What is intermunicipal conflict

Domestic conflicts

Lutz Schrader

To person

Dr. Lutz Schrader (born 1953) is a freelance lecturer, consultant and trainer with a focus on peace and conflict research and conflict counseling. Work and research topics are the conflicts in the Western Balkans, options for civil society actors to act in armed conflicts and post-conflict societies, processes of conflict transformation as well as peace and conflict theories.

Conflicts are omnipresent - from family to work life to international politics. But what is a conflict? Is there a conceptual core that all the different forms of social and political disputes have in common?

Police officers in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (& copy AP)

What is a conflict? Conflicts are not generally to be assessed negatively. On the contrary, they are "an unavoidable and necessary for social change accompanying phenomenon of coexistence in all societies" (Ropers 2002: 11). Social change almost inevitably goes hand in hand with conflict, which can also be violent and destructive at times. Systematic avoidance and discrediting of conflicts would ultimately be counterproductive because it would block processes of social change. One goal of research into conflicts is to find ways and means of how conflicts can be resolved as non-violently and constructively as possible, so that they provide the most productive impulses for learning and change for all those involved.

Conflict definition

Conflicts come in very different forms. They can take place as remorse in a person, as a quarrel that weighs on a marriage, as a collective bargaining conflict between union members and companies that culminate in a strike, or as a civil war between a government and rebel groups. Despite all the differences, conflicts can be traced back to a more or less common basic structure. Every conflict typically comprises three components:
  • conflicting behavior on the part of the conflicting parties that indicates the conflict and all too often exacerbates it (e.g. carelessness, refusal to communicate, competition, verbal attacks, physical violence),
  • interests and goals of the conflicting parties that appear to be incompatible (e.g. striving for social recognition or for material gain, persecution of democracy or autocracy as the ideal form of government),
  • Different assumptions and attitudes of those involved with regard to the causes of the conflict, their own position / role within the conflict and the assessment of the other conflict parties (e.g. stereotypes [1], prejudices [2] and enemy images).
Conflict research also differentiates between the visible or manifest and the latent level of a conflict. The behavior of the conflicting parties forms the manifest level. In contrast, the interests and goals as well as the assumptions and attitudes of the conflicting parties often remain in the dark. They form the invisible or latent level of discussion.

The fact that individuals or groups are in conflict with one another can usually be seen directly from the behavior of those involved. The atmosphere is polluted, there are arguments or even verbal and, in extreme cases, physical violence. But why the parties behave this way is much more difficult to see. There can be various reasons for this: Most of the conflicting parties know their own interests and goals, but not those of their counterparts. Often they can only speculate about that. This also has to do with the fact that conflicting parties often try to hide their real interests and goals.

There is even greater uncertainty about the assumptions and attitudes of the conflicting parties. Why conflicting parties see a thing one way or another and deal with it one way or another depends on many factors: on their previous experience, character traits, values, beliefs, motives and fears. Everyone has such a filter and reference system that helps them understand their environment and find their way around it. As is known from psychology, these imprints, which influence and control our perception, our interests and our behavior, remain to a large extent in the area of ​​the subconscious and unconscious. That is why, especially in escalated conflicts, support and accompaniment from outsiders - e.g. confidants, mediators or therapists - are so important. Among other things, you can help the conflict parties to become aware of these subliminal drivers of conflict.

The three components and two levels of a conflict can be clearly illustrated in the so-called conflict triangle. This widely used tool of conflict analysis was introduced by Johan Galtung - one of the co-founders of peace and conflict research (Galtung 2009). There is a close, mutually reinforcing relationship between the three "corners" of a conflict - in both a negative and a positive direction. This is indicated by the circular arrow inside the triangle (see section "The dynamics of conflicts").
Conflict triangle according to Galtung

Even if there are contradictions and incompatibilities at all three "corners", this does not mean that a conflict will actually break out. A conflict is not an objective category, but a complex interaction between people. The perception and actions of those involved are decisive. Only when at least one party perceives the behavior of the other side as impairing and unacceptable for their own well-being, self-image, the ability to make decisions and act, or their own safety, can we speak of a conflict.


Brief definition

A conflict is an interaction that at least from one side is perceived as emotionally stressful and / or objectively unacceptable, which is characterized by an incompatibility of behavior, interests and goals as well as the assumptions and attitudes of those involved.
The extent to which individuals and groups perceive the behavior, interests and goals or the assumptions and attitudes of other individuals and groups as stressful or even threatening depends to a large extent on their assumptions and attitudes.

The influence of the social and cultural environment of conflict

The perception and behavior of those involved in the conflict are largely shaped by the social and cultural environment in which they live. What people have experienced and experience as a matter of course and natural since their birth forms the image they make of the world and of themselves. In Western Europe, for example, civil rights and individual freedoms are considered normal. The guaranteed diversity of individual endeavors forms the basis for social progress and stability. In contrast, in authoritarian states, many people see the inviolability, even sanctity, of their own nation, religion or ideology and often of the political leader as the most important point of reference for their own identity, well-being and security.

These basic beliefs are conveyed at an early age through parental home, school and the media. The result is not infrequently an unreflective and transfigured self-image: "Our values, our culture, our beliefs are unique and superior to others". This goes hand in hand with images of others or even enemies, which are projected onto other groups to the extent that they deviate from the "normality" of their own group - e.g. rules of living together, ethnic characteristics, religious practices, customs and traditions. The result is a strict distinction between one's own group and "the others".

To the extent that the generally accepted cultural patterns and influences legitimize the social structures within a group, a society or a state, they also justify existing injustices, power asymmetries and discrimination. These are expressed, among other things, in unequal access to education, health care and employment, in unfair salary and working time regulations, in a large gap between rich and poor and in limited opportunities for political articulation and participation.

Shaped and influenced by social conventions, everyday myths, often scientifically disguised ideologies and / or religious dogmas, most people are not even aware of the inequalities and injustices of social conditions and structures or take them for granted. That only changes when either the injustices and inequalities exceed the individually tolerable level or the cultural and normative beliefs and narratives that legitimize them get into a crisis. When belief in the self-evident social and political order disappears, the structural asymmetries and deficits also become more apparent.

The dynamics of conflict

If the conflicting parties are not aware of a conflict that is arising in good time and react inappropriately to the first signs, e.g. with repression, defense, blame or a verbal attack, there is a risk of escalation. The conflict researcher Friedrich Glasl compares the dynamics of conflicts with a river in the mountains:

"We get caught up in the vortex of conflict events and suddenly notice how a power threatens to carry us away. We have to keep all our senses awake and act very carefully so that we don't get further entangled in the dynamics of the conflict" (Glasl 2017: 39).

If the conflicting parties fail to pause and counteract the negative dynamic constructively, they almost inevitably get caught in a dangerous spiral of escalation that follows a more or less generally applicable pattern. Glasl differentiates between a total of nine levels of conflict escalation - from hardening of opinions and viewpoints to total confrontation, even at the cost of one's own destruction. Conversely, a friendly gesture or a symbolic offer to the other side can pave the way for an opening and gradual overcoming of the tense situation and set a productive dynamic in motion.
Escalation levels according to Glasl (2017)

Glasl speaks of "coordination of expectations" between the conflicting parties. Because of their "intuitive knowledge of such thresholds", all those involved react very sensitively to what the other side is doing (ibid .: 231). The conflicting parties agree - more unconsciously than consciously - on which escalation level they are currently at. Certain rules apply to each level. As soon as the rules are violated from one side, the way is clear for the next escalation surge. Conversely, compliance with the rules creates the prerequisite for gradually reversing the dynamic towards conflict resolution.

The concept of conflict dynamics can also explain why conflict solutions, once achieved, are so fragile. An agreement between the conflicting parties alone is not enough to mentally and socio-culturally find their way out of the escalation dynamic and to build mutual trust. Negative memories, painful wounds as well as entrenched prejudices, fears and trauma remain. That is why disputes that have long been believed to have been overcome can suddenly break out again. This is why the emotional, socio-cultural and political-legal follow-up to conflicts is so important.

Conclusions for conflict management

In view of the complexity of conflicts, dealing with them is a very demanding undertaking. In principle, efforts should be made at all three "corners". For sustainable conflict management, it is usually not sufficient to merely change the behavior of the actors - i.e. the way in which they communicate and deal with one another. The different interests and goals must also be bridged and the incompatible assumptions and attitudes of the conflicting parties must be changed.

The greatest challenge in the context of a processing process is undoubtedly the consideration and processing of their structural and cultural dimensions. One possible entry could be, for example, to support the conflict parties in becoming aware of their cultural and social influences and gradually moving them towards a constructive approach to change with the conflict. This could include, for example, recognizing and overcoming deeply internalized loser and victim identities. In the end, a conflict can only be permanently overcome if effective measures to equalize the power gap between the conflicting parties are taken and actually implemented.


Imbusch, Peter / Zoll, Ralf (Ed.) (2005): Peace and Conflict Research. An introduction. Textbook, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

Sommer, Gert / Fuchs, Albert (Ed.) (2004): War and Peace. Handbook of conflict and peace psychology, Weinheim, Basel, Berlin: Beltz Verlag.

Glasl, Friedrich (2017): Conflict Management. A manual for executives and consultants, 11th edition, Bern, Stuttgart, Vienna: Haupt Verlag.

Galtung, Johan (2007): Peace by Peaceful Means. Peace and conflict, development and culture, Münster: Agenda Verlag.

Ropers, Norbert (2002): Peace Development, Crisis Prevention and Conflict Management Technical Cooperation in the Context of Crises, Conflicts and Disasters, Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), Eschborn, p. 11.