Michelle Maiese
Tova Norlen

October 2003

"When people divide on an issue, unless they find a resolution, they tend to push each other further out toward the opposite ends of the spectrum. Each end represents a value that is legitimate, but that also must be balanced against another value. Polarization is one way the system preserves balance, but it is an unstable and conflictual balance." -- Andrew Bard Schmookler, available online at: http://www.cop.com/info/abs-essa.html

What is Polarization?

Polarization is the process that causes neutral parties to take sides in a conflict. It also causes individuals on either side of the conflict to take increasingly extreme positions that are more and more opposed to each other. As parties move toward these opposite "poles," they define themselves in terms of their opposition to a common enemy. Trust and respect diminish, and "distorted perceptions and simplified stereotypes emerge."[1] Parties assume more rigid positions and may refuse to negotiate.

The study of polarization first came to be identified with those realist writers who wrote about the structure of the international system, the impact of military alliances on war and peace, and the balance of power. Writers such as Vasquez, Choucri North, Wallace and Bueno de Mesquita wrote about the effect of polarization on the incidence, severity, and magnitude of great wars and arms races.[2] Polarization also became the main element in the study of the security dilemma, a situation in which parties feel threatened by an "enemy," so they increase their arms, which causes the other side to feel threatened, therefore increasing their own arms. The dilemma is thus that attempts to bring more security actually bring less. Increased pre-emptive militarization combines with fear, misperceptions, and negative stereotypes to encourage polarization. While polarization can occur in any type of conflict, it has it most damaging effects in large-scale inter-group, public policy, and international conflicts.

Causes of Polarization

"Leadership is imperative in the polarization and escalation process because group members must be convinced that their grievances can be attributed to the adversary or 'Other.' Followers must also be convinced that the desired change is possible through the particular course of action suggested by their leadership." -- Lou Kriesberg

Polarization is caused by a number of related psychological, sociological, and political processes. It is closely tied up with escalation in a bi-directional relationship. In other words, escalation causes polarization and vice versa.

As conflict escalates, the emergence of enemy images and stereotypes damages the relationship between adversaries. Important lines of communication and interaction that are normal to peaceful relationships are cut off, and trust diminishes. As parties begin to attribute their grievances to the other side, they often reduce the number of non-conflictual relations and interactions that they have with that party. Adversaries tend to become increasingly isolated from each other, and any inter-group communication is channeled through more antagonistic lenses. Because parties have fewer ties to individuals from the other group, they may feel freer to employ more severe actions against that group.[3] Group isolation and polarization is further aggravated by the tendency of partisans to try to win bystanders to their side, forcing people to take sides. As more people are drawn into the conflict, that conflict intensifies.

Conversely, escalation seems to increase polarization. Formerly neutral parties are pulled to one side or the other and fewer community members can retain their moderate positions. In part, this is because those involved in the conflict demand that neutral non-participants decide whether they are "with us or against us."[4] Those who would normally urge moderation and attempt to mediate the conflict are recruited by participants in the controversy, and forced to take sides. It is difficult for community members to remain neutral when people are fighting, damaging each other's property, and injuring each other. In such situations, there is a tendency to cast blame and to side with one party or the other.

Radical positions are further reinforced by group homogeneity and cohesiveness. Kriesberg notes that adversaries with little internal diversity are more prone to escalation.[5] They are more prone to polarization as well. This is because homogeneity makes it less likely that a group will consider alternatives to the severe tactics being advocated or employed by extremists. As parties assume more radical positions, group members tend to reinforce each other's negative stereotypes and enemy images.[6] Any moderate positions go unheard or their proponents ostracized -- or worse -- as they are seen as traitors to the cause. As this process continues, parties are often further segregated, and their relationship with outsiders becomes increasingly hostile and competitive.[7]

While some scholars of intergroup conflict regard polarization and escalation as inevitable in interethnic relationships, others see it as the result of social mobilization or manipulation by political elites. Leadership whose legitimacy is threatened, either by the leaders' own actions or by an immediate crisis, can use identity as a 'rallying cry' by calling for mobilization and collective action along nationalistic or ethnic lines.[8] In order to foster homogeneity and build support for their cause, such leaders may portray the adversary as a grave threat to the vital interests and identity of "their people."[9] This furthers both polarization and escalation simultaneously.

Additional insights into polarization are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Addressing Polarization

Polarization is so much a part of the process of escalation that it is difficult to ascertain if one is the cause of the other. Ikle writes that as soon as two adversaries have initiated violence, their stakes and expectations change, making it impossible to return to a peacetime relationship without first repairing the damage.[10] Escalation has multiple dimensions; it could be a shift or change in the pattern of the violence, but Ikle notes that it also usually prolongs the war by default.

Parties engaged in conflict typically focus on their differences, which can result in pushing the parties toward polar opposite positions. Strategies that encourage parties to consider their common interests can help to mitigate such effects. Planning and pursuing joint projects, for example, can help parties to focus on commonalities rather than contentious issues. Because fear and distrust often play a central in producing polarization, trust building strategies are also beneficial. The establishment of personal relationships between adversaries can help to improve their communication, increase their level of mutual understanding, and make them less likely to view each other as evil enemies. Better understanding of a party's true motives can help to reduce anger and hostility and eliminate actions that unwittingly threaten or annoy one's opponent.[11]

If possible, third-party mediators or consultants should help parties to better understand the dynamics of their conflict and to address their negative perceptions and attitudes. This sort of transformative mediation can enhance trust and help parties to refrain from taking hostile actions.[12] If parties can move toward productive negotiation, they have taken the first step towards reconciliation.

[1] Dean Pruitt and Paul Olczak, "Beyond Hope: Approaches to Resolving Seemingly Intractable Conflict," 59-92, in Conflict, Cooperation, and Justice: Essays Inspired by the Work of Morton Deutsch, eds. Barbara Bunker and Jeffrey Rubin, et al. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, Inc., 1995), 81.

[2] James E. Dougherty and Robert L. Phaltzgraff, Contending Theorys of International Relations: A Comprehensive Survey, 5th edition. (Longman Publishers, 2001), 297.

[3] Kriesberg, 159.

[4] Jeffrey Rubin, Dean Pruitt, and Sung Hee Kim, Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement, 2nd edition. (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994), 96. New edition <http://scar.gmu.edu/book/social-conflict-escalation-stalemate-and-settlement>.

[5] Kriesberg, 159.

[6] Kriesberg, 159.

[7] Pruitt and Olczak, 81.

[8] Donald Rothchild and Chandra Lekha Sriram, "Third Party Incentives and the Phases of Conflict Prevention," in From Promise to Practice: Strengthening UN Capacities for the Prevention of Violent Conflict, eds. Chandra Lekha Sriram and Karin Wermester. ( Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003).

[9] Louis Kriesberg, Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, Inc., 1998), 159. New version of this book (2012)  <http://books.google.com/books?id=qhuwiOmaVDIC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>.

[10] Fred Charles Ikle, How Nations Negotiate, (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1964).

[11] Pruitt and Olczak, 77.

[12] Pruitt and Olczak, 82.

Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle and Tova Norlen. "Polarization." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: October 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/polarization>.

Additional Resources