Environmentalists and executives of a company accused of polluting a stream meet to resolve their differences at a university-run mediation center in the Southeast. All of these examples are part of a new way of dealing with conflict.
These new approaches to conflict are usually referred to by the general term "conflict resolution." Something whose roots can be traced to four (sometimes separate, sometimes intertwining) movements, all of which began in the mid-1960s and early 1970s: (1) new developments in organizational relations; (2) the introduction of the "problem-solving workshop" in international relations; (3) a redirection of religious figures from activist work in peace-related endeavors to an emphasis upon "peacemaking"; and (4) the criticism of lawyers and the court system by the general public that resulted in what is known as alternative dispute resolution (ADR).
These four movements, which comprise the major divisions in the new field of conflict resolution, are all part of a more encompassing phenomenon in recent American history--the realization that the bureaucratization of the modern world has resulted in extreme depersonalization. This realization resulted in the questioning of legitimate authority characteristic of the 1960s and early 1970s in America. Thus, the emergence of the field of conflict resolution must be seen in the context of the larger framework of social and cultural change in American society.
In the United States, as in all industrialized societies, legitimacy is based on authority embodied in the legal system, bureaucratic administration, and centralization. Indeed, we live in a society characterized by the rationalization of law, centralization and concentration within industry, and the subsequent extension of state intervention to previously private human actions.
Like the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the questioning of every major institutional order in the 1960s, conflict resolution was born in a time of questioning whether traditional legal authority served the needs of people or supported a status quo that reinforced social and political inequality. The 1960s ushered in a time of change and conflict. It was perceived by an active and vocal, if not large, part of the population that change was good, and the conflict that often produced the change was also a positive thing and not something to be avoided.
Each of the four movements in conflict resolution, in their own unique way, represents a challenge to traditional authority, a part of this new way of looking at change and conflict. In the area of organizational relations this took the form of a questioning of top-down, centralized decision making and the role conflict played in organizations. In international relations, the "power paradigm" (the view that there are severe limitations to political reform because human beings are power-seeking creatures by nature and must be controlled by strong government action) was challenged via the notion that human beings seek to fulfill their basic needs rather than always seeking power and material interests. In certain religious organizations this took the form of an emphasis upon the religious community's ability to