Understanding Intractable Conflicts


Peter Coleman

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia

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 ???).

Q: Still, I wonder how the idea of systems theory and its complexity affects the way one would make a conflict analysis. How would I assess a conflict and not sort of fall into the usual underlying causes notions of structural violence or basic human beings needs not being met or a sense of power imbalance. It's a very different paradigm.

A: So, what I'm a fan of and what we're trying to understand is where complexity and sort of metaphor theory meet because the multi-metaphor theory of Garth Morgan and George Lakoff and other people really talk about the importance of your point of view in understanding the phenomenon. Frames are part of it, I'll show you another model that I've been working on. It looks like this. What I think is that basically what I've been trying to do is organize the variety of approaches that are out there to working with intractable conflict and it's hard to organize because there are so many dimensions on which they differ and overlap that how do you organize them in any useful categories?

But given that, what we've been trying to do is sort of organize them around 5 basic metaphors for working in this area and that is sort of the dominance/control metaphor, the cooperative needs base metaphor, the post-modern metaphor, which is really about the social construction of meaning and the rebellion of symbolic language and things like that, the pathological metaphor to look at the pathology of the phenomenon--things like violence and trauma and physical and emotional destruction and the need to repair those things, and ultimately, the 5th is the systems metaphor which is the broadest. And those are sort of 5 images that differ on certain assumptions about reality and human nature and power and change that have implications for framing that Lewicki and Barbara Gray talk about in terms of framing. But ultimately, that's all implicit and inform our theories and our practice strategies or theories of practice and theories of conflict.

So that there are these sort of more implicit processes and images that we use.

What Morgan says is that we understand the unknown by making quick associations to the things that we know. Or we understand abstract phenomenon that are complex and moving, by associating them with things that make sense to us right. So these images matter. And through these images we channel a lot of information. We try to put together, the images are consistent with certain assumptions and certain frames and ultimately lend themselves to realist theory, or cooperation theory, or social constructivist theory or the basic theories that underlie these ideas.

So one of the things that Morgan proposes in order to manage that, and it is a frame problem that we have, it is not only the disputants that suffer from framing. But that we as interveners have our own frame problems and we forget to look at that. And as I said we're an integral part of this system and I think an important part of the system so it's important that we be mindful of our frames. And one of the things that the approach that Morgan recommends is that we develop sort of a super-ordinate metaphor or frame that is complex enough to accommodate power analyses.

To accommodate resource analyses, to accommodate other metaphorical perspectives in service of understanding the whole. So that's what we're sort of offering living systems theory as a broad based metaphor through which it is useful to see well what's the impact of the power analysis of that, what's the impact of the needs analysis on that So you have sort of super-ordinate metaphors and then you have subordinate metaphors in the service of understanding the Gestaldt. So what we think is that these major paradigms are things that in some ways limit and constrict the field's understanding of itself- the field being loosely defined as this eclectic thing. Because we have people stuck in these camps, like I have a very bright PhD student who is die hard postmodernist, and everything is about power. And it's all about language and power, and he's a very bright student and he's very well informed and he's been a great asset, but he's stuck there and he can't see that it's one point of view. It's THE point of view. And I think that we fall trap to that.