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TitleThe Systemic Approach to Conflict Transformation – Concept and
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Page 1

The Systemic Approach to
Conflict Transformation
Concept and Fields of Application

Oliver Wils
Ulrike Hopp
Norbert Ropers
Luxshi Vimalarajah
Wolfram Zunzer

Page 54

A further step sees these relationships represen-
ted in an impact system, which allows an initial
interpretation of circular closed loops and feed-
back loops in the system. To avoid overloading

the impact system, it can be a good idea to repre-
sent only impact levels 2 and 3. Hypotheses may
be tested by means of cause-effect chains, and it
is also possible to “walk through” the system.

Impact System

An axis diagramme, based on the active and pas-
sive values of the factors, can also be created to
aid visualisation. The active and passive values
can be taken from the impact matrix and used to
identify the degree to which factors affect other
factors in the system (active impact) and are
themselves affected by other factors (passive
impact). The axis diagram provides an overview
of the factors that are i) particularly active, ii)
particularly passive, iii) critical (both active and
passive) and iv) idle (neither particularly active
nor passive). All these factors perform an impor-
tant function in terms of the dynamics, sensitiv-
ity and stability of systems.

However, the fact that the number of factors is
restricted means that this method is limited,
and therefore appears suitable for analysing
sub-systems only. An overall analysis would
require a series of progressive analysis work-

shops, however this would tie up a lot of time
and human resources.

Taking account of resistances
Studying resistances is an unorthodox approach
to systems analysis. Resistances represent an
interesting approach for systemic analysis and
the identification of entry points for processes of
change, as they relate to the deep structure of
conflict systems. The term “resistance” is used
in psychoanalytic psychotherapy to mean an
antipathy towards making unconscious psycho-
logical contents conscious, and was coined by
Siegmund Freud and developed further by his
daughter, Anna Freud. In the field of social psy-
chology, the subject of individual and collective
defence mechanisms and resistances has been
addressed by Alexander Mitscherlich, among


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Resistances generally contain a good deal of
potential energy and are therefore extremely
dynamic and often highly emotionally charged.
Accordingly, working on and with resistances
can unleash a high degree of potential for
change. Resistances frequently arise from the
fear of losing the familiar. At this point, the func-
tion of the affects is to reject the unknown and
alien, and to generate a collective feeling of iden-
tity.53 It follows that resistances not only result
from conflicts of interests but also from the emo-
tional needs of humans living in groups. Resist-
ance in this form protects a collective identity
and simultaneously cements the system boun-
daries that appear to give humans protection
and security.

Processes of change can utilise the dynamic of
resistances but must do so with caution. It is
necessary to reveal and examine both the fears
hidden behind the resistances as well as the
structures and patterns in which they are reflec-
ted. Mitscherlich stresses the need to develop a
critical consciousness of one’s own culture, both
to illustrate that man’s rules of order and social
values are relative, and to break down intra-per-
sonal resistances so that things that are alien
lose their “threat” and can be met with open-
ness.54 Like resistances, taboo subjects can also
be highly emotionally charged, triggering fierce
reactions in parts of the system and thereby pos-
sibly revealing potential solutions (the taboo
subjects of constitutional reform in Nepal and
federalism in Sri Lanka being a case in point).

Entry points for peacebuilding can comprise, for
example, exploring “deep” structures of identity
and gender construction and challenging their

function/role in the conflict. Dialogue formats
can help here by discussing the issue of the myths,
key narratives and symbolisms of the participat-
ing group’s historical construction, thereby also
identifying entry points for managing collective
resistances and taboo subjects. In Sri Lanka, for
example, there are still significant resistances to
the term “federalism”, particularly in the predo-
minantly Theravada Buddhist southern regions.
This resistance is understandable as far as it
concerns the rejection of a genuine power shar-
ing arrangement, and if so, it requires a political
solution. However, it is also rooted in deep cul-
tural and religious structures that have to be
addressed differently, such that it may be neces-
sary to tap into equivalent “resources” in the
country’s cultural and religious heritage.

There are also resistances to processes of change
that feed on the fear of losing security, power,
resources, prosperity and identity, as well as the
fear of change itself. These resistances are well
known in change management within organisa-
tions, however they also occur in peacebuilding.
As a rule, forces that advocate and support change
also exist. If a consultant or small group wishes
to initiate a process of change, he/she would be
well advised to find out beforehand which parts
of the system support this process and from
whom resistance should be expected and why.
Such a procedure can be used to select the one
change strategy out of many potential strategies
that appears to be the most promising, on the
basis that it has the most support and produces
the least resistance. In cases where such a selec-
tion is not possible, knowledge of the support-
ing and resisting forces is still useful in terms of
forging alliances with the former and tackling

Core elements of systemic conflict transformation

Page 108

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Translation, layout and printing was made possible by a generous grant from the Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies

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