Every Step Counts
By Pushpa Iyer
The common and oft-repeated critique that the field of conflict studies is weak on literature and in the practice of resolving conflicts is most exemplified when discussing structural conflicts. Root causes of conflicts are almost always rooted in the system and therefore in order to resolve a conflict, one is almost always required to deal with the challenge of having to transform imbalanced and oppressive structures. Not only does it sound daunting but it also raises questions of where to begin, how to begin, and when to begin.
It is not unusual for newcomers to the field to seek answers to questions that have plagued them for years. How does one go about resolving conflicts if one cannot remove the root or the source of the problem? After all, as a field of study and practice, conflict resolution needed to have more concrete, tried and tested, and defined ways of resolving structural conflicts. But instead, potential conflict resolvers are introduced to a field that still has a long way to go in providing those solutions for conflicts that arise from structures and systems. Larissa Fast, in her article ‘Frayed Edges: Exploring the Boundaries of Conflict Resolution’ published in 2002, laments the fact that the intersection of theory, research, and practice in the field has led to very little movement from the analysis of conflicts to the resolution of structural conflicts. A decade later, these problems still remain in the field.
It is not that practice has not provided for stronger theories on the nature and scope of structural violence. It has. We have practitioner-scholars like John Paul Lederach who have elaborated the process of dealing with structural violence. Theories on the many different aspects and levels of structural violence provide a great deal of insights into the complexity of the problem facing conflict resolvers. Equally, these theories have stressed the fact that dealing with structural conflicts demands a long-term commitment on the part of the conflict resolvers.
The discomfort in making the long-term commitment stems mostly from an obvious lack of quick-fix solutions. For future practitioners of the field the complexity of the conflict, the long draw, and unclear process of resolution is both disconcerting and disappointing.
The field is clear that just as analysis of conflicts needs to be holistic, the approach towards resolving them also needs to be holistic. This means you tackle the issue from all possible angles, and that any change you bring to the structures will therefore happen only incrementally. It is not possible to find that one method that will dramatically alter structures that have for time eternal been discriminatory. Instead, by making small changes to all aspects of the structural change, one can see the change slowly happening with the structures.
Yes, it is difficult to see this slow process through when transformation is imperative for bettering the lives of all those who are suffering now because of this imbalanced structure. But seeking the tool to make this change happen is as unlikely as hoping for a magic wand that will grant your every wish.
Every step that conflict resolvers take, at whichever level – policy, institutional, or grassroots – moves them closer towards the core of the structure. Along the way they will have a face off with all those who guard the structure, and even if it means taking a few steps back to move forward on a slightly different path, the courage, determination, and resilience to continue moving forward emerge as distinguishing characteristics of the conflict resolver.
In the absence of a clear path to tread, and as someone comfortable working in the grey zones of conflict while committed to staying in the process of resolution for as a long as it takes, I find structural violence daunting but not frustrating.
It is not that practice, theory, and research in the field have not found the tool for changing structural conflicts but that practice, theory, and research have stressed that every step counts. Taking the nested model developed by Maire Dugan as a tool, it is clear that every issue is nested within the broader relationships of the conflict parties, which in turn are nested within the sub-systems and structures in place. For the same reason, it seems as if resolution too is complexly nested in those layers of conflict. Tackling one layer does not resolve the conflict in another layer.
I do now believe that the critique against the field is misplaced. Maybe it is tempering our desire to be the kind of resolvers that can rush into a situation and dramatically change centuries old deeply embedded structures that is the problem; not the field, which is both cautious and creative in providing solutions for structural change.