion, homosexual rights, and race relations in the United States; and the Israeli-Palestinian problem, Sri Lanka, and Kashmir (among many others) abroad.[2]

These conflicts are not hopeless, and they most certainly are worth dealing with. But they are very different from more tractable conflicts, such as most labor-management conflicts, some family conflicts, many workplace conflicts and even many international conflicts that can be successfully resolved through negotiation or mediation. Intractable conflicts need a different, more multi-faceted, and more prolonged approach.

Characteristics of Intractable Conflicts

Mutable Characteristics

First we should say that intractability is not a dichotomous concept. In other words, you can't have two bins -- one tractable, and one intractable -- and put conflicts in one bin or the other. Rather, intractability exists on a continuum, with very stubborn, apparently intractable conflicts at one end; very simple, readily resolvable conflicts at the other end and many conflicts somewhere in between the two extremes.

Pre-Disposing CharacteristicsIntractability is also a dynamic state. Few conflicts are intractable at the beginning; rather, they become one way or the other according to how they are handled. Conflicts that become highly escalated and involve repeated patterns of violence are likely to move toward the intractable end, sometimes quite quickly. Conflicts that are managed skillfully to limit escalation and violence are likely to move toward the tractable end.

Additional insights discussing intractable conflicts are offered by Beyond Intractability participants.

But some characteristics make conflicts more difficult to handle no matter what. One might say these conflicts are "predisposed" to become intractable. For example, conflicts that involve irreducible, high-stakes, win-lose issues that have no "zone of possible agreement" (ZOPA) often become intractable. These are conflicts from which the participants see no "Way Out" (using a Bill Zartman term)[3], because any "solution" would require giving up some very important value.[4]

Louis Kriesberg adds that the conflicts we are concerned with are especially destructive. Some conflicts go on for a long time, but if they do not do damage, and if the parties are not worried about them, he does not consider them intractable. Intractable conflicts are conflicts that are doing substantial harm, yet the parties seem unable to extricate themselves -- either alone or with outside help. This is because the perceived costs of "getting out" are still seen as higher than the costs of "staying in."[5]

Yet intractability is a perception, not a firm characteristic, which can be perceived differently by different people or groups. While some people may consider Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be intractable, others may not, because they see the costs of staying in as higher than the costs of an agreement.[6]

Perception is important, because it influences action. If a conflict is perceived to be intractable, then disputants are likely to engage in desperate measures, such as suicide bombings. Yet those very measures are likely to increase the intractability of the conflict. However, if a conflict is seen to be moving beyond intractability, then more credibility is given to the peacebuilders, the people on both sides and in the middle who are trying to broker some kind of agreement.

The key, it would seem, is not in denying that intractable conflicts exist, as they clearly do, but to develop an image of a "way out," not necessarily substantive, but at least procedural. In other words, people have to have the understanding that there are positive things they can do, even while they are stuck in the morass of an intractable conflict. There are positive actions that can be taken to transform the conflict from a destructive one to a constructive one, even if a full resolution cannot soon be found.

Indeed, even in the context of long-running seemingly intractable conflicts, particular disputes or "episodes" are settled. For example, a law can be passed providing greater or diminished access to abortions, an agreement can be reached regarding the terms of a cease-fire on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, or a Supreme Court decision can clarify what types of "Affirmative Action" programs are Constitutional and which are not. Understood for what they are, such settlements are helpful. They often defuse tension and anger, and provide a vehicle for people working together. But they do not solve the underlying conflict, which must be confronted with a long series of settlements to different issues over a long period of time. Only after all the issues are confronted and successfully dealt with will a true "resolution" be found.

Causes of Intractability

The causes of intractability are varied. In earlier publications, we have listed three:

Irreconcilable moral differences are conflicts about right and wrong, good and evil. They may be rooted in different religions, different cultures, or different worldviews. For example, most abortion foes will not negotiate about an act they consider equivalent to murder; similarly, most homosexual rights advocates will not negotiate about their rights to equal treatment under the law. Rather, they will continue to fight for what they know is right, even if they know that, over the short term, they cannot win. What is important to them is that they are engaged in a noble crusade.

High-Stakes distributional issues are conflicts over "who gets what" when the item in contention is very valuable -- often impossible to do without. People are unlikely to abandon continuing struggles over land, water, employment opportunities, and wealth, in general. When there isn't enough to "go around," or when distribution is highly inequitable, these fights are likely to be especially bitter and destructive.

Domination or "pecking order" conflicts are conflicts over power and status: who is on top of the social and political hierarchy, and who is not. While people with higher status tend to win the distributional conflicts, more often than not, status conflicts go beyond distributional conflicts -- they involve subjective assessments of an individual's or a group's "goodness," "value" or "social worth."

The presence of one or more of these characteristics does not automatically make a conflict intractable, but it makes it more likely to be at the intractable end of the continuum. And the more of these characteristics a conflict has, the farther left on the continuum (meaning the more intractable) a conflict is likely to be. All of these issues, for example, are combined in the identity conflicts which divide the many different ethnic, religious, class, and national groups which are at the center of so many of the world's tragic and deadly trouble spots. Identity conflicts involve conflicts over social status and privilege and the distribution of scarce resources, along with a moral component, since each group tends to believe in its own moral superiority. The combination of all three of these aspects makes these conflicts especially difficult to resolve.

Other authors suggest additional causes:

Peter Coleman makes a distinction between issues, context, and conflict dynamics.

Issues: The issues of intractable conflicts are varied, he says, but there tend to be multiple, inter-related issues relating to resources, values, power, and basic human needs. Another issue Coleman highlights is time. Intractable conflicts usually have "an extensive past, a turbulent present, and a murky future."[7] The hatred, the fear, and often the history of past atrocities are hard to let go of, which makes moving into a new relationship with the former "enemy" especially difficult.

Context: Many intractable conflicts, especially at the inter-group and international levels, are embedded in a context of long-standing differences and inequalities. They are "rooted in a history of colonialism, ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, or human rights abuses" which causes a large imbalance of power and what Edward Azar called "structural victimization," or what Johann Galtung called "structural violence." Both terms suggest that the low-power groups are harmed by the basic social structure of society.

Dynamics: Intractable conflicts tend to be self-perpetuating. Guy Burgess has often argued that the enemy is not the other side, but rather the process of escalation, that takes conflicts out of the disputants' control, and pushes them to act in increasingly extreme ways that would not, under other circumstances be considered remotely acceptable.[8] Indeed, unrestrained escalation is often what takes a formerly tractable conflict and turns it into an intractable one. Like a one-way road without a road going the other way anywhere to be found, escalation is easy to fall into. It is much harder to get out of.

Human needs are stressed by many other scholars as well, among them John Burton[9] and Herbert Kelman[10], who believe that deep-rooted conflicts are caused by the absence of the fundamental needs of security, identity, respect, safety, and control. These needs, human needs theorists argue, are non-negotiable. As such, if they are absent, the resulting conflict will remain intractable until the structure of society is changed to provide such needs to all.

Identity, in particular, is a human need that is singled out by numerous authors (most notably Jay Rothman[11] and John Paul Lederach[12]) as a fundamental driver of intractable conflict. When identities are threatened, people respond very negatively and take either defensive or often also offensive action to protect what they see as the essence of themselves. Identity conflicts in particular are not negotiable interest-based conflicts, so if they are approached with interest-based negotiation, the settlements are likely to be temporary, at best.

Complexity: The sheer complexity of these problems also contributes to intractability. There are so many issues and parties that it is often not logistically possible to do all that is required to reconcile competing interests, even when such reconciliation is theoretically possible. Even when everyone knows "the way out," complexity can make it seemingly impossible to get there. Most observers, for instance, believe that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem is a two-state solution (meaning the continuation of the State of Israel and the formation of a second state of Palestine), but there are so many difficult issues involved, no one seems to know how to get from here to there.

Social-Psychological Factors: Intractable conflicts typically have conflicts within groups as well as between groups. Morton Deutsch argues that these internal conflicts actually perpetuate the external conflict, as leaders need to perpetuate the external conflict to preserve their identity as a leader and to encourage group cohesiveness.[13] Fear of losing face also keeps leaders involved in conflicts that are doing more harm than good. If they see no way out that doesn't admit that all their previous sacrifices were wrong or in vain, they are likely to continue to call for more sacrifices, rather than admitting that they made a mistake.[14]

Consequences of Intractable Conflict

The consequences of intractable conflicts are huge, most of them negative, because intractable conflicts tend to be pursued in damaging and destructive ways. The violence that is very common in inter-group and international conflicts causes widespread loss of life and damage to property. This creates massive economic costs, which are supplemented by the costs of defense. But the social and psychological costs are huge too: the fear, the hatred, the anger, the guilt are difficult to deal with while the conflict is ongoing, and are equally difficult to remedy after the conflict has supposedly been resolved. In the Rwandan conflict, for example, the Rwandan children who either watched their parents be killed, or who were forced to kill others themselves, will probably never be psychologically healthy. How can these children put their lives back together and grow into productive adults? A few will, one hopes, but most, probably, will not.

Even conflicts that occur within violence limiting institutions -- such as conflicts over abortion, sexual orientation, or race relations in the U.S. have significant negative socio-economic and psychological costs. They tear apart relationships, and challenge institutions (such as churches and schools) which spend much of their time dealing with these issues rather than focusing on their primary goals of education and/or spiritual growth and healing.

Intractable conflicts can be particularly paradoxical, as they cause disputants to destroy themselves and the things they value in an effort to destroy the other. They may even realize that this is happening, but they will continue, because the goal of destroying the other is seen as supreme (even though the reason to destroy the other is because you think they are out to destroy you). Needless to say, such situations are very destructive for all sides.

Beyond Intractability

As we said at the beginning of this essay, many of the participants in this project, as well as others, have felt that we should not use the term "intractable," because it sounds too hopeless. If conflicts are intractable, they said, that means nothing can be done about them. So why would people read this Web site, they asked?

We have several answers to this question.

First, even though intractable conflicts may not be amenable to final, near-term resolution, they are not hopeless. The parties, with or without the help of intermediaries, can move beyond intractability to make their interactions less destructive and more constructive. Even when conflicts cannot be resolved, parties can learn to live together with less distrust, overt hostility, and violence. They can learn to work with people on the other side, and come to understand the reason for their differences, even if those differences do not go away.

People who have engaged in dialogues about abortion, for example, do not change their attitudes about abortion. But they do change their attitudes about the people on the other side: they learn they are intelligent, thoughtful, caring, humans who, for a variety of reasons, see the issue of abortion differently. But they are people who can and should be respected, people who can even become one's friends.[15]

People caught up in ethnic conflicts, too, can learn to respect people on the other side, learning that they also are intelligent, thoughtful, caring humans who are caught up in a cycle of fear and violence that nobody wants. Working together to try to figure out how to disrupt that cycle is a positive way to respond to intractable conflict, and can make those conflicts less destructive, even as they continue.

Second, sometimes, seemingly endless, hopeless intractable conflicts are resolved. The Cold War is one example; South African Apartheid is another. When we started working in this field in the 1970s, both conflicts seemed firmly entrenched. No one imagined the Berlin Wall falling, much less the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the inclusion of former Warsaw Pact countries in NATO. Few imagined the end of apartheid, with Nelson Mandela serving as President and former President F.W. de Klerk as one of his two deputy presidents. These amazing transformations prove that no matter how deep-rooted, widespread, and seemingly "endless," intractable conflicts do end. And even more are transformed, as is evidenced by the fragile, but growing peace in Northern Ireland.

Third, if we just ignore intractable conflicts, very often they will just get worse. Like an untreated infection, they will spread, getting "hotter and hotter," and doing more and more damage. As with untreated infections, in destructive conflicts, people will die. So ignoring them, though perhaps tempting, is not a good option.

While our field does not know how to stop these very difficult conflicts completely, we do know a lot about violence prevention and conflict transformation. The breadth and depth of our knowledge is illustrated in this knowledge base: it has over 200 entries now, and over 100 more will be available within the next few months, all discussing what we know about how to deal with intractable conflicts effectively.

However, we still have a lot to learn. Though over 100 people contributed to this web site, we could not come close to including all of their knowledge, let alone all of the knowledge of others around the world who have been dealing with these conflicts every day. We welcome contributions from other people who have ideas to add to our collection. These problems are too difficult to assume that any one group of people "knows the answer." This Web site is a start, but we hope readers will help us make it better.

Since the nature of intractability was a central topic of discussion as this project was developing, we are including several essays on that topic. This is one; others have been contributed by Louis Kriesberg, who wrote several early books on the subject, and Jacob Bercovitch, who has been studying the use of mediation as a means to end intractable conflicts for many years.

Current Implications

The term "intractable" was controversial when we started to use it; it still is.  However, more and more of the conflicts our communities and countries seem to be embroiled in now seem to fit this definition.  We stand by the assertion that "intractable does not mean impossible" but it does mean really, really difficult to resolve.

And even when resolution seems to be achieved, it can later vanish.  Reading through this essay in 2017, I hiccuped on the paragraph towards the end that says ".. sometimes, seemingly endless, hopeless intractable conflicts are resolved." It then cites the Cold War and South Africa as examples.  The Cold War seems to be coming alive again, and while South Africa has not returned to Apartheid, race relations and politics are not nearly as settled there as many of us hoped or believed.  The same can be said for Northern Ireland, although "the Troubles" have not re-ignited in full force.  

So continued vigilance is necessary with these conflicts, even after "resolution" has apparently been achieved. 

-- Heidi Burgess. Feb. 11, 2017.

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[1] Statement made at the first project conference in March of 2002.

[2] For intractable conflict case studies, see: Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases Of Intractable Conflict.Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, Pamela R. Aall, eds. 2005. <>.

[3] The presence or absence of a "way out" is discussed in Bill Zartman's discussion of Ripeness and Promoting Ripeness in this Knowledge Base.

[4] Observation made by Morton Deutsch in a project discussion on the meaning of "intractability." March 2002.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For a discussion of intractability in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, see: Stephen Cohen, "Intractability and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict" in Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases Of Intractable Conflict.Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, Pamela R. Aall, eds. 2005. <>.

[7] Peter Coleman. "Intractable Conflict," in Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman, eds. Handbook of Conflict Resolution (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass), 2000. 432. Updated (2006) edition available here.

[8] See his essays on violence breakover, personalization breakover as well as the main essay on escalation.

[9] John Burton, Conflict: Human Needs Theory (New York: St. Martin's Press), 1993. <>.

[10] Ed. Herbert Kelman, International Behavior: A Social Psychological Analysis (New York: Ardent Media Incorporated), 1980. <>.

[11] Jay Rothman, Resolving Identity-Based Conflicts in Nations, Organizations, and Communities (San Francisco: Jossey Bass), 1997. <>.

[12] John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (United States Institute of Peace), 1998. <>.

[13] Morton Deutsch, as discussed in the March 2002 Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Conference.

[14] See the essay on entrapment.

[15] Anne Fowler and others, "Talking with the Enemy." The Boston Globe, 28 January 2001, Focus section. <>.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Heidi and Guy M. Burgess. "What Are Intractable Conflicts?." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: November 2003 <>.

Additional Resources

Máire A. Dugan

July 2003

One View of "Empowerment"

"Empowerment" has been a common topic among mainstream mediators in the United States since 1994, when Baruch Bush and Joseph Folger's The Promise of Mediation was published. They discuss empowerment in the context of what they call a transformative approach to mediation. Focusing on interpersonal conflicts, they distinguish between this approach and a narrower "problem-solving" approach. In a transformative approach, mediators do not focus exclusively on assisting parties to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Rather:

"Power concedes nothing without demand." -- Frederick Douglass

"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral." -- Paulo Freire

"I tell people to hell with charity, the only thing you'll get is what you're strong enough to get." -- Saul Alinsky

[T]ransformative mediators concentrate on empowering parties to define issues and decide settlement terms for themselves and on helping parties to better understand one another's perspective...[T]ransformative mediation helps parties recognize and exploit the opportunities for moral growth inherently presented by conflict. It aims at changing the parties themselves for the better, as human beings.[1]

By Bush and Folger's definition, "empowerment means the restoration to individuals of a sense of their own value and strength and their own capacity to handle life's problems."[2] In their treatment, empowerment does not include 'power balancing' or redistribution of power within the mediation process itself in order to protect weaker parties."[3] Further, it does not mean "controlling or influencing the mediation process so as to produce outcomes that redistribute resources or power outside the process from stronger to weaker parties."[4]

Bush and Folger identify two ways in which transformative mediators work to empower parties in a mediation:

  1. They adopt a "micro" focus. They presume that, during the mediation process, there will be many opportunities for each party to make decisions through which they will feel a new sense of control over the conflict, or at least over their behavior in the conflict. Transformative mediators listen carefully to the statements made by each party, looking for such transformative opportunities.

This approach contrasts with a "macro" focus, more common in the problem-solving approach, "in which mediators try to reach global assessments about the definition of the parties' problem and view all the parties' contributions in terms of inputs into this global problem-assessment effort."[5]

  1. Transformative mediators put a priority on encouraging and supporting parties in careful deliberation about the range of choices they may have available to them.

The parties' goals and choices are treated as central at all levels of decision making. Mediators consciously try to avoid shaping issues, proposals, or terms for settlement, or even pushing for the achievement of settlement at all. Instead, they encourage parties to define problems and find solutions for themselves, and they endorse and support the parties' own efforts to do so.[6]

The responsibilities of the transformative mediator do not include advocating, advising, or counseling in order to increase the strength of either party.

Although Bush and Folger's concept of empowerment and transformative mediation is useful, intractable conflicts call for a broader and deeper definition of empowerment. Often, it is not a question of "restoring" a sense of value and strength; oppressed and disenfranchised people may never have had this sense. Second, Bush and Folger focus on the interpersonal only. The interpersonal can be important in intractable conflicts, but it is never the only consideration. A more systemic consideration is needed. Finally, Bush and Folger limit their discussion to mediation, where we must here consider a broader array of intervention roles.

A Broader View of Empowerment

"Empowerment" has many meanings and uses, as reflected in these examples:

  • Wingspan Youth Development Services defines empowerment as character education and leadership development. The organization's theme is described by a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt: "We must do that which we think we can not."[7]
  • The focus of African-American Community Empowerment, Inc. of Morris County, N.J., is reflected in its motto: "People helping people to attain personal growth through community empowerment."[8]
  • The Midlands Intertribal Empowerment Group defines its purpose as preserving and supporting Native American culture in South Carolina.
  • The Government of India has a Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, and the city of Los Angeles, Calif., has a Department of Neighborhood Empowerment.
  • The Internet hosts a wide variety of self-improvement Web sites focused on personal empowerment.

Most of these definitions are more individual-oriented than is appropriate when focusing on intractable social conflict. In this essay, I use the word "empowerment" differently; here, "empowerment" refers to processes through which disenfranchised social groups work to change their social surroundings, change detrimental policies and structures, and work to fulfill their needs.

Interestingly, the word "empowerment" can be disempowering, when it is understood to mean the giving of power by the powerful to the powerless. That is not how the term is used here. The appropriate role of the person or group with power is to share, not to convey or impose. If I give or even lend you my power, you are beholden to me for it. If, on the other hand, I help you build your own power base, the power is yours, not mine. I may do this as a mentor, a researcher, a facilitator, or an ally, since leadership and spokesperson roles need to remain with the group that is in the process of empowering itself. The group must make and own its decisions, so that group members can develop and experience their own power.

Additional insights into empowerment are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Empowerment Strategies

The strategies for empowering disenfranchised and oppressed people can be grouped into three general approaches: education, organization, and networking.


The primer on education for empowerment is Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Its underlying tenet is that the disempowered already know a great deal about the sources of their oppression and what must be done to overcome it. What they do not have is an organized approach to translating this knowledge into action. The appropriate educational approach is therefore one that elicits participants' knowledge and responses. Freire calls this educational method "problem-posing."[9]

[T]he problem-posing educator constantly re-forms his reflections in the reflection of the students. The students--no longer docile listeners--are now critical co-investigators in dialogue with the teacher. The teacher presents the material to the students for their consideration, and re-considers her earlier considerations as the students express their own.[10]

Participants empower themselves by taking responsibility for their own learning (actively engaging as teachers as well as students), by increasing their understanding of the communities in which they live, and by understanding how they as individuals are affected by current and potential policies and structures. Equipped with this greater understanding and with new confidence in themselves, participants can develop policies and structures that better meet their needs, and strategies for bringing those policies into being.

Freire's approach is aligned with "transformative" learning theory, which has developed over the past 20 years:

Transformative learning involves participation in constructive discourse to use the experience of others to assess reasons justifying...[our] assumptions, and making an action decision based on the resulting insight...Transformation theory's focus is on how we learn to negotiate and act on our own purposes, values, feelings and meanings rather than on those we have uncritically assimilated from others--to gain greater control over our lives as socially responsible, clear-thinking decision makers.[11]

To bring about the deep change required to resolve intractable conflict, educators must be willing to challenge deeply held assumptions. It is important to assess not only the weaknesses of the other and the strengths of one's own group, but also the strengths of the other and one's own weaknesses. This assessment can be a wrenching process, for both the educator and the students.

Transformative learning, especially when it involves subjective reframing, is often an intensely threatening emotional experience in which we have to become aware of both the assumptions undergirding our ideas and those supporting our emotional responses to the need to change.[12]

Therefore, education that is intended to address inequities in the system should be not only interactive and dialogical (meaning involving a dialogue between "teacher(s) and student(s)), but also nurturing. The educational effort must also go beyond traditional education in its content and methods, to support learners in dealing with the emotional upheaval they are likely to experience.


As a community organizer, one of my first lessons was that poor people have no voice because they have no organization. An organization gives people a way of expressing their group needs in a way that cannot be ignored. This is the message that Saul Alinsky presented so powerfully in his books, and even more through the organizations he helped to establish, which are still active today.

While many groups come together around specific issues, and organize to confront those issues, Alinsky and others advocated a different approach: first, the building of an organization and, only then, focusing on specific issues.

"Building a strong, lasting and staffed organization alters the relations of power. Once such an organization exists, people on the "other side" must always consider the organization when making decisions."[13]

In Alinsky-style organizing, power is built up in a step-by-step approach, which includes both recruitment and achievement. Small groups are organized first, for example on a block-by-block or small neighborhood-by-small-neighborhood basis. Once the small groups have met and worked successfully together on issues, they are brought together into a larger community-wide organization. The larger group thus has an infrastructure as well as experience.

The groups begin with small, "winnable" issues. The newly organized group is rarely ready to take on City Hall--yet. Taking on a task too big is likely to be ineffective and lead to the demoralization of the group, encouraging a "See, I told you so" response, as members move back to resignation to intolerable or unjust conditions. The organizers must put a strong emphasis on helping the group choose "winnable issues" with which to begin.


Members of disenfranchised groups can realize and extend power through networking with others, both inside and outside their own social groups.

For example, Naomi Wolf describes the effectiveness of "power groups"[14] of women who meet each month (she prefers not to use the term "networking"). Although the group members may differ in a variety of ways, they often share a major interest such as religious affiliation or profession. The structure that Wolf identifies revolves around a gathering at which members share a meal and talk to each other informally. At a certain point in the meeting, each announces to the group what she is doing and what resources or contacts or information she has access to. She also tells the group what resources, contacts, or information she needs.[15]

Supplied with a list of names and phone numbers, "anyone can contact anyone else to make a request, propose a project, exchange information, or suggest a deal."[16] In Wolf's group, these contacts have resulted in a wide range of new ventures by the women involved, from obtaining new jobs or freelance work to putting on a benefit. Members are asked to share such news with the group, since this news "bolsters everyone's sense of effectiveness, and gives women practice in recounting their own triumphs and sharing in other women's triumphs."[17]

Another example of a group using structured networking as an empowerment tool is the Columbia Luncheon Club of Columbia, S.C., which has been holding monthly meetings for 40 years. When the American South was still segregated, the Club provided the only place for blacks and whites to gather socially in the state capital. There are now numerous such venues in Columbia, but the Club has been so successful that it continues. Harrison Reardon, Club President during 2002-2003, thinks that its impact can be attributed to its underlying precept: good will. The only requirement for club membership is a commitment to act with good will toward others, regardless of race, gender, or creed.

The Columbia Luncheon Club meetings are less structured than those of Wolf's power group. Members register for the monthly luncheon and are assigned to tables, ensuring that, over time, each member will have an opportunity to network with each other member. There is no agenda; table conversations typically begin with introductions that include the paid or volunteer work of the participants, and may build on this information or turn to recent events in the community. These conversations often lead to subsequent meetings between members who have noted some overlap in their interests.

As with Wolf's power groups, Columbia Luncheon Club members have "found jobs, apartments, and freelance work; traded services ... [and] sought investors."[18] Beyond this, the Luncheon Club has played a role in easing the community into a racially diverse sharing of political and economic power.

Empowerment and the Resolution of Intractable Conflicts

The above empowerment strategies can be used in efforts to resolve intractable conflicts. The essay on peacemaking processes presents a model, derived from the work of Adam Curle, that is helpful in determining how to use these strategies.

Educational efforts, in Curle's model, include strategies that increase awareness of the nature and sources of the conflict, and of ways of resolving the conflict that meet the needs of the initially less powerful groups. The discussion above provides guidelines for the type of education most likely to be both empowering and informative for disenfranchised groups.

It is also important to educate adversaries and potential allies. While many who benefit from the status quo will not be willing to give up their privilege in order to create a more equitable social system, some will be willing to do so if they fully understand their part in the system. As the costs of the conflict increase, other privileged individuals may reach a point at which they feel that the costs of privilege outweigh its benefits. Throughout the course of conflict, efforts should be made to educate these potential allies.

Organization also has a clear role in Curle's model. For educational efforts to reach a broad range of the population, organization is necessary. In addition, confrontational strategies (such as marches, strikes, or publicity campaigns) geared to overcome the existing imbalance among the parties are crucial. Without a well-organized campaign, small victories may be won, but the overall climate and structure are likely to withstand challenges if the campaign is not sufficiently organized to sustain itself for the long haul. Alinsky and others emphasized this need for ongoing, vital organizations that give voice to the needs and perspectives of the poor and disenfranchised.

The place of networking in Curle's model is less obvious, but nonetheless important. The change-oriented organization is likely to increase its effectiveness significantly through developing strong connections with a variety of other groups:

  • In the education phase, these connections can be useful in broadening the research and knowledge base of the campaign, as well as in incorporating new educational methods and resources.
  • During the confrontation stage, networking makes the inclusion of support groups and allies easier to arrange.
  • At the bargaining and conciliation stage, good networking makes trust building less problematic with both third parties and adversaries, since relationships already exist with both.

Finally, what is the appropriate role for those who intervene in empowerment efforts? Curle's model suggests that mediation may not be appropriate until power imbalances have first been addressed. Third parties can provide technical assistance, and can work as allies; Alinsky-style organizing offers a good model.

It is not appropriate for outsiders to take on leadership roles, since the result may actually be disempowering, as mentioned above. One of the key elements of this work is leadership development. While the organizer may be an "expert," her role requires her to stay in the background. In meeting with members prior to the initial group meeting, the organizer may help determine who might be most effective as a group leader. From the outset, small-group meetings are led by people from the community itself. The organizer then acts as a coach and de-briefer, rather than a leader.

[1] Robert A. Baruch Bush and Joseph P. Folger, The Promise of Mediation: Responding to Conflict Through Empowerment and Recognition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994), 12.

[2] Ibid, 2.

[3] Ibid, 95.

[4] Ibid, 96.

[5] Ibid, 100.

[6] Ibid, 101.

[7] Wingspan Youth Empowerment Services

[8] African-American community Empowerment Inc., (ACE) of Morris County; available at

[9] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (New York: Continuum, 2002).

[10] Ibid, 80-81.

[11] Jack Mezirow, "Learning to Think Like an Adult," in Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives in Theory in Progress, Jack Mezirow, ed. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 8.

[12] Ibid, 6-7.

[13] Kim Bobo, Jackie Kendall and Steve Max, Organizing for Social Change: MidwestAcademyManual for Activists. ( Santa Ana, CA: Seven Locks Press, 2001)

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid, 298.

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid, 299.

[18] Ibid, 300.

Use the following to cite this article:
Dugan, Máire A.. "Empowerment." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.

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