By Ronald J. Fisher
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Fisher, Ronald J. "Intergroup Conflict", in Deutsch, Morton and Peter T. Coleman, eds. The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000. 166-184.
Fisher offers a social-psychological approach to understanding intergroup conflicts, that is, conflicts between people that occur in terms of their group identities. He considers the implications of this approach both for conflict resolution and for the training in conflict resolution.
Fisher argues that intergroup conflicts arise from objective differences of interest, coupled with antagonistic or controlling attitudes or behaviors. Incompatibilities, which can prompt conflict, include economic, power or value differences, or differences in needs-satisfaction. Often intergroup conflicts have a mixture of these elements.
These incompatibilities can then be exacerbated into destructive intergroup conflict by common perceptual and cognitive processes. The very act of group categorization tends to create some in-group favoritism. Conflict between groups encourages negative stereotyping of the opposing group. Cognitive biases lead individuals to attribute positive personal characteristics to fellow in-group members and excuse their negative behaviors. At the same time, such biases lead people to attribute negative characteristics to out-group members and explain away any positive behaviors.
Group-level processes also play a role in intergroup conflicts. Groups have identities, and a group's sense of its particular identity will influence how it interacts with other groups. Groups display cohesiveness; members tend to be attracted to and want to remain in the group. Cohesiveness can lead to strong pressures to conform to group norms, especially in conflict situations. Cohesiveness can also lead to groupthink, which is characterized by consensus seeking to the point of irrationality.
All of these processes tend to escalate conflicts. Conflict, in turn, tends to intensify these processes. "Through a combination of cognitive rigidity and bias, self-fulfilling prophecy, and unwitting commitment to prior beliefs and action, parties are drawn into an escalating spiral wherein past investment justifies increasing risk, and unacceptable losses foreclose a way out."(p. 174) Escalation itself produces psychological and structural changes that make the parties resist deescalation. Psychological changes include negative biases and a dehumanized view of the out-group. Structural changes include incorporating hostile, destructive attitude toward the out-group into the in-group norms. Groups that benefit from conflict develop vested interests in continuing the conflict. Polarization processes draw formerly uninvolved parties into the conflict.
Fisher argues that escalated intergroup conflicts can be managed (albeit with great time and effort) and identifies a number of lessons from his approach to understanding these conflicts. Intergroup conflicts involve both objective and subjective elements, both of which must be addressed for effective deescalation. Third-party intervention is usually necessary. Deescalation may have to proceed in stages, using different methods. Because intergroup conflicts are so complex, intervention must begin with a thorough conflict analysis. Conflict resolution requires both change in subjective relationships and processes, and change in objective structures and systems.
Fisher offers a set of general principles for resolving intergroup conflicts. Such conflict resolution proceeds in three phases: analysis, confrontation, resolution. Conflict analysis should identify underlying issues, needs, fears, values, and goals of the parties, through a process that allows mutual clarification and trust-building between the parties.
After analysis comes productive confrontation, "in which the parties directly engage one another on the issues dividing them and work toward mutually acceptable solutions through joint problem solving."(p. 178) Parties must be encouraged to follow a collaborative strategy.
Conflict resolution "involves transforming the relationship and situation such that solutions developed by the parties are sustainable and self-correcting in the long run."(p. 179) Achieving such resolution will require addressing the parties' basic human needs. Mechanisms for dealing with further differences must allow for meaningful involvement by al concerned parties. At the most general level, this suggests that societies must support equality and equity between groups. Policies of multiculturalism and democratic pluralism reduce destructive intergroup conflict.
Resolving destructive intergroup conflicts is a complex and sensitive task, and as such will demand a multi-skilled team of diverse third-party facilitators. Required skills include interpersonal communication, group facilitation, intergroup problem solving, and system-level consulting.