This chapter elaborates the overall theoretical rationale of the book and situates it within the conflict literature. Moreover, it introduces 13 individual chapters which are organized in two parts (see subsequent abstracts). A first part focuses on the question of why and how conflicts escalate, and a second part analyses continuation of conflict. The point of threatening escalation and continuation as separate analytical questions originates in the theoretical development of conflict theory elaborated in this introduction and illustrated in succeeding individual chapters. As a starting point, we observe that conflict studies often have confused the question of what a conflict is, with what causes conflict? Causes of conflict do not explain what a conflict is and how the puzzle of escalation and expansion of conflicts is different than that of continuation. Referring to root causes does not explain why a conflict continues. Consequently, we emphasize the intransitive dynamics of a conflict “taking on a life of its own” and theorize conflict escalation as a dynamic process of tension, interaction and situation of contradiction, where these dynamics reinforce each other in a spiral of intensification. Describing conflicts as having roots does not explain their continuation. Rather, it is the elements of conflict itself – tension, conflictual interaction and a situation of contradiction – that keep feeding into the conflict.
While contradiction is sometimes (mistakenly) referred to as the root of the conflict, the original idea of the conflict triangle was that all three elements were equal, i.e. a conflict could begin in any one of the “corners” of the triangle and translate into the others. In this chapter, though, we propose an even more relational version of the Galtung’s ABC triangle. Rather than attitude (A), we suggest that tension (T) better grasps the emotional and cognitive dimensions of conflict, as it refers to a field or state of a relationship between the parties rather than within or adopted by the conflicting parties. Instead of behaviour (B), we suggest that interaction (I) is a more accurate description of what a conflict is, as this implies the actions and reactions of both parties. And finally, we propose that conflict is not a contradiction (C) per se, but rather a situation (S) of contradiction, which implies that it is the structure of the situation rather than the actual deprived needs or scarce resources that defines a conflict. All three elements, tension, interaction and situation, pass the test of saying “conflict is a form of…” That is, conflict is a form of tension, a form of interaction and a form of situation. The chapter concludes that within the SIT framework, conflict is structured around opposition and contradiction and thus, the objective of conflict transformation is not to address the incompatible goals but rather to change the structure of the situation, i.e. the opposing positioning of the parties. The structure of a conflict situation need not be destructive with mutually exclusive identities and thus, a conflict should not necessarily be turned into collaboration but also to other types of “conflict modes”, e.g. from antagonism (where the other is non-recognized and ultimately to be eradicated) to agonism (as a legitimate opponent).