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date: 14 December 2019

Understanding and Responding to Intergroup Conflict: Toward an Integrated Analysis

Abstract and Keywords

Conflicts based in ethnic, religious, and racial differences continue to erupt around the world, despite decades of intervention and scholarly research. It is difficult to assess precisely what contribution social science has made to an adequate diagnosis of the sources of violent conflict. Harder still to know is how best to move forward to alleviate conflict, promote reconciliation, and achieve sustainable, peaceful relations among diverse groups. A primary goal of the present volume is to bring together social psychological and peace perspectives, and to encourage a more integrative approach to the study of intergroup conflict and peace as we look toward the future.

Keywords: conflict, intergroup conflict, ethnic conflict, conflict resolution, reconciliation, peace, social psychology

Conflicts based in ethnic, religious, and racial differences continue to erupt around the world, despite decades of intervention and scholarly research. With conflicts ranging from genocide and mass killings in Darfur, to political and religious divisions in Northern Ireland, heated tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, to the most recent outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, it is difficult to assess precisely what contribution social science has made to an adequate diagnosis of the sources of violent conflict.

Harder still to know is how best to move forward to alleviate conflict, promote reconciliation, and achieve sustainable, peaceful relations among diverse groups. Theoretical and empirical efforts by social psychologists and peace scholars have amassed a great deal of knowledge regarding factors that enhance or inhibit conflict, and the likely effectiveness of practices and interventions that address such conflict. Early on, their work became intricately connected in a joint effort to develop an interdisciplinary community of researchers devoted to the scientific study of peace; these scholars drew on the strengths of their respective disciplines to link the perceptions, motivations, and emotions of individuals to concrete strategies that could promote conflict resolution and reconciliation (Christie, Tint, Wagner, & Winter, 2008; Kelman, 1965). Over the last several decades, however, contributions from these scholarly communities have grown apart and lack the integration and sense of shared purpose that helped to create the interdisciplinary investigations of early peace research. Each has continued to develop its own conceptual models and publication outlets as new generations of scholarship emerge, and correspondingly, scholars from social psychology and peace research tend to have limited knowledge or awareness of the frameworks and underlying principles that guide the other's work. Although some contend that it may be difficult to reunite these divergent traditions (see Clemens, in press), emerging perspectives recognize a great deal of potential for integration (p. 4) across these approaches (see Vollhardt & Bilali, 2008). A primary goal of the present volume is to bring these perspectives together, and to encourage a more integrative approach to the study of intergroup conflict and peace as we look toward the future.

Commonalities and Differences in Social Psychological and Peace Perspectives

With the goal of facilitating further conceptual integration among scholars involved in social psychological and peace research, we were fortunate to be able to convene a meeting at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for exchanges of perspectives among contributors to this volume, with generous support from the UMass Amherst Research Leadership in Action Program. This meeting afforded an opportunity for contributors to learn from each other and identify commonalities and differences in their views and scholarship on intergroup conflict. This effort was greatly enhanced by the enthusiastic response of the contributors themselves, who graciously shared insights, actively sought to establish links across perspectives, and incorporated new knowledge into their own thinking and writing on the issues at hand.

Although contributors came from somewhat distinct disciplinary approaches, a common thread that emerged from our discussions was a focus on people's lived experiences in intergroup conflict. Adopting a largely phenomenological approach (Allport, 1954), contributors explored how people's perceptions, interpretations, and emotions may be influenced by conflict and transformed through processes that reduce conflict and promote reconciliation and peace. We also found fertile ground for integrating perspectives in our shared focus on the psychological needs of individuals and the key roles that needs and motivations play in intergroup conflict. Consistent with earlier theorizing on the functional nature of conflict (e.g., Coser, 1956; Simmel, 1955), both social psychologists and peace scholars have stressed the importance of focusing on the psychological and sociological needs and motivations that underlie conflict dynamics (Christie et al., 2008; Pruitt & Kim, 2004; Wallensteen, 2007), including needs for recognition, acceptance, respect, security, and justice (see Nadler, Malloy, & Fisher, 2008). Through understanding people's needs and motivations in response to conflict, we can enhance our ability to develop effective strategies to reduce and resolve conflict, and to work toward sustainable peace (Kelman, 1978; Nadler et al., 2008; Zartman, 2000).

By emphasizing these themes, the present volume complements other recent volumes that adopt a largely social psychological approach to the study of conflict and reconciliation (e.g., Deutsch, Coleman, & Marcus, 2006; Nadler et al., 2008; Pruitt & Kim, 2004), paying particular attention to how people construe, experience, and are affected by intergroup conflict. Focusing on such “psychological” dimensions of conflict, the handbook highlights the ways in which individuals' perceptions, emotions, and motivations contribute to instigating and perpetuating intergroup conflict, and how these factors relate to strategies that can resolve or alleviate conflict, thereby integrating perspectives on these issues from social psychologists and peace scholars.

A number of additional issues emerged as recurring themes in our discussions, reflecting both commonalities and differences in our approaches to studying intergroup conflict and peace. One such issue concerned the dual goals of working to improve relations between conflicting groups on the one hand, and working to promote intergroup equality and social justice on the other. Although these goals are often construed as being incompatible with each other (see Albin, 2009), many at our meeting expressed the belief that both are necessary to minimize the potential for outbreaks of violent conflict and to build sustainable peace. Consistent with this view, peace scholars have long argued that welfare and justice are basic human needs, and a common cause of conflict when they are not met (Burton, 1990), such that peace and justice should be construed as joint goals to be pursued in tandem (Lederach, 1995).

Another key issue involved the recognition that intergroup conflict and violence manifest themselves at multiple levels of analysis, and in turn, possible approaches to reducing conflict and building peace must be considered at multiple levels as well (see also Christie et al., 2008; Kelman, 1965). Depending on the level (or levels) that constitute the focus of our analysis, we may envision different strategies to reduce or resolve conflict, ranging from working with individuals and communities to promoting broader social policies (see Lederach, 1997). Also, strategies implemented at one level of analysis may have negligible or unintended consequences at another level of analysis. For example, efforts to improve interpersonal relations between members of (p. 5) unequal status groups could inadvertently reinforce inequalities at a structural or societal level through reducing individual group members' motivations for social change (see Dixon, Tropp, Durrheim, & Tredoux, 2010; Wright & Lubensky, 2008). Alternatively, policies and practices designed to promote peace or integration at a societal level may not be fully accepted by individuals who are still living with the legacies of conflict, and who may not feel entirely ready or equipped to work toward social integration with former adversaries (see Bekerman, 2009; Dunn & Nolan-Haley, 1998; Gibson, 2004). While contributors to this volume discussed the importance of identifying distinct levels of analysis for theory building and designing interventions, they tended not to see these levels as cleanly separable; rather, they commented on how different levels of analysis are layered and intertwined in important ways, as individuals are impacted by their social, political, and economic environments and actively respond to and navigate complex relationships with other individuals, groups, and communities in conflict settings.

In addition, our discussions during the meeting usefully pointed to some differences in perspective and focus. Both social psychologists and peace scholars are inclined to consider the needs and motivations of individuals to be relevant to understanding conflict, but tend to adopt somewhat different approaches in investigating them and linking them to strategies for reducing and resolving conflict. Social psychologists typically grant more attention to testing research-based propositions and universal principles than to designing and implementing interventions for specific contexts (see Stephan, 2006). For example, social psychological research on intergroup conflict examines processes and mechanisms that underlie both conflict and the desire for peace, such as what compels people to seek protection or revenge for their own group, or to be willing to trust or cooperate with members of another group (see Nadler et al., 2008). By contrast, peace scholarship tends to be more comparative (Wallensteen, 2007) and focused on implementation of applied programs and practices for reducing conflict and promoting reconciliation (Vollhardt & Bilali, 2008) yet traditionally with less emphasis on identifying universal theoretical principles or evaluating programs using systematic methodologies to test their effectiveness (Paluck, 2009; see also Hoffman, 2004).

In many ways, these different approaches reflect the distinction between empirical and constructive peace studies proposed by Galtung (1996). Empirical peace studies involve the systematic, data-driven comparison of theories, whereas constructive peace studies propose possible strategies and solutions based on knowledge about what should be effective. Galtung (1996) argues that both areas of inquiry are important, yet to maximize their usefulness, scholars from both areas must communicate and share perspectives with each other.

Many of the most prominent and influential social psychologists and peace scholars in the area of intergroup conflict were therefore invited to contribute chapters to this handbook. Through extensive discussions and reviews of each other's chapters, their perspectives have enhanced and mutually informed each other. Together, the chapters in this handbook provide a comprehensive and integrative resource for all those who seek to understand the nature of intergroup conflict and strategies through which conflicts between groups may be resolved or reduced to promote reconciliation and peace.

Organization of the Handbook

Contributors to this handbook were tasked with developing chapters on distinct topics relevant to the study of intergroup conflict within their areas of expertise. Given the nature of theory and research in this area, many interrelated themes emerged and provided natural points of connection across the chapters. Although the chapters could have been organized in a variety of ways, they have been categorized into four primary parts of this handbook.

Sources of Intergroup Conflict

Following this introductory chapter, chapters in Part Two focus principally on factors and processes that contribute to producing intergroup conflict. Vallacher, Coleman, Nowak, and Bui-Wrzosinska start off this part of the handbook by describing how intractable conflicts can be conceptualized within a dynamic systems perspective. These authors argue that, in cases of intractable conflict, complex systems become defined in narrow, converging ways that reinforce each other and become resistant to change. However, with insights regarding how these dynamic systems manifest themselves, the authors also propose strategies to weaken links within these systems and create the potential for transforming conflict and promoting more positive relations between groups.

In the next chapter, Bar-Tal and Hammack discuss the central role that delegitimization plays in violent conflict, as this negative and exclusionary categorization of people provides a psychological (p. 6) authorization and rationale for engaging in conflict and causing intentional harm to others. They suggest that delegitimization is especially likely to develop during periods of protracted conflict and when the conflict context evokes extreme forms of ethnocentrism, through which it becomes institutionalized as part of a broader culture of conflict. While these conditions enhance people's justification for violence toward other groups, Bar-Tal and Hammack offer suggestions for dismantling the effects of delegitimization, such as through implementing structural changes in relations between the groups and shifting our views so that we perceive others in more differentiated ways and as more worthy of equal treatment.

The following chapter by Cohrs highlights the concept of ideology, or socially shared systems of beliefs about how societies should be arranged, for understanding the roots and genesis of intergroup conflict. Adopting a multilevel approach, Cohrs discusses how differences in ideologies between groups and societies can provoke conflict, and how ideologies can be based on multiple dimensions, such as a preference for stability and maintenance of the status quo, adhering to social conventions and traditions, or the desire to achieve social harmony. Cohrs also describes how individuals within groups and societies may endorse ideologies to varying degrees, and he offers insights regarding the psychological and structural factors that are likely to determine the degree to which ideologies are endorsed.

In the fourth chapter of Part Two, Opotow focuses on the role of justice in intergroup conflict and violence, and how more inclusive or exclusive concepts of justice constitute psychological boundaries for the treatment of others. Through definitional terms and case studies, she describes how the more narrowly we define the scope of justice, the more we morally exclude others and the less likely we are to apply principles of fair and just treatment to others, thereby supporting destructive intergroup conflict and violence. By contrast, expanding our scope of justice enhances the extent to which we morally include others and broadens the degree to which we apply principles of fairness and justice and promote constructive approaches to managing conflict and more peaceful intergroup relations.

Perpetuation of Intergroup Conflict

Chapters in Part Three concern factors and processes that are likely to perpetuate intergroup conflict. Lickel discusses the emotional and cognitive processes that facilitate group-based revenge, and how these help to justify vengeful action and retribution. Guiding his discussion is the view that differing appraisals of intergroup events elicit different emotional responses toward outgroup members, which in turn are likely to motivate different patterns of behavior in relation to the outgroup. He begins by reviewing the substantial literature on group-based anger as a motivating factor for blaming other groups and directing aggression toward other groups. He then explores the roles that other group-based emotions (e.g., fear, humiliation, and contempt) play in promoting intergroup aggression, in relation to and independently of group-based anger. Finally, he links these emotions to cognitive processes that further perpetuate motivation for intergroup aggression, including rumination about group-based events, justification of ingroup actions, and essentialization of outgroup members.

Subsequently, Roccas and Elster highlight the importance of group identities as motivating forces underlying the perpetuation of intergroup conflict. These authors discuss how the degree to which group members identify with their groups can exacerbate intergroup conflict. The authors then describe three possibilities for reducing conflict by attending to the multiplicity and complexity of group-based identities. First, enhancing the salience of multiple identities can encourage people to focus on points of connection across groups, thereby minimizing the rigidity of boundaries between groups. Second, the authors point out that multiple modes of identification exist, and that glorification of one's group more strongly motivates people to engage in conflict than feeling attachment to one's group. Third, they discuss how multiple contents contribute to group members' sense of identity, such that collective narratives involving victimization, honor, and past glory can enhance conflict, whereas reframing these group identities may decrease the propensity toward conflict.

Extending the theme of group narratives and histories, Bilali and Ross describe how groups in conflict often have different views of the past and distinct narratives regarding the histories of relations between their groups. These authors discuss how psychological needs, goals, and motives—at both the individual and group levels—contribute to shaping historical memories, in order to explain how and why groups in conflict often emerge with conflicting narratives of past events. They then examine how divergent views of historical events can continue to fuel intergroup conflict by introducing barriers and obstacles to moving forward beyond (p. 7) conflict. Growing from this work, the authors conclude the chapter by discussing two approaches to reconciliation that involve confronting discrepant narratives of the past, including public apologies for historical injustices and truth commissions designed to shed light on past events.

Next, Vollhardt discusses processes associated with collective victimization, and the different ways in which the victimization of one's group becomes personally relevant to individual group members. Importantly, she distinguishes between forms of collective victimization that are experienced directly by members of the group, or indirectly through narratives about the group's experience often transmitted across generations. She then describes the psychological consequences of collective victimization, both in terms of group members' experiences of psychological distress, and in terms of their emotional, attitudinal, and behavioral responses toward those groups deemed responsible for their victimization, as well as other groups. Vollhardt also explains how construing victimization in exclusive or competitive ways can perpetuate conflict and undermine efforts toward reconciliation, whereas construing victimization in inclusive ways can motivate group members to recognize shared experiences and to alleviate others' suffering.

Concluding this part of the handbook is a chapter by Dovidio, Saguy, West, and Gaertner, in which they discuss how divergent perspectives develop between groups and can contribute to miscommunication and tension in intergroup relationships. These authors explain how perceiving people as members of different social categories can introduce biases in their evaluations and expectations of others, which in turn influence their own behavior and their interpretations of others' behavior. They also describe how differences in power contribute to divergent perspectives between groups, as groups relatively high and low in power tend to have different motivations and goals in interaction with each other, and in relation to the broader social structure of group relations. The authors then discuss how understanding the origins of and motivations involved in divergent intergroup perspectives can help to minimize destructive dynamics in conflict and enhance the potential for conflict resolution.

Strategies for Reducing and Resolving Intergroup Conflict

Chapters in Part Four describe strategies that may be used to reduce intergroup conflict. Paluck offers a broad review and analysis of the effectiveness of interventions aimed at reducing intergroup conflict and prejudice. She distinguishes between those interventions that target individuals' thoughts and actions, and those that seek change in the environments in which individuals and groups interact. With special attention to the research methods used to evaluate such interventions, she discusses examples of interventions conducted in laboratory and field settings, using observational and experimental methodologies. She then offers insights regarding the knowledge gained from these varied approaches, as well as suggestions for future evaluations of interventions designed to reduce intergroup conflict and prejudice.

In the next chapter, Wagner and Hewstone discuss the effects of intergroup contact in contexts of conflict. The authors first review the existing theory and research on intergroup contact, primarily from settings that are relatively free of violent conflict. This body of work has specified conditions under which contact is most likely to reduce intergroup prejudice, the kinds of contact experiences that encourage prejudice reduction, and several psychological processes that underlie contact's positive effects. Importantly, these authors extend this work by discussing the role that intergroup contact may play during different phases of intergroup relationships, such as prior to, during, and following violent intergroup conflict. While these authors recognize that contact during violent periods of conflict can provoke greater intergroup hostility, they suggest that contact has the potential to curb the escalation of intergroup conflict, and to promote trust and forgiveness following conflict.

Nagda, Yeakley, Gurin, and Sorensen then focus more specifically on intergroup dialogues as a means of addressing conflict between groups. These authors emphasize how dialogues provide opportunities for engaging participants from diverse backgrounds to enhance mutual understanding, build relationships, and develop capacities for collaborative efforts toward social justice. They also stress the importance of recognizing asymmetries in the motivations, interpretations, and goals for action that members of groups varying in power are likely to have in response to intergroup dialogues. Furthermore, they specify four critical-dialogic processes that are likely to help these groups bridge differences through dialogue, including appreciating difference, engaging the self, critical reflection, and working toward building alliances. With narrative examples from dialogue participants, the authors (p. 8) illustrate how people can both learn about conflict and from conflict through engaging in intergroup dialogues.

D'Estrée highlights the usefulness of interactive problem-solving in response to intergroup conflict, and particularly in cases of intractable conflict, as compared to more traditional approaches involving diplomacy, negotiation, or mediation. She clarifies that interactive problem-solving emphasizes analysis of the conflicted relationship and addressing both identity and security needs of the parties involved, so that they can gain insight and work toward developing trust. To be maximally effective, many factors should be taken into account when structuring meetings between parties, including the agenda and topics to be discussed, norms for communication, time frame for discussion, and the settings in which meetings will take place. With such considerations and facilitation from a skilled third party, d'Estrée demonstrates how interactive problem-solving enables influential representatives of different parties to explore a variety of options that can eventually impact official negotiations and group policies.

In the final chapter in Part Four, Christie and Louis discuss a range of strategies that may be used to mitigate cycles of intergroup violence. These authors distinguish between interventions aimed at achieving the absence of violence (i.e., negative peace) from those that promote efforts toward social justice (i.e., positive peace). Along with touching on strategies discussed in other chapters in this handbook, Christie and Louis describe how interventions ranging from nonviolent conflict management and peacekeeping to antiwar activism and sustainable development can contribute to maintaining durable forms of peace. These authors conclude that lasting peace requires the combined implementation of interventions, at the individual and societal levels, to promote both negative peace and positive peace.

Moving Beyond Intergroup Conflict

Chapters in Part Five explore possibilities for moving relationships between groups beyond intergroup conflict. Staub commences this part of the handbook by discussing the origins and prevention of mass killing, genocide, and violence. In so doing, he identifies contributing factors at multiple levels of analysis, including the psychological needs of individuals, social processes between individuals and groups, and societal conditions that instigate violent conflict. With links to relevant theory and examples from field interventions, he then describes preventive actions that can be taken to curb the outbreak of violence, and steps that can be taken to encourage reconciliation once violence has occurred. Staub also discusses the ways in which reconciliation efforts contribute to the prevention of future violence, through processes of healing and forgiveness, truth and acknowledgement of the past, and building constructive social and political institutions.

Nadler further develops the theme of reconciliation in the next chapter, in which he reviews the history and general definitions of this concept. He then focuses more specifically on the realm of intergroup conflict and theories that emphasize the roles of structural inequalities, social relations, and/or identity threats in relations between groups. In particular, he distinguishes between instrumental reconciliation that seeks to change the quality of relations between conflicting groups, and socioemotional reconciliation that seeks to address the identity needs of members of the conflicting groups. Nadler describes strategies that contribute to addressing each set of reconciliation goals in effective ways, while also evaluating the effectiveness of strategies such as truth telling, public apologies, and forgiveness in light of the psychological needs and identities of the groups involved in conflict.

Iyer and Blatz focus on the roles that apology and reparation can play in addressing conflict and promoting efforts toward reconciliation. These authors specify many key factors that must be considered when apologies and reparation are used to facilitate the transition from intergroup conflict to peace, such as what apologies and offers of reparation should include, when and how they should be offered (and by whom), how they may be interpreted differently by various parties, and what conditions are likely to influence whether such offers are ultimately accepted. The authors use both relevant empirical research and historical examples to illustrate these themes, and they provide thoughtful analysis to explain why apologies and offers of reparation may not always yield intended outcomes in reducing conflict and promoting peace.

Hamber reviews the range and impact of transitional justice mechanisms commonly used in response to conflict, with a special focus on the use of trials and persecutions, traditional community justice procedures, amnesty processes, and truth commissions. He discusses how the goals of these different approaches are framed, as well as their strengths and weaknesses in achieving such goals, with relevant examples from real-world conflict (p. 9) settings from around the globe. He also describes cases in which transitional justice mechanisms are implemented simultaneously, while noting difficulties associated with assessing their effectiveness when combined. Moreover, he proposes that transitional justice mechanisms should be linked closely to programs that promote development and reconciliation to foster positive long-term effects.

Addressing the topic of peacebuilding, Clements argues for greater understanding of the ethical frameworks that frame different social systems, as they may be oriented toward cultures of violence or cultures of peace. Guided by earlier writings on relational ethics and nonviolence, he identifies secure, trusting, and harmonious relationships with others as a cornerstone of building peace, and he contends that such relationships are most likely to emerge in economic contexts that can satisfy basic human needs and in political systems capable of maintaining order and promoting justice and the common good. Thus, the potential for achieving sustainable peace is greatest within stable, cooperative, and compassionate communities that value trust and equality more than safety and security.

In a concluding chapter to the handbook, Kelman offers reflections regarding past and current efforts to bridge social psychological and peace perspectives on intergroup conflict and peace. He describes early stages in the development of the peace research movement, and he provides examples of his own extensive involvement at the interface of social psychology and peace research over the course of 60 years. Kelman then shares his views on possibilities for further integration of peace research and social psychological research relevant to the study of intergroup conflict and peace.


With insightful chapters from key social psychologists and peace scholars, this handbook offers an extensive overview of critical questions, issues, processes, and strategies relevant to understanding and addressing intergroup conflict. In line with earlier visions for a field of peace research, we wish to promote a more united area of study, where “there are no sharp divisions between concern with theory-building and concern with practical application, between an interest in the development of a methodology and an interest in addressing policy issues” (Kelman, 1965, p. 10). Our hope is that this volume will provide a more integrative and cohesive foundation for research- and practice-oriented scholars who seek to develop effective approaches for reducing and resolving conflict, and promoting peaceful relations between groups.


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