About Beyond Intractability (BI)

In September of 2023, Heidi Burgess gave a talk to the Denver Conflict Professionals that talked about the history of BI, and what we are now doing. The video and transcript of that talk is available here.


Several years after we created CRInfo, and at the encouragement of the Hewlett Foundation to "think big," Guy and Heidi Burgess submitted a proposal for a second website--which came to be called Beyond Intractability (BI). While BI has quite a bit of material that focuses on "simple disputes" and dispute and conflict resolution in general, its particular focus is on intractable conflicts--which we define as conflicts that last a long time, are damaging, and seem to resist all efforts to resolve them.  We stress, however, that intractable conflicts are not impossible. They can be transformed such that they are more constructive; at times they can even be resolved. But they require different strategies to be understood and to be dealt with effectively.  It is these strategies that we explore in great depth in BI.

It was Guy who came up with the initial idea to compile as much of the then-available knowledge about dealing effectively with the most difficult conflicts. Then he and Heidi, along with about 50 other people to start with, helped carry out that idea. All of the early participants were concerned about the destructiveness of both domestic US and international conflict problems.  We didn’t think that the traditional conflict resolution approaches (such as mediation and arbitration) were working as well as they needed to on these very difficult conflicts.  Our initial goal was to combine our knowledge and to perhaps produce a “state-of-the-art” book on the topic.  But the content quickly out-stripped a book, and we agreed that we wanted to reach many more people than those who would buy and read a thick, expensive, and jargon-laden book.  So the online BI knowledge base was born. 

The knowledge base has grown over the years.  It now has written materials contribued by several hundred scholars and practitioners and another 100 or so scholars and practitioners who have contributed audio interviews. It contains over 500 core articles, which came to be known as “essays.”  These essays cover both the theory relating to causes and effects of intractability, and practice guidelines regarding effective or at least promising ways of addressing them.  (These conflicts are so varied, complex, and difficult that nothing can be promised to be “effective” in all cases.)  But the essays generally present what was considered at the time to be the best-available ideas and strategies both for understanding how these kinds of conflicts develop, and what can be done to address them most constructively.  

The editors of BI (Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess) have, over the last few years, been going through the essays and trying to update them as needed, as many are now 17 years old.  Some are showing their age pretty badly, but many really are still pretty up to date.  For better or worse, not all that much has changed when it comes to understanding the nature of these conflicts, or changing them in constructive ways. Many of the original essays are now being integrated into Moving Beyond Intractability's Conflict Fundamentals Seminar. All of those essays are getting a new section entitled "Current Implications" which applies the ideas from the essay to current world events.

In addition to essays, the knowledge base contains over 100 hours of audio interviews with both scholars and practitioners.  Julian Portilla, the interviewer on most of them, sought to get these leaders of the field to talk about their most important discoveries and insights regarding intractable conflict—experiences they have had and ideas they have developed, that they think it is most useful for other people to know.  These interviews are available in both audio and text form.

In addition, BI contains profiles of leading peacebuilders, personal reflections of peacebuilders regarding their own practices, over 100 case studies of particular conflicts and/or interventions, and lastly over 600 summaries of conflict resolution and peacebuilding  books and articles.   Lastly there are pages that have information about education and training in the field, career and funding opportunities, and teaching materials.  All of this is available from the browse page and from the search page.

Since the knowledge base contains an enormous amount of material, we also have provided a number of User Guides.  These guides highlight materials from the KB that are likely to be of particular interest to specific audiences.  For example, we have user guides for journalists, human rights workers, and religious leaders.  We also have guides on particular topic areas, for instance civil rights mediation, identity conflicts, interpersonal conflicts, peacebuilding and post-conflict reconstruction, and transitional justice (among several others).  Another iteration on the user guides is a set of checklists of things to think about for intermediaries and adversaries in international conflicts, public policy, workplace, and interpersonal conflicts.  

The project does not advocate or teach one particular approach. Rather, it provides access to information on many approaches which can then be adapted to many different situations. Our goal is to give people new ideas to think about and new hope. As a free Internet service, BI provides information that is much more affordable and accessible than traditional training programs or hard-to-find books. BI is also constantly growing and changing, making the breadth, depth, and potential of the peacebuilding field more clearly visible.  

Around 2010, we combined our two big web projects, BI and CRInfo.  What this means for BI users is that the more succinct CRInfo "core knowledge essays" are now available from BI, and BI contains more information on simpler, "tractable" conflicts than it did before.  We are pleased to report that the usage of the combined sites is now about 1500-200,000 unique users from around the world every month!

In 2016, we began a spinoff project—Moving Beyond Intractability—that contains, in addition to the Conflict Fundamentals Seminar listed above, a Conflict Frontiers Seminar which has videos discussing currently critical issues such as scale and complexity, and a new approach to that called Massively Parallel Peacebuilding. We also began to look at the "authoritarian populism problem" and how to apply conflict resolution skills to advocacy efforts through what we call "constructive confrontation.

In 2019 this work morphed into the Constructive Conflict Initiative which called for a dramatically expanded, long-term effort to improve society's ability to constructively address the full scale and complexity of the challenges posed by destructive conflict. In 2022, the Burgesses published an article in CRQ (with Sanda Kaufman) that discusses why such an effort is urgently needed in the U.S. and elsewhere to address the authoritarian populism problem and political hyper-polarization more broadly.  We are partnering with CRQ to create a field-wide discussion of these issues, which we hope will help move more people toward the Constructive Conflict Initiative's goals.

So bottom line, BI's focus has changed over the years, but it is still very much alive and well, and contains an amazing amount of material relating to most of the big issues (i.e. major conflicts) of our time.