Escalation and Institutionalization Stages

Louis Kriesberg

September 2003

Escalation Stage

Escalation involves an increase in the intensity of a conflict and in the severity of tactics used in pursuing it. Once a conflict is in the escalation phase, identities, grievances, goals, and methods often change in ways that perpetuate the conflict in increasingly destructive fashion.[1] Thus, each side's collective identity is shaped as the opposite of the enemy's identity. Group loyalty is also often demonstrated by antagonism toward the enemy. Additionally, good qualities are increasingly attributed to one's own group, while bad qualities are increasingly attributed to the enemy, sometimes going so far as to dehumanize the enemy.

The fighting itself generates new grievances among members of each side, as the adversaries inflict injuries on each other. In addition, old dissatisfactions and injustices are aroused and responsibility for them is ascribed to the current enemy. Of course many agents -- political leaders, intellectuals, and religious leaders -- play crucial roles in formulating grievances and in identifying the injustices suffered and those responsible for them.

Goals tend to become firmer as a conflict escalates, since making concessions seems more difficult after sacrificing so much in waging the struggle. (This is commonly called entrapment.)[2] Goals also sometimes expand to include harming the adversary for the sake of retribution. Furthermore, unresolved old issues are often revived, further increasing the goals under contention. (See the polarization essay.)

As conflicts escalate further, the methods of fighting may lose their practical connection with the goals of each side. Desire for revenge results in atrocities that further inflame the fight. One example is the breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and the second Intifada that erupted in September 2000.[3]

Institutionalization Stage

Angela Khaminwa

, Program Officer for Outreach and Communication at The Coexistence Initiative, describes Starting Everywhere at Once, a project that seeks to address the problem of violence in Kenyan universities by engaging different stakeholders.

Once a conflict begins to escalate, many processes contribute to its institutionalization and self-perpetuation. As a conflict persists, members of each side increasingly view members of the other side as enemies with bad qualities, and perhaps as cruel and untrustworthy. Such socialization contributes to a conflict's further intractability. Mutual fear increases, and people on each side are concerned about their vulnerability if they yield. One group may hear another group's call for justice as a cry for revenge.

As the fight persists, some people on each side develop vested interests in continuing the struggle. Some gain prestige, income, and power by participating as warriors in the fight, and they may lack alternative careers promising equal gains. Others may profit by engaging in a variety of illegal activities associated with the struggle. The nature of their identities, their grievances, and their goals are changed in ways that make a mutual accommodation more difficult to reach. The customary methods of struggle may seem suitable for achieving the new goals, and the fight with the enemy is tenaciously pursued in the same old manner.

[1] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

[2] Joel Brockner, Entrapment in Escalating Conflicts (Springer Verlag,1985).

[3] Khalidi, 2002

Use the following to cite this article:
Kriesberg, Louis. "Escalation and Institutionalization Stages." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2003 <>.

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