Discussion 7: Dealing with the Problem of Scale

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Discussion 7: Dealing with the Problem of Scale

Most conflict resolution processes are what Guy and I call "table-oriented" processes.  Negotiation, mediation, dialogue, even most consensus-building and problem-solving workshops take place with a relatively few number of people (2-50, say) who can fit around the table.  But most of the intractable conflicts we are considering here involve millions or even hundreds of millions of people.  

Often the assumption is that the people around the table are able to speak for and represent the much larger population involved in and/or affected by the conflict, and that the larger population will "go along with" the results of the negotiation.  But that assumption is often not true.  Not all people and interests are represented, and often the constituents strongly disagree with the agreement if there is one.

At other times, it is assumed that participants in problem-solving workshops or dialogues will change their views of "the other" as well as of the conflict situation, and then they will return to their homes and workplaces and spread those changed views.  That often doesn't happen either. More commonly, participants get back to their home turf and slowly (or sometimes not so slowly) revert to the beliefs and attitudes they had before, due to their environment and pressure from peers.

So, what alternatives are there to grapple more effectively with conflicts that involve thousands or millions of people?  Are there effective ways to "scale up" table-oriented processes?  Or are there other processes entirely that work better at these large scales?

Please share your thoughts -- and if you know of case studies or other descriptions of successful large-scale processes, please share them!


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