January 13 10 final Introduction: Conflicts and Social Psychology1 Daniel Bar-Tal School of Education Tel Aviv University



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January 13 10

final
Introduction: Conflicts and Social Psychology1

Daniel Bar-Tal

School of Education

Tel Aviv University

Bar-Tal, D. (2011). Introduction: Conflicts and social psychology. In Bar-Tal, D. (Ed.), Intergroup conflicts and their resolution: Social psychological perspective (pp.217-240). New York: Psychology Press


Conflicts are defined as situations in which two or more parties perceive that their goals and/or interests are in direct contradiction with one another and decide to act on the basis of this perception. This definition suggests two conditions for eruption of the conflict: identification of the contradiction and the decision to act on this basis. Accordingly, it is not enough that each of the parties will identify the contradiction in goals and/or interests: In order for a conflict to erupt, it is necessary that at least one party will decide to act upon this contradiction and bring it into the light, at least in a verbal expression. This means that conflicts may erupt also when in the first stage only one side perceives that its goals and/or interests are in direct contradiction with the goals or interests of another party and decides to act on the basis of this perception. Such a move causes the other side to note the contradiction and act as well, leading to the surge of the conflict.

Conflicts are inseparable and significant part of human life on every level of interaction; there are interpersonal conflicts, intra-group, intergroup, inter-organizational, intra-societal, and interethnic as well as international conflicts and even inter-civilization conflicts - to note the most salient ones as we move from the micro to mega conflicts (Galtung, 2004). They take place constantly and continuously because it is unavoidable that human beings will not have disagreements over goals, interests, values and/or beliefs. It is just simply natural that people, as individuals and groups, who differ in aspects such as belief systems that include aspirations, values, goals, needs, as well as in ways of socialization, cultural environments, or political and economic systems will have conflicts over almost every tangible or non-tangible element of desire.

In this vein it is necessary to say that not all the conflicts have negative meaning and are negative in their nature. Conflicts are also necessary for enabling progress and innovation as human beings come with new ideas or inventions that contradict old stagnated dogmas, values, habits, or practices. Conflicts also erupt to abolish various types of immorality that human beings practice such as discrimination, injustice, inequality, exploitation, occupation and even ethnic cleansing and genocide. Often only through conflicts groups can achieve what they deserve according to international laws or moral codes of the international community. This is so because very rarely groups willingly provide to other groups with what these groups ought to have according to these laws and codes. Many of the attempts to correct injustice are then met with strong resistance and rejection which lead to serious conflicts. Moreover, there is need to note that conflicts differ in their symmetrical-asymmetrical dimension on various parameters. The two distinguished parameters refer to the military-economic-political might that the sides in conflict have and to the level and extent of violation of moral codes that the sides in conflict practice. On both parameters there might be differences between the rival sides. In general, it can be said that those are not the conflicts themselves which necessarily reflect the ugly side of the humane species, but some of their causes and some of the ways they are managed.

Macro Level Conflicts

The present volume focuses on particular types of conflicts – macro level conflicts that involve societies and with this focus the volume will analyze mostly serious and harsh conflicts in which society members participate. A society denotes a large, unique and stable social system with established boundaries that differentiates it from other societies. It consists of collective of people, who have at least some feeling of belonging, share societal beliefs, experience solidarity, coordinate to at least some extent of activities and have a sense of common identity. Using Giddens' (1984) terminology, societies are "social systems which 'stand out' in bas-relief from a background of a range of other systemic relationships in which they are embedded. They stand out because definite structural principles serve to produce a specifiable overall 'clustering of institutions' across time and space" (p. 164). These social collectives endure, evolving a tradition, culture, collective memory, belief systems, social structures and institutions (Griswold, 1994). Those are binding and integrating elements that unite differing groups into one society (Hoebel, 1960).

Many of the macro societal conflicts involve ethnic societies. Ethnic societies or groups refer to collectives, whose membership is determined on the basis of perceived common past, common culture, common language and common destiny. It means that ethnicity is based also on perception and awareness of shared characteristics, as well as cognized differences from other groups (For example, Anderson, 1991; Barth, 1969; Brubaker, 2004; Connor, 1994; Geertz, 1973).

The reference to the macro level conflicts indicates that they involve society members as being part of collectives, as a result of their identification with the collective and an emergence of the collective identity (David & Bar-Tal, 2009). This implies that in times of a conflict, members of a society in many cases, sharing with each other feelings, beliefs, values and norms, act in coordinated ways. That is, macro level conflicts concern collective goals and interests such as rights, territories, self-determinations, resources, prestige, values, ideologies and so on – both tangible and non-tangible societal commodities that individuals as members of a society value, desire, aspire, or need for their collective entity. As a result, society members mind, care, are emotionally involved, and participate in conflicts as members of their collective. These conflicts also involve individual interests and goals, but central preoccupation concerns the well-being of the society. Moreover, society members are aware that this preoccupation is shared by other members who also identify with the collective (Ashmore, Deaux, & McLaughlin-Volpe, 2004). With this awareness, society members do not have to experience the conflict directly in order to feel that they are part of it. As members of a society they are exposed to the events of the conflict via various channels of communication and societal institutions and thus become vicarious participants of all aspects of the conflict through the process of identification with their society.

The care and concern for the well being of the society or even direct participation does not mean that all society members must agree with the way the conflict is managed. Some of them may not even support the goals of the conflict. They may disagree on various issues related to conflict and carry out debates and activities that reflect these disagreements. These disagreements may even lead to deep schism reflecting intra-societal conflict that may evolve at any phase of the macro inter-societal conflict.

Socio-psychological Perspective

The analysis of the macro level intergroup conflicts involves many different perspectives such as for example historical, political, sociological, economic or cultural ones. Each of these perspectives offers different concepts, theoretical frameworks, models or even ways of collecting data that provide unique outlooks and emphases. Thus, for example, the historical perspective focuses on the historiography of the outbreak of the conflict and its continuation, attempting to describe the course of the events in most accurate way; or the political perspective tries to elucidate the role of political systems and dynamics in conflicts.

However it seems to me that first of all there is a need to recognize that those are human beings who initiate conflicts, take part in them, manage them, sometimes peacefully resolve them and even may reconcile. Human beings perceive, evaluate, infer and act. These human psychological behaviors2 are integral parts of conflicts' interactions as human beings are the only actors on the conflict stage. As noted, those are human beings who decide to disseminate the idea about the necessity of conflicts, to mobilize societies' members to participate in them, to socialize their children to continue them, to carry them violently, or to reject their peaceful resolution (see the chapter by Coutant, Stephen Worchel, and Marcelo Hanza in the present book about eruption of conflicts).

Mobilization is a necessary condition for carrying out a successful macro level intergroup conflict. Mobilization is an act of deliberate recruitment of society members to be involved in the causes of the conflict. It can be seen as a kind of persuasion process with the goal of convincing group members to support the conflict and participate in it actively. The necessary basic precondition for mobilization is that individuals who are society members will greatly identify with their group, in general, and specifically with the posed conflict's goals of their society (see Simon, & Klandermans, 2001 and the chapter by Brewer in the present book). Moreover, mobilization means not only that individuals identify with the group and accept the goals related to conflicts, but also approve the direction of the actions that the group takes and are ready to carry some kind of action themselves on behalf of the group which often involves killing the rival and at the same time, readiness to be killed (see for example, Klandermans, 1988). This process is carried through messages that include beliefs which are relevant, concrete, appeal to the social identity, negate the present situation as unacceptable, note important cherished values, are threatening and arouse strong emotions. It is clear that harsh and violent conflicts cannot evolve and gain strength without the participation of at least some of the group members in conflict, which is manifested by their total devotion and readiness to sacrifice their lives (Bar-Tal & Staub, 1997).

In view of the premises stated above, the study of conflicts cannot take place without the contribution of the field social psychology. I would say it more explicitly– social psychology provides the core knowledge that is necessary to form the foundations for the understanding of the conflicts' dynamics and their peace making. Socio-psychological perspective does not try to describe what was the "real" course of the conflict, but rather to analyze what people think and feel in this situation, as this is extremely important for the understanding of why they act in the particular way. Krech, Crutchfield and Ballachey (1962) noted rightly years ago that "Man acts upon his ideas, his irrational acts no less than his rational acts are guided by what he thinks, what he believes, what he anticipates. However bizarre the behavior of men, tribes, or nations may appear to an outsider, to the men, to the tribes, to the nations their behavior makes sense in terms of their own world views" (p. 17).

This means that people behave in a conflict according to their psychological repertoire which includes not only those beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and intentions of behaviors acquired in the course of the conflict, but also according to those ones that were acquired over a long period of time in different contexts, before the conflict erupted. Various past experiences and acquired knowledge also have determinative influence on the manner in which a collective acts in a conflict situation. Thus the socio-psychological approach tries to reveal these thoughts, feelings and behaviors that are underlying the evolvement and maintenance of the conflict as well as later its eventual resolution and reconciliation. Thus, also a possibility of peace building must also be initiated in human minds first. This idea should then be propagated and adopted by the same human beings who were engaged in initiating and maintaining the conflict.

Study of Conflicts in Social Psychology

In view of the above presented premises about intergroup conflicts it is not surprising that the founding fathers of social psychology realized that their study should be one of its main endeavors (see Deutsch, 1980). One research direction of the early seeds of studies of conflict is summarized by Murphy, Murphy and Newcomb (1937) in their textbook of social psychology. In this direction, empirical studies focused on individual cooperation and competition in the framework of task performance. In another direction, in the first half of the 20th century, the study of conflict was an integral part of the study of prejudice, as prejudice was viewed as one of the salient indications of intergroup conflict and violence (Cantril, 1941; Harding, Kutner, Proshansky, & Chein, 1954; Newcomb, 1950). However this state changed with time. Presently, the study of prejudice is omitting deeper analysis of conflicts and their resolution (see for example, Stephan, 1985).

In the mid 20th century, when the modern social psychology evolved, the study of conflicts was part of the main stream. Kurt Lewin believed that conflicts are inseparable part of human behavior and social psychologists can illuminate various aspects of this phenomenon. The edited volume "Resolving social conflicts" (Lewin, 1948) presented and analyzed different types of conflicts ranging from intrapersonal to intergroup using socio-psychological conceptual framework. Based on Lewin's theory, Deutsch, one of the pioneers of modern social psychology, began to develop a theory of cooperation and competition, which has served as a basic conception for the study of a conflict (Deutsch, 1949a and b). During this period, the knowledge about conflicts began to crystallize and the classical textbook by Krech and Crutchfield (1948) Theory and problems of social psychology already devoted two chapters to conflicts: one regarding industrial conflict and another about international tension.

The classical studies by Sherif and his colleagues about conflict and cooperation are undoubtedly the most compelling examples of seminal contributions to the understanding of how conflicts evolve and how they can be resolved (Sherif, 1966; Sherif, M., Harvey, White, Hood, & Sherif, C. W., 1961). The so called "Robber Cave experiments" provided experimental real life opportunity to observe first the formation of two groups, then the emergence of a conflict between them and its various implications and finally ways of resolving this conflict peacefully via setting a series of super-ordinate goals. Approximately at the same time the paradigm of simulating conflicts as games was imported from game theory to social psychology allowing for the use of experimental method in the investigation of various hypotheses in intergroup conflicts and their resolution (e.g., Deutsch, 1958; Kelley et al, 1970; Rapoport, 1960). This paradigm enabled precise measures of outcomes, easy manipulation of various situations and strict control of variables (Pruitt & Kimmel, 1977). The most popular paradigm was the Prisoners Dilemma, but with time other paradigms were invented including trucking game by Deutsch and Krauss (1960) that allowed to study mixed motive conflicts.

The very early work by Otto Klineberg was signaling the growing preoccupation with international conflicts by social psychologists (Klineberg, 1950). In the 1960s a clear trend in this direction emerged in social psychology. The edited book by Herbert Kelman (Kelman, 1965), as well as books written by Stagner (1967) and White (1970), offered a social psychological perspective to the analysis of large scale inter-societal conflicts, highlighting issues such as intergroup perceptions, violence, leadership, or negotiation. The seminal contribution of Henry Tajfel on social identity also has direct implication for intergroup conflicts, suggesting not only a crucial mechanism for group formation and functioning, but also a determinative element that leads to intergroup differentiation as well as to conflicts (Tajfel, 1979, 1982).

From the present perspective, it is possible to say that although the theme of studying conflict never achieved a longstanding primary place as did the studies of prejudice or conformity, it succeeded to establish itself as a legitimate part of the social psychology A number of textbooks included this topic in their agenda (Myers, 1993; Raven & Rubin, 1976; Saks, & Krupat, 1988) and a number of leading social psychologists devoted their entire career to studying this topic—such as Morton Deutsch, Herbert Kelman, late Jeffrey Rubin, late Ralph White, or Dean Pruitt to name only a few of them. With years social psychologists have played the major role in developing and establishing peace psychology and political psychology which have been preoccupied with the study of conflicts and peace making. In 1990 was established division 48 within the American Psychological Association (APA) as the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence. Few years later this society began to publish a journal Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology.

Today there is a growing interest in the social psychology of a conflict and many of the younger generation of social psychologists concentrate on various aspects of this area. Throughout the recent years, books, chapters and journal articles, have been published and many papers have been presented in social psychology conferences on various aspects of conflicts and peace making (see for example Vollhardt & Bilali, 2008). Also several "small meetings" of the European Social Psychology Association were organized about the social psychology of conflicts and their resolution and several issues of Journal of Social Issues and Group Processes & Intergroup Relations were devoted to this theme as well. A few years ago a second edition of the Handbook about Conflict Resolution (Deutsch, Coleman, & Marcus, 2006) was published by social psychologists and recently appeared few important collections that provided impetus to the psychological study of conflict and peace building (e.g., de Rivera, 2009; Fitzduff & Stout, 2006).

The present book is taking a social psychological perspective to the analysis of conflicts. It mainly focuses on the socio-psychological foundations and dynamics of harsh and destructive intergroup conflicts (but not only), illuminating their eruption, management, resolution and peace making.

Destructive Conflicts

There are different types of societal conflicts, which may be classified in various ways. One of the more meaningful classification focuses on their severity and longevity. In fact this dimension represents the level of destructiveness of the conflicts. Different terms were used to describe the two opposing poles of this dimension on which it is possible to locate the various intergroup conflicts—though they may dynamically move on this dimension with time. I will use the concepts of tractable and intractable conflicts3. Thus, on the one pole of this dimension are found tractable conflicts which are over goals of low importance and last a short period of time, during which the parties in dispute view them as solvable and are interested to resolve them quickly through negotiation. In addition, the involved societies avoid violence, do not mobilize society members to support their cause, and recognize and take into account mutual interests, goals and needs, and view their conflict as being of mixed motive nature. Some of the conflicts between allied states such as France and Germany or Britain and USA are examples of this type of conflicts.

On the other pole are found intractable conflicts. These conflicts are over perceived important goals; they involve great animosity and vicious cycles of violence; are prolonged because neither side can win and therefore are perceived as unsolvable and self-perpetuating; at the same time both sides are not interested in compromising and resolving them in a peaceful way; in contrast, each side mobilizes society members to participate in them and is focusing only on own needs and goals (see also different characterizations of intractable conflicts, Azar, 1990; Burton, 1987; Deutsch, 1985; Huth & Russett, 1993; Kriesberg, Northrup, & Thorson, 1989; Mitchell, 1981; Mor & Maoz, 1999). The interethnic conflicts between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, between Chechens and Russians in Chechnya, between Tamils and Singhalese in Sri Lanka, between Turks and Kurds in Turkey, between Moslems and Hindus in India's Kashmir and in the Middle East, between Jews and Palestinians provide or provided in different periods prototypical examples of intractable conflicts. This type of long-lasting, severe and violent conflicts have serious implications for the societies involved, their individual members as well as for the whole world community. Therefore, understanding the foundations and dynamics of intractable conflicts is of special challenge for social scientists, including social psychologists. Perhaps not surprising many chapters of the present book focus especially on this type of conflicts.

The present characterization of conflict's intractability is based on Kriesberg's characteristics (Kriesberg, 1993, 1998). He suggested following four necessary characterizing features:

1. Intractable conflicts are violent involving physical violence in which society members are killed and wounded in either wars, small-scale military engagements or terrorist attacks.

2. They are perceived as unsolvable because society members involved in intractable conflict do not perceive the possibility of resolving the conflict peacefully.

3. They demand extensive investment as the engaged parties make vast material (i.e., military, technological, and economic) and psychological investments in order to cope successfully with the situation.

4. They are protracted as they persist for a long time, at least a generation. Their long duration implies that the parties in conflict have had many confrontational experiences and as a result they have accumulated animosity and hostility

In addition to these features, Bar-Tal (1998a, 2007a) proposed to add three necessary characteristics that further elaborate the nature of intractable conflicts.

5. Intractable conflicts are total as they are perceived to be about essential and basic goals, needs and/or values that are regarded as indispensable for the group's existence and/or survival.

6. They are perceived as being of zero sum nature, without compromises and with adherence to all the original goals. In addition, parties engaged in intractable conflict perceive any loss suffered by the other side as their own gain, and conversely, any gains of the other side as their own loss.

7. They are central because they occupy a central place in the lives of the individual group members and the group as a whole. Members of the society are involved constantly and continuously with the conflict.

To conclude this characterization, some of the above described essential features of intractable conflict are purely psychological such as the manner the conflict is perceived as being existential, irresolvable, and of a zero sum nature. Other features are associated with different realms of personal and collective experiences. Even level of violence or extent of investment in the conflict is evaluated subjectively. Only the characteristic of longevity is absolutely an objective one. This does not mean that evaluation of intractability is imagined. People evaluate conflicts on the basis of their experiences and provided information and there is not doubt that conflicts differ in their severity and thus in the clearness of the situation. Wars or high level violence provide unequivocal basis for the evaluation of the severity of the conflict. But there are also situations and lasting conditions that are not as clear and then society members are dependent more on supplied information and acquired knowledge in their judgment.

All the six features (except longevity) may evolve with time and each of them has its own pace of development. Once all of them appear, the state of intractability begins and each characteristic adds to this chronic and harsh reality. It is possible to assume that violence plays a major role in characterizing the severity of the conflict and that it is difficult to evaluate the contribution of each of the other elements to its level of intractability. Nevertheless appearance of the six characteristics without longevity may lead to a very severe, intense and vicious conflict with very heavy losses as the bitter memory of War World II teaches us. The feature of longevity adds a particular element of accumulation of hostility over a long period of time and evolvement because of the continuing violence, which anchors the conflict in system beliefs. It also indicates the inability to bring the conflict to an end either by force through a military victory or by a peaceful resolution. Thus only when all the seven features emerge in their extreme form, typical nature of intractable conflicts emerges. In reality, intractable conflicts differ in terms of the intensity with which each of the seven features occurs. Moreover, intractable conflicts fluctuate, as they may deescalate and then escalate again. Thus, over time each of the seven features may vary in its intensity.

One of the most salient signs of conflict escalation takes place when a party or parties resort to violence (see chapter by Elcheroth and Spini in the present book). In many cases the use of violence is perceived as necessary part to achieve the goals either by one or both sides to the conflict (Brubaker, & Laitin, 1998; Opotow, 2006). In conflicts that are over existential goals related to the social identity of the group and which are viewed as of zero sum nature, the use of violence is almost inevitable as the contentions are of such a large scale that very rarely they are satisfied with good will when they emerge. Violence also erupts often in conflicts in which one party is not recognized as a legitimate side to contentions, when there is a great disparity of power and when one side believes that it can ignore the demands of the other side and then the other side feels the need to demonstrate its determination; when there are no institutionalized ways to deal with the grievances, and/or when a party believes that using violence is the best way to achieve its goals.

In most of the cases the beginning of violence by one side immediately evokes violent response from the other side to the conflict. From this point onwards the acts of violence become a part of the conflict and the meaning of initiation and retribution for specific acts is lost. Once the violence erupts it immediately changes the nature of the conflict because it involves harm to society members. Physical violence includes all forms of harm inflicted on human beings beginning with destruction, injuring through torturing, raping, murdering, and can at times leads up to mass killing, ethnic cleansing and even genocide. Physical harm is usually accompanied by symbolic violence such as humiliation or discrimination. The harm is often not only inflicted on military forces but also on civilians (see the chapter by Kruglanski, Sharvit and Fishman about terrorism in the present book). The harm violates codes of moral behavior, involves group members, gives rise to a sense of collective victimhood, arouses strong emotional reactions, leads to delegitimization of the rival and eventually escalates the conflict (Bar-Tal, 2003). Also, particularly important in the context of interethnic conflict is the fact that although individuals perform violent acts, the violence is initiated and carried out within the social system. That is, the societal-political system provides the rationales and the justifications for the violence, mobilizes group members to carry it out, trains individuals to perform violent acts and then glorifies the violent acts and those who perform them.

As noted before, parties involved in intractable conflict cannot win and do not perceive a possibility of resolving it peacefully, instead they continue the confrontation for many decades until intractability is eventually overturned, that is, either one side wins eventually, or both sides finally decide to resolve it peacefully. In any event in interethnic conflicts it is very difficult to win it militarily and therefore they continue through decades and centuries until sometimes both sides turn to peaceful resolution (Sandole, Byrne, Sandole-Staroste, Senehi, 2009; Worchel, 1999). Even when one side conquers the territory and even when establishes a cooperative regime to own wishes, the conflict may erupt again until the basic needs and goals of the conquered group are satisfied (see for example the conflicts in Chechnya, Rwanda, Middle East or Sri Lanka). In a few cases interethnic conflicts ended with ethnic cleansing or even a genocide (for example the case of Aborigines in Australia). Of crucial importance for the continuation of intractable conflict and lack of its peaceful resolution are the shared beliefs of the rival societies’ members suggesting- that they have the human and material resources to continue the conflict, that their goals are sacred and therefore cannot be compromised, that the other side cannot be trusted and/or that time is on their side which means to them that they can improve their situation with time, and may even win the conflict. When even one of these beliefs is hegemonic it greatly inhibits an achievement of peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Conceptual Framework

My own academic work of the last 25 years focuses entirely on the study of conflicts, their resolution, and also in general on peace building. Specifically, I focused on the development of conceptual framework that elaborates the process and the contents of the repertoire that maintains prototypic intractable conflicts. On the basis of this conceptual framework I later developed a conception for analyzing peace building and reconciliation. This line of thoughts served as a scheme for the planning and organization of the present edited book. It provided the rational for the holistic, coherent and systematic structure of the chapters and therefore will be described in details.




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