IG’s Peace Blog

Peace and its many aspects

Human needs, and why they matter

One of my personal favorite approaches to understanding conflict and changing the world so there’s much less of it, was developed by the Australian scholar and diplomat John Burton. Burton built on the work of Abraham Maslow about needs that were not just physical, and came up with a list which included identity, security, recognition and meaningful relationships (the list varies). Why is this important? Well for one thing social sciences have always had a problem with human nature…what makes people tick. Also, in his work, Burton argues that these needs can’t be bargained or negotiated away. They have to be met, one way or another. So, social institutions such as governments and laws must foster the fulfillment of these needs for everybody. If they don’t, then there will be conflict, and, very often, violent conflict. He even went so far as to argue that it almost didn’t matter how many police or other forms of oppression were applied, people would still fight for need fulfillment (one way or another).

This points very clearly to what Burton considered the key to the problem: find the needs not being met, and reform the relevant institutions so they fulfill these needs. For example: if political institutions deprive a group of identity, security or both, and that group revolts, you will, sooner or later, have to do something about those institutions. The “only” problem here, is that there would undoubtedly be some other groups who benefited from the unjust status quo ante, and who would very likely resist changes to it. But even this is instructive.

Human needs theory has its critics, of course, and you can read a brief and balanced assessment of it here. You can also find a nice short article on Burton and his work here.


August 27, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] Some time ago a wrote a little about John Burton’s human needs theory and its implications for peace and conflict resolution.  Well, as I sit here during fifth […]

    Pingback by Burton redux « IG’s Peace Blog | February 19, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] the Aussies! There are several places to study peace and conflict resolution in Australia (John Burton was from Australia, after all).  Here is one at the University of Queensland:  the Australian […]

    Pingback by …and don’t forget the Aussies! « IG’s Peace Blog | May 22, 2009 | Reply

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