Summary of "Intractable Conflicts and the Role of Identity"

Summary of

Intractable Conflicts and the Role of Identity

By Leo F. Smyth

Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: "Intractable Conflicts and the Role of Identity," Leo F. Smyth, Negotiation Journal, 10:4 (October 1994), pp. 311-321.

Smyth categorizes conflicts into four types, depending upon whether they involve changes in the parties' relative power or not, and whether they occur within some mutually accepted regulatory institution or not. Type I conflicts do not involve a change in the parties relative power, and do occur under the auspices of some mutually acceptable regulatory institution. Buying and selling, for example, proceed under the rules of the marketplace. Civil lawsuits are pursued within the court system. In type I conflicts the main task is to coordinate interests. Negotiation can be an effective means of resolving such disputes.

Type II conflicts are subject to some regulatory institution, but do involve changes in the parties' relative power. Examples of type II conflicts include elections, coalitions, and commercial mergers. Power, or control, has intrinsic value. "Appreciation of one's own identity, individual or social, may lead to a feeling that one 'deserves' control, autonomy or self-determination."(p. 313) Negotiations play a significant role in such conflicts.

Type III conflicts involve no power change and no institutional controls. Examples include sports riots, and other civil disturbances. These conflicts tend to be spontaneous eruptions, with no rational purpose. Negotiations for such conflicts are irrelevant.

Most intractable conflicts are type IV. Type IV conflicts involve power changes but lack any mutually accepted regulatory institution. Often such conflicts involve challenges to or the rejection of existing institutions. Examples of type IV conflicts include revolutions, rebellions, ethnic demands for self-determination, and demands for human rights and universal suffrage.

When type IV conflicts focus on economic issues, negotiations often create some supranational institution, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). This effectively switches the conflict to a more manageable type II. However, when type IV conflicts focus on identity issues, they are much less amenable to negotiated resolution. "Where people are sharply focused on their group identity, negotiating new institutions that will regulate control is very difficult; in fact, existing institutions may come under great pressure, to the point where ordinary goals such as economic and political progress lose their motivating power."(p. 314) Creating regulatory institutions requires giving up control, whereas gaining control for its own sake is a significant goal in identity conflicts.

How conflicts proceed depends on four variables: how active or quiescent the parties' social identities are, the motivational strength of economic or political goals, the motivational strength of autonomy or control goals, and the degree to which the parties have internalized the regulatory institutions.

Type I conflicts usually have high goal motivation; social identity and control issues have little impact. Smyth says, "it is some times suggested that the way to overcome ethnic problems is to develop good trade relationships."(p. 315) In the marketplace, economic interests tend to override identity concerns.

In corporate merger situations, a strong goal-orientation usually overrides the parties' control issues. A strong corporate identity can reinforce the parties control motives, and block merger negotiations. Often parties in such situations are willing to reconceptualize their identities, in pursuit of their economic goals. Democracies work best when the parties have deeply internalized democratic institutions. In such cases, "being in control (or autonomy for our group), goal achievement (e.g. getting into government) and social identity coalesce into a single driving motivation."(p. 316)

Type III conflicts are generally expressions of group identity, and sometimes of group autonomy. They are not directed toward any particular goal, and regulatory institutions have little impact.

In intractable type IV conflicts, strongly active social identities become linked with group autonomy and control issues. Combined, these variables overcome internalized institutional constraints and override economic interests and other goal motivations. Smyth notes that "one difficulty in dealing with intractable problems of this kind is that they are relatively impervious to the 'carrot-and-stick' logic that assumes ordinary goal achievement is still operating."(p. 317) Economic and political threats and incentives are ineffective, because those interests are rendered irrelevant by the party's linked focus on identity and control.

In conflicts between regulatory institutions and community control, the institution may well lose. Smyth warns that:

In general, one can say that if a regulating institution appears to take away local community autonomy on an issue where community identity has been aroused, the regulator had better be a very strong institution, one that is accepted as a basic 'given' of social life. Otherwise, the conflict will escalate to deny the legitimacy of the regulating institution, and obstructing that institution will become the primary objective, perhaps eclipsing all others, including economic ones. (p. 318)

Understanding the role these four variables play in conflicts can yield suggestions for effective intervention in intractable conflicts. Would-be third parties must consider whether the challenged institutions are in fact exercising illegitimate control. Intervention should direct the parties to reconsider the ways in which they have linked identity and control. One goal is to have the parties acknowledge their interdependence, and reconceptualize their identities to accommodate that interdependence. Intervention may also be directed toward helping the parties address fears that their identity will be suppressed, or that expression of group identity will override loyalty to larger entities such as the state.

Intervention should also help the parties to broaden their agenda to include economic and other concerns. Smyth observes that "organizations excessively focused on identity and control are like single-issue candidates in elections: good at upsetting the electoral the status quo, but not so good at providing good government."(p. 320) Groups must come to understand that their long-term survival depends not on gaining absolute self-control, but on how well they wield what control they have.