Research Explores Conflict Cause and Resolution Through Human Needs Theory Lens - Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

Summary of:

Azam, A., & Rehman, S. (2018). Assessing human needs theory: An approach to conflict resolution. The Nucleus, 55(3), 128-132. Retrieved from

Background & Theory

This article explores the concept that while John Burton’s Human Needs Theory has laid the groundwork for understanding conflict causes, it is not all-encompassing. Additionally, while identifying causes of conflict, it does not inherently look through the lens of conflict resolution. The authors of this article praise Burton for his work but explore areas for growth on these concepts.

Research Questions

The authors seek to answer the following questions:

  1. Does Burton’s Human Needs Theory provide enough weight to the contribution of values and interests in causing conflict?
  2. Does Burton’s theory encompass conflict resolution, or simply conflict causation?


The authors reach their conclusion through a thorough examination of John Burton’s Human Needs Theory, conflict resolution theory, human needs, values, and interests in light of conflicts, and various real-life examples where Burton’s theory may be proven right and examples where it may be proven incorrect. They especially focus on international affairs and conflicts at the political level.


The conclusion reached is that Burton’s Human Needs Theory certainly explains a majority of the causes for conflict. However, it’s determined that his theory does not fully give enough thought to the critical role values and interests play in conflict. Criticisms of his theory argue that in light of various cultures, the values he identified may not be consistent in every region, and there also may be variances between the very existence of needs versus their actual value.

Additionally, he viewed that conflict resolution would likely be a win-win opportunity as both parties gained a “need,” but this is not always the case. Thus, there is an idea that his theory does not adequately view conflict resolution in its entirety. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was used as an example to explain both criticisms mentioned here interests can weigh the same as needs, and when those needs and interests clash, there is no easy resolution.

What This Means

  • The Human Needs Theory is certainly valid and a great framework to work under, but we should not abandon other thoughts related to how unique interests and values also play a role in creating conflict.
  • When looking to resolve conflict, it may not always be as easy as simply identifying the needs, and there is not always a solution that leads to all parties being satisfied. 
  • Each conflict and each solution needs to be evaluated in light of the specific circumstances surrounding them. Using frameworks as a guide, and with willing participants, there can often be a peaceful end.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: Utilizing the existing theories on conflict cause and resolution is very helpful in addressing conflict, but we should be apt to continue learning and growing. There is great value in expanding on the existing theories and thoughts and learning to take each situation as it comes, especially in terms of what creates the most sustainable solution.

For everyone: Be aware that while you have your own needs, those around you do, too. Sometimes these will be similar, but there are many times when they’ll differ. If you find yourself in conflict, see if you both can identify the critical needs that need to be met, and how you can work together to find a win-win solution. While it won’t always be an easy outcome, and sometimes may require more compromise on one side or the other, if both parties are willing to work together, it can be a positive experience.

Natalie Davis

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