Summary of "Image, Identity and Conflict Resolution"

Summary of

Image, Identity and Conflict Resolution

By Janet Gross Stein

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Janet Gross Stein, "Image, Identity and Conflict Resolution," in Managing Global Chaos, eds. Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson and Pamela Aall, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1996) pp 93-111.

Stein argues that enemy images play an important role in perpetuating and intensifying conflict. Structural accounts of conflict do not recognize the importance of enemy images and stereotypes. Stein turns to social psychology to describe how enemy images form, and how they can be changed.

Development of Enemy Images

"An image refers to a set of beliefs or to the hypotheses and theories that an individual or group is convinced are valid."[p. 94] When an image is held by a group, it is called a stereotype. Enemy images and stereotypes are formed in response to the basic human psychological need for identity, and as a result of group dynamics. A significant part of an individual's personal identity consists of his or her social identity, and so depends on group membership. Group identity tends to be defined by contrast to other groups. "Membership in a group leads to systematic comparison, differentiation, and derogation of other groups."[p. 94] This sort of inter-group conflict occurs even in the absence of material bases for conflict.

Not all inter-group conflict become violent, however. The author investigates those factors which intensify enemy images and aggravate inter-group conflict. First, violent conflict does not tend to arise among compatible identities. Every individual has multiple identities; for instance, wife, mother, scholar, Canadian, Quebecois, etc. When such identities are compatible, conflict is minimized. The more incompatible identities become, the more likely violent conflict becomes. Second, material conditions of scarcity can intensify existing identity conflicts. Third, violent conflict becomes more likely when one identity is based on the refusal to recognize another identity -- when recognizing the other's identity is felt to undermine one's own identity. Israeli and Palestinian identities are often construed as mutually exclusive in this way. Common cognitive biases also tend to intensify enemy images. Egocentric bias leads people to overestimate the degree to which others' actions are directed at them. Hence they may perceive themselves to be a target of the other's actions, even when the other is not actually directing action toward them. People also tend to attribute others' actions to their character, rather than their situation. Hence, they tend to see the other as bad, rather than as constrained by difficult circumstances.

The international or domestic situation may also act to intensify enemy images. Egocentric bias may cause a people to interpret other states' defensive acts as aggressive acts, and so intensify their image of the other state as an enemy. Domestically, identity conflicts are often exploited and exacerbated for political gain. This is easiest to do in countries with existing deep divisions, or where elites tend to dominate the means of mass communication.

Persistence of Enemy Images

Once in place, enemy images tend to be self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing. People tend to act more aggressively based on their enemy image or stereotype. This aggressive behavior is likely to provoke a hostile response, which is then simply taken as confirmation of the initial stereotype.

The author observes that "enemy images are also the product of deeply rooted social and psychological needs and frequently serve the interests of important groups and elites."[p. 98] Enemy images tend to occupy a central position in groups' belief systems. Groups are highly resistant to changing their central beliefs; change tends to begin with more marginal beliefs.

Finally, people tend to seek out information which confirms existing stereotypes, and discount information which would challenge their stereotypes. They also tend to interpret information about the other negatively, in ways which support their existing stereotypes.

Changing Enemy Images

Despite these difficulties, it is possible to change enemy images. Stereotypes may change when their holders are presented with a large amount of disconfirming information in a relatively short period. Stereotypes also change gradually over time. As discrepant information arises, people write "exceptions" into the stereotype. Generally, the less emotional attachment there is to an enemy image, the easier it is to change.

Stein draws on social psychology to describe the process of political learning, whereby enemy stereotypes may be improved. The author defines learning as "changes in enemy images that promote conflict management, routinization, reduction and resolution."[p.101] Stein argues that such political learning is best understood as a process of trial-and-error experimentation, motivated by failure. To illustrate this process, Stein uses the cases of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev.

There are a number of internal conditions which stimulate political learning. Structural changes can open up opportunities for learning, but are not themselves a sufficient cause of political learning. Similarly, changing political coalitions, or new generations of leadership, may bring with them new images. None of these factors account for the learning experienced by Gorbachev and Sadat, however.

Stein argues that two factors motivated Gorbachev and Sadat to change their respective enemy images. First, both were deeply committed to domestic reforms, and ongoing international conflicts stood in the way of pursuing such reforms. Second, both leaders had experienced the failure of various alternatives to negotiation and accommodation of their opponents.

These factors motivated Gorbachev and Sadat to search out new information on their opponents, and to experiment with different enemy images. "Both began with a small change in image, moved tentatively to small actions, accepted feedback, learned and initiated a new series of actions that generated further feedback and change."[p. 102]

Stein suggests two strategies for purposefully altering enemy images. In both cases, only one party is needed to initiate change. First, a leader may make an irrevocable commitment. Sadat's 1977 trip to Jerusalem is an example of this technique. This strategy faces two difficulties. It can be difficult to design a suitable commitment; one which has a high cost and is irrevocable. And pursuing such a strategy requires a relatively high degree of independence from domestic political constraints.

Second, incremental change may be encouraged by using variations on the GRIT technique. One side announces its intention to engage in conciliatory actions, and then does so. If the other side responds favorably, further conciliatory actions are taken. The goal is to produce a gradual mutual improvement in each other's enemy images. A variation on this strategy has one side, to be "slow to retaliate and slow to return to conciliation."[p. 104-5] To date, GRIT-based techniques have shown more experimental promise than actual use.


Stein argues that "In both enduring interstate rivalries and bitter ethnic conflicts, interests are shaped by images, which are in turn partially shaped by identity."[p. 105] Conflicts tend to arise when identities are threatened. Effective conflict resolution then entails securing identities. Currently, the most common method of securing threatened identities is through mutual recognition coupled with political separation. Sadat's recognition of Israel and Israel's recognition of the legitimacy of Palestine identity are examples of this approach. A second method involves creating interdependent, multi-ethnic coalitions. In both approaches, "the core of the solution lies in the often-difficult decision by senior leaders to acknowledge, respect, and accommodate different identities and to share political power."[p. 106]

Stein remains optimistic about the potential for such acknowledgment and accommodation. She reminds us that identities are socially constructed, and hence are open to reconstruction and reinterpretation over time. Identities also tend to share some very general norms, such as fairness, reciprocity, and compassion. Appeals to such very basic norms may be useful in promoting positive reinterpretations of identities.