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Mc Donnell Grant

Columbia University Teachers College, New York, New York
Principal Investigator: Peter T. Coleman, $443,500 over three years.

Intractable conflict as a dynamical system

Intractable conflict is a serious problem in today’s world. In 2005, twenty major armed conflicts were waged around the globe, with 40% of intrastate armed conflicts lasting for 10 years or more and 25% of wars lasting for more than 25 years (see Marshall & Gurr, 2005). Decades of research have contributed to our understanding of the many factors that can contribute to the intractability of conflict. In his meta-framework on intractable conflict, Coleman (2003) identified over fifty variables associated with the persistence of destructive conflicts. These include a variety of different dimensions of the contexts, issues, relationships, processes, and the outcomes of such conflicts. The multiplicity of factors makes each instance of intractable conflict unique, so perhaps it is not surprising that scholars have yet to articulate a coherent and testable theoretical model that links the component parts to underlying structures and basic dynamic properties.

More on the actual state of the project
(source: Final Progress Report 2006-2006

Beginning in September, 2006, our international team of scholar-practitioners began work on a three-year research project funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation to develop and refine a theory of intractable conflict from the perspective of dynamical systems. Intractable conflicts are those that persist in a state of enmity and destructiveness despite repeated good-faith attempts to resolve them. They are quite common and can undermine the security and well being of groups and societies worldwide. Decades of research have contributed to our understanding of the many factors that can contribute to their persistence, but scholars have yet to articulate a coherent and testable theoretical model that links these component parts to the basic underlying structures and dynamics that account for intractability.
This project brings together a uniquely qualified multidisciplinary team for the construction and testing of one such model: a dynamical-systems model of intractable conflict. The theory is being written in the language of the social sciences, but the concepts have counterparts in the mathematical descriptions of attractors from the physical sciences that are sufficiently precise to provide the basis for computer simulation testing of the model. The objectives of the current project are to empirically test, validate, and revise our dynamical-systems theory of intractable conflict from the results of case studies, laboratory experiments, computer simulations, and theoretical discussions, and to disseminate the findings of our research through publications, presentations, educational offerings, and through our website. The long-term goal of the project is to develop a robust theoretical model and simulation tools that will have utility for scholars, policy-makers, and conflict management practitioners in preventing and addressing intractable conflicts.
The first year of our project was very productive. Our team met face-to-face three times over the year to plan research, discuss our findings, and collaborate on papers, workshops and presentations. We also communicated frequently through conference-calls over the Internet. As a result, we have designed new methodologies for the study of conflict from a dynamical perspective, begun data collection on a wide-variety of studies, advanced our basic theoretical understanding of intractability, generated several new conceptual models of conflict dynamics, and have begun dissemination of our findings through publications, presentations, and our website. As this was our inaugural year, much of our work is “in-progress”. Below is a detailed description of the current activities of our team. more...