Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Guest Blogger: D.A. Graham, Princeton Ombudsman

September 23, 2009

Please enjoy the following submission as the first installment of the 2009 Guest Blogger series. D.A. Graham is the ombudsman from Princeton University and you can read more about him [here].


Human Needs Theory meets Conflict Resolution Theory

“Conflict avoidance is not conflict resolution.”- John Burton
Human Needs Theory (HNT) was developed in the 1970s and 1980s as a generic or holistic theory of human behavior. It is based on the hypothesis that humans have basic needs that have to be met in order to maintain stable institutions (societies, organizations, etc). As John Burton describes:
“We believe that the human participants in conflict situations are compulsively struggling in their respective institutional environments at all social levels to satisfy primordial and universal needs – needs such as security, identity, recognition, and development. They strive increasingly to gain the control of their environment that is necessary to ensure the satisfaction of these needs. This struggle cannot be curbed; it is primordial.”[1]

Now we know that there are fundamental universal values or human needs that must be met if institutions are to be stable. That this is so thereby provides a non-ideological basis for the establishment of policies. Unless identity needs are met, unless in every social system there is distributive justice, a sense of control and prospects for the pursuit of all other human societal developmental needs, instability and conflict are inevitable.

If the hypotheses of this theory are correct, if there are certain human needs that are required for human development and social stability, than the solution to conflict must be the ability to create an environment in which these needs can be met. This is where Human Needs theory meets Burton’s Conflict Resolution Theory (CRT).
Professor Burton distinguishes between conflict resolution, management and settlement. Management is ‘by alternative dispute resolution skills’ and can confine or limit conflict; settlement is ‘by authoritative and legal processes’ and can be imposed by elites.[2]. Burton suggests by contrast:

“. . . conflict resolution means terminating conflict by methods that are analytical and that get to the root of the problem. Conflict resolution, as opposed to mere management or ‘settlement’, points to an outcome that, in the view of the parties involved, is a permanent solution to a problem.” [3]
By accepting the assumptions and hypotheses of the Human Needs Theory, Burton suggests that there is a need for a paradigm shift away from power politics and towards the ‘reality of individual power’. In other words, individuals, as members of their identity groups, will strive for their needs within their environment. If they are prevented from this pursuit by other identity groups, institutions and other forms of authority, there will inevitably be conflict. The only solution is for the groups to work out their problems in an analytical way, supported by third parties who act as facilitators and not authorities. This is particularly relevant when the conflict is over needs which cannot be bargained and not material interests, which can be negotiated and compromised.

If the participants in the conflict can begin to recognize their conflict as a breakdown of relationships, and that there are fundamental similarities between the antagonists, then the process of abstraction will enhance their objectivity.

The purpose of this process is to enable the participants to come to the understanding that all the participants have legitimate needs that must be satisfied in order to resolve the conflict. The other key here is to develop an analytical process to facilitate the changes required to create a system in which these needs can be met. Burton notes:

“Conflict resolution is, in the long term, a process of change (…). It is an analytical and problem solving process that takes into account such individual and group needs as identity and recognition, as well as institutional changes that are required to satisfy these needs.”[4]
John Burton, ‘Political Realities’ in Volkan, 1991, p. 20.


[1] John Burton, ‘Conflict Resolution as a Political System’ in Vamik Volkan, et al (eds.), The Psychodynamics of International Relationships: Volume II: Unofficial Diplomacy at Work. Lexington, MA, Lexington Books, 1991, p. 82-3.
[2] John Burton, ‘Conflict Resolution as a Political System’, in Volkan, 1991, op. cit., p. 81
[3] Ibid., p. 73.
[4] John Burton, ‘Political Realities’ in Volkan, 1991, p. 20.