Summary of "Peace-Building and Conflict Transformation"

Summary of

Peace-Building and Conflict Transformation

by Stephen Ryan

Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: "Peace-Building and Conflict Transformation," chapt. in Ethnic Conflict and International Relations, (Dartmouth: Dartmouth Publishing, 1995), pp. 129-152.

Ryan discusses peace-building strategies. Peace-building strategies focus on the attitudes and socioeconomic status of ordinary persons. They seek greater inter-group contact, and tend to focus on the relationships more than the issues.


The contact hypothesis is the "belief that interaction between individuals belonging to different groups will reduce ethnic prejudice and inter-group tension"[p. 131]. Interaction can come through trade, business, trade unions, professional meetings, sports and the like. Ryan argues that the idea that greater contact alone will build peace is flawed. Research shows that contact only improves attitudes when that contact is intimate, pleasant, between equals, socially supported, and in pursuit of common goals. Absent those conditions, increased contact may lead to increased hostility. Many theorists question whether intergroup conflicts can be resolved by interpersonal contact. When contact does lead to improved personal attitudes, the changed individuals face a re-entry problem as they return to their communities. Their new more positive attitudes toward the opponent are likely to be greeted with suspicion by their own community. Ryan argues that contact alone is not sufficient to build peace. He examines several strategies which combine contact with other elements.

Contact with Forgiveness

Forgiveness has been an important element of religious peace traditions. These traditions emphasize reconciliation. Martin Luther King and Gandhi both exemplify this tradition. This approach tends to emphasize adversaries' common humanity, common suffering as a basis for understanding and redemption, shared responsibility for the acts of the adversary, and the obligation to love the enemy.

Ryan observes that thus approach can have great impacts on individuals. However, he raises two criticisms. First, the forgiveness approach focuses on cultural factors, and neglects structural factors. Again, there is some doubt that personal transformations can address group conflicts. Second, the approach may not be pragmatic enough for wide-scale use, as it is based on a degree of religious faith that many do not share.

Contact with Superordinate Goals

A superordinate goal is " an urgent goal that could only be achieved by cooperation between the conflicting groups."[p. 137] Experimental research has found that pursuit of such goals can help reduce stereotyping and hostility between adversarial groups. Drawing on this research, some theorists have suggested the creation of supra-national institutions to pursue key economic and social goals. Their hope is that the interdependence will broaden narrowly defined identities and reduce conflict. Ryan cautions that when the costs and benefits of interdependence are not equally shared, interdependence may become a source of conflict. The creation of European supranational bodies has had mixed effects.

This approach has had some success on local levels. In Sri Lanka multiethnic teams have been formed to dig wells and rebuild houses. In Northern Ireland the mid-Ulster Basketball Club brings together children and parents from both Protestant and Catholic communities.

Contact with Economic Development

Violent conflict usually results in underdevelopment. It is often hoped that economic development can reduce ethnic violence. However, Ryan is critical of this idea. Ryan notes that there is little evidence that development promotes peace. He points out that this theory tends to "overstate the power of economic development to change identity and underestimate the attachment to ethnic identity, whatever the economic situation."[p. 141] For example, standards of living were rising when violence erupted in Northern Ireland. Inequalities in the distribution of new wealth may simply reinforce existing divisions, or may themselves spark new conflict. Still, economic development which is sensitive to cultural differences and which aims at fulfilling local needs and increasing local participation could be a valuable element in the peace- building process.

The Malaysian case shows the complex relations between economic development and peace. Through the 1960s, Malaysia's increasing wealth tended to go to the non-Malay communities. Ethnic tensions increased, and rioting broke out in 1969. The government instituted policies designed to distribute economic benefits more evenly. Ethnic violence was largely ended. However Indian and Chinese communities resented the perceived favoritism shown Malays. Growing wealth disparities within the Malay community have been ignored in pursuit of intergroup parity. Poor Malays have demanded more positive discrimination in their favor, and that has increased concerns in the non-Malay communities. Finally the move toward a state-enforced economic distribution has undermined consocial politics and the quality of democracy in Malaysia.

Contact with Confidence Building

Effective communication and negotiations require some degree of trust between the parties. Confidence building measures aim to create that trust. One important confidence building strategy is the Gradual Reduction in Tensions (GRIT) approach. GRIT begins with one side making a verifiable, unilateral concession, and signaling its expectation that the other side will respond in kind. The concession should involve some cost, but should not affect safety and security interests. If the other side responds in kind, a series of unilateral initiatives may ensue. If not, nothing substantial has been lost. Third-parties can help the process along by verifying concessions or maintaining neutral zones. Confidence building measures can be undermined by the well-established psychological tendency toward "hypothesis conformation." People tend to interpret others' actions in ways that reinforce their existing attitudes toward those others. And so conciliatory gesture are likely to be misinterpreted, or to be attributed to circumstances beyond the other's control.

Contact with Education

Education for mutual understanding (EMU) or multi-cultural education focuses on children and young adults, and seeks to produce generational changes in attitude. Such educational programs emphasize reason, imagination, critical thinking, openness and love of truth. They introduce students to the languages, cultures, histories and religions of other societies in addition to their own. The EMU movement has been influential in Northern Ireland. Ryan cautions that schools are only one source of influence for children. Formal education alone is unlikely to overcome negative images perpetuated by the family, community, church and media.

Prejudice reduction in adults is also an important part of peace-building. Programs to reduce prejudices include formal education, community conferences or festivals, mass media campaigns, encouragement from respected leaders, and individual therapy. Attempts to address prejudice encounter the same "hypothesis conformation" problem noted above. Prejudices against others may also play a significant role in maintaining an individual's own positive self- image.

Just as personal attitudes must be examined, so must cultural attitudes. National identities can be exclusionary. Intellectuals and artists can play an important role in peace- building by examining cultural traditions and myths, by deconstructing exclusionist myths, and by reconstructing a more pluralist, inclusive set of cultural myths and traditions. The Field Day project in Northern Ireland is an example of such cultural exploration. Field Day is an association of poets, actors and playwrights who seek to shift understanding of Irish culture away from the romantic Celtic approach of Yeats by drawing on the more pluralistic approaches of Joyce and Beckett. The group is also producing an anthology of Irish literature which highlights the various traditions which have contributed to Irish literature.