EXPLORING THE LINKS BETWEEN CONFLICT RESOLUTION AND SOCIAL WORK
Mary Hope Schwoebel
The concept of
creative marginality refers to the process through which researchers in academic
fields move away from the mainstream and toward the margins of their fields and
look toward the margins of other fields that may overlap with and fill in gaps
in their fields. This interaction, occurring outside of disciplinary boundaries,
promotes intellectual cross-fertilization, and it is often the site of
innovation. This article examines the links and interactions between the
academic disciplines and practices of social work and conflict resolution. The
article describes the different theoretical frames and practical approaches of
both social work and conflict resolution, and discusses the ways in which these
are parallel in both fields.
Theorists and practitioners in social work and conflict resolution are engaged in debate around three key concepts related to self-determination, empowerment, and professional ethics. The newer and emerging frames of both fields are situated at parallel positions on the continuum of approaches to these key concepts, in their respective professions. These frames favor elicitive rather than prescriptive approaches and increased client or party self-determination, a focus on transformation and empowerment rather than on problem-solving alone, and a stance of engagement and advocacy towards intervention, rather than neutrality and impartiality. The authors argue that increased interchange between the two fields has the potential to contribute to the development of innovative approaches to transforming social conflicts and promoting positive social change.
Conflict is ubiquitous. It has been a major concern of every social
science discipline, from political science to psychology, from economics to
communications. Conflict and its resolution has also been a central feature of
many professions, including law and diplomacy, management and social work.
Working with conflict is often at the core of what social workers do. In fact,
social workers are increasingly practicing conflict resolution as a profession
(e.g. family and community mediation) or as an integral part of their social
In turn, the relatively new discipline of conflict resolution has drawn
on every social science discipline, including political science, economics,
sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Conflict resolution practitioners have
adopted approaches and techniques from many professions, including education,
counseling and social work.
The link between social work and conflict resolution is an unequivocal
one with numerous shared theories and methods underlying the practices of both
fields. Both fields place an emphasis on people's interests, needs, values and
identity. Both require collaborative processes. Much of the work in both fields
involves addressing issues that affect children and families, communities,
organizations, and the environment. Yet both fields, perhaps too readily, have
tended to appropriate the vocabularies and techniques of the other, without
thoroughly grasping the assumptions and concepts underpinning them. And despite
the overlap, there has been little concentrated effort to include conflict
resolution theory and practice as a fundamental component of social work
education. Neither have conflict resolution academics nor practitioners made a
conscious effort to identify the contributions that social work has made and can
make to the field of conflict resolution.
Nevertheless, there are parallel theoretical currents that have
implications for the practice of both fields. One is the problem-solving
approach, which is currently the basis of social work practice, particularly in
the context of managed care. The problem-solving approach is also the basis of
the predominant conflict management practice which is "interest-based
bargaining" (Fisher and Ury, 1981).
Another is the transformative approach, the goals of which include
personal change, changed relationships, and the empowerment of individuals or
groups. This approach is characterized by a focus on collaborative processes and
an emphasis on self-determination. The goal of transformative approaches is
empowerment (Rothman, 1997 and Bush and Folger, 1994).
Still another is the nested approach, which acknowledges - and sometimes
attempts to address - the multiple layers of the system in which individuals are
embedded (Dugan, 1996). Theorists and practitioners in both fields are
struggling to define the roles of their fields in relation to the larger
structural or systemic issues that are often the source of the problems that
their practices are attempting to solve. This is sometimes played out in
decisions about the appropriate systemic level at which to carry out
Both fields are impacted by the contradictions and tensions between the
problem solving, transformative, and structural or systemic approaches. It is in
grappling with these tensions, at the cutting edges of these fields, that a
partnership between them holds the most promise. In both the academic and
professional arenas, there is much to be gained from cross-fertilization between
social work and conflict resolution.
The concept of creative marginality was developed by Dogan and Pahre
(1990), who suggest that each academic field develops its own theoretical
knowledge base built on an accumulation of innovations (what they term
"patrimony"), which grounds the research in that field. As disciplines
grow and become dense with theorists, there is an overcrowding in the academic
field with many scholars studying the same patrimony and asking the same
questions. Such density is not characterized by innovation.
Density simultaneously creates a propensity for researchers to fragment
into sub fields. Specialization subsequently produces gaps between sub fields.
As some scholars move away from the mainstream and toward the margins of the
field, they begin to look toward the margins of other fields that may overlap
and fill in those gaps. This interaction outside of disciplinary boundaries
provides the grounds for intellectual cross-fertilization, and it is often the
site at which innovation occurs. "Not only are the margins less densely
populated, providing more room to grow, but successful combinations of material
from two sub fields typically allows greater scope for creativity. In fact, the
greatest accumulation of incremental advances takes place at the intersection of
fields" (Dogan and Pahre, 1990).
This process has occurred in most fields of inquiry from anthropology to
zoology. For example, the field of developmental psychology, in attempting to
fill in the gap between psychological development and biological development,
has become an important field in its own right (Dogan and Pahre, 1990). The
cross-fertilization of theories and practices between the fields of conflict
resolution and social work promises not only the possibility of innovation at
the site at which their margins overlap, but also the possibility of producing a
hybrid sub field. In anticipation of this innovation, it is important to explore
how conflict resolution can inform the theory and practice of social work and
how social work can inform the theory and practice of conflict resolution.
in Conflict Resolution and Social Work: Mediation as a Crossroad
There are numerous examples that illustrate the synthesis between social
work and conflict resolution in the practices of both fields. This is most
pronounced in the arena of mediation. There are many people practicing mediation
today and they come from a wide range of experience and training, including
lawyers, conflict resolution professionals and community volunteers. Social
workers are increasingly including mediation in their "toolbox" of
interventions. These include divorce and custody mediation, mediating
intercultural conflicts, mediating community conflicts, crime victim-offender
mediation, Equal Employment Opportunity disputes, and health care conflicts
(between health care providers, patients, and insurance companies). Of these,
divorce and custody mediation is perhaps the most widely practiced type of
mediation by social workers.
Social workers began providing divorce mediation services in the United
States in the 1960's, and within two decades were providing almost half of the
mediation services in the private sector, and almost three quarters of the
services in the public sector (Pearson, Ring and Milne, 1983). The divorce
mediator facilitates negotiations between spouses attempting to reach a divorce
settlement. Unlike the traditional divorce litigation process, a key
characteristic of divorce mediation is the emphasis on ensuring that both
parties' issues are voiced and acknowledged, leading to recognition and
acceptance of mutual responsibility for the relationship's outcome (Haynes,
is compatible with social work practice because its goal is to help parties
solve their own problems and to empower people in conflict. Mediation builds on
social work skills, such as problem analysis, communication, and systems
intervention. However, mediation is not just another application of core social
work skills. It draws on many other professional disciplines as well, including
sociology, political science, law and organizational development (Mayer, 1995).
conflict resolution is not psychotherapy, and mediation is not a therapeutic
technique, it is a technique that may have considerable therapeutic benefit.
Kelly (1983) points out that there are similarities in the goals, techniques and
outcomes of psychotherapy and mediation, in the context of divorce mediation;
however he insists that the two must be seen as distinct professions.
is important to recognize that the effect of a successfully completed mediation
on one or both clients can be similar to the effect hoped for in therapy. For
example, the divorce mediation process is often highly therapeutic for one or
both parties since it can lead to an observable reduction in the anxiety,
depression, and anger that can be generated by divorce. Similarly, mediators
sometimes note increased acceptance of the divorce, increased confidence in
one's ability to cope, heightened self-reliance, and improved communications
between divorcing spouses. However positive these changes may be, they are not
usually the primary goal of mediation, but rather the effect of the process. In
fact, mediation can produce a divorce settlement satisfactory to both parties
without any accompanying psychological change (Kelly, 1983).
Problem-solving mediation may employ some of the same techniques as
therapy but the mediator is focused on how to reach an agreement by which the
parties will abide in the future. Its goal is not to examine past pain or
negative patterns of interaction. "Mediation has long been distinguished
from therapy by its settlement goals, task focus, and highly structured format.
The psychological and emotional benefits accrued from mediation have usually
been considered secondary goals or by-products of a cooperative process"
The role of the problem-solving mediator is more directive than that of
the therapist; the mediator may structure the process, suggest options, educate,
organize information and assist the parties to develop proposals. Assessment is
limited since mediation does not generally probe deeply into past history.
Intervention may include social work techniques as well as aspects of law,
conflict management, and negotiation and bargaining strategies and tactics (Kruk,
However, as both conflict resolution and social work move away from
interest-based problem-solving goals, and towards needs- and identity-based
empowerment and transformative goals, their borders become increasingly blurred.
Current mediation practice can be seen as falling along a continuum from
"structured to therapeutic, neutralist to interventionist, directive to
nondirective" (Kruk, 1997, p. 11) depending on the mediator, the parties,
and the nature of the conflict. Some conflicts, such as those involving child
custody, require more intervention on the part of the mediator.
If the goal of mediation is to facilitate the process of divorce in a way
that can ensure continued and effective nurturing and sustenance of a child,
then mediation must be integrated into a wider spectrum of educational,
psychological, legal, and community services for the divorcing family. As
Wallerstein (1986) writes, "Family mediation has outgrown its origins and
emerged as a social intervention that takes us to a new threshold in conflict
resolution. A dignified and dignifying method of decision making, it affirms
that the process by which people arrive at a decision is related to the efficacy
of that decision. This is perhaps the single most revolutionary idea regarding
mediation that we must grasp".
Social work and human service scholars have promoted several therapeutic
approaches to mediation. Irving and Benjamin (1987) present a four-stage
therapeutic family mediation approach, as an alternative to structured
negotiation in family mediation. Kruk's (1997) therapeutic-interventionist
approach is suggested for facilitating parenting plans after a divorce. In this
approach, the mediator takes on an advocacy role for the children's needs.
Johnston and Campbell's (1988) tri-level model of high conflict mediation
proposes that mediation and counseling may sometimes be provided by the same
professional. In these models, "the primary focus of mediation is the
underlying emotional issues and relational processes blocking agreement, and the
goal of mediation is not only settlement of the dispute, but restructured
relationships, enhanced communication and problem-solving skills, and increased
cooperation or at least reduction of conflict between and among the
parties" (Kruk, 1997). These forms of mediation, which are informed by a
social work/human services perspective, incorporate elements of therapy into
As conflict resolution practitioners increasingly utilize techniques that
expand the borders of their field beyond mediation, and as social workers
increasingly employ practices that expand the borders of their field beyond
psychotherapy, the boundaries between the two professions become even more
blurred. For example, a relatively recent innovation in which both conflict
professionals and social workers are involved is the victim-offender
reconciliation program (VORP), which is based on the concept of restorative
justice (Severson and Bankston, 1995). The aim of a VORP is to provide an
alternative to the judicial process that will enable a crime victim and an
offender to work together towards a settlement that promotes reconciliation
between them (Umbreit, 1993). The offender (generally having been convicted of
burglary or theft) is normally referred to a mediator by the court. The mediator
arranges a joint meeting between the victim and the offender, at which the
victim communicates their feelings about the crime and their sense of
victimization. The offender is given the opportunity to explain the
circumstances that led to the committing of the crime. Both parties then work
together to arrive at a mutually acceptable settlement, which could be monetary
compensation, community service, or some other form of restitution (Umbreit,
1993). In a VORP, social workers and conflict resolution practitioners, may be
involved not only as mediators, but also as trainers, organizers and program
developers (Umbreit, 1993).
It is important to note that although mediation is perhaps the most
widely known and practiced conflict resolution intervention, new approaches are
being developed. These approaches include: focusing on
conflict prevention, providing procedural, substantive, or decision
making assistance to parties, peacebuilding and reconciliation, and dispute
system design (Mayer, 2000). These new approaches aim to address the limitations
of mediation and continue to
contribute to the growth of the field of conflict resolution.
the Center to the Margins of Conflict Resolution: Resources, Interests,
Identities, and Structures
Conflict theory can be organized in terms of "frames,"
signifying that each of these perspectives provides a lens to the world of
conflict. Frames set phenomena within a conceptual and cognitive context that
delineates their components and imposes upon them a particular organization and
meaning (Bateson, 1972; Schon and Rein, 1994). Frames focus the attention of
both theorists and practitioners on particular aspects of the conflict
situation, shape the definition of the problem, and guide conflict intervention
(Bolman and Deal, 1984; Friedman and Lipshitz, 1994). Frames may also be
limiting and lead to selective perception (Dearborn and Simon, 1958). For the
purpose of this paper, the dominant and emerging (and still somewhat peripheral)
frames in the field of conflict resolution, will be categorized into four major
"frames", which will be referred to as the resource frame, the
interests frame, the identity frame, and the structural frame.
The "resource" frame views conflict as "a struggle over
values and claims to scarce status, power and resources in which the aims of the
opponents are to neutralize, injure, or eliminate rivals" (Coser, 1967).
This definition reflects the current predominant Western approach to conflict
(Hocker and Wilmot, 1995). From the perspective of the resource frame,
human existence is seen as a competitive process in which conflict may be
contained or ameliorated but never eliminated.
According to the resource frame, conflict is the natural outcome of
competition among individuals and groups over material goods, economic
resources, and political power. The natural tendency towards aggression must be
contained by the creation of coercive or legal frameworks, and by a "social
contract" which can forge a functioning society based on the alignment of
individual and group interests. The resource frame draws on the perspective of
sociologists such as Parsons (1960), who regard "equilibrium" or
stability as an indication of a healthy society.
Within the resource frame, the alternatives to violence for settling
conflicts are either mechanisms for social control or bargaining and negotiation
processes. The resource frame focuses on each side gaining control of the
bargaining or negotiation situation in order to "maximize" its desired
outcome. Compromise is viewed as an acceptable outcome when total domination is
viewed as unnecessary or impossible to win or to sustain. From the perspective
of the resource frame, reaching an agreement in which resources have been
redistributed to the satisfaction of all sides means that the conflict has been
A criticism of the resource frame is that it leads to interventions that
emphasize short-term, material solutions that leave the underlying causes of the
conflict untouched. As a result, intractable conflicts, whose sources are
structural, tend to recur with added intensity. Each time a conflict recurs it
may become increasingly entrenched and the cost of its resolution may become
higher and higher. Moreover, to the extent that the underlying causes remain
unaddressed, the resource based framing may leave deeper problems ignored until
they explode as a full-blown crisis.
To date, an “interests” frame of conflict has dominated the field of
conflict management. It was popularized by Fisher and Ury, in their book Getting
to Yes (1981), and by others in the fields of international diplomacy, law,
environmental mediation, and community relations (Carrbonneau, 1989; Goldberg,
Green and Sander, 1985; Raifa, 1982 Rubin
and Brown, 1975; Susskind and Cruikshank, 1987). These approaches reject the
view of conflict as a zero-sum competition over scarce resources and power, even
though conflicts may appear to hinge upon incompatible demands for power,
territory or material resources.
Fisher and Ury (1981) suggest that such demands, or bargaining positions,
are simply concrete expressions of underlying interests, which they define as
"needs, desires, concerns, and fears". The interests approach
maintains that parties to a conflict often become fixated on their bargaining
positions and lose sight of their genuine interests. Rather than haggling over
ways to divide limited resources, parties explore ways in which their interests
can be linked through "integrative" bargaining rather than domination
or compromise (Follett, 1942).
The interests frame, with its more optimistic view of conflict, is
strongly reflected in intervention theories that focus on "managing"
conflict (Blake, Shepard, and Mouton, 1964; Likert and Likert, 1976; Thomas,
1976; Tjosvold, 1991; Walton, 1987; Walton and McKersie, 1966). Conflict
management implies that certain levels of conflict are necessary and functional.
Unlike the resource frame, which sees conflict intervention as primarily a
negotiation process, conflict management reflects the interests frame's emphasis
on problem solving and developing good relationships (Rahim, 1986; Thomas, 1976;
Walton, 1987). Conflict management shares the resource frame's emphasis on
bargaining strategies and tactics, but with a strong emphasis on replacing
competitive strategies with cooperative or collaborative ones and on producing
"win/win" outcomes (Axelrod, 1984; Deutsch, 1973, 1994; Walton, 1987).
Smith (1987) pointed out that some interventionists associated with the
interests frame see themselves as agents of social change. However, by focusing
primarily on agreements and fostering improved working relationships, they may
actually reinforce the status quo of the system even though they espouse system
change. Because of its emphasis on controlling conflict and promoting
collaborative strategies, conflict management lends itself to "single loop
learning," which focuses on changing individual and group behavior while
leaving the underlying goals, values and norms unchanged. As a result, the
interests frame may be of limited help, or even be counterproductive, in
producing "double-loop learning," which involves critical inquiry
into, and changes in, underlying goals, values, and norms (Argyris and Schon,
1996). As with the resource frame, the interests frame's focus on solutions may
leave the sources of the conflict undiscussed and undiscussible. Even when it
appears to be successful, conflict management can lead to an illusion of
resolution. If the underlying problems are not fully addressed, the deeper
conflicts will continue to resurface again and again (around different issues,
perhaps) leading to greater distrust, cynicism, and hopelessness.
The "identity" frame of conflict is a newer frame that has been
incorporated into the field of conflict resolution. This frame also sees
conflict as stemming from needs, desires, concerns, and fears. However, it
suggests that intractable conflicts are really about the articulation and
confrontation of individual and collective identities (Rothman, 1997). These
conflicts may be expressed and negotiated in terms of resources or interests,
but they really involve people's individual and collective goals, sense of
meaning, and definitions of self. According to the identity frame, conflicts are
rooted in threats to or frustration of fundamental human needs, such as those
for dignity, recognition, safety, control, purpose, and efficacy (Burton, 1990
and Azar, 1990).
The identity frame differs from the other two frames by rejecting the
notion that conflicts are problems to be resolved or even managed. While
acknowledging the destructive potential of conflict, this frame maintains that
conflict offers opportunities for growth, adaptation, and learning
(Bush and Folger, 1994; Lederach,
1995; Rupesinghe, 1995). This
approach, also known as the "interactive problem-solving approach,"
views conflict as a result of threatened or frustrated needs which must be
surfaced, fully analyzed and addressed, before any kind of bargaining or
negotiation can succeed (Azar, 1990; Burton,
1990; Kelman, 1982; Fisher, 1996; Rothman, 1992).
Gurevitch (1989) suggests that true dialogue and learning occurs when
disputants learn how to "not understand" each other instead of
continually imposing their own mental models on the other. This studied
unknowing involves fundamentally questioning the way in which individuals and
groups have constructed the reality which they share (akin to the process of
double loop learning). On the one hand, it can lead to mutually defined
perceptions of reality. On the other hand, it can increase the possibility that
both sides gain deeper insight about themselves. From this perspective, the
desired outcome of conflict is not just resolution, but also growth, moral
development, and fundamental changes in perception.
The identity frame focuses on the process of engaging conflict rather
than simply reaching a particular settlement. Conflict engagement means creating
"reflexive dialogue" in which parties speak about their needs and
interests in the presence of their adversaries (Rothman, 1997). It also aims
explicitly at change both within individual parties and between parties. Having
first expressed themselves and heard each other in this way,
parties are encouraged to collaborate in setting new goals and restructuring
their relationship on the basis of changes in, and more positive definitions of,
Rather than focusing on resolving conflicting interests, the
identity-frame provides a way of thinking about conflict as an opportunity for
double-loop learning, or inquiry into and clarification of deeper issues
involving fundamental goals, values, needs, standards, and assumptions (Argyris
and Schon, 1996). Unlike the resource or interests frames of conflict, the
identity frame does not focus on bargaining or negotiation as a means of
intervening in or resolving conflict. From the perspective of the identity
frame, the goal of intervention is not just reaching agreements or resolution.
Rather it entails engaging conflict as an opportunity for challenging the status
quo. From the identity frame perspective, conflict promotes what Argyris and
Schon (1978) have called "good dialectic." Agreements emerge not
through changing strategies from competition to cooperation but as the result of
inquiry and fundamental changes in thinking. By asking parties in a conflict to
consider the meaning behind their needs and interests, the identity frame offers
an approach to conflict and conflict engagement that can be empowering and
An emerging frame in the field of conflict resolution is the structural
frame. This frame has its roots in the work of Johan Galtung (1969) and the
field of peace studies. Galtung (1969) developed the concept of "structural
violence" as the situation of political, economic, and social injustice in
which gross inequities exist between different groups' decision-making power
over the distribution of resources (Galtung, 1969).
Maire Dugan (1996), another peace researcher, developed the "nested
theory" to delineate how a given interpersonal, familial, or organizational
conflict is symptomatic of over-arching societal systems and structures. On the
one hand, traditional conflict resolution practice addresses an immediate
crisis, and may even help to repair or renew the relationship between
conflicting parties; however, it does not redress the inequalities of the system
that is at the root of the conflict. On the other hand, peace research focuses
on the structural and systemic level, but does not resolve the conflict at hand,
or mend the relationship. Dugan suggests an intermediate level, which she calls
the sub-system, as the arena in which practitioners can simultaneously address
the conflict at hand, the relationship, and the larger system.
Conflict theorists employing the structural frame propose that changes in
both relationships and structures or systems are necessary for genuine conflict
transformation to occur. Jeong (1999) writes, "Efforts to resolve conflict
need to be assessed in terms of an outcome as well as a process. Subsequently,
conflict resolution has to be geared toward finding solutions to the structural
causes of problems that are responsible for contentious relationships....
Negotiation for peaceful relationships would not be effective without
confronting the structural origins of problems".
Richard Rubenstein (1999) points out that interveners are regularly
successful in their efforts to assist parties in restructuring systems or
patterned relationships in organizations and families. "To the extent that
the family functions as an independent social unit, this task may be
accomplished without great difficulty by skillful third parties" (Rubenstein,
1999). But families, organizations, schools, and other social units, are not
independent units. Rubenstein (1999) continues, "....their embeddedness in
modern social structures makes it increasingly difficult for them to play
traditional roles as institutional alternatives to the macro-system. As a
result, one increasingly finds family conflicts linked with broader structural
conflicts. Their termination may therefore be dependent upon conflict resolution
at a more encompassing and problematical level".
Traditional conflict resolution practice, because it brings the parties
to settlement without addressing the underlying causes of the conflict, may
result in temporary peace. However, the failure to restructure in significant
and fundamental ways, almost guarantees that conflict will recur
the Center to the Margins of Social Work: Psychotherapies, Strengths and
work theories, too, can be organized in terms of "frames," or
perspectives that provide a lens to social problems. The social work profession,
already a century old, is clearly much older than the profession of conflict
resolution. Nevertheless, there is considerable overlap between many of the
assumptions, concepts and approaches of the newest and emerging approaches of
conflict resolution and social work.
Social work is rooted in the nineteenth-century concept of casework,
which focused on a diagnosis and treatment model of social work practice (James,
1987). For the past seventy years, social work has been dominated by the
assumption that individualized psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and humanistic
psychology are appropriate means for dealing with social problems (Specht,
1994). "We have these perceptions of social treatments because, as
Americans, our belief in the individual's capacity for change is strong, and our
faith in the power of the group and the community is weak, evidence to the
contrary notwithstanding." (Specht, 1994.)
In this frame, social work is primarily a problem-solving approach, as
both the individual and society strive for self-fulfillment (Compton and Galaway,
1994). What distinguishes different theories and practices of social work often
depends on the answer to the question: With whom does responsibility for change
rest? Is it the social worker or the client?
James (1987) suggests that there is a continuum along which the different
theories and practices of social work answer that question.
The psychosocial approach to casework (Woods and Hollis, 1990) emphasizes
the importance of assessment and diagnosis and the social worker's efforts to
determine the client's needs. Perlman's (1970) problem-solving model places more
emphasis on the client's ownership of the problem, but still suggests "the
problem-to-be-worked may become that of helping the client move from his
interpretation of the problem to that of the caseworker". Ruth Smalley's
functional approach (1970) works from a psychology of growth, with the center of
change in the client.
Crisis intervention assumes that the client's normal problem-solving
mechanisms may not be functioning effectively and that the social worker may
have to take an active role in owning and defining the client's problem.
Behavior modification, based on learning theory, allows the client to retain
ownership of the problem, while the social worker takes on the role of expert.
Task-centered casework, which is particularly applicable for short-term
treatment, encourages social workers to assist clients in achieving specific and
limited goals of their choice. The social worker assists the client to list and
rank order problems and to develop means to work on them, at which point, the
social worker's role is to monitor the client's progress (James, 1987).
More recently, feminist-informed, culturally sensitive, and humanistic
approaches to social work back away from the social worker as expert and focus
on client-directed definitions of problems. On the margins of social work today
are even more subjective approaches, such as narrative, constructivist, and
post-modern theories, which posit that reality is not objectively determined,
but is subjectively constructed and contextualized. These theories refocus the
emphasis of social work practice on process rather than outcome, with the stress
on shaping inquiry into the clients' definitions of their problems, rather than
on diagnosis. Ironically, this trend is emerging as managed health care demands
an increasing focus on problem solving with measurable outcomes.
The strengths frame has developed in part as a response to the pathology
frame. "Some of the impetus for the development of a
strengths/resilience-based practice comes from our society's unabashed
fascination with pathology, problems, moral and interpersonal aberrations,
violence, and victimization. Add to that the unstinting effort to medicalize and
pathologize almost every human behavior pattern, habit, and trait, and you have
a heady mix of diagnoses, labels, and identities at the ready - all advertising
our abnormalities, disorders, weaknesses, fallibilities, and
The strengths frame suggests a more balanced view of the power of
individuals to overcome problems and produce change. This frame is characterized
by "words such as empowerment, membership, competence, potential,
responsibility, growth, assets, and visions" (Saleebey, 1999), which
contrast with the vocabulary of the medical and psychotherapeutic approaches.
The role of the intervener includes facilitating clients to recognize and
build upon their assets, strengths, and resources in their environment, to
recognize their options and alternatives, and to design strategies that support
and strengthen ethnic backgrounds. Intervener roles also include educating
clients and assisting them to increase their own skills, encouraging clients to
believe in their ability to change, and encouraging clients to assume an
optimistic perspective about life's possibilities (Saleebey, 1999).
Problems, viewed by theorists and practitioners operating from
the strengths frame, are opportunities for growth and change. Individuals are
viewed as having unlimited capabilities for growth and change, and environments
are viewed as being full of assets and resources. Proponents of the strengths
frame have criticized the problem-solving approach in social work because the
concentration on problems moves the focus away from client strengths. Compton
and Galaway counter that, "While problems in the person-situation
interaction are the basis for the initial engagement between client and worker,
the ensuing formulation and implementation of solutions calls upon client
strengths, strengths in the environment, and worker strengths." (Saleebey,
The ecosystem frame emphasizes the relationships or interactions between
individuals and their social environments. It assumes that these interactions
are reciprocal, and that individuals and environments are continually shaping
each other (Germain and Gitterman, 1980). This dual emphasis on the individual
and the environment is an important characteristic of this social work frame and
distinguishes it from the psychotherapy frame and the psychotherapeutic
The ecosystem frame also attempts to counter the disease or pathology
orientation of the psychotherapeutic approaches to social work. Rather, this
frame focuses on the role performance of individuals and the environmental
supports that are available to them. "According to this approach,
individuals experience problems when there is a poor fit between their needs and
wants, and the resources made available by their environment - in particular,
the community" (Compton and Galaway, 1999).
Because people and their environments are treated as a single concept,
the ecosystem frame requires that interventions be addressed together, and that
approaches to practice integrate the treatment and reform traditions of social
work. Social work interventions occur at the interface between the individual
and the environment, or at the problems generated by the
"person-in-situation" interaction. Practice entails three objectives:
facilitating interaction between individuals and their social environment,
assisting individuals to increase their problem-solving skills and their
competence, and influencing social and environmental policy(Compton and Galaway,
This frame's answer to a long-standing question within the social work
profession about whether to focus on individual change or environmental change
is that the profession should focus not on one or the other, but on the
interaction between the individual and the environment. Consequently, the
practice of social workers employing this approach integrates both clinical and
social interventions. Because interactions between individuals and their
environments are contextual, social workers must have skills to promote both
individual and/or social change depending on the circumstances.
Another long-standing question within the field of social work relates to
whether the profession should focus on rehabilitation or whether it should focus
on prevention. Again, the ecosystems frame suggests an answer. "Prevention
is seen as requiring social change, while rehabilitation is perceived as helping
individuals to cope with immediate situations. In reality, all social work is
both preventive and rehabilitative." (Compton and Galaway, 1999.)
Concepts in Conflict Resolution and Social Work
Conflict resolution and social work are engaged in similar controversies
related to three concepts that the two fields hold in common:
self-determination, empowerment, and professional ethics. Concepts, according to
Dogan and Pahre (1990), are developed and given a specific meaning by a
discipline, and play an important role in bridging between disciplines.
"Because scholars are socialized into a specific discipline, most of us
labor under various kinds of conceptual blinders, which vary from one discipline
to the next. By putting on the conceptual blinders of another discipline in
order to examine one's own, or by looking at a discipline from outside, without
these blinders, one has a greater opportunity to innovate." (Dogan and
Each of these concepts encompasses a continuum of approaches to
intervention: prescriptive versus elicitive intervention, problem solving versus
transformation goals, and third party neutrality/impartiality versus advocacy of
intervener roles. "Not only are the theory and skill sets of mediation [and
conflict resolution more generally] and generalist social work practice highly
compatible, but each embraces a set of core values to which practitioners are
expected to adhere, including client self-determination, empowerment, and
professional competence." (Kruk, 1997.)
Prescriptive versus Elicitive Intervention
Mayer (1995) suggests a continuum of intervener and client participation
in the resolution of conflict and highlights four points along that continuum:
unassisted procedures, nonbinding assistance, binding assistance and designing a
dispute system. The unassisted procedures can include negotiation, conciliation,
rapport building, information exchange, and collaborative problem solving and
decision making. Social workers can act as coaches or teachers for clients who
may be conducting their own negotiations; and in non-binding assistance
procedures, social workers can act as intermediaries. Generally, social workers
do not act as formal arbitrators; however, in the case of child custody
evaluation, social workers' decisions may be authorized as binding by the court.
The most common type of conflict resolution techniques used by social workers,
and increasingly conflict resolution professionals working in the newer
identity-frames, are the unassisted, facilitative, or non-binding procedures.
The debate between prescriptive versus elicitive intervention centers
around the degree of authority exercised by the intervener. The more traditional
frames and approaches of both fields assume a more prescriptive intervener role.
In these approaches, the social worker or conflict resolution practitioner is
the "expert" and is likely to prescribe or have substantial influence
over the direction of the intervention and the parameters of possible solutions
to the problems.
The newer approaches of both social work and conflict resolution
emphasize increased client self-determination. Both seek to foster maximum
client control over intervention processes and ownership of the problems. The
approaches of the newer frames are more elicitive and demand the active
participation of the clients in defining problems and developing alternative
solutions. The role of the intervener is that of facilitator or guide, who works
collaboratively with clients through these processes.
The field of conflict resolution practice incorporates an
ever-growing number of applied practices, including mediation, facilitation, and
arbitration. Mediation, however, is the best known and most widely practiced.
There are a variety of mediation practitioners, including peer mediators in
schools, volunteer mediators in community centers, court-appointed mediators and
divorce and family mediators. One characteristic that differentiates types of
mediation is the degree of the parties' decision making power involved at each
step of the process, beginning with whether participation by the parties is
voluntary or involuntary.
mediator who views conflict and conflict resolution through the identity frame,
and who views the goals of mediation as transformation, will generally be more
likely to promote the parties' self-determination in defining the problem and
proposing solutions. These mediators generally employ the same elicitive
techniques that social workers do, including attending and focusing,
questioning, reframing, partializing, summarizing, and reflecting (Kruk, 1997).
James (1987) outlines other skills that are important in mediation: identifying
and defining issues, encouraging parties to share their perceptions of these
issues, exploring options available to the parties, managing conflict between
the parties, and helping them negotiate towards their own solutions. "Such
processes and skills underline the emphasis upon client control of the
proceedings and the outcome, and their continued 'ownership' of the
conflict." (James, 1987.).
Problem-Solving versus Transformation
Power can be viewed as oppressive and destructive, when viewed as the
ability of one person to influence the decisions and behaviors of another. Yet
power can also be seen as positive, for example, as in the ability to get things
done (Yanoov, 1996).
The problem social workers must face in conflict resolution situations is
how to promote the constructive application of power and how to ensure that
disempowered parties gain access to available legitimate sources of power. It is
not so much that a balance of power must be achieved, because such a balance is
an elusive goal that an intervener usually cannot attain. Instead, it is
important that the parties to a conflict be helped to obtain access to
information, advocates, resources, and support systems, so they can be effective
in mobilizing and bringing to bear the legitimate sources of power that are
available to them (Mayer, 1995).
"At the community level, many of the social problems which concern
community workers can be analyzed as the product of actual imbalances of
power" (Yanoov, 1996). Viewed in these terms it is not difficult to
understand why many community conflicts, in which problem-solving interventions
alone are employed, are recurring. For example, if conflicts between communities
are framed as legal problems, then solutions will be sought through law
enforcement efforts. Unless a transformation in people's attitudes and behaviors
and relationships occurs, the underlying causes of the conflict may persist or
worsen. However, viewing the conflict through the identity frame to identify
underlying causes, and utilizing transformative intervention approaches, may
produce empowerment and changes in the balance of power. In such a situation,
conflict can be embraced as an opportunity for power redistribution in the
For example, gender-based power imbalances are the driving force behind a
feminist approach to conflict resolution. The feminist-informed goal of
mediation might be twofold: both a fair and equitable settlement of the dispute
and empowerment of the disadvantaged party (usually the woman). This approach to
mediation is highly interventionist, since it views mediator neutrality as
dangerous to the disadvantaged party. The mediator will likely intervene in both
process and outcome to assure the empowerment of the disadvantaged party (Kruk,
A central controversy in the field of conflict resolution, between
problem-solving and transformative approaches, revolves around the issue of
empowerment. Bush and Folger (1994) suggest that empowerment, rather than
problem-solving, should be the goal of mediation. "At the simplest level,
problem-solving mediation defines the objective as improving the parties'
situation from what it was before. The transformative approach instead defines
the objective as improving the parties themselves from what they were before....transformative
mediation is successful when the parties experience growth in both dimensions of
moral development....developing both the capacity for strength of self and the
capacity for relating to others. These are the objectives of empowerment and
recognition" (Bush and Folger, 1994.)
Professional Ethics: Third Party
Neutrality/Impartiality versus Advocacy/Engagement
Social workers and conflict resolution practitioners bring to their
professions specific skills and competencies, many of which are parallel.
Communication skills and problem-solving skills are among them. Neutrality can
be considered a professional skill, but its value is being questioned
increasingly in both fields.
A principal debate in the field of conflict resolution concerns whether
or not the intervener should remain neutral and impartial or engage in the
conflict resolution process. In traditional resource-based and interest-based
bargaining, the intervener is likely to adopt a stance of neutrality and
impartiality. However identity-based interveners are more likely to adopt a
stance of engagement. Increasingly, the concepts of neutrality and impartiality
have come to be considered by proponents of transformative approaches as
unrealistic, if not impossible, and as undesirable, if not dangerous (Bush and
This line of thinking posits that no practitioner can be neutral or
impartial, because all interveners bring their own assumptions, beliefs, values,
and expectations, that consciously or unconsciously, frame the very questions
that they ask. The intervention, through the interaction between the intervener
and the conflicting parties, creates a particular reality that is based on their
combined beliefs and preconceived notions about conflict and conflict
resolution. Thus the intervention itself, contributes to shaping the conflict
and its outcome. "There is no such thing as the "parties'
conflict" when third parties are involved. Conflicts are inevitably changed
as they are processed, and mediators are an inevitable part of that
change." (Bush and Folger, 1994.)
One way to frame the concepts of neutrality and impartiality may be as
"disciplined bias," in which the intervener becomes self-conscious
about his/her own beliefs and expectations and engages in self-conscious
practice (Soros, 1987). Another way to frame these concepts may be as
"reflection in action", developed by Donald Schon in The Reflective
Practitioner (1983). Schon suggests that practitioners may improve their
practice by focusing on how their roles and actions might influence the course
A step beyond reflection, which concentrates on the role of the
practitioner, is reflexivity (Rothman, 1997), which focuses on the complex
interplay between practitioner, client and context. Reflexivity suggests a
process by which instinctive and unexamined reactions to external stimulus are
delayed and analyzed prior to responding (Steier, 1991). This process of slowing
down and analyzing the values and priorities inherent in the interaction
process, while it is happening, is an interactive process which constantly
considers self, other, and context, and encourages parties in conflict to
examine their own underlying assumptions and priorities in their interactions.
This is important, not only to the parties in conflict, but to the intervener as
Peile (1993) suggests ways in which social workers might avoid
deterministic outcomes and promote creativity. He encourages social workers to
view their own and clients' behavior as creative, and to encourage clients to
view themselves in a creative relationship with their environment. The client
and the social worker should relate to each other in ways that recognize each
other's creative potential. The social worker should explicitly model this
process by working through new ideas out loud, and by using different methods of
seeking solutions, both verbal and nonverbal. He further suggests that social
workers avoid rushing, and allow time for handling frustration and tension. The
social worker may join with the client in collaborative reflection, and affirm
and strengthen the creative initiative shown by the client, including action,
reflection and experimentation (Peile, 1993).
The ethics of professional practice necessitate that social workers be
keenly aware of their values and how they convey them through professional
language and behavior. Manning (1997) suggests that social workers need to be
aware of ethical issues, determine what is morally necessary, and transform
their moral beliefs and values into action. "Social workers who have the
'courage to be as oneself' and to engage in the public debate about contemporary
social transformations, integrate social work values into the public dialogue,
and ultimately shape culture. Moral citizenship - awareness, thinking, feeling,
and action - provides a framework for this transformational practice."
There are clearly many shared theoretical and applied approaches between
the fields of social work and conflict resolution, and much to be gained from a
sustained dialogue between both theorists and practitioners in the two fields.
Such a dialogue has the potential to significantly enhance the practice of both
professions, especially in relation to those practices, such as mediation and
psychotherapy, in which the borders between the two are blurred.
Practitioners in social work and conflict resolution are engaged in
debate around three key concepts related to self-determination, empowerment, and
professional ethics. The newer and emerging frames of both fields are situated
at parallel positions on the continuum of approaches to these key concepts, in
their respective professions. These frames favor elicitive rather than
prescriptive approaches and increased client self-determination, a focus on
transformation and empowerment rather than on problem-solving alone, and a
stance of engagement and advocacy towards intervention, rather than neutrality
The issues at the margins of each discipline require serious intellectual
consideration, particularly in terms of their implications for practice. For
example, the debates in the field of social work, relating to individual change
versus environmental change, and prevention versus rehabilitation, mirror
similar debates in the field of conflict resolution. Increased interchange
between the two fields has the potential to contribute to the development of
innovative approaches to transforming social conflicts and promoting positive
social change. Such innovation is to be found in the intersection of the margins
of the two fields, especially in the emerging structural frame of conflict
resolution and the ecosystems frame of social work.
The newer and emerging frames of both fields are concerned with the
problems and conflicts that result from the structures and systems in which they
occur. At the margins of both, a new goal is increasingly becoming explicit,
which is to find ways to simultaneously address the immediate problems or
conflicts and change those structures and systems. Intellectual collaboration at
these margins can lead to enhanced exploration of how these fields can extend
the empowerment of individuals and groups, and the transformation of
relationships, to the transformation of the over-arching systems and structures
in which those individuals and groups are embedded. This, clearly, would be a
major contribution to the social sciences.
Argyris, C., and D.A. Schon. (1978). Organizational Learning:
A Theory of Action Perspective. Reading, MA:
Argyris, C., and D.A. Schon. (1996). Organizational Learning II:
Theory, Method, and Practice. Reading, MA:
Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. New York: Basic
Azar, E. (1990). The Management of Protracted Social Conflict:
Theory and Cases. Aldershot, England: Dartmouth Publishing Company.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind.
New York: Random House.
Blake, R., H. Shepard, and J. Mouton. (1964). Managing Intergroup
Conflict in Industry. Houston: Gulf.
Bolman, L. and T. Deal. (1984). Modern Approaches To Understanding
and Managing Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Burton, J. (Ed.). (1990). Conflict:
Human Needs Theory. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Bush, R. and J. Folger. (1994). The Promise of Mediation:
Responding to Conflict Through Empowerment and Recognition. San Francisco:
Carrbonneau, T. (1989). Alternative
Dispute Resolution: Melting the Lances and Dismounting the Steeds. Chicago:
University of Chicago.
Chetkow-Yanoov, B. (1997). Social Work Approaches to Conflict
Resolution: Making Fighting Obsolete. New York: The Haworth Press.
Compton, B.R. and B. Galaway. (1999). Social Work Processes.
Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Coser, L. (1956). The functions of social conflict. New York: The
Dearborn, D. and H. Simon. (1958). Selective perception:
A Note on the Department Identifications of Executives. Sociometry,
Deutsch, M. (1973). The Resolution of Conflict. New Haven: Yale
Deutsch, M. (1994). Constructive Conflict Management for the World
Today. International Journal of Conflict Management. 5(2), 139-155.
Dogan, M. and Pahre R. (1990). Creative Marginality: Innovation at
the Intersections of Social Sciences. Boulder: Westview Press.
Dugan, Maire. (1996.) Nested Theory of Conflict. Leadership
Journal: Women in Leadership: Sharing the Vision 1: 9-20.
Fisher, R., and W. Ury. (1981). Getting to Yes: Negotiating
Agreement Without Giving In.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Fisher, R. (1996). Interactive Conflict Resolution. Syracuse:
Follett, M.P. (1942). Constructive Conflict. In H.C. Metcalf and L.
Urwick (Eds.), Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker
Follett. New York: Harper Collins.
Friedman, V.J. and R. Lipshitz. (1994). Human Resources or
Politics: Framing the Problem of Appointing Managers in an Organizational
Democracy. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 30(4), pp. 438-457.
Galtung, Johan. (1969). Violence, Peace and Peace Research. Journal
of Peace Research 6(3), 167-191.
Germain, C. and A. Gitterman. (1980). The Life Model of Social Work
Practice. New York: Columbia University Press.
Gold, L. (1997). Marriage and Family: Mediation of Couple and
Family Disputes. In E. Kruk (Ed.), Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Social
Work and the Human Services. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers.
Goldberg, S., E. Green, and F. Sander. (1985). Dispute Resolution.
Boston: Little, Brown.
Gurevitch, Z.D. (1989). The Power of not Understanding:
The Meeting of Conflicting Identities. Journal of Applied Behavioral
Science. 25(2), 161-173.
Haynes, J.M. (1978). Divorce Mediator: A New Role. Social Work,
Hocker, J. and Wilmot, W. (4th Ed.). (1995). Interpersonal
Conflict. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown
Irving, H.H. and M. Benjamin. (1987). Family Mediation: Theory and
Practice of Dispute Resolution. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
James, A. L. (1987). Conflicts, Conciliation and Social Work. British Journal of Social
Work. 17: 347-364.
Jeong, Ho-won. (1999). Research on Conflict Resolution. In Jeong,
Ho-won (Ed.) Conflict Resolution: Dynamics, Process and Structure. Brookfield:
Johnston, J.R. and L.E.G. Campbell. (1988). Impasses of Divorce:
The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict. New York: Free Press. pp. 3-34
Kelly, J.B. (1983). Mediation and psychotherapy: Distinguishing the
Differences. Mediation Quarterly, 1: 33-44.
Kelman, H. (1982). Creating Conditions for Israeli-Palestinian
Negotiations. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 26: 39-75.
Kruk, E. (1997). Mediation and Conflict Resolution in Social Work
and the Human Services. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers.
Lederach, J.P. (1995). Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation
Across Cultures. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press.
Lewin, K. (1948). Resolving Social Conflicts. New York: Harper and
R. and J. Likert. (1976). New Ways of Managing Conflicts. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Manning, Susan S. (1997). The Social Worker as Moral Citizen:
Ethics in Action, Social Work, 42 (3): 223-230.
Mayer, B.S. (1995). Conflict Resolution. In R.L. Edwards (Ed.),
Encyclopedia of Social Work (19th Ed., pp. 613-622). Washington, D.C.: NASW.
Mayer, B. (2000). The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A
Practitioner’s Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
National Association of Social Workers. (1991). Standards of
Practice for Social Work Mediators. Washington, D.C.: NASW.
Parsons, T. (1960). Structure and Process in Modern Society. New
York: Free Press.
Pearson, J., M. Ring and A. Milne. (1983). A Portrait of Divorce
Mediation Services in the Public and Private Sector. Conciliation Courts Review, 21 (1), 1-24.
Peile, C. (1993). Determinism
Versus Creativity: Which Way for Social Work? Social Work, 38: 127-134.
Perlman, H.H. (1970). The Problem-Solving Model in Social Casework.
In R.W. Roberts and R.H. Nee (Eds.), Theories of Social Casework. Chicago:
University of Chicago.
Rahim, M.A. (1986). Managing conflict in organizations. New York:
Raifa, H. (1982). The Art and Science of Negotiation. Cambridge,
Rothman, J. (1992). From Confrontation to Cooperation: Resolving
Ethnic and Regional Conflict. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Rothman, J. (1997). Resolving Identity-Based Conflict: in Nations,
Organizations and Communities. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Rubin, J. and Brown, B. (1975). The Social Psychology of Bargaining
and Negotiation. New York: Academic
Rubenstein, Richard. Jeong, Ho-won. (1999). Conflict Resolution and
the Structural Sources of Conflict. In Jeong, Ho-won (Ed.) Conflict Resolution:
Dynamics, Process and Structure. Brookfield: Ashgate.
K. (Ed.). (1995). Conflict Transformation. New York: St. Martins Press.
Saleebey, Dennis (1999). In Compton, B.R. and B. Galaway. (1999).
Social Work Processes. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.
Schon, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner. NY:
Schon, D.A., and Rein, M. (1994). Frame Reflection: Toward the
Resolution of Intractable Policy Controversies. New York: Basic Books.
Severson, M. and T. Bankston. (1995). Social Work and the Pursuit
of Justice through Mediation. Social Work, 40 (5): 683-691.
Smalley, R. (1970). The Functional Approach to Casework Process. In
R.W. Roberts and R. Nee (Eds.), Theories of Social Casework. Chicago: University
of Chicago, 79-128.
Smith, D. (1987). Stalking conflict. Unpublished Qualifying Paper,
Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Soros, G. (1987). The Alchemy of Finance: Reading the Mind of the
Market. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Specht, H. (1994). Social Work and the Popular Psychotherapies. In
B.A. Compton and B. Galaway (Eds.), Social Work Processes. Pacific Grove, CA:
Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 145-153.
Steier, F. (Ed.) (1991). Research and Reflexivity. London: Sage
Susskind, L, and Cruikshank, J. (1987). Breaking the Impasse:
Consensual Approaches to Resolving Public Disputes. New York: Basic Books.
Thomas, K. (1976). Conflict and conflict management. In M. Dunnette.
Handbook of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Chicago: Rand McNally.
Tjosvold, D. (1991). The Conflict Positive Organization: Stimulate
Diversity and Create Unity. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishers.
Umbreit, M. (1993). Crime Victims and Offenders in Mediation: An
Emerging Area of Social Work Practice. Social Work, 38(1): 69-73.
Wallerstein, J. S. (1986). Psychodynamic Perspectives on Family
Mediation. Mediation Quarterly, 14/15: 7-21.
Walton, R. (1987). Managing Conflict: Interpersonal Dialogue and Third-Party Roles, Second Edition.
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Walton, R., and R. McKersie. (1966). Behavioral dilemmas in
mixed-motive decision making. Behavioral Science, 11: 370-384.
Woods, M. and F. Hollis. (1990). Casework: A Psychosocial Therapy.
New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Yanoov, B. (1976). Conflict as the Dynamics of Power in the Local
Community, Social Work Today, 7 (8): 238-240.