Peter Coleman's "Five Percent" -- Part 1

Heidi Burgess

Guy M. Burgess

November, 2016



This is part I of a two-part series describing key ideas from Peter Coleman's book The Five Percent. Here I describe his notions of intractability and complexity, particularly the notion of "attractors" which cause people to simplify complex conflicts into simple notions of good versus bad--making them apparently very stable and difficult to change. The next video discusses Coleman's ideas about how to tackle this problem.

Referenced Resources

Peter Coleman.  The Five Percent. Public Affairs 2011

Discussion Questions: 

(1) What other ideas from Peter Coleman have you found to be particularly useful in your work?  Put another way, what are his core ideas that have influenced the way you work or think about conflict problems?

(2) What other people should we include in this "literature review" of the "founders" of the complexity-oriented approach to peacebuilding?  What key ideas of theirs have you found particularly useful or influential?  Can you give us citations to sources that talk about ideas?

Discuss both these questions in D12.

Full Transcript

Hi. This is Heidi Burgess, and today I want to talk about Peter Coleman's take on complex systems and complexity theory. Peter Coleman is a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, and about five years ago he wrote a book on intractable conflicts which he called The Five Percent. He called it that because he asserts that 5% of all conflicts --whether they be interpersonal, international, or anything in between-- tend to become intractable.

What does he mean by that? We talked about this earlier in the seminar. He defines intractable conflicts as ones that are characterized by acute and lasting antagonism. They resist mediation, defy conventional wisdom, and drag on and on, worsening over time. Once we are pulled in, he says, it's nearly impossible to escape. Intractable conflicts rule us.

How do they do that? Well, he says it's due to oversimplification into an us-versus-them frame for everything. Intractability happens, he says, “when the many different components of the conflict collapse together into one mass, into one very simple us-versus-them story that effectively resists change.” And this collapse into one mass is what systems theorists, not just Peter, but many other systems theorists as well, call “attractors. “

So here we have a diagram taken from page 36 of his book. It is a very complex conflict system. If I have students draw conflict maps-- this is what we call a conflict map-- I strongly encourage them not to create ones that are this messy because this is very hard to read.  But I wanted to get one that showed a lot of complexity. And what happens with attractors is it shrinks all this complexity down into something that's very simple. So you explain everything that's happening in that diagram in terms of good guys and bad guys.

I tend to think of it as a black hole. Now, I've had a discussion with Peter, and he explains to me that actually it's not quite like a black hole. Then he goes into the physics of it, and the mathematical properties of attractors. But I still find it useful to think of it as a black hole. It's something that people and conflicts fall into, get trapped, and can't get out of.

So you can have complex systems of people, of events, of interests, of needs, and facts. All of which get pulled down --changing metaphors-- like a magnet into a hole, coalescing into simple coherent stories which form dysfunctional, malignant attractors. These attractors simplify everybody's understanding of what's going on. They reinforce negative stereotypes, and they routinize your responses, so the response to anything is "get them", "beat them", "destroy them", "win".

This causes the attractors to get increasingly deep-rooted and entrenched, and it appears as if they're static. They're unchanging. There's so many items pushing that ball down to the bottom. This picture really should have the ball showing up at the bottom of the valley, and there's nothing pushing it out or nothing strong enough pushing it out.

But they are formed by dynamics, not by statics, and they can be changed by different dynamics. The key is to figure out what forces maintain the destructive attractors, and which of those forces can be changed. Coleman has a lot of ideas about how to do this, and I will talk about those in a second video. 

Photo Credits: 

Slide 6: Black Hole.  Source: NASA. Public Domain.

Slides 7 and 8: Magnet. By Zureks (Own work). Public domain CC0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Slide 9 Fist: Source: Pixabay. Public Domain.