Since the Civil Litigation Research Project in the 1980s, sociolegal researchers have referenced the metaphor of the dispute pyramid to understand dispute resolution. The pyramid focuses on formal legal dispute resolution and represents disputes as a linear process of attrition in which only a small proportion of perceived injuries proceed to adjudication. Although a fertile metaphor, the dispute pyramid approach left important processes undertheorized and understudied. We propose a new metaphor: the dispute tree. The dispute tree has many branches, both legal and nonlegal, through which grievances may be resolved. Grievances may move along several branches simultaneously, and dispute resolution may be a nonlinear process. Branches represent the evolving nature of disputes as living organisms that may bear flowers and fruit or may wither and die. Not only dispute trees but also their forests are subjects for study. Dispute trees exist in social environments that may foster or inhibit healthy growth; they may grow within public or privately governed forests. We argue that the dispute tree metaphor better represents decades of research on disputing, which has identified myriad disputing channels outside of courts, as well as both individual and collective mobilization. We also believe that this new metaphor for disputes and the dispute process will open new avenues of inquiry.


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