Resolving Identity-Based Conflict: In Nations, Organizations, and Communities
By Jay Rothman
Summary written by Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: Jay Rothman. Resolving Identity-Based Conflict: In Nations, Organizations, and Communities. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997).
Identity conflicts engage strong passions and can lead to great destruction. Rothman argues that identity-based conflicts also have the potential to be transformative and creative. Drawing on his own experiences in conflict resolution and on existing theoretical models, Rothman develops his ARIA framework for transforming identity conflicts into productive relations.
Identity-based conflicts are often mistaken for disputes over material resources. Attempts to resolve such misdiagnosed conflicts generally fail, since the resolution efforts do not address the real underlying causes of the conflict. Hence the first step in effective resolution is correctly identifying a conflict as an identity conflict. Rothman contrasts identity-based conflicts to interest-based disputes. Interest-based conflicts tend to be more concrete, the issues more clearly defined, and the potential for mutual benefit more obvious. Identity-based conflicts are based in people's psychology, culture, basic values, shared history, and beliefs. Identity conflicts threaten people's basic needs and very survival. These issues tend to be more abstract, ambiguous and intangible. Identity conflicts may be expressed as material disputes, in an attempt to give focus to the parties' concerns. Material disputes may evolve into identity conflicts, as the disputants invest themselves in the dispute and come to identify with their positions. Once a conflict has been correctly analyzed, the next step toward resolution is to make explicit the sources of identity threat and insecurity, and the parties' needs. Resolution proceeds by having the parties dialogue about their needs and values. Rothman argues that such dialog can promote the empowerment and recognition needed to transform the conflict into a more productive relationship.
ARIA: A Framework for Transforming Identity Conflicts
The ARIA framework is named for the four phases of its process: Antagonism, Resonance, Invention, and Action. The ARIA framework describes a dialogue and reconciliation process which can "foster harmony and resonance from adversaries' full and honest expression of the deeply felt human motivations that lie beneath their conflict."[p. 18] Though Rothman describes the four stages in progression, he cautions that the ARIA process is dynamic. The dialog may loop back to earlier phases of discussion. The action phase may lead cyclically back to antagonism. Rothman calls the first phase the antagonism phase. The goal of this phase is to bring suppressed differences to the surface, and to analyze the sources of the parties' animosity. Participants are asked to air their grievances. Facilitators are present to set boundaries and keep the venting from getting out of control. Identity conflicts are usually framed adversarially. Signs of adversarial framing include blaming the other side, polarizing the parties, attributing negative characteristics to the other side, and projecting one's own negative traits onto the other side. This type of framing is generally not productive. However, by allowing the participants to vent this unproductive accusations, the ARIA process will encourage participants to reframe their conflict in more productive terms.
Having exhausted (for the moment at least) their antagonism, and discouraged by unproductive blaming, the participants are ready to move on to the resonance phase. In the resonance phase, discussion focuses on identifying the parties' common needs and shared motivations. This serves to reframe the conflict from the unproductive adversarial frame to a more productive reflexive frame. Rather than focus on the other side, each party is encouraged to reflect objectively on their own needs and fears. Rather than blaming, parties are encouraged to reflect on and take responsibility for their own actions and choices in the conflict. In place of negative attribution and projection, participants seek to understand the opponent's perspective and to better understand their own character. In the resonance phase participants move away from an "Us versus Them" attitude toward a "We" attitude.
Thus reframed, the conflict is ripe for inventive solutions. In the invention phase the parties work together to generate solutions which meet their common needs and shared interests. One way to generate new solutions is to begin by developing a broad statement of shared objectives and then go on to work out the details. Rothman also describes three cooperative problem-solving techniques. Opposed demands may be based on different, but ultimately compatible, interests. Differentiating the parties' underlying interests can lead to cooperative solutions. Seeking to expand the amount or availability of contested resources can lead to cooperative, mutually beneficial solutions. When neither differentiation nor expansion are possible, one party may agree give up the contested resource in exchange for some compensation. This compensation can take many forms.
Once a solution has been agreed upon, it must be implemented. In the action phase the parties develop an implementation agenda. First, participants must decide on the scale of the action. Beginning with a fairly specific, limited program can be a helpful way of building trust between the larger communities. Larger scale institutional projects may be needed to implement more complex, multifaceted solutions. The most ambitious implementation action is to enter into more formal political negotiations in an attempt to bring more sweeping resolutions to the community at large. Whatever the scale, any implementation agenda should answer four basic questions: who, what, why, and how? It should specify the project's goals and intended outcomes. It should make explicit the parties' motivations in undertaking the action. It should specify who is to undertake implementation, and the means that will be used.
Applying the ARIA Framework
Rothman describes the use of ARIA in national, organizational and community settings. For identity conflicts at the national level, ARIA dialogues can be a effective form of prenegotiation. Rothman describes his use of ARIA workshops in the Jerusalem Peace Initiative. Israeli and Palestinian students, activists, community leaders, professionals and diplomats were brought together in a series of workshops to "discuss the human dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over Jerusalem."[p. 88] Rothman recounts the group's progress. By the end of the workshops, the participants agreed on a general statement of principle--that they must learn better ways to live together in Jerusalem--and made concrete policy proposals designed to advance cooperative living in each of five areas of life. The participants also developed specific confidence-building initiatives in each area. Rothman concludes that "when formal negotiations are completely deadlocked, the work of peace can still proceed at the human and functional levels...thus laying the groundwork for renewed negotiations later."[p. 107]
The ARIA framework has also been used to deal effectively with organizational conflicts. Drawing on actual experiences, Rothman presents a composite case of management-labor conflict. Ongoing tension between management and the union had eventually resulted in conflicts within each side. Morale was low, distrust high. Through union workshops and management retreats participants were able to use the ARIA process to transform relationships within the union and within management, and ultimately to improve the union-management relationship. Rothman uses a case of community-based conflict to illustrate several specific ARIA tools and guidelines for applying the ARIA framework. In order to determine whether a particular conflict is an identity conflict, Rothman has developed an identity conflict assessment tool. Conflicts are assessed in terms of their focus, basis and goals. Identity conflicts tend to focus on historical or psychological factors, be based on the parties values or beliefs, and to have intangible or complex goals. Interest conflicts are focused on goods or services, are based on socioeconomic factors, and have tangible, concrete goals. Another helpful tool is the conflict audit. "A conflict audit is designed to give the third party-analyst necessary information about the range of conflict issues and negative affect surrounding the specific triggering issue, as well as the larger context within which it is embedded."[p. 150] By means of interviews or dialogue with the participants the facilitator should identify the identity issues, interests, motivating forces and restraining forces at play in the conflict. The participants should also be directly involved in generating the audit.
Rothman concludes this text by presenting a "road map" of a typical two-day workshop. The workshop opens with the antagonism phase, which typically takes about two hours. The facilitator opens this phase with basic questions, such as "what is this conflict about?" The facilitator will close this phase by asking the group to reflect on how they feel about the discussion they have just had, and by charting the positions revealed in discussion. The resonance phase generally takes about four hours and concludes the first day. Each side is asked to explain why they hold their positions, and what they need or fear. When the sides are very hostile this phase may begin by having each group clarify their reasons and needs separately, and then bringing the groups together to share their reflections. The facilitator will help the group focus on their shared needs. The integrative invention phase should take about two hours. Participants are broken up into mixed groups, where they brainstorm for ideas which would satisfy the shared needs identified in the previous phase. Finally, during the action planning phase, the group reassembles and evaluates the proposals from the invention phase. Working together the participants craft project proposals. The facilitator helps to ensure that each proposal answers the basic questions: what is the initiative and who, why, and how will this initiative be implemented.