Conflict Transformation as a Way of Life

EDITORIAL, 21 Jun 2010

#117 | Johan Galtung

From an essay written in 1968, “Conflict as a Way of Life[i]:

“If you cannot remove conflict, why not adjust your thinking about it? Why not try and see conflict as the salt of life, the big energizer, the tickler, the tantalizer, rather than as a bothersome nuisance, as noise in perfect channel, as disturbing ripples in otherwise quiet waters?  In short, why not treat conflict as a form of life, particularly since we all know that it is precisely during the period of our lives when we are exposed to a conflict that really challenges us, and that we finally are able to master, that we feel most alive”.

The essay goes on exploring “a science of conflictology” (this book is an effort); “conflictology as a subject in school emphasizing/ “resolving the underlying incompatibility” (the SABONA project is an effort in that direction); “conflict participation” (1968 was important, today it is almost commonplace), “democratization of conflict management” (could be better, also overcoming the elitism in mediation); “conflict has to be appreciated–if we have the courage and maturity to meet the challenge and enjoy it”.

The maturity and challenge ultimately come down to the individual. And the exposure to conflict will generally increase.  Groups demand access to individuals, domestic society penetrates groups, global society the domestic society.  To withdraw from what happens at the mega, macro and meso levels is hardly possible in today’s world, given the means of communication and transportation–and we may only be at the beginning. Withdrawing together with others–in a conflict-free local community, a territorially closed vicinity–will play a role.  But so will exposure to the enormous diversity of the human condition, like the life stages we all experience.  Culture will open for new values also when basic needs and interests are met.  Close also that window?  There will still be forces and counter-forces as long as there are humans around.  Shutting them out, opting for the hermit style?  Not only a-human but anti-human.  An inner dialectic, dynamism, detached from an outer dialectic, is only for the very few.

Conflict is our fate.  As are micro-organisms, so better learn how to handle them.  The exposure to the pursuit of goals blocked by the pursuit of other goals can be overcome if our resistance capacity is sufficient, like an infection can be overcome by the immune system.  But, if conflict is (almost) identified with violence then major parts of that resistance capacity is lost in an otherwise laudable effort to reduce violence.  What is lost is the challenge to transcend, going beyond, at all four levels, as human growth, social growth, regional, global growth.

Of course we can transcend without conflict.  We may have a goal, an end but not the means; in other words, a problem.  We may apply our human creativity to it; Einstein, Picasso.  But the conflict adds the dynamic of at least two incompatible goal pursuits, as driving forces.  Attention, please, here and now.  Have as a goal a master’s degree and time, money and hard work will take you there.  Have as a goal joint study for shared love, and empathy and creativity may be needed.

Thus, we are laboring in our societies to bridge the legitimate goals of growth and distribution, including with Nature.  The easy way out is laziness: go for one of these goals only.  Such actors exist.  But going for both has led to social capitalism, the Japanese and Chinese models; not perfect, but new and more is on the way.  Politics is the art of the impossible; otherwise it is merely technology.

We are also laboring in a world with North-South and West-Islam.  The lazy way out, once again, is to go for one horn of these dilemmas. But the other horn does not go away, we are coupled, be it in a world or a domestic order, or disorder.  Take it on, no laziness, please.

Using incompatibilities, contradictions, as challenge gives us energy to draw upon.  Driving history forward?  Depends, it comes with no guarantee, except the daoist promise that new contradictions are lining up.  Unspent energy can be hitched on to the contradiction next in line.

The point is to balance between the Scylla of apathy, simply giving in to some either-or, and the Charybdis of fighting the alternative with negative conflict energy.  But is that not to demand too much of us poor human beings?  Not really, there are ample rewards.  Not only getting a degree but together with your love; enjoying the fruits of both growth and distribution; having regions enrich each other, two-way, not one-way only, opening oneself to the wisdom of two, three, many religions.  What could be more rewarding once we get out of the either-or trap?

But there is a hitch: it may be hard work.  And difficult work.  Why should it be easy?  Who said that such both-and fruits are served on a platter free of charge?  However, it is not necessary to have absorbed critically these pages, or similar books.  Rather, let us boil it down to a simple essence, taking “five” from Islam and the word “commandment” from Christianity.

For conflict transformation as a way of life, on top of conflict as a way of life, consider these five commandments:

No. 1.  Try to see a conflict from above: the actors, their goals, their pursuits, their clashes. Including you.  You may need outside help.

No. 2.  Try to be evenhanded.  Try to see yourself or the other side of yourself as clearly as you see the others.  Again, you may need help.

No. 3.  The legitimacy test: be judgmental about goals and pursuits, ends and means, including your own.  What is legitimate–legal, compatible with human rights, with basic human needs–what is not?

No. 4.  Look at all those legitimate goals and pursuits and put your joint creativity to work: what are the minimum changes needed for a compelling vision, with maximum accommodation of all legitimate goals?

No. 5Enact that vision.  And if it does not work, back to No. 1. Try again.  And again…and again… Perseverance is the key.

If it works, take on the next conflict in line.  Start with yourself, your dilemmas, then your disputes with your spouse, your family, at school and work, neighbors; in widening circles. Let your empathic, nonviolent, creative voice be heard socially, globally.  And you are part of a world culture of peaceful conflict transformation.


[i].  Chapter 15, Johan Galtung, Peace and Social structure, Essays in Peace Research, Vol. III, Copenhagen: Ejlers, 1978, pp. 484-507 (see; presented at the Plenary Session of the World Federation for Mental Health, 7th International Congress, London August 16, 1968.  I still feel the warmth of Margaret Mead after the session; this was her kind of stuff!


This is the Epilogue of a book just to be printed, A Theory of Conflict, TRANSCEND University Press, 2010.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Jun 2010.

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5 Responses to “Conflict Transformation as a Way of Life”

  1. Dear Johan,

    To me it is not that “conflict is a way of life”. but simpler: “Conflict IS life” Human beings will always encounter conflicts. This even happens among people who love and respect each other deeply.

    Life’s great challengs is precisely that: solving conflicts.

    However, there is a BIG difference between: a)”solving conflicts” and b)killing or being killed, in order to help others solve their conflicts, which is what soldiers do.

    In today’s world,solving the problems of others, means helping them become more powerful and famous, as well as richer. To this aim, hundreds, thousands of young soldiers give their lives, in addition to the thousands or millions of civilians who also suffer from the vicious practice. Sickening !

    Best wishes,

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by m4lvin, Craig Zelizer. Craig Zelizer said: Galtung, Conflict Transformation as a Way of Life […]

  3. Liz Peel says:

    Dear Johan and Jake – Thank you for your new book.

    I am wondering if you can help me. I have been tortured now for over eight years by what are currently called israelis, the CIA and jewish people.

    They have put something in both of my ears, my back, scalp, chest and my stomach that allows me to be electrocuted. I can give you the details. I was a student, writer and journalist while visiting Jerusalem between 1999-2003. My PhD proposal was on peace journalism as a way of helping to solve the israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Univ. of Edinburgh) Th etorture has been physical (physical assaults in public) and psychological.

    I am currently in Los Angeles, CA – Please let me know if you can help. I have been professionally unemployed now for over eight years.

    Liz Peel

  4. Akifumi Fujita says:

    Dear Galtung-sensei,
    It is astonishing at least for me to know that an essay “Conflict as a Way of Life” was written in 1968, when the epoch-making paper in the history of peace studies “Violence,Peace,and Peace Research” was written(1969) almost at the same time.(I want to add to these two another paper “Entropy and the General Theory of Peace” also written in 1968.)I find it very interesting that the two pillars of Transcend, a science of peace and that of conflictology, appeared almost simultaneously. How have they been developed since then? I may be wrong, but let me say my very personal impression about it. The two pillars have been developed considerably, but rather independently.As the result, the organic relation between the two has not been elaborated sufficiently enough for the peace theory to be an integrated theory in the field of applied social science. Maybe this task is left for an individual effort. And I think I will do my best to be a good peace worker. Thank you very much.
    Akifumi Fujita from Japan  

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