Book Review: The Nature of Intractable Conflict by Christopher Mitchell

by Bradley W Williams

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In the third edition of Contemporary Conflict Resolution, Oliver Ramsbotham, Tom Woodhouse, and Hugh Miall (2011) note that the “new field of conflict resolution in the 1950s defined itself in relation to the challenge of understanding and transforming destructive human conflicts”. The literature on conflict resolution has grown considerably in the past several decades and a review of that dense literature will always be welcome in the sub-field. The Nature of Intractable Conflict by Christopher Mitchell not only provides a comprehensive review of the literature, but as the title of the book suggests, he also frames his arguments around the problem of seemingly intractable conflicts.

In 1981, Mitchell released his influential text The Structure of International Conflict. Mitchell explains that he was first approached by Macmillan to create an updated version of this text. Instead he offers something far more substantial, a text that takes the whole of conflict resolution literature into account while changing the direction of the conversation to a focus on intractability. A theme running throughout the book is that many conflicts that seem intractable can in fact be reconciled through innovation and a focus on the causes of intractability. As he states in the book’s Afterword, “I began with the argument that to end a conflict ‘for good and all’ it was necessary to find a solution to the goal incompatibility that was the genesis, the starting point, for difficult, protracted, deep-rooted, intractable conflicts”(292).

The book is divided into chapters that each act as a step in the linear process from the formation of interests around seemingly intractable conflicts and their perpetuation, through processes of prevention and mitigation, to processes of innovation, termination, and reconciliation. The linear process structure makes this book an accessible research tool, while covering a daunting amount of information. Regardless of the overall structure, students and researchers will make good use of the index, as researchers will approach questions of intractability from distinct disciplines, particular levels of analysis, and centered on cases that are at unique points within the processes of formation, perpetuation, and reconciliation.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 survey research concerning the prevention, mitigation, and regulation of intractable, or protracted conflicts that may be familiar to many. These sections break down key environmental, social-relational, and political factors that affectively stifle conflicts at the level of goal incompatibility. The chapters on mitigation and regulation are particularly useful for cultural theorists in the sub-field. I found myself gladly rereading sections concerning sacred, or defended, spaces and persons, and particularly the author’s analysis of rituals as symbolic referents for peace processes. Mitchell surveys the breadth of information in a accessible way, producing a book that at once provides a definitive and unique view of conflict analysis and resolution without overly daunting the reader.

The last three chapters particularly deal with ending protracted conflicts through innovative approaches to addressing goal incompatibility. As Mitchell explains, sources of conflict tend to go understudied, while theorists overwhelmingly concern themselves with analyzing factors that either perpetuate already existent conflict or provide classifications for specific types of conflicts. Mitchell shows that it may be possible to mitigate or end seemingly intractable conflicts where the adversaries’ behaviors and attitudinal changes are key drivers of contention. Besides a focus on behaviors and attitudes, the book closes by showing how “a search for solutions in conflicts over scarcities, ostensibly indivisible goods, incommensurable, belief systems and even ‘existences’ were not quite as hopeless, at least in theory, as they might often appear” (292).

This book is an indispensable resource for research ideas or solutions to problems. The number of sources and case studies presented in the text is immense. Due to the dearth of information, readers will make a lot of use of the index. For example, researchers interested in information about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will find specific aspects of the analysis in various parts of the book, though this should be expected from a text with as much on offer as this. Researchers looking for particular cases may find themselves somewhat more reliant on the well-crafted index than those that are interested in specific processes and situational dynamics, but either way navigating this book is easy. The book will be valuable to researchers studying conflicts and peace processes at all levels of intensity and complexity, applicable to any discipline within the social sciences. Far from being exhausted, Mitchell provides a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that research in conflict resolution is only gaining momentum.

Bradley W Williams is a doctoral researcher at George Mason University. His research is located within the intersection of sociology, anthropology, and international relations. He studies transnational governance, religion, social movements, and peace processes.


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