Intractable conflict is a severe conflict that continues over time and for which any resolution seems impossible, resulting in emotional to physical bias. This lesson discusses this definition in depth and its causes.

What’s an Intractable Conflict?

Some arguments have gone on seemingly forever. Like the war between Israel and Palestine, or the debate between pro-choice and pro-life advocates. These kinds of conflicts start as simple arguments, but grow and deepen over time.

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Due to the lengthy history of the conflict, the inability to give on either side, and the fear of losing by giving in, finding resolution is extremely difficult. Its a volatile situation, often involving or resulting in some sort of violence.

Issues of this nature are called intractable conflicts. They have a long history of anger and often violence with no relief for years, or even decades. These conflicts show a resistance to resolution; the standard techniques like mediation and negotiation show no effect, or even worsen the situation. Israel and Palestine have been fighting over independence since the 1940’s, and each time the countries and people come together for resolution, it breaks down, and results in further violence.

The causes of intractable conflicts go deeper than root arguments and involve values, identity, and emotion. Let’s take a closer look.


One cause behind conflict as a whole, but especially intractable conflicts is morality. For many individuals, their own morality is concrete, and a part of their identity.

If a conflict originates against what someone believes is morally right, they feel like they are taking it on not only for themselves but for righteousness. This is why beliefs and religions can spark serious conflicts, even wars, because each religion feels theirs is the correct one, their morality the ultimately right.

For example, many religions see homosexuality as a sin, others believe it is something you are born with and is the same as being heterosexual. This argument in morality is intractable, with people from both sides being unable to understand the others. This has led to protests, shaming, violence, and a limitation of rights. This also plays into the next cause of intractable conflict.


Identity is a collection of beliefs, family, environment, and community. These factors are large influences on who we are, how we grow up, and who we ultimately become. We start to feel beholden to our community and those who have cared for us, as well as others who have supported us through the good and the bad in life.

Therefore, if we are born into a community in the midst of an intractable conflict, we are likely to identify with it, and feel a duty to continue defending whichever side. We see the pain that affects the people surrounding us, and feel determined to rectify it by joining the conflict.


The third pillar of intractable conflict is emotion. Think about the last argument you had, if you had no feelings on the subject, would you have continued to argue? Would you have even been angry in the first place? Probably not.

Emotion makes us human, but it also breeds conflict. One of the biggest emotions that seems to have a constant showing in intractable conflicts is humiliation.

Individuals and groups of people that experience humiliation can often feel justified in becoming violent. Students who cause school shootings and terrorists that intend to inflict harm often speak of having been humiliated by their victims. With an intractable conflict there is the challenge to remove emotion and become objective, but the long history and emotional attachment can be very hard to set aside.

High Stakes

Lastly, the conflict can often be based on high stakes interests like power or land control. For example, in 1947 when India and Pakistan became independent countries, Kashmir also was independent.

However, Pakistan soon invaded Kashmir, prompting the leader of Kashmir to give power to India. Pakistan did not accept this, so they continue to war to this day over the area, and although there has been continuing attempts at resolution, the conflict comes back, because the benefit of power over Kashmir is too great.

Lesson Summary

Intractable conflict is a conflict that has a long history and a resistance to resolution. This leads to intense periods of fighting and emotional strain that can result in violence. With intractable conflict there are a few pillars that can hold the conflict for such a long period of time: morality, identity, emotion, and high stakes interests like power and dominion.

Each of these key points are ingrained parts of humanity, which makes it very difficult to change and resolve issues that fight against these parts of who we are.