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Why I Study Seemingly Impossible Conflicts
Guest articles > Why I Study Seemingly Impossible Conflicts
by: Peter T. Coleman
Our ability to address seemingly intractable conflicts may very well determine our capacity to survive as a species. Intractable conflicts are defined as disputes that are highly destructive, enduring, and particularly resistant to attempts to resolve them. Currently, about 40% of intrastate armed conflicts have persisted for 10 years or more, with 25% of the wars being waged lasting for more than 25 years. Although we are seeing more peace negotiations than military victories these days, 25% of them relapse into violence within 5 years.
I became interested in studying enduring conflicts initially through my
experiences working as a counselor with violent urban youth in psychiatric
hospitals, and then through my work as a community mediator for the New York
State Criminal Courts and as an instructor in a course on preventative diplomacy
at the United Nations. As a doctoral student, I first began to conduct research
in this area focusing on "ripeness" (a readiness to negotiate). This often
entails a radical shift in intentions, attitudes, and behaviors (from
destructive to constructive), and is extremely difficult to achieve due to long
histories of animosity, suspicion, fear, and atrocities committed by many of the
parties involved. The literature suggested that in prolonged conflicts, ripeness
typically occurs as a result of the intense pain, suffering, and sense of dread
that accompanies a violent stalemate between the conflicting parties. However in
many intractable conflicts (particularly conflicts over "truth" and "justice"),
such suffering has the paradoxical effect of further entrenching the parties in
In response to this paradox, I began work on a more comprehensive model for
conceptualizing the shift toward constructive interactions in intractable
conflicts; initially developing a theoretical model that offered alternative
avenues to fostering ripeness through the application of basic Lewinian
principles of motivation and change. This model stressed the importance of
addressing obstacles or constraints to peaceful encounters, such as a lack of
trust, interpersonal contact, and safe channels for communication. Removing such
constraints can increase ripeness without the rise in intensity of conflict
associated with increases in pain and suffering.
However, as my understanding of various intractable conflicts deepened (such
as those regarding abortion or race relations in communities and the conflicts
in Cyprus and the Middle East), so did my awareness of their complex and dynamic
natures. In other words, I began to recognize that studying conflict at a single
point in time, or focusing on a single aspect (e.g. obstacles), was ultimately
problematic because it failed to capture the fact that conflict, particularly
intractable conflict, is multifaceted; involving multiple experiences and
encounters between many different parties over a variety of issues under diverse
conditions which change in time.
Thus, I embarked on a new approach to this work. It built on four basic
premises regarding contemporary conflict: 1) our world is becoming increasingly
more complex, ecologically, politically, economically, and socially, 2) human
systems are ever-changing and the pace of change is rising, 3) such complexity
and dynamism place extraordinary demands on our capacities to accurately
comprehend enduring conflicts, and 4) this often leads to oversimplification of
problems and an over-reliance on our primary frames of understanding, which are
useful but limited. For instance, if we reflect on many of the ethnopolitical
conflicts in the post Cold War world, we see a complex pattern of interlacing
schisms emerging– based on ethnicity, religion, economic well-being, population
density, environmental degradation, collapsed states, globalized markets, and
geopolitical shifts. Equally intricate patterns of discord can be found in many
of the protracted conflicts in our institutional, group, and personal lives.
Despite these trends, much of the research on intractability is either
fine-grained and piecemeal (focusing on independent cause and effect
relationships), or case studies of specific situations viewed through a
particular disciplinary lens. Similarly, our interventions, often informed by
such research, have limited or even unintended negative effects.
With funding from the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Community Foundation of Boulder, I began to convene a multidisciplinary team of experts which developed a new theoretical model that connects prior research on psychosocial coherence and complexity with basic differences in the underlying dynamics of intractable versus more manageable social conflict (Coleman, Vallacher, Nowak, & Bui-Wrzosinska, 2007; Nowak, Vallacher, Bui-Wrzosinska, & Coleman, 2006; Vallacher, Coleman, Nowak, & Bui-Wrzosinska, 2010b; Vallacher, Coleman, Nowak, & Bui-Wrzosinska, 2010a). The model employs concepts and methods from dynamical social psychology- in particular the idea of attractors (patterns in data that resist change) - and portrays intractable conflicts as those which have lost the complexity and openness inherent to more constructive social dynamics.
To date this project has resulted in over 40 publications and 45 conference
presentations by our team, publication of a new trade book (The Five Percent), a
proposal of a new scholarly book (The Gravity of Conflict), a special issue of
Peace and Conflict: The Journal of Peace Psychology showcasing dynamical-systems
theory applications to conflict research, development and publication of an
on-line computer visualization tool for working with intractability (Nowak, Bui-Wrzosinska,
Coleman, Vallacher, Borkovsky & Jochemczyk, 2010) and, with TC's Ed Lab, the
creation of several short introductory videos on intractable attractors (http://fivepercentbook.com).
We are also currently developing an executive education module in this area,
which will be completed in Spring, 2012.
© 2011 Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts
Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teacher's College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.
For more information please visit http://www.fivepercentbook.com, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter
Contributor: Peter T. Coleman
Published here on: 16-Sep-11
Classification: Conflict, problem-solving