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date: 07 December 2022

Conflict Escalationfree

Conflict Escalationfree

  • Richard BöschRichard BöschPhilosophisch-Sozialwissenschaftliche, Universität Augsburg


Even though most conflicts in everyday life manifest themselves as cursory bagatelles, there are conflicts that end up in situations of organized, collective violence (e.g., armed conflict). To understand how trivial contradictions can become meaningful conflicts in a broader societal context, it is crucial to examine the process of conflict escalation. Conflict escalation can be understood as an intensification of a conflict with regard to the observed extent and the means used. An escalating conflict represents a developing social system in its own right, having the legitimization of violence as a key feature. Here, a broader social science perspective on the concept of conflict escalation is offered, outlining its intellectual history, explaining its major perspectives and current emphases, and exploring newer avenues in approaching social conflict.


  • Conflict Studies


From a life partner who refuses to do the dishes, to a labor union striking to demand higher wages, to a government and an opposition disputing mutual claims, conflict is an ubiquitous element of everyday life. However, there is a large diversity of conflict in all these spheres of social life. Most conflicts manifest themselves as cursory bagatelles, but a few end up in situations of organized, collective violence (e.g., armed conflict). It is thus crucial to understand how trivial contradictions can become meaningful conflicts in a broader societal context. This evolution, referred to as conflict escalation, is understood as an intensification of a conflict with regard to the observed extent and the means used (Pruitt, Kim, & Rubin, 2003, pp. 87–91; Mitchell, 2014, pp. 71–75). Conflict escalation is characterized by processes of circular interaction that “lead to the growth and restructuring of the parties, generating new reasons and pretexts for applying additional means, thus leading to an expansion and fundamentalization of the content of the conflict” (Eckert & Willems, 2003, p. 1183). Given its dynamics and, to a certain degree, its autonomous nature, an escalating conflict represents both an evolving process and a self-stabilizing structure, or, in other words, a social system in its own right.

This article provides a review dealing with different perspectives on conflict escalation. For this purpose, as an initial basis, conflicts are understood as “social facts composed of at least two parties (individuals, groups, states) and based on differences in the societal situation/position and/or differences in the parties’ constellation of interests” (Bonacker & Imbusch, 2010, p. 69). In addition to this rather rationalist definition, conflicts are approached as phenomena of the social world that are produced in the processual framework of discursive constructions of reality (Jackson, 2009). Therefore, a conflict consists of an incompatibility of identities, interests, or values that is observed and articulated (Diez, Albert, & Stetter, 2006, p. 565). In this sense, the respective actors’ conflict behavior (e.g., persuasive efforts, positive sanctions, and coercive measures) is shaped by a “perceived divergence of interests, a belief that the parties’ current aspirations are incompatible” (Pruitt et al., 2003, pp. 7–8).

Even though physical violence is not considered to be an essential element of conflict escalation per se, understanding the legitimization of violence, or, even more in depth, asking about what is treated as “violence” in specific discourses is assumed to be a pivotal research interest in conflict studies (Jabri, 1996). Accordingly, before the point of organized, collective violence is reached (e.g., armed conflict or war), conflict escalation involves discursive prologues to violence to a certain extent (Messmer, 2003). However, as research on constructive and nonviolent conflict management has demonstrated in many cases, violence does not represent the inescapable final destination of a multistage and often nonlinear process of conflict escalation (see, e.g., Coleman, Deutsch, & Marcus, 2014; Kriesberg, 2015). Based on the idea of conflict escalation as an open-ended, discursive process, this review of concepts and approaches is located within the broader framework of peace and conflict studies.

Many scholars in the field posit that conflicts, in principle, cannot be prevented in the strict sense (e.g., Pruitt et al., 2003; Rubenstein, 2008; Bercovitch, Kremenyuk, & Zartman, 2009. On the contrary, conflicts are viewed as essential drivers of social change because they can “induce social dynamics leading to transformation and improvements of existing deficiencies in social relations and institutions” (Diez et al., 2011, p. 10). Hence, conflict escalation indeed represents a broad topic that covers agendas in different research strands, from psychological studies on interpersonal behavior, to sociological accounts on conflicts between social groups, to the analysis of armed conflict and war in a global dimension in international relations (IR) (Byrne & Senehi, 2009). This article presents social science perspectives on and approaches to conflict escalation. “Conflict Escalation: A Brief Intellectual History” gives a concise overview of the topic’s scientific history that is closely intertwined with the history of sociology, international relations, and peace and conflict studies. Next, “Major Perspectives on Conflict Escalation” opens up the field according to three metatheoretical dimensions. “Current Emphases in Empirical Conflict Escalation Research” illustrates a selected focus area in “application-oriented” research. Finally, “Exploring New Avenues: Systems Theoretical Conflict Research” outlines an innovative approach that focuses on the potential of sociological systems theory to advance empirical research on conflict escalation in peace and conflict studies.

Conflict Escalation: A Brief Intellectual History

As cited in countless introductory chapters in peace and conflict studies, etymologically, the word conflict is traced to the Latin verb confligere, which means “fighting,” “battling,” or “struggling.” More precisely, the verb has a double meaning, depending on its transitive or intransitive use. On the one hand, it means intentionally clashing and assaulting each other, thus clearly emphasizing the dimension of violent behavior and physical action. On the other hand, confligere also stands for the abstract state of having an argument, a dispute, or an opposition, thus indicating the structural dimension of a social phenomenon (Bonacker & Imbusch, 2010, pp. 68–69). In comparison to these very common and elementary linguistic statements about conflict, escalation is usually not an object of such explications. Hence, to begin with, the word has its origins in the Latin noun scalae, which means “steps,” “stairs,” or “scaling,” metaphorically suggesting a process of becoming greater or higher. Even more notable, however, and analogous to the linguistic roots of conflict, there is also an explicit transitive and intransitive meaning of the verbs that have been deduced from the Latin origin (e.g., to scale, to escalate). In this context, escalating signifies both an action strategy and an abstract description of a state of affairs in a dynamic social relationship (Zartman & Faure, 2005). Both meanings have played a decisive role in major scientific debates about concepts of conflict escalation.

This section deals with those prominent forerunners in conflict theory—Georg Simmel, Lewis A. Coser, and Ralf Dahrendorf—who not only developed a concept of conflict as a state, but also integrated pioneering ideas about the social process of conflict escalation, even though the label itself was not used literally. For a long time, research on social conflict was predominantly concerned with factor-oriented studies searching for general social conditions and specific constellations of interests/actors causing conflicts to arise (von Trotha, 1997, pp. 16–20). At the time, conflict escalation was not a field of research in its own right, either in sociology or political science (Eckert & Willems, 2003, p. 1182). However, those classical authors wrote about conflict as a profound social transformation with both integrative and disintegrative functions for society. Therefore, they had at least an implicit idea of conflict as not only being structurally given, but also as a processual phenomenon that manifests at different scales.

According to Simmel (1992), conflicts represent forms of socialization. In his conflict theory, he highlights both destructive and particularly constructive aspects of conflictive interaction [e.g., relating to the development and integration of social groups (or societies as a whole)]. Against this background, Simmel distinguishes between various configurations, or “forms,” of conflict (with increasing intensity: competition, dispute, combat), indicating that socialization processes can take more or less intensive (not to say violent) forms. Those forms, in turn, are characterized by the means used and by the degree to which the conflict identity is interwoven with the issue at stake (Simmel, 1992, pp. 247–336).

Drawing on Simmel, Coser (1956) examines the conditions under which conflicts are functional or dysfunctional for a society. In this regard, Coser analyzes the positive aspects of social conflicts (strengthening solidarity, cohesion, and normative integration; improving the flexibility and resilience of institutions) and introduces the distinction between conflicts as means of transformation (“realistic conflict”) and conflict as self-purpose (“nonrealistic conflict”), the latter being dysfunctional for society (Coser, 1956, pp. 48–66). For him, pluralistic societies are typically characterized by a large number of conflicts. Since individuals have affiliations to various interest groups (and thus to multiple identities), conflicts are generally reduced in intensity (Coser, 1956, pp. 67–86). Following Coser’s conflict theoretical thoughts, processes in dysfunctional conflicts are particularly shaped by the emergence of strong and focused conflict-related identities that repress the multiple social affiliations that existed before (and thus are supposed to have a boosting influence on conflict escalation).

Referring to Simmel and Coser, Dahrendorf’s (1959) conflict theory represents a structural theory that also explains social change through social conflict. Partly based on the theories of Karl Marx (though emancipating himself from Marx’s fixation on class as a crucial societal category), Dahrendorf considers conflicts as unavoidable and universal phenomena since the societal organization and exercise of power and authority (whatever the political constitution of the respective society may be) constantly produces diverging interests and, hence, “latent conflict” between individuals, groups, or classes (Dahrendorf, 1959, pp. 210–213). So, does the latent, here understood as “structural” predisposition for power conflicts, always lead to “manifest conflict”? According to Dahrendorf, yes. However—and this constitutes his implicit idea of conflict escalation—there is an empirical variability in the intensity of conflict that is essentially influenced by the social mobility of individuals. For Dahrendorf (1959, pp. 234–236), the ultimate merit of a conflict theory depends on its ability to explain how, in comparable situations, a power conflict escalates into a violent conflict in one case and democratically controlled reform in the other. Hence, Dahrendorf more or less unknowingly sketched a proto-concept of conflict escalation and its phases (i.e., a continuum from latent to manifest conflict), which still can be considered a seminal piece for social science conflict research.

In political science, conflict escalation was by and large associated with the realm of international politics. As international relations and peace research entered the academic stage in the 1930s, the question of war and the definition of peace were focal points of the discipline. Since that period, conflict theories in international relations have basically been dealing with two key problem areas: a nonexistent monopoly of violence on the global level (often termed anarchy), and a lack of internationally binding norms (Stephenson, 2010). Realist thinking about international politics as being basically conflict-prone and conflict-driven emerged from those fundamental systemic features.

At the same time, however, the sovereignty of nation-states proved to be one of the very few reliable global norms. Following Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant, ultimately all modern schools of thought in international relations (i.e., neorealism, institutionalism, liberalism, or Marxism) have been built upon these fundamental opening questions (i.e., sovereignty, conflict-proneness) in conflict studies (Bonacker, 2008, pp. 21–26). Given this history, conflict escalation was certainly an IR topic right from the start, since escalation processes lie at the heart of most state interaction (Carlson, 1995). Arms races, deterrence, armed conflict, or war . . . escalation processes are intimately associated with situations referred to as “international crises” (e.g., Schelling, 1960; Jervis, 1976; Lebow, 1984). In crisis situations, actors must decide whether they want to pursue an escalating strategy (i.e., exert coercive pressure and thus impose costs on opponents).

In this sense, escalation has to be thought of as a fine-grained game of competitive risk taking that is embedded in an overall bargaining process. In fact, following Zartman and Faure (2005, p. 9), parties can have various irrational motives to promote escalation: winning, not losing; covering investments (actual and previous costs of escalations); gaining support (from third parties); seizing an advantage or target of opportunity; feeling powerful; rewarding oneself; or punishing the opponent. For those early and influential IR theorists dealing with conflict development systematically, escalation represents a more or less rational foreign policy strategy in the repertoire of states (e.g., Kahn, 1965; Deutsch, 1968, pp. 141–157).

In contrast to these rather transitive interpretations, systems thinkers, particularly in neorealism, have highlighted structural features in which conflict escalation is understood as a specific constellation among states in the global system. While differing in their ideas about the effect of those constellations, Waltz (1979, 1987), Copeland (1996), and other neorealists put forth the argument that the likelihood of conflict escalation is closely linked to the polarity of the international system; that is, the distribution of capabilities and power between states or, to be more precise, to the dynamic of change that alters these global conditions. In an effort to bring together these ideas about conflict escalation in international politics (be it in the state perspective or from a systemic point of view), as well as classical theoretical thinking about conflict and social change, Pruitt et al. (2003, pp. 101–120) developed the “structural change model.” This model tries to conceptualize conflict escalation independent of any predefined level of analysis, and thus represents a model of conflict evolution that has been very influential on the development of conflict studies as an interdisciplinary endeavor. For Pruitt et al. (2003, pp. 88–91), processes of conflict escalation are characterized by different simultaneous transformations, from light to heavy (means used), small to large (material/immaterial resources needed), specific to general (issues addressed), few to many (number of participants involved), and winning to hurting (orientations dominating) (see also Mitchell, 2014, pp. 71–75).

Their approach is thus more interested in describing and understanding the evolution of conflictive relations than in party-oriented strategies for getting the most out of a given structural conflict (Pearson d’Estrée, 2008, pp. 75–77). While transcending the neorealist idea of systemic change and reanimating classical conflict theoretical thought about social change, the structural change model sees escalation not just as intensification, but as “a particular type of intensification by steps across time, a change in nature rather than a simply change in degree” (Zartman & Faure, 2005, p. 6; italics added).

In conclusion, it can be stated that although the label conflict escalation rarely appears in classical conflict research, its conceptual substance is quasi-omnipresent in these works. Due to the dominant realist paradigm at the outset of the field’s emergence, international relations limited itself to a foreign policy view on conflict escalation or, in its systemic variants, to a structural determinism without getting into the details of specific state behavior. However, based on an integrative approach with regard to theory and praxis, conflict resolution, as a special subfield of peace and conflict studies (Stephenson, 2010), started to examine the whole life cycle of a conflict, aiming at developing “ideas, theories, and methods that can improve our understanding of conflict and our collective practice of reduction in violence and enhancement of political processes for harmonizing interest” (Bercovitch et al., 2009, p. 1). Therefore, conflict escalation, as a topic often referred to within the context of conflict resolution research, has always been located between interrelated visions of academics and practitioners.

So, in research on negotiation and mediation, for example, the spectrum ranges from rather theory-oriented research in international relations that deals with rational or normative motivations in arguing and bargaining processes (e.g., Risse, 2000; Müller, 2007) to practice-oriented research with a focus on multitrack diplomacy or peacebuilding (e.g., Reychler & Paffenholz, 2000). In sum, a truly holistic thinking about conflict escalation, conciliating transitive and intransitive ideas, did not emerge until Pruitt et al. (2003) presented a comprehensive concept of escalation that addresses escalation at different societal levels, thus integrating sociological and politological thinking in favor of a common social science perspective.

Major Perspectives on Conflict Escalation

Levels of Analysis

As hinted at earlier in this article, conflict escalation embraces a transitive and an intransitive dimension. This fact points to a metatheoretical issue that has also been referred to, particularly in international relations, as the level-of-analysis problem (Singer, 1961). According to Waltz (1979), for example, there are three images that can be considered to approach international politics: the individual level (i.e., leaders), the level of a state’s political regime (e.g., democracies, autocracies, hybrids), and the level of the international system (which is composed by states, understood as like units), whereas (at least in Waltz’s idea of neorealism) the latter is regarded as the most relevant one. With reference to this thinking, theoretical statements should not be either reductionist [i.e., drawing conclusions about international politics from the perspective of subsystemic entities only (the first and second images)], or holistic [i.e., explaining foreign policy solely on the basis of systemic features (the third image)] (Schimmelfennig, 1995, pp. 258–259). Surely, Waltz’s oft-quoted idea of images has encouraged scholars in international relations and beyond to clarify which phenomenon they want to explain in relation to specific levels of analysis. However, when focusing on conflict escalation as a social phenomenon that is per se intertwined with different societal levels at once, only a few seminal works in conflict studies have aimed for emancipating themselves from an overly paradigmatic level-of-analysis thinking.

Galtung (1996) has probably contributed one of the most influential concepts of conflict to social sciences in the recent past. In his work, conflict is conceptualized as a triangle that contains contradiction, attitude, and behavior. In this context, contradiction is understood as a perceived incompatibility between the positions of actors (e.g., aims, interests, aspirations). Attitude, as the second vertex of the triangle, encompasses the perceptions and misperceptions of the parties about themselves and their respective opponents (e.g., concerning the causes of the conflict or the allocation of blame). Finally, behavior involves specific actions of the parties to the conflict (e.g., cooperation, yielding, problem solving, contending, coercion, threats, destructive attacks).

In a full or “manifest” conflict, according to Galtung (1996, p. 72), all three elements have to be present. However, conflicts are embedded in dynamic processes in which contradictions, attitudes, and behavior constantly change and influence one another (Ramsbotham, Woodhouse, & Miall, 2011, pp. 10–12). Therefore, by contrast, in a “latent” state, a conflict can be constituted by contradictions only (i.e., without any negative attitudes or any contending behavior). Much of Galtung’s work tackles the shift from latent to manifest conflict (Galtung, 1996, pp. 70–76). This is where the question of the so-called right level of analysis comes into play. Taking the idea of social conflict as a point of departure, it is crucial for a contradiction to become a socially “visible” conflict that it is pronounced or, more generally, communicated in a broader frame of reference, whether that be community disputes over garbage disposal, labor-management struggles, class-based revolutions, civil rights struggles, border conflicts (Kriesberg, 1998, pp. 1–2), or transnational conflicts (Weller & Bösch, 2015). In other words, the very empirical nature of conflict escalation is characterized by a transcending of that what is conventionally referred to as levels of analysis.

Against the background of the ideal of parsimonious theory construction on the one hand (Waltz, 1979, pp. 60–78) and the conflict triangle on the other hand (Galtung, 1996, pp. 70–80), the greater part of works explicitly addressing conflict escalation have limited themselves to specific levels of analysis, such as individuals, groups, networks, social movements, organizations, states, state dyads, and the world system, and have prevalently focused on a single vertex of the triangle (e.g., only on the dimension of behavior). Sociobiological approaches, for example, argue that in conflicts between small groups (e.g., youth cliques) raising the stakes in order to achieve a goal against an opponent does not follow a rational logic as a general rule. In contrast, violence, being a resource available at any time during a conflict, is rather driven by biologically predetermined emotions like fear, anger, or vengeance, and is thus an impulsive action (e.g., Eckert & Willems, 2003, pp. 1185–1186).

In sociopsychological works (see particularly Tajfel & Turner, 1979), findings from research on interactions among individuals have been transferred to a dyadic intergroup level perspective, suggesting that relative deprivation and discrimination are not only ordinary processes of social comparison among groups, but also important factors in collective identity formation (Tajfel & Turner, 1979, pp. 40–43; Cook-Huffman, 2009). Based on the idea of social identity formation as being a conflictive process per se, sociopsychological studies have also evoked a strong response in research on “civil wars” and domestic conflict (e.g., Horowitz, 1985, Gurr, 2000). In this regard, conflict escalation is conceptualized as a spiral, whereby cause and blame are reciprocally assigned, self-amplifying mechanisms that simultaneously downgrade the out-group and upgrade the in-group, and violence against the so-called other ultimately gets incorporated into normative belief systems. Conflict spirals represent vicious circles of insecurity, fear, lack of information, stereotypes, deficient communication, and an endless chain of mutual counteractions (Pruitt et al., 2003, pp. 96–100). To sum up, the analytical focus in sociopsychological works remains on societal subgroups.

Other theories on conflict escalation are based on the paradigm of rational choice and agency. As mentioned previously, from a foreign policy analysis perspective, escalative strategies and violent action in conflict can be understood as the result of utilitarian calculation (e.g., Schelling, 1960; Kahn, 1965; Lebow, 1984). Thus, decision-makers engage in conflict escalation purposefully as a mutually coercive or bargaining strategy (Zartman & Faure, 2005, pp. 8–10). Rational choice and game theory approaches have also been adopted in research about domestic conflict. In ethnic conflicts, for example, individual engagement in violent escalation strategies has often been interpreted as a regression to atavistic instincts and irrational hatred. By contrast, rational choice–based approaches have convincingly substantiated the assertion that in a wide range of armed conflicts, particularly in war economies, the individual/collective acquisition and allocation of resources (e.g., natural resources, arms, people) is realized by the use of violence (Elwert, Feuchtwang, & Neubert, 1999). Thus, actors in new wars (e.g., warlords, guerrilla fighters, drug barons, terrorists, or governments) are interested in perpetuating cycles of violence to generate stable rents (Reno, 2000). However, according to the greed versus grievance debate, actors pursuing escalative strategies in war economies can be driven by both economic and political motives. In this context, escalation in new wars often has been associated with the phenomenon of limited statehood (Kaldor, 1999; Kalyvas, 2001).

For research on armed conflict and war in international relations and peace and conflict studies, one of the main challenges in examining conflict escalation is to overcome a more or less rigid (and sometimes unconscious) fixation on the nation-state (see, e.g., Daase, 2003, pp. 176–178). Indeed, there are elaborated and highly diagnostic concepts, such as intrastate armed conflicts, one-sided violence, political violence, and militarized interstate disputes, that have been developed on the basis of comprehensive global databases (see, e.g., the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, and the Correlates of War Project).

However, given the insights from the new wars perspective mentioned previously, the transnational dimension of escalation has become quite obvious (see, e.g., Chojnacki, 2008; Francis, 2009). Against the background of the profits from the global trade in “blood diamonds” from conflict areas, worth billions of dollars, the cross-border recruitment of soldiers, and, ideologically, the actualization of regional ethnic identities, those theoretical approaches that consider just a single level of analysis are necessarily stretched to their limits when explaining conflict as a complex societal phenomenon. In this context, a great deal of research on conflict adheres to a kind of implicit methodological nationalism [i.e., the methodological praxis of observing the nation-state as a key conceptual reference or, at least, as vital analytical category (Jabri, 1996, pp. 1–10; Chernilo, 2011)]. Certainly, it is unclear what form of methodological approach would allow one to transcend the levels of analysis framework, particularly when it comes to the integration of processes and structures.

Structure and Process

According to Dahrendorf (1959), conflict theories need to meet the challenge of integrating both the structural dimension and the processual dimension in order to understand conflict as a driver of social change. For a long time, theories of social conflict have particularly concentrated on questions of why conflicts emerge in different societal settings (e.g., in organizations, among groups, among collectives in national societies, or among states). They focused on generalizable social conditions and objective factors that encourage conflicts to arise. At the same time, little attention has been paid to processual questions of how conflicts develop and how escalation takes place to the point that organized, collective violence occurs (Eckert & Willems, 2003, p. 1182; Elwert et al., 1999).

Since the 1990s, there have been two major directions of research on violent conflict in international relations and peace and conflict studies. One strand equates violent conflict with its structural causes, and the other foregrounds the coming-into-being of a conflict (Schlichte, 2011). With its positivist natural science orientation and its methods of correlational analysis, the former has long been dominant—for example, highlighting causal explanations that deal with absolute/relative power gains, economic motives (greed), and the impact of ethnic or religious identities (Daase, 2003, pp. 176–194). The latter, however, offers an alternative perspective by stressing the dynamic nature of conflicts, shifting from cause-oriented “why-questions” to “how-possible-questions” that ask for constitutive conditions in the production of social phenomena (Wendt, 1999). Constructivist approaches have pointed out that conflicts are produced in the framework of discursive constructions of reality (Weller, 2005). Thus, the “reality” of conflict is not self-evident and intersubjectively verifiable, but rather is composed in the context of overlapping perspectives. A “process perspective” on conflict escalation asks how conflict identities and conflict issues develop over time (Collins, 2012). Hence, social conflict is not reduced to static conditions that are, in this view, understood to precede it. Actors, for example, are not considered as entities of any corresponding external reality of the conflict. Instead, they are seen as changing products of an intersubjective process of attributing meaning to the self and the social world (Bonacker, 2007, pp. 4–5). The same applies to issues, positions, and environments of conflicts.

Of course, the interplay between societal structures (e.g., institutions, identities, norms) and processes (i.e., actions of individuals, groups, states) lies at the heart of any comprehensive theory about the social in some way. To understand organized, collective violence as a part of conflict escalation, therefore, it is critical to bring together these two dimensions. In Gidden’s (1984, p. 66) words, according to his theory of structuration, the focus should be on “conditions governing the continuity or transformation of structures, which in turn are reproduced relations between actors or collectivities, organised as regular social practices.” Against this background, in an effort to “reconsider conflict analysis,” Jabri (1996, p. 1) states that conflict studies in international relations and in peace and conflict studies (as in social sciences in general) “must incorporate the discursive and institutional continuities which render violent conflict a legitimate and widely accepted mode of human conduct.”

Based on these epistemological remarks, research on violent conflict seeks to understand how conflict escalation is interwoven with both the structure and the process of identity formation, incorporating changing norms, role models, interests, institutions, and other elements. In this regard, the extent that the legitimization of organized, collective violence gets encoded in conflictive identities is of the utmost interest. As hinted at earlier, based on the concept of conflict as a triangle and on the idea of latent and manifest conflict, Galtung (1996) lays important groundwork for this approach, illustrating that contradictions, attitudes, and behavior can include structural features and processual elements of a conflict at the same time.

Modeling Conflict Escalation: Three Influential Models

Building upon Galtung and other conflict theoretical landmarks in the rich history of social sciences, there is a wide range of conflict escalation models. However, only a few of them explicitly address conflict escalation and deal with the problem of levels of analysis and structure and process outlined previously in this article. This section presents three of the topics that are most frequently discussed: Glasl’s nine-stage model (1999), Lund’s curve of conflict (1996), and Ramsbotham et al.’s hourglass model (2011).

Glasl’s work (1999) represents one of the most illustrative models in the field of conflict escalation. Even though Glasl dealt with international conflict and civil wars in the early days of his intellectual preoccupation with conflicts, the oft-quoted model was originally designed for organizations, particularly for managers, coaches, facilitators, and professionals such as lecturers, teachers, and mediators. Broadly defined, he understands social conflicts as interactions among actors who perceive incompatibilities concerning ideas, feelings, or interests (Glasl, 1999, pp. 18–19). Glasl’s model has been referred to in different societal settings, such as in contexts of partnership and family, as well as in situations of armed conflict and war. It is meant as a practical handout and diagnostic tool for conflict facilitators, aiming at sensitizing people for the dynamics of conflict escalation. In a more analytical and abstract perspective, it was also intended to outline how the dyadic logic of a conflict relationship develops over time. In marked contrast to other models of escalation, he understands the gradual intensification of a conflict as a “downward movement.” According to Glasl (1999, p. 84), escalation “progressively activates deeper and more subconscious levels, both in people and in groups, until these people or groups completely lose their self-control.”

Glasl suggests conceptualizing conflict as a cycle consisting of nine particular phases at three main levels of conflict escalation (Glasl, 1999, pp. 83–106). At level 1, “win-win” (stages 1–3), a difference over an issue gets identified. While different opinions and interests gradually come up, in- and out-groups that share common attitudes, interpretations, and interests develop. Increasingly, standpoints begin to become clear-cut and polarized. Since exclusive group thinking dominates, parties see each other as competitors mutually blocking each other’s goals. Yet, while competitiveness and cooperation alternate continuously, it is possible (at least in principle) that the conflict parties have fair arguments and realize their respective goals, if only partly. At level 2, “win-lose” (stages 4–6), the initial material basis of the conflict is increasingly ignored. Against the background of stereotypical images of the counterpart, every concrete issue gets associated with the existential question of victory or defeat. Since both parties perceive each other as aggressive and their own actions as defensive, the responsibility for escalation is externalized. Continuous blaming then goes hand in hand with mutually denying the other’s moral integrity. Ultimately, each conflict party uses threats of damaging actions to force the counterpart to do what the other wants. Thereby, the parties get involved in a spiral of threats and counterthreats, while the turbulence of events increases. Finally, at level three, “lose-lose” (stages 7–9), all parties lose track of their original goals and just focus on harming each other. Thus, the basic sense of security has been lost and the counterpart is expected to be on the verge of executing destructive acts; both sides view the other as a pure enemy, without human qualities; to suffer less damage than the other party becomes the main goal; and in the end, even the price of self-destruction is accepted in order to destroy the enemy.

Contrary to Glasl’s rather detailed model, Lund (1996, pp. 37–39) provides a simplified model of a conflict’s ideal life history based on its intensity over time. Thus, “the curve of conflict” illustrates how conflicts (among states, groups, and individuals) begin and end. The model purports to be a heuristic tool to relate different phases of conflict to one another and to various kinds of third-party intervention (Levinger, 2013, pp. 29–34). While conflicts may nonlinearly oscillate between periods of greater and lesser intensity, Lund’s model depicts ideal stages of intensity characterized by various types of actions between parties to a dispute in the course of a conflict. At the stage of “durable peace,” a “high level of reciprocity and cooperation” is realized (Lund, 1996, p. 39).

When disagreements and disputes arise, they are treated in institutionalized and constructive ways of accommodating diverse interests. However, on the basis of persisting value or goal differences, the relationships among the actors can become wary and tense, leading to limited cooperation. This stage is still understood as “stable peace,” but competition and cooperation are present at the same time. In the phases of both stable and durable peace, violence is not an option. However, when tension and suspicion grow and the parties perceive each other as adversaries, the use of deterrent means comes into play.

From this moment on, in Galtung’s (1996, p. 14) words, peace gets “negative” or, according to Lund (1996, p. 39), “unstable.” Therefore, the next stage, crisis, is characterized by a “tense confrontation between armed forces that are mobilized and ready to fight and may engage in threats and occasional low-level skirmishes but have not exerted any significant amount of force” (Lund, 1996, p. 39). Finally, when organized, collective violence becomes an encompassing societal phenomenon, the curve of conflict hits its apex. Then, the threshold of “armed conflict” or “war” is reached. With each of these stages, Lund associates a typical form of conflict management, especially including third-party activities: from “preventive diplomacy” to “crisis management” to “peace enforcement” (Lund, 1996, pp. 40–49; Lund, 2009).

Like the curve of conflict, the “hourglass model” (Ramsbotham et al., 2011) constitutes a model of conflict escalation that is directly linked to measures of handling conflicts (whether it be the conflict parties themselves or external actors). Also based on Galtung’s ideas on conflict, the hourglass serves as a metaphor, pointing out the “narrowing/ widening of political space that characterizes conflict escalation/de-escalation . . . As [this] space narrows and widens, so different conflict resolution responses become more or less appropriate and possible” (Ramsbotham et al., 2011, p. 13). In this sense, at different stages of conflict development, the model includes respective measures, not to avoid conflicts but to avert violence and to pursue conflicts constructively (Kriesberg, 1998, pp. 14–22). In a nutshell, it can be stated that the favored conflict resolution strategies are attributed to stages of conflict formation (Ramsbotham et al., 2011, pp. 10–32), as follows:

Stage of Conflict Formation (increasing intensity)

Favored Conflict

Resolution Strategy


Conflict Transformation



Conflict Settlement



Conflict Containment

Certainly, there are various approaches and models mapping conflict escalation as an idealized conflict life cycle in one form or another. Notwithstanding, Glasl’s model ranks among those rather sophisticated models that provide far-reaching and detailed empirical insights, since it has been inductively developed. Given its systemic considerations about the level of the relationship in conflict (win-win/win-lose/lose-lose) and its openness as to different levels of analysis, the model also has considerable theoretical aspirations. Yet the structural and reflexive dimension of Glasl’s approach lags the high (metatheoretical) standards that a comprehensive conflict theory is supposed to fulfill (e.g., concerning the role of identity formation). Moreover, Glasl’s conflict model appears to be inherently deterministic (concerning the secession of stages), whereas the true probabilistic nature of conflict dynamics is obscured (Pearson d’Estrée, 2008, pp. 78–81).

In contrast to Glasl’s model, at first glance, Lund’s curve of conflict impresses with its simplicity. It charts the intensity of a conflict (by measuring threatening/violent behavior) on the vertical axis and the duration of a conflict on the horizontal axis. Therefore, an ideal type conflict undergoes four intensity levels: peace, instability, violent conflict, and war. Thus, the curve of conflict can indeed serve as an orientation for further heuristic enterprises in the empirical field of conflict analysis. However, its theoretical aspirations are rather reserved. In large part, Lund’s conflict stages remain black boxes, since there are no attempts to theoretically address the questions of why and how the parties’ escalating behavior takes place. Also, although references to domestic conflict situations are given from time to time, the descriptive parts are overly fixated on the interstate context. In comparison to Lund, the hourglass model is much more detailed with regard to its empirical account and the theoretical grounding behind it, particularly concerning the stages of conflict formation (i.e., contradiction, polarization, etc.) (Ramsbotham et al., 2011, pp. 17–32).

Yet, these three mostly descriptive models reveal shortcomings concerning the equal status of the dimensions in Galtung’s conflict triangle (attitude, behavior, contradiction) that serves as a more or less explicit analytical basis for their approaches. Most important, however, in both the hourglass model and the curve of conflict, the idea of conflict escalation is very much interwoven with practical approaches to conflict resolution. This is in part a result of the intensive exchange between theorists and practitioners that qualifies this broad field of research since its early days (Kriesberg, 2009, pp. 16–27).

It would go well beyond the scope of this article to provide a full account of the tremendous literature on conflict resolution, conflict management, and even peacekeeping and peacebuilding (for more about this, see Sandole, Byrne, Sandole-Staroste, & Senehi, 2009; McLaughlin-Mitchell & Regan, 2010; Coleman et al., 2014). However, drawing on the review of the models described here, a good argument can be made for the idea of conceptually separating conflict analysis (i.e., understanding and reconstructing dynamics of conflict escalation) and conflict resolution (i.e., any approach of strategically intervening in conflict contexts). As Debiel, Niemann, and Schrader (2011) exemplarily demonstrate, in a conflict resolution perspective, there is an eminent danger of putting practical considerations (if not to say political projects) about prompt intervention first. In doing so, the analytical attention to conflict dynamics as such gets potentially blocked.

In other words, linking analysis and praxis too closely involves the tendency to favor existing structures and, at the same time, to hinder innovative ideas, concepts, and methods (which may suggest reframing existing structures or policies) to come up. Nonetheless, this is not to say that the concept of conflict resolution cannot be helpful when analytically focusing on conflict escalation. As Ramsbotham et al. (2011, p. 31; italics added) put it, “conflict resolution is a more comprehensive term, which implies that the deep-rooted sources of conflict are addressed and transformed.” Hence, to develop adequate strategies of conflict resolution in a second step, any analysis of conflict escalation processes must be conducted in depth as a first step. Seen from this angle, as it will be outlined in the next section, application-oriented research on conflict escalation takes both steps into account.

Current Emphases in Empirical Conflict Escalation Research

Drawing on observations of analysts, diplomats, correspondents, and peace workers, the field of conflict analysis and resolution is generally characterized by a close relation between praxis and theory (Byrne & Senehi, 2009; Diez et al., 2011). In light of the empirical pertinence of armed conflict, scholars and practitioners engaged in conflict research are particularly interested in understanding the perpetuation and intractability of deadly conflicts (Levinger, 2013; Mitchell, 2014, pp. 45–62). Thus, intensifying (i.e., escalating) and mitigating (i.e., deescalating) dynamics of conflicts are two sides of the same coin. From a peace and conflict studies point of view, structures and processes that engender large-scale violence are of the utmost interest. Consequently, research in the field of conflict resolution aims at understanding “how to bring actors back from the brink of war, how events shape their reading of history, how preferences held by one actor can be addressed within the confines of a competing set of preferences, and how information that is held closely by one can influence the expectations and behaviour of another” (McLaughlin Mitchell & Regan, 2010, p. 1). Based on that concept, conflict resolution develops “sets of ideas about avoiding, minimizing, and stopping violence that often is mutually destructive” and, naturally, lays great emphasis on the role of negotiation (e.g., track I–III diplomacy) and mediation (trust-building measures, conciliatory gestures, etc.) to transform destructive escalations into constructive ones (Cheldelin, Druckman, & Fast, 2008; Coleman et al., 2014).

In debates within the field of peace and conflict studies, the contrasting juxtaposition of conflict resolution and conflict transformation, the latter being assumed to be more holistic and oriented to the longer term, occupies a prominent place (Lederach, 2003). Instead of appreciating both strands as distinct, conflict transformation is often portrayed as a subfield of the all-encompassing domain of conflict resolution (Ramsbotham et al., 2011). Nonetheless, both conflict resolution and conflict transformation include a more or less ambitious and outspoken concept of conflict escalation. In other words, even though most of these concepts concentrate on intervention-oriented resolution and transformation, conflict escalation is a crucial (and sometimes hidden) building block in any of these approaches.

Conflict Escalation as a Substantive Concept

To back up the quality of conflict escalation as a substantive concept, the idea of conflict transformation, as introduced earlier, has to be addressed in greater detail. As already hinted at, conflict transformation is not simply another umbrella term for a set of specific, theoretically informed techniques in dealing with social conflict in practical terms (Ryan, 2009; Mitchell, 2014). Rather, it is a lens that enables observers to see more than an immediate issue-related contradiction, but also to envisage the overall meaning of a conflict as a long-term feature of social relationships. This perspective is deeply embedded in a tradition of considering conflict as normal in human relationships and, therefore, as an important driver of social change (see Simmel, 1992; Coser, 1956).

According to one of the key thinkers in the subfield, conflict transformation means “to envision and respond to the ebb and flow of social conflict as life-giving opportunities for creating constructive change processes that reduce violence, increase justice in direct interaction and social structures, and respond to real-life problems in human relationships” (Lederach, 2003, p. 14). Although reflecting the reactive and practical aspects of the subject, Lederach’s approach (as with other “classical” concepts; e.g., Väyrynen, 1991) extracts its ideas about the handling of conflicts from an analytical and holistic view on conflict development in all its phases. Strictly speaking, any approach of conflict transformation is supposed to have a more or less explicit idea of conflict escalation (and corresponding analytics) that serves as a starting point.

Following Lederach and other founding figures in the field, the Berghof approach represents one of the most recent reformulations of the concept of conflict transformation, which is defined as “a complex process of constructively changing relationships, attitudes, behaviours, interests and discourses in violence-prone conflict settings. It also addresses underlying structures, cultures and institutions that encourage and condition political and social conflict” (Berghof Foundation, 2012, p. 23; italics added). The Berghof Foundation is a nongovernmental and nonprofit scientific institution based in Berlin that supports various conflict stakeholders around the world in their efforts to achieve sustainable peace.

Based on that idea, the Berghof approach adds a further attribute: Systemic conflict transformation includes the idea of understanding conflicts as systems that cannot be reduced to the properties of its elements. Instead, in each and every conflict, these elements form a new composition that can be observed in relationships only (Ropers, 2008, pp. 21–22). Consequently, empirical studies following the approach of systemic conflict transformation take up the cause of pursuing a multilevel and multiactor perspective on social conflict. By introducing this kind of systemic thinking, the approach not only provides a starting point to grasp the complexity of conflict, but also emphasizes the nonlinearity of conflict development that can be modeled only to a limited extent (Wils, Hopp, Ropers, Vimalarajah, & Zunzer, 2006, pp. 13–14). Based on an attitude of modesty, systemic conflict transformation presents itself as a conceptually guided enterprise whose analytical focus lies on patterns of interaction and the dynamic of relationships.

In this context, it focuses on reconstructing a conflict transformations over time by equally considering views of the system as a whole (the “bird’s eye”) and detailed examinations of the subsystems (the “frog’s eye”). Therefore, to generate case-related working hypotheses (e.g., on the dynamics of interpersonal/intergroup behavior or the characteristics of symmetrical/asymmetrical conflict structures), it builds both on best practice in the field (by integrating field research, experiences of practitioners, and narratives of conflict parties) and on conflict theoretical thought from various disciplines (e.g., political science, sociology and social psychology, history, anthropology, law, or educational science). Methodically, it draws on qualitative tools, including the evaluation of project reports, participatory monitoring, individual and group interviews, surveys, and ethnographic methods (Berghof Foundation, 2012, pp. 66–69; 105–110).

Although “conflict escalation” does not show up excessively as a stand-alone topic within the abovementioned approaches to systemic conflict transformation, it plays a crucial role between the lines. Taking a closer look at the common idea of “transformers of conflict,” for example, it is argued that conflict issues, actors, or interests are not given facts; rather, they change over time as a consequence of underlying dynamics in a broader societal framework. In this regard, typical transformations of a conflict relate to the context (e.g., changing regional environment), to structures (e.g., from asymmetric to symmetric power structures), to actors (e.g., changing constituencies of the conflict parties), to issues (e.g., delinking and relinking of issues perceived as relevant), or to personal/elite transformations (e.g., changes in heart, perspective, or both) (Miall, 2013, pp. 76–80). Therefore, by retrospectively mapping conflict development by means of qualitative methods (e.g., focusing on conflict narratives), approaches in systemic conflict transformation claim to enable observers not only to address underlying societal tendencies, but also to assess different stages of conflict escalation, and thus to think of starting points for possible deescalation strategies (Reimann, 2004, pp. 43–46). To sum up, it can be stated that systemic conflict transformation represents a far-reaching approach to current conflict research, which is engaged in practical application and experience to a great extent, but at the same time has a substantive analytical and theoretical understanding of conflict escalation.

Exploring New Avenues: Systems Theoretical Conflict Research

Inspired by theoretical debates at the intersection between international relations and sociological systems theory, new approaches entered the field of peace and conflict studies in the last decade (e.g., Stetter, 2008; Albert, 2010; Albert, Buzan, & Zürn, 2013). In a nutshell, these approaches pick up the idea of understanding conflicts as social systems in their own right and provide a comprehensive theoretical framework as well as pathways for empirical research programs. However, thinking in systems theoretical categories has epistemological repercussions. To assess the potential of systems theoretical conflict research, this section briefly considers some basics, particularly concerning the concept of communication that increasingly (re)gains attention in research at large (Albert, Kessler, & Stetter, 2008, pp. 47–52).

Communication and Conflicts

“The world does not speak. Only we do.”

(Rorty, 1989, p. 6).

The world or, in Kant’s words (2004[1783], p. 40), the “things in themselves,” cannot be logically accessed and objectively experienced. They are thus not self-evident, and they cannot “speak” themselves. As the linguistic turn and constructivist thinking in social sciences suggests, the world is “moderated” by language, symbols, and discourses. If we talk about phenomena in the world, we communicate our individual observations. These observations (i.e., distinctions and denominations) are necessarily linked to preceding observations and their inherent meaning, which is thereby confirmed, refused, or, more generally, reproduced. In this context, the communication of observations shows a fundamentally contingent character: Specific information is selected as well as imparted in one way or another, and it is understood. Communication thus represents a synthesis of three components: information, message, and understanding (Luhmann, 1995, p. 147).

Taking as point of departure that what is increasingly referred to as communicative turn in the social sciences (Albert et al., 2008), it is argued that communication constitutes the basis of all social structures and processes. In other words, the social (i.e., collective structures such as institutions, norms, identities) or subject-positions (e.g., friend, opponent, rebel, and secessionist) is understood as being exclusively produced within communication. Hence, all social phenomena [e.g., escalating conflicts, represent discursive events that “materialise” via processes of interlinking (linguistic, symbolic) communication].

According to Luhmannian systems theory, society, including conflicts as an essential part of social life, is defined as the totality of communications that are able to (actually or potentially) reach each other (Luhmann, 1995, pp. 405–436; Luhmann, 2009). Society is thus constituted of and reproduced by communication. If communication is continuously processed, social systems, stable structures of mutual expectations, develop. Social systems reduce complexity by providing reservoirs of meaning (i.e., stocks of distinctions and denominations “on call,” and by demarcating themselves from the environment). Based on that concept, society consists of functionally differentiated subsystems (e.g., politics, economics, law, science, or religion) each with its own exclusive functions and specific generalized media of communication that enable “connectability” (see, e.g., political communication that essentially deals with the distribution of decision-making power).

Against this systems theoretical background, conflicts are conceptualized as communication-based systems in their own right. “A conflict exists when expectations are communicated and the nonacceptance of the communication is communicated in return” (Luhmann, 1995, p. 388). In other words, if and only if contradiction gives reason to subsequent communication, a social process begins to stabilize in the form of a system of negative expectations. In this sense, conflicts represent highly integrative and stable social systems that develop within other social systems. In the course of conflict escalation, conflict systems increasingly claim all resources and all attention of the “hosting” systems for the sake of their self-preservation.

This process is structured according to three dimensions (Luhmann, 1995, pp. 74–82): Concerning its factual dimension, it is characterized by an increasing number of issues and topics (originating from the host system’s communication) that are perceived as “conflict-items.” Considering this evolution in its social dimension, the relationship between ego and alter/self and other, based on a single contradiction in the beginning, becomes increasingly adversarial and antagonistic. Finally, adding the temporal dimension, conflict systems, like any other social system, do not tend to end for no reason but to create new starting points for conflict communication again and again. Here, not only the past (e.g., previous actions of an adversary) but also the future (e.g., future strategies of a conflict party) gets implicated in the perception of the conflict’s present. To sum up, in a systems theoretical perspective, conflicts are understood as “capturing” social systems; that is, evolving discursive spaces in which contradicting communication from various social subsystems gets structurally interlinked and stabilized over time.

Systems Theoretical Conflict Escalation Research

Conventionally, conflicts are often conceptualized as the result of latent external structures, as objectifiable topics of research that consist of self-evident components, such as specific conflict parties or conflict issues (e.g., Wallensteen, 2007). Also, conflicts are often understood as pathological deformation of a social relationship, or even as a complete breakdown of communication between actors (Albert et al., 2008, pp. 47–52). In systems theoretical conflict research, by contrast, conflicts are understood as phenomena of the social world that are produced in the framework of discursive constructions of reality (Jackson, 2009). Conflict parties, victims of violence, bystanders, or intervening third parties all have their own worldviews and patterns of observing. A reflexive perspective therefore prompts treating different patterns of attributing meaning as constitutive parts of any analysis of “the social” (Weller, 2005). Hence, the analysis of conflict escalation is supposed to be conducted on the basis of perceptions (i.e., documented observations/narratives over time).

Based on Luhmann’s ideas of conflict, Messmer (2003, 2007) developed a unique model of conflict escalation (in comparison to the well-known models portrayed in this article) by means of empirical case studies. Messmer’s model, which is exclusively based on fine-grained analyses of how communication in conflict is processed, proposes four stages of conflict escalation (Messmer, 2007, pp. 104–108). First, at the outset, there is an isolated articulation of a contradiction (a “no”) that results from a rejected offer of meaning. For Messmer, this kind of everyday bagatelle is called the conflict episode. The second stage of conflict is characterized by a focus on a specific topic or issue. At this level of the issue conflict, participants try to persuade their counterparts by means of valid arguments. In the relational conflict, more and more topics that are not associated with the initial conflict issue matter. Thus, further spheres of social life get included into the conflict. Contradictions that have been observed as issue-related are then projected on the relational level of alter/ego and get the framing of collective accusations. At this stage, the reciprocal demarcation (via language) gets consolidated, and the self is increasingly observed as threatened by the other. Thereby, collective conflict identities get clearly apostrophized as antagonistic conflict parties. Finally, at the stage of the power conflict, communication of power and threat dominates all spheres of social life. Issue-related dissent makes way to perceiving the counterpart as an opponent/enemy who has to be encountered with force and repression.

To break the will of the opposing side, the option of collective violence comes into the conflict parties’ horizon of acting. Yet, Messmer’s stages of conflict escalation are not designed as clear-cut analytical units, but instead as parts of a continuum of escalation. Moreover, this model of qualitatively defined stages of conflict follows neither a linear logic nor a chronological one; rather, it frames ideal types.

Following Messmer’s pioneering work and Luhmann’s theoretical foundations, a range of advanced studies have been conducted that can be subsumed under the header of systems theoretical conflict research. For Diez et al. (2006), for example, Messmer’s model serves as an analytical basis in their study on the transformative influence of European Union (EU) policies (and the process of European integration in general) on escalating border conflicts in the European Union and its neighborhood. In several case studies (e.g., on Northern Ireland and Cyprus), the authors explore conflict systems at different levels of intensity/escalation and then evaluate the European Union’s role in conflict transformation, particularly related to the deconstruction of incompatible subject positions (i.e., identities, interests) in conflict (Diez et al., 2006, pp. 565–569).

A second example of a comprehensive systems theoretical approach to conflict escalation is Schirmer’s study on the “communication of threats” (Schirmer, 2008). Picking up the classical concepts of security and threat in international relations, he refines Messmer’s model of conflict escalation, epistemologically relying on Luhmann’s operational constructivism. Thus, he does not ask how security can be achieved by averting specific dangers, but rather how security and threats are produced in communication (Schirmer, 2008, pp. 209–221). In this context, both Diez et al. (2006) and Schirmer (2008) have partly linked their approaches to the “Copenhagen School” (Waever, 1995) by highlighting the common ground between systems theoretical thought on processes of conflict escalation (e.g., Messmer’s conceptualization of relational and power conflict) and securitization theory (including speech act theory) in international relations.

With an empirical focus on the Middle East, Stetter (2008) presents an elaborate theoretical framework that incorporates a communication-based approach to explore the relation of space and power and to assess the dynamics of societal inclusion and exclusion. In this context, he focuses the process of collective identity construction in a region of the world that is observed to be permanently conflict-laden. Finally, in a study by Schäfer (2013), the systems theoretical conflict escalation framework was applied to deal with terrorism. Empirically, he focuses on document-based communication (e.g., official statements, speeches etc.) between U.S. government officials and the leadership of Al Qaeda, which at the time was commonly observed as the global terrorist network par excellence. Theoretically, he strictly refers to Luhmann’s dimensions of meaning (as discussed previously) to portray the development of terrorism as a special case of a conflict system.

To put the entire picture together, systems theoretical conflict escalation research is predominantly concerned with the communicative emergence of conflicts and aims at enabling observers to capture a conflict’s discursive evolution. However, to develop and elaborate a productive research program, further reflections on empirical research methods are required. Indeed, the research projects briefly presented in this section differ on their empirical research topics. However, regarding the deduction of a coherent method, future research is encouraged to be even more transparent and fine-grained in describing their respective empirical research procedures (e.g., concerning selection of cases and data, qualitative analysis of texts, and coding procedures). In this regard, investigating the common ground between a nascent systems theoretical method of empirical research and more or less established, constructivist methodology (e.g., grounded theory, documentary method) could be an illuminating enterprise.

Seen from the broader perspective of peace and conflict studies, the systems theoretical approach to escalation processes outlined in this section cannot help but to advance theory development and provide new impulses for strategies of conflict management, especially with regard to “early warning” (e.g., Wulf & Debiel, 2010, p. 525). In this context, a promising key to developing early warning mechanisms and concepts of intervention lies in looking even more closely at the discursive process of conflict emergence. As recent research on the Arab Spring in the Middle East and the Maidan Protests in Ukraine suggests (see, e.g., Brownlee et al., 2015; Marples & Vills, 2014), organized, collective violence definitely cannot be interpreted as a spontaneous and eruptive social phenomenon. Rather, violence requires a discursive back story of some sort, which, in turn, traces far back before it occurs and, as a communicative process, deserves more attention in peace and conflict studies.


Parts of this article were presented at the 56th ISA Annual Convention, “Global IR and Regional Worlds—A New Agenda for International Studies,” February 18–21, 2015, in New Orleans. In this context, I am grateful to Mathias Albert and Mitja Sienknecht for their supportive and helpful remarks. Also, I would like to thank Christoph Weller and the participants of the Research Colloquium at the Chair of Peace and Conflict Studies/University of Augsburg for their constructive comments.


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