Conflict as Property

David Yusem’s insights for this blog are drawn from Nils Christie, Norwegian Sociologist and Criminologist January 1977 article, Conflicts as Property, published in the British Journal of Criminology. 


Many folks in the field of conflict resolution and restorative justice refer to this article as influential to their understanding of a possible alternative to the criminal justice system that moves from the dominant paradigm to a more indigenous and community-based form of justice.

Christie describes a justice where the people involved in a conflict have the opportunity to resolve the issue and reap the rewards of resolution rather than have others (professionals) deciding what justice looks like for them. Conflict is a normal part of life and can lead to real breakthroughs in relationships. 

In his article, Christie posits that we do not have too much conflict in society, we have too little and it is highly professionalised so that others like lawyers take the conflict away from us, thus stealing the possibility of resolution, healing and reconciliation away too.

He begins the article by describing another form of justice in Tanzania where a dispute between two people is supported by community engagement in a relational and inclusive process Christie calls, “a happening”. This is in stark contrast to the current criminal justice system in developed countries where the tediousness of the proceedings and the professionalised clerical nature of the process is “no happening” and a “negation of the Tanzanian process”. 

For over 10 years as I have worked to build the restorative justice movement at Oakland Unified School District in Oakland, CA USA I have been thinking about “Conflicts as Property” and how it translates to the education ecosystem.

In fact student conflict is often handled by an adult telling them what they need to start or stop doing; and adult conflict simply gets swept under the rug only too manifest in different ways later: conflict whack-a-mole. It is a system that creates conflict that cannot be effectively resolved, making an already stressful environment untenable. 

Our intention is to support a full time RJ staff person at school sites while at the same time de-professionalising that position. In our society we are used to going to the experts for advice, information, and/or help. In the restorative paradigm we seek to create our staff may indeed provide information and advice, but at the same time, the ultimate goal is to teach, model, and mentor everyone in the school community to engage in restorative practices.

We want individuals to be able to resolve their own issues and not have to wait for the ‘expert’ to save them. 

At first we train and coach staff and students, and ultimately nudge them out of the nest so they are doing circles on their own or with others. Christie talks about this in his article when he writes about how we give away our conflicts to lawyers who professionalise conflict and steal it from the people who are the rightful heirs to the rewards from a conflict resolved.

One of the things I love about RJ is that you do not have to wait for the experts; learn it, practice it, and do it. It is yours just as much as it is anyone else’s.

On one hand, if we are to listen to Christie, we would want to avoid specialisation in schools and the stratification of professionalism it creates. Indeed, if Christie were alive, he may argue against having staff in schools whose job it is to engage in and support restorative practices. 

On the other hand, implementing RJ district and school-wide is such a heavy lift and cultural shift that having a person at the school site and at the district level to monitor fidelity and integrity of the work as well as train, coach, and support others in embracing restorative practices makes it much more likely that the movement will sustain and that the model will not drift. 

This brief dive into Christie’s work may whet your appetite. There is much more in the article to look into and to incorporate into the educational setting. You might like to take a look at “Conflicts as Property” and you may see more connections between Christie’s vision for the criminal justice system and the possibilities for changing how we do education. 

David Yusem has over 20 years experience as a leader and practitioner in the field of conflict resolution and restorative justice (RJ). For the last 10 years he has coordinated the RJ program at Oakland Unified School District. The RJ program at OUSD is considered a National model for the implementation of Restorative Practices in schools. David is committed to building caring, engaging and equitable school communities and to the elimination fo racial disparities in discipline


PETA BLOOD  5 Apr 2021 16:09 

Thank you for sharing your ‘no blame – both accountable’ framework for workplace conversations Ruth. The three Wonderful to hear what is happening in the Oakland Unified School District. Doing things with students, rather than to or telling them what to do or what they have done wrong. I recall working with schools who were keen for me to come and work with the children – to fix them, to give them the skills to help them manage their behaviours and be respectful to one another. School leaders were sometime confronted by the response, that this had to start with the adults, that this is about cultural change. From experience, it takes someone or a group of people to drive and support the change, especially in busy school environments. Thank you for the work you are doing David.

MARG THORSBORNE  5 Apr 2021 16:09 

I love this approach from Nils. I argue all time that the people IN the problem are the ones who understand it the best and need to take responsibility for the problem-solving. The adult’s job is to create systems to support this approach.

Re schools and one “expert” in the school, I think there are different levels of responsibility for facilitating restorative processes. It starts with classroom teachers to keep the small things small. Perhaps another layer on top of this for slightly more serious issues, then a handful of staff to deal with really serious issues. The risk, (and I understand the heavy lifting bit around culture change), is that the deep skills needed for the one RJ job in the school rests with one person. We need to limit what I call “outsourcing” – ie empowering everyone to have a go! I do so love how much energy has been spent developing the skills of young people in OUSD. That is truly wonderful.

CHRIS STRAKER 6 Apr 2021 16:16

The professionalisation of problems that only ‘experts’ can resolve steals from young people and communities. This blogs starts the process of thinking about the culture and skills we need to ensure YP and communities have to be at the heart of their own lives.

RICK KELLY  25 Apr 2021 19:46

Seeing if I can reply.

KIRSTY FERGUSON 22 Apr 2021 04:55

Kia ora David,
Thanks for sharing the link to your schools district RJ home page- it is inspiring. Thanks also for referencing Nils Christie Conflicts as Property, I really enjoy reading these earlier pieces to see how this work continues to evolve.