Dealing with Subjective Justice within Conflict Management: A Chance to Get Out of a (Normative) Blind Alley?

2 Pages Posted: 28 Jun 2011

See all articles by Heidi Ittner

Heidi Ittner

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: June 26, 2011


"Negotiation as a search for justice" – the title of a paper of Zartman and colleagues in 1996 brought it to the point: Justice issues seem to be a crucial aspect within conflict and conflict management – on a theoretical level as well as in practice.

Justice is highly relevant in all phases of conflict (Mikula & Wenzel, 2000): Conflicts arise because of perceived injustices – or as Montada (2003) puts it: all hot conflicts are in the end conflicts about justice – and claiming for justice is an important reason why conflicts persist. Consequently, in order to settle conflicts in a constructive and sustainable way – in terms of searching for a win-win-solution – justice must be sufficiently acknowledged within the conflict management procedure, on the content as well as on the procedural level. It is therefore not surprising that the core characteristics of mediation read like a list of principles of procedural and interactional justice. And this holds true for all levels and settings of conflicts – e.g. from bilateral to multilateral conflicts as well as from family conflicts to conflicts in international politics.

At the same time, research about the role of justice in conflict is impressively diverse: it is fed from very different disciplines and consequently working with different concepts of justice and applying different methodological approaches. But, so far these different approaches exist more or less isolated next to each other – even within the pretty narrow field of social scientific conflict research. Therefore, the aim of the symposium is to bring together different perspectives and methodological approaches on the impact of justices within conflict and conflict management – in order to identify and to discuss fruitful overlapping as well as discrepancies.

This paper comes from the perspective of justice psychology and will therefore focus on subjective judgments of justices. With that, it deals mainly with the questions of what people perceive as fair in specific situations and the impact of these perceptions on behavioral decisions. It will review research, including also own work, showing consistently the importance of justice appraisals within conflicts in several fields, conflict management and cooperation (e.g. in social dilemmas). Most of these studies apply standardized quantitative methods in the field (e.g. questionnaires) respectively experimental designs, whereas only a small minority follows a qualitative approach.

Not surprisingly, the high importance of justice as a value and human motive and the enormous inter- as well as intrapersonal variance of justice judgments come along with a high probability of conflicting perceptions. The paper refers to a helpful scheme of typical reasons for (justice) conflicts, e.g. relating to distributive decisions or procedural justice principles, and points out that a willingness to (re)establish justice does not necessarily lead to cooperative behavior.

At the same time and despite this conflicting variance, – and this is one of the key messages – exactly this subjective view on justice can offer broader and unforeseen chances for agreement. Though this is, without any doubt, a demanding challenge – there are promising approaches to work explicitly on justice conflicts, for example within a mediation setting, which base upon a subjective perspective on justices (e.g. the method of "positive relativization"; Montada & Kals, 2007). Still, many questions are yet unanswered (e.g. when does justice foster cooperation and when does it lead to defection? How to incorporate theoretically and empirically the scope of justice people apply?) – calling for further innovative empirical research on justices.

Suggested Citation

Ittner, Heidi, Dealing with Subjective Justice within Conflict Management: A Chance to Get Out of a (Normative) Blind Alley? (June 26, 2011). 24th Annual IACM Conference, Istanbul, Turkey, July 3-6, 2011. Available at SSRN: or

Heidi Ittner (Contact Author)

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