Tag Archives: Conflict transformation

Readings in Nonviolence: Johan Galtung on conflict transformation


Johan Galtung died on 17th February 2024, aged 93. He was a well known figure and analyst not just in the field of peace and conflict but on a wider, global level. Transcend Media Service, which he founded, reports that he mediated in over 150 conflicts in 150 countries, authored 170 books on peace and related issues (96 as sole author) as well as countless articles and commentaries in the media.

Marking his life and death we are publishing here an article, first produced in 2010, on conflict.

Conflict Transformation as a Way of Life by Johan Galtung

From an essay written in 1968, “Conflict as a Way of Life[i]:

If you cannot remove conflict, why not adjust your thinking about it? Why not try and see conflict as the salt of life, the big energizer, the tickler, the tantalizer, rather than as a bothersome nuisance, as noise in perfect channel, as disturbing ripples in otherwise quiet waters? In short, why not treat conflict as a form of life, particularly since we all know that it is precisely during the period of our lives when we are exposed to a conflict that really challenges us, and that we finally are able to master, that we feel most alive”.

The essay goes on exploring “a science of conflictology” (this book is an effort); “conflictology as a subject in school emphasizing/ “resolving the underlying incompatibility” (the SABONA project is an effort in that direction); “conflict participation” (1968 was important, today it is almost commonplace), “democratization of conflict management” (could be better, also overcoming the elitism in mediation); “conflict has to be appreciated–if we have the courage and maturity to meet the challenge and enjoy it”.

The maturity and challenge ultimately come down to the individual. And the exposure to conflict will generally increase. Groups demand access to individuals, domestic society penetrates groups, global society the domestic society. To withdraw from what happens at the mega, macro and meso levels is hardly possible in today’s world, given the means of communication and transportation–and we may only be at the beginning. Withdrawing together with others–in a conflict-free local community, a territorially closed vicinity–will play a role. But so will exposure to the enormous diversity of the human condition, like the life stages we all experience. Culture will open for new values also when basic needs and interests are met. Close also that window? There will still be forces and counter-forces as long as there are humans around. Shutting them out, opting for the hermit style? Not only a-human but anti-human. An inner dialectic, dynamism, detached from an outer dialectic, is only for the very few.

Conflict is our fate. As are micro-organisms, so better learn how to handle them. The exposure to the pursuit of goals blocked by the pursuit of other goals can be overcome if our resistance capacity is sufficient, like an infection can be overcome by the immune system. But, if conflict is (almost) identified with violence then major parts of that resistance capacity is lost in an otherwise laudable effort to reduce violence. What is lost is the challenge to transcend, going beyond, at all four levels, as human growth, social growth, regional, global growth.

Of course we can transcend without conflict. We may have a goal, an end but not the means; in other words, a problem. We may apply our human creativity to it; Einstein, Picasso. But the conflict adds the dynamic of at least two incompatible goal pursuits, as driving forces. Attention, please, here and now. Have as a goal a master’s degree and time, money and hard work will take you there. Have as a goal joint study for shared love, and empathy and creativity may be needed.

Thus, we are laboring in our societies to bridge the legitimate goals of growth and distribution, including with Nature. The easy way out is laziness: go for one of these goals only. Such actors exist. But going for both has led to social capitalism, the Japanese and Chinese models; not perfect, but new and more is on the way. Politics is the art of the impossible; otherwise it is merely technology.

We are also laboring in a world with North-South and West-Islam. The lazy way out, once again, is to go for one horn of these dilemmas. But the other horn does not go away, we are coupled, be it in a world or a domestic order, or disorder. Take it on, no laziness, please.

Using incompatibilities, contradictions, as challenge gives us energy to draw upon. Driving history forward? Depends, it comes with no guarantee, except the daoist promise that new contradictions are lining up. Unspent energy can be hitched on to the contradiction next in line.

The point is to balance between the Scylla of apathy, simply giving in to some either-or, and the Charybdis of fighting the alternative with negative conflict energy. But is that not to demand too much of us poor human beings? Not really, there are ample rewards. Not only getting a degree but together with your love; enjoying the fruits of both growth and distribution; having regions enrich each other, two-way, not one-way only, opening oneself to the wisdom of two, three, many religions. What could be more rewarding once we get out of the either-or trap?

But there is a hitch: it may be hard work. And difficult work. Why should it be easy? Who said that such both-and fruits are served on a platter free of charge? However, it is not necessary to have absorbed critically these pages, or similar books. Rather, let us boil it down to a simple essence, taking “five” from Islam and the word “commandment” from Christianity.

For conflict transformation as a way of life, on top of conflict as a way of life, consider these five commandments:

  1. Try to see a conflict from above: the actors, their goals, their pursuits, their clashes. Including you. You may need outside help.

  2. Try to be evenhanded. Try to see yourself or the other side of yourself as clearly as you see the others. Again, you may need help.

  3. The legitimacy test: be judgmental about goals and pursuits, ends and means, including your own. What is legitimate–legal, compatible with human rights, with basic human needs–what is not?

  4. Look at all those legitimate goals and pursuits and put your joint creativity to work: what are the minimum changes needed for a compelling vision, with maximum accommodation of all legitimate goals?

  5. Enact that vision. And if it does not work, back to No. 1. Try again. And again…and again… Perseverance is the key.

If it works, take on the next conflict in line. Start with yourself, your dilemmas, then your disputes with your spouse, your family, at school and work, neighbors; in widening circles. Let your empathic, nonviolent, creative voice be heard socially, globally. And you are part of a world culture of peaceful conflict transformation.


[i]. Chapter 15, Johan Galtung, Peace and Social Structure, Essays in Peace Research, Vol. III, Copenhagen: Ejlers, 1978, pp. 484-507 (see http://www.transcend.org/tup/); presented at the Plenary Session of the World Federation for Mental Health, 7th International Congress, London August 16, 1968. I still feel the warmth of Margaret Mead after the session; this was her kind of stuff!

lThis piece appeared as the Epilogue of the book, A Theory of Conflict, Transcend University Press, 2010. It is taken from the 26th February 2024 edition of Transcend Media Service https://www.transcend.org/tms/2024/02/conflict-transformation-as-a-way-of-life-2/ The same issue also contains various commentaries as a memorial on Johan Galtung himself.