Difference Between Conflict and Dispute

Conflict vs Dispute

Most people might question the above title, their main argument being that there is no difference between the terms Conflict and Dispute. They are justified in thinking that as the terms are often used interchangeably and are listed as synonyms for the other. However, there have been several academics and scholars who have distinguished the two terms, although these distinctions tend to differ from one to the other. Most of us are acquainted with the term Conflict in relation to war or intrastate battles. Yet, it is important to understand these two terms in a legal context.

What does Conflict mean?

The dictionary defines Conflict as a serious disagreement or argument, typically one that is long-drawn. Further, it elaborates on this definition by revealing that the term Conflict refers to a state of disagreement or disharmony. This state of disharmony or opposition is generally between persons, interests, ideas, principles or values. Perhaps the definition put forward by scholar John Burton will clarify this further.1 Burton defines Conflict as a long-term disagreement, a problem that runs so deep that its issues are generally “non-negotiable”. Given that they are non-negotiable, it also indicates that the possibility of resolving such issues is remote or difficult. Issues that are considered deep or extremely serious include difference of opinion, morals or values, issues pertaining to security, authority, power, and more. Conflicts with such issues, if not resolved, tend to transform into physical violence and thereafter war. The key to identifying the difference between Conflict and Dispute is to think of Conflict as representing a broad, wide circle of issues within which a number of Disputes may arise. Think of Conflict as a disagreement between persons that has a prolonged existence and is more serious in nature. It is not a specific disagreement and thus can include a number of issues. It is a continuing state of disharmony.

Conflicts arise due to difference persons, interests, ideas, principles or values.

Conflicts arise due to difference in interests, ideas, principles or values

What does Dispute mean?

With the objective of differentiating between Conflict and Dispute, Burton also defines Dispute as a short-term disagreement that can be resolved. He further elucidates that a Dispute can be resolved by considering and evaluating the interests of the parties concerned and determining their rights through a reasonable solution. In a legal context, a Dispute is defined as a disagreement on a point of law or fact, or over certain legal rights, obligations, and interests between two or more parties. It follows , then, that a Dispute refers to a disagreement that is specific, one in which the issues can be resolved by applying relevant law or rules. Thus, in the case of a Dispute, the parties can argue their case and come to some form of settlement. Typically, a Dispute entails one party seeking to enforce certain rights or claims and the other party opposing such a position. Disputes can be heard in court or through other alternative forms such as arbitration and mediation. An example of a Dispute is when an employee seeks to enforce a certain right or claim against his/her employer. This claim can be in relation to working hours, overtime or leave.

 Conflict vs Dispute

A dispute is a short-term disagreement that can be resolved

What is the difference between Conflict and Dispute?

• A Dispute is a short-term disagreement while a Conflict is a long-term disagreement.

• Conflicts, unlike Disputes, cannot be easily resolved and the possibility of resolving them is very remote. In contrast, a Dispute can be resolved through judicial or other means.

• A Conflict refers to a broad area of issues and within this broad area specific Disputes can arise. Thus, Disputes may stem from a Conflict.

• Disputes can be easily resolved by dealing with the specific issue at hand and coming to a final determination. This is not the same with Conflict.

• Conflicts are more serious and sensitive in nature and very volatile in terms of resolution.



  1. Spangler, Brad., & Burgess, Heidi. (Jul 2012).”Conflicts and Disputes.” Beyond Intractability. Retrieved February 3, 2015 from <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/conflicts-disputes>.


Images Courtesy:

  1. Conflict via Pixabay (Public Domain)
  2. The Dispute by Eduard Kurzbauer via Wikicommons (Public Domain)