Social-Psychological Dimensions of International Conflict
by Herbert C. Kelman
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Herbert C. Kelman, "Social-Psychological Dimensions of International Conflict" Peacemaking in International Conflict: Methods and Techniques, eds. I. William Zartman and J. Lewis Rasmussen, Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1997, pp. 191-238.
A social-psychological analysis is a necessary component of any general theory of international relations. Kelman outlines a social-psychological view of the nature of international conflict. He describes the social and psychological dynamics that tend to escalate conflict. Resolving conflicts requires reversing those dynamics.
Social psychology offers four theses about the nature of international conflicts, each of which expands significantly on traditional views on international relations. First, conflict is driven by people's collective fears and needs, and not solely by rational calculations of interest. Basic needs include issues of identity and security, and are often perceived in terms of survival. The threat that basic needs will not be met gives rise to existential fear. Such fear inhibits conflict resolution. For the parties, making concessions, or even reducing the intensity of their fighting, can seem to endanger their very survival. Effective conflict resolutions must address both sides' basic needs, and reassure their fears. Such resolutions must penetrate to the level of individuals.
Second, international conflict is not a purely interstate or intergovernmental phenomenon; it is an intersocial phenomenon. International conflicts affect societies at all levels: economic, political, cultural, psychological and structural. Political actors must respond both to their international opponents, and to various factions within their own society. Extremist factions can block opportunities for resolution, while moderate factions can create opportunities. Coalitions between factions across conflict lines can foster resolution. Settlements that focus on the official, political level many fail to address the wider social aspects of conflict, and so fail to fully resolve the conflict.
Third, international conflict involves the mutual exercise of influence on many levels. They are not simply contests of coercive power. Kelman observes that "responsiveness to the other's needs and fears is a fairly common form of influence in normal social relations."(p. 203) Use of threats and coercion can prompt similar retaliation and escalate conflict. More effective, positive incentives include "economic benefits, sharing essential resources, international approval, integration in regional or global institutions, or a general reduction in the level of tension."(p. 202) Effective resolution strategies must include the element of mutual reassurance, in the form of symbolic gestures, acknowledgements, or other confidence-building measures. A systematic strategy of responsiveness and reciprocity can transform the parties' relationship and their definition of the conflict in beneficial ways.
Fourth, conflicts are not merely a series of actions and reactions deployed by stable actors. International conflicts display an interactive, escalatory, self-perpetuating dynamic that affects both the situation and the parties. Conflict causes certain cognitive and perceptual biases, which in turn tend to increase and perpetuate conflict, creating a viscous cycle of escalation.
Two types of social-psychological processes contribute to conflict escalation: normative and perceptual. Normative processes involve social factors that encourage conflict behavior. Pervasive existential fears about national survival and identity supports conflict escalation. Moves toward deescalation or resolution are seen as dangerously risky. Pervasive existential fear can also lead to extreme violence in the name of self-defense. By drawing on people's needs for security and self-transcendence, leaders may mobilize intense group loyalty, which produces overzealous adherence to conflict norms in the name of demonstrating group loyalty. Moves toward deescalation or conciliation are seen as weak and disloyal, or even treasonous.
Normative processes also limit the options available for consideration by decision-makers, who must worry about being ousted by "stronger," more extreme, leaders. Decision-makers tend to make choices based on the ready availability of resources for carrying out those choices. In a protracted conflict, resources for conflict tend to be most readily available. Decision-makers may succumb to groupthink, when, "in order to maintain the cohesiveness of the group, the members studiously avoid any actions that might break the evolving consensus. Thus, they are reluctant to raise questions, offer criticisms, and propose different approaches or solutions to the problem."(p. 219)
Normative factors affect negotiation processes. Conflict norms pressure negotiators toward a zero sum view of the dispute; gains for another must entail losses for you. Fear of appearing weak also makes negotiators unwilling to compromise. Kelman observes that "conflict creates certain structural and psychological commitments, which then take on a life of their own."(p. 221) Parties with economic or identity interests vested in the conflict may be committed to maintaining the conflict status quo. Others may be committed to forestalling a compromise settlement. People may have incorporated the conflict into their basic worldview.
Perceptual processes refer to cognitive process for interpreting conflict-related information. Conflict makes it difficult to take the other's perspective, and hence views of the other tend to be self-centered. Parties in conflict tend to develop mirror images of self and other. Each party views itself as good and peaceful, fighting in self-defense, while the other side is inherently evil and aggressive. Moreover, each side assumes that the other sees them as they see themselves. For instance, each side assumes that the other will recognize their actions are simply defensive, while the other in fact sees them as aggressive. These misunderstandings lead to further escalation. Conflict images are very resistant to disconfirmation. Through selective exposure, selective perception and selective recall parties avoid noticing disconfirming information. Inconsistent information may be explained away in ways that reconfirm the original image.
Kelman notes that the social-psychological approach cannot give a sufficient, comprehensive theory of international conflict. It can, however, offer a new perspective, new insights, and suggest new techniques for understanding and managing international conflict.