Conflict Stories

Sarah Cobb

Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Most conflict theories come out of IR or social psychology or behavioral economics. Those are fields that have tended to see conflicts pre-existing in the way in which people describe the problems. There are disciplines and traditions that are not based or do not have much affinity with social constructionism. In those fields, those approaches to conflict presume scarcity in terms of resources or even unmet needs. Neither scarce resources or unmet needs attends to the way in which the story is coming from, its life history, how it affects them, and how it affects other people. This is the actual problem in addition to scarce resources and unmet needs. In other words, you can't meet people's needs and anticipate the conflict is going to be transformed. Neither can you reduce the scarcity of the resources or increase the abundance and assume that the conflict is going to be resolved.


Narrative really has traditionally three or four parts. One would be the context or the setting. Second is the character set-the folks that are involved. The third is the values and moral themes and moral corollaries that are attached to the last plot. So the moral corollaries are a function of the way in which the plot and the characters populate and structure the narrative itself. From that perspective, conflict narratives have particular features. They have very, very skinny underdeveloped plots that are usually externalizing responsibility. They have no evidence of interdependence, in terms of you did that and so I did this. There's no circularity. Third, they have very, very polarized and flat character traits with very little complexity. There are two kinds of folks-good guys and bad guys. Usually everybody's unwilling to talk about the ways in which their own participation as characters has not been legitimate and again they externalize responsibility. They usually don't have temporal complexity. They are either only about the past or only about the future. Almost never are they about the past, present and future in very complex ways. And the moral corollaries are very polarized and skinny. There's usually one way to be good and one way to be bad. The sort of narrative facilitation that I do is like adding water to a dehydrated narrative. How about that for a metaphor? It gets more three-dimensional. Three-dimensional people learn and there are new options and new ways of understanding things, and new dimensions for relationships to evolve.