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Keystone Conference: Yes, Conflict Resolution Is A Field

by Juliana Birkhoff
October 2006

This paper was presented by Juliana Birkoff at the "Consolidating Our Wisdom Conference" at Keystone, Colorado October 8-11, 2006.

Juliana Birkoff

Introduction and History

My role in this panel is to advocate for conflict resolution as a field. Peter Adler and I have debated this question for many years. Many years ago, Peter and I organized a little meeting of colleagues. We asked everyone to bring to dinner his or her map of the field. Our colleagues brought pictures, written descriptions, and a coat hanger and tennis ball model of the field. They did not disagree that there was a field and they agreed on a very small set of activities and principles that was core. However, there was wide disparity among the participants on what was in and out, and how to portray the field.

In a similar activity, William Warters and I collaborated 10 years ago on gatherings of people who taught in conflict resolution programs in colleges and universities (NAME 1994, NCPCR 1995, 1996). We gathered faculty from general conflict resolution programs, not programs in business, law, or planning schools or schools of education. In one meeting, we discussed which books we found that were core for every conflict studies program. We thought we had similarities. Bill then conducted research to find out how common faculty members ideas were about the focus of the field, skills, knowledge, and readings (NOVA Southeastern 1997). At the meeting, he convened faculty members did agree on most aspects of the field. Bill’s study replicated a study conducted by Paul Wehr in 1986, funded in part by the Ford Foundation.

These two stories from my history illustrate an ongoing question “but are we a field?” How do we define the contours of the conflict resolution field? In this short paper, I hope to lay to rest the field question, outline some reasons why we keep asking the question, and discuss why we should think of ourselves as a more than just a field. Finally, I will close with some suggestions of how to organize ourselves more effectively to advance our field.

Field, Discipline, Profession?

Although it might confuse the topic somewhat, whenever I think about whether conflict resolution is a field or not, I eventually think about disciplines and professions. Although they have different definitions, I think when we engage in discussions about whether or not we are a field; we are also asking if we are a discipline or a profession. My guess is that we merge the definitions of field, discipline, and profession.


I turned to some dictionaries to clarify the three terms. A field has many definitions in dictionaries. A field is:

  • A topic, subject, or area of academic interest or specialization; (Cambridge)
  • A particular kind of commercial enterprise; they are outstanding in their field; (OAD)
  • A profession, employment, or business; (American Heritage)
  • An area of human activity or interest; (Merriam Webster)
  • An area or region where business activities are conducted: sales representatives in the field; (OAD)
  • An area or setting of practical activity or application outside an office, school, factory, or laboratory: biologists working in the field; a product tested in the field; (OAD)
  • Somewhere (away from a studio, office, library, or laboratory) where practical work is done or data is collected; anthropologists do much of their work in the field.(OAD)
None of the definitions hints or states that a field has to be coherent or have distinct boundaries. A field is a general, loosely knit activity, topic, or area.

A discipline is a branch of knowledge. For example, people might ask "in what discipline is his doctorate?” or remark that "teachers should be well trained in their subject". (OAD)

Dictionaries supply these definitions:

  • A field of study in which a student may concentrate, such as sociology, anthropology, or mathematics. (American Heritage)
  • A field of study and/or knowledge. (Cambridge)
  • A branch or area of learning.(Merriam Webster)
None of these definitions suggest that a discipline is coherent, organized or that all members agree with what is the core or the boundaries of a discipline.

A profession is defined as:

  • A group of similar jobs or fields of interest that require specific training or expertise. Sometimes used as interchangeably with “occupation”. “Teacher” is an example of an occupation. (OAD)
  • An occupation requiring special education (especially in the liberal arts or sciences) (American Heritage)
  • An occupation, the practice of which directly influences human well-being and requires mastery of a complex body of knowledge and specialized skills, requiring both formal education and practical experience. (Merriam Webster)
  • An activity that involves a responsibility to serve the public, has a complex body of knowledge, has standards for admission, and has a need for public confidence. (Cambridge)
The definitions of profession range from a group of similar jobs that require training to an occupation that has specific responsibilities and entry criteria.

Given these definitions, I believe that it is clear that conflict resolution is a field; that conflict analysis and resolution is a weak discipline, and that mediation and arbitration are professions, but again weak professions with uncertain futures. The next page outlines some of the reasons why.

Evidence That Conflict Resolution is a Field

If Paul Wehr and Bill Warters research is not convincing enough that conflict resolution is a field, then we only have to look at the number of undergraduate, masters, and Ph.D. programs in conflict resolution to answer the question. In 2000, there were 160 undergraduate conflict resolution programs and 130 graduate level programs. These programs are called conflict resolution, dispute resolution, peace studies/science or conflict management. (See for more information). Besides these programs, there are also programs in other professional schools that include conflict analysis and resolution as required courses or electives for students.

Conflict resolution as a field of study exhibits a wide range of approaches and goals. Conflict resolution is enriched by an abundant and complex array of research, theory, and practices from the social sciences.

Evidence That Conflict Resolution Is a Particular Kind Of Commercial Enterprise

ACR has approximately 6000 members. The National Academy of Arbitrators has (number) members. Federal agencies, state agencies, court systems and others manage rosters of mediators and arbitrators.

Several people have researched the finances of the field; most recently, Lawrence Susskind conducted an informal study of the environmental and public policy section. (Also, see Chris Honeyman

There are many, many problems that end up being facilitated, mediated, or arbitrated in the United States. While volunteer mediation remains strong, some one pays for most of the processes.

Given the number of people making some kind of living in the field, the number of cases that end up in a conflict resolution process, I think it is easy to argue that conflict resolution is a commercial enterprise.

Evidence for Somewhere Where Practical Work Is Done

Defining a field as somewhere where practical work is done is my favourite definition. Facilitators, mediators, and arbitrators leave their homes and their offices and go out to the field to help people resolve their differences. I know that I try to focus on practical, “do-able” things to move people from where they are stuck to a new recommendation, plan, policy, program, or agreement.

Evidence that Conflict Resolution is a Discipline Conflict resolution begins with the premise that conflict is inevitable and can be a positive force in all human interactions. This is a different stance from other disciplines such as criminology, political science, or law. Criminology, law, and political science view the existence of conflict as a problem of deviance-which then requires more socialization and the clear exposition of social norms, or of inadequate norms and social control-which then requires more discipline or punishment, or of illegitimate political systems-which then requires different governance systems. In contrast, conflict resolution views the handling of conflict as the problem, not the existence of conflict.

Students do concentrate in conflict resolution just as they do in sociology, anthropology, or mathematics. There are as mentioned above conflict resolution departments and programs. Faculty are tenured in conflict resolution programs and departments. There are journals and research projects and programs. Many university libraries have resource guides, similar to anthropology and sociology, to help faculty and students conduct conflict resolution research.

Evidence that Conflict Resolution is a Profession

A profession is a way of organizing work. I use the word profession to refer to an occupation that controls its own work, based on knowledge, and organized by a special set of institutions sustained in part by a particular ideology of expertise and service (Freidson 1994, 10).

Professionals try to create and sustain licenses and mandates. A license is not necessarily a legal instrument. A license is the claim and public acknowledgement to "carry out certain activities rather different from those of other people and to do so in exchange for money, goods, or services" (Hughes 1971, 287). A mandate is authority to perform activities or apply particular policies. Once an occupational group has a license, they may also claim or promote a mandate. The occupational group begins to share a sense of identity and unity. From this standpoint they define for themselves and others, "proper conduct in relation to their work, to influence its technical content, styles of delivery and, most crucially, the patterns of public demand and response" (Dingwall and Lewis 1983, 5).

Professions do not exist in isolation. Instead, professions compete with each other in a system. Andrew Abbot describes the system of the professions as a system of waxing and waning, competing, and overlapping jurisdictions. A jurisdiction is a boundary around the objective foundations of the problem and the subjective properties of the problem.

The jurisdiction is safe from poaching from other disciplines when it can successfully argue that its ways of understanding and handling the social or technical problem are better than the other professionals. In North America and Europe, the argument is most successful when the professional can argue that their abstract knowledge system provides them with better diagnoses and inferences. The abstract system has to be understandable enough so that clients or consumers can understand what the professional is talking about. However, it cannot be so easy that it can be codified and routinized. The profession must be able to argue that it is not only the knowledge but also the intuition, skill, and experience of trained and talented individuals who know how to apply that knowledge (Larson 1977, 165).

Jurisdictions are also maintained by constantly evolving knowledge systems. The development of new knowledge in the profession insures that professionals can maintain their monopoly over the knowledge (Larson, 1977).

In my dissertation, I studied mediation as a profession. I feel very strongly that we share an approach to diagnosis, treatment, and inference. Mediation is a profession; however, it is a profession with a very weak license and a very small mandate. We have very weak control over our jurisdiction. Strengthening our jurisdiction is only partly in our control, it is also influenced by political, cultural, social, and technological events. Further, jurisdictions are dynamic. They shift and change as all professions react to political, cultural, social, and technological events. Developing and maintaining a jurisdiction requires cultural work.

Law, in particular, has been able to coherently add conflict resolution abstract knowledge to legal abstract knowledge. The legal profession was able to move with social, cultural, and political changes to adapt. Law has redefined its problems and tasks, defend its jurisdictions over a group of social problem from interlopers, and seize new problems to add to its jurisdictions. Similarly, organizational development, planning, and other professions have also been able to add the abstract knowledge from conflict resolution to their jurisdictions to defend them from mediation professionals.

Mediators have also not been able to sustain our profession for several reasons. First, we have focused too much on our treatments. A jurisdiction is stronger when the professional is valued because of their ability to diagnose as well as treat. We have not spent as much time developing our diagnostic frameworks, skills, or developing the legitimacy of our diagnoses. The client goes to the professional to find out what kind of problem they have. The professional has a defensible way of classifying problems and relating treatments to those types of problems. Mediators have spent a lot of time perfecting mediation…one treatment. Not only have we spent a lot of time perfecting just one treatment but we have tried to standardize and simply our treatment so that other professionals can apply the treatment as well as we can.

Second, we have not focused on developing the underlying abstract knowledge that supports a professional project.

The ability of a profession to sustain its jurisdictions lies partly in the power and prestige of its academic knowledge. This prestige reflects the public's mistaken belief that abstract professional knowledge is continuous with practical professional knowledge, and hence that prestigious abstract knowledge implies effective professional work. In fact, the true use of academic professional knowledge is less practical than symbolic. Academic knowledge legitimizes professional work by clarifying its foundations and tracing them to major cultural values. In most modern professions, these have been the values of rationality, logic, and science (Abbott 1988, 54).

Developing new knowledge in the profession insures that professionals can maintain their monopoly over the knowledge base by limiting the codification and routinization of it.

Conclusion about Field, Discipline, and Profession For me, the best way to prove that we are a field, discipline, and profession is through comparison. For example, take the example of the health (health promotion, disease prevention, and treatment). Health care is the field. Medicine is the discipline. People go to universities to learn about health promotion, disease prevention, and treatment.) Once in nursing and medical schools they may focus on a sub-specialty. People leaving nursing and medical schools enter training periods and take licensing and specialization tests. Doctors and nurses are professionals.

Many people practice, work, or perform services for health promotion, disease prevention, or disease treatment. Some of these people are working from different values, different modalities, or different paradigms. Some people are “bare foot” doctors or community health workers. Some people in the health care field are paid, others are volunteers. There are many arguments about what is useful and what chicanery is. Besides disagreements about content, there are also disagreements about boundaries. Even though the boundaries of health care are fluid, it is still a field. The schools and universities that offer medical programs offer medicine as one of many disciplines. The discipline is organized into a professional school. The individuals that work in the field are professionals.

Therefore, conflict resolution is a field and a weak discipline. Mediation is a profession, albeit one with a very weak and uncertain future in the system of professions.

What Is Underneath This Question?

I believe we discuss us as field, discipline, and profession because we are not having the impact we want to have. I know that doctors and nurse worry that they are not having the impact on health promotion, disease prevention, and disease treatment that they wish they could have or think they could have. However, the medical profession has a better record of accomplishment. I am not sure our record of accomplishment is so bad considering how young our field, discipline, profession is. However, medical professionals can point to eradication of some diseases and incredibly improved management.

I think a more interesting question would be to focus on what kinds of impacts do we want to have and how would we organize ourselves to have those impacts. Do we think that by having a profession we would have more impact on social conflict? I doubt it. We might find that if we clarify what kinds of impacts we want to have and strategize about how to increase our likelihood of having those impacts, we would have more partners to work with, more strategies and approaches available to us, and we could draw on more of our strengths to overcome challenges.


Abbott, Andrew. 1988. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Birkhoff, Juliana and Warfield, Wallace. 1996. The Development of Pedagogy and Practicum, Mediation Quarterly 14 no. 2 (Winter) 93-110.

Dingwall, Robert and Philip Lewis. Eds. 1983. The Sociology of the Professions: Lawyers, Doctors and Others. London, UK: MacMillan.

Freidson, Eliot. 1973. Professionalism Reborn: Theory, Prophecy and Policy. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago.

Honeyman, Christopher, 1996. The "Infrastructure" of Dispute Resolution: Issues in Program Design and Finance, National Institute for Dispute Resolution.

Larson, Magali S. 1977. The Rise of Professionalism: A Sociological Analysis. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Warters, William 1999. “Graduate Studies in Dispute Resolution; A Delphi Study of the Field’s Present and Future”, Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution, Issue 2.2, May 1999.

Wehr, Paul. 1986. Conflict resolution studies: What do we know? NIDR Dispute Resolution Forum April: 3-4, 12-13.


Juliana E. Birkhoff is an experienced mediator, facilitator, trainer, and conflict resolution scholar. She focuses her practice on complex scientific and technical problems about water quality and quantity, watershed planning and restoration, land use and development, pesticides and chemicals policies and community right to know issues, and other natural resources and public health issues.

She has conducted extensive research on collaboration and consensus building. Her previous research include best practices for integrating complex scientific and technical information into collaborative processes, how to integrate scientific and community knowledge in consensus-building, and several evaluations of consensus building processes.

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