Reykowski, Resolving Societal Conflicts

Janusz Reykowski
Polish Academy of Science
Resolving societal conflicts:
The case study
Small Group Meeting
European Association of Social Psychology
September 7-10, 2009.
Part One - Introduction
Bar-Tal’s theory of intractable conflict
The assumption
• Bar-Tal’s theory of intractable conflict (2007) can be looked
upon as a general theory of intergroup conflict
– He focuses primarily on its “malicious” form: long lasting,
destructive, when some fundamental issues are at stake.
And describes the mechanisms of its maintenance and escalation.
• I will use this theory as a basis for my analysis of the process of
conflict resolution (CR).
Basic elements of the Theory
(from the CR point of view)
• Origin of a conflict
– Discrepant beliefs,
– Clash of interests,
– Threat for basic needs, for basic values, for self (social) identity,
for positive self image.
– Harm and wrongdoing.
Basic elements of the Theory
(from the CR point of view) -2
• Conflict is most likely to get transformed into a vicious,
destructive form if the participants believe that:
Their interests are completely opposite, in the zero-sum relationship,
Their existential needs are seriously threaten,
Their (social) identity and positive self-image are under attack,
Their basic values are questioned and things that are sacred to them
are being threaten,
– The other side is responsible for the harm and wrongdoings that is
being inflicted on our side.
• Beliefs of this kind tend to engender strong affective
reactions: fear, anger, hostility
– These reactions foster aggressive (coercive) tactics against the enemy
and in turn its even stronger aggressive reaction.
Basic elements of the Theory
(from the CR point of view) -3
• The sides of the conflict are dedicated to coercive actions
because they believe that their have a superior power and
the ultimate victory is somewhere in not too distant future
- they assume the asymmetry of power.
• We may conclude that the key factor in escalation of a
conflict is the cognitive construal of the conflict situation
and its affective consequences.
Basic elements of the Theory
(from the CR point of view) - 4
Conflict is very difficult to solve (it becomes intractable) when:
• The beliefs about the conflict (its cognitive construal) get
organized into a coherent, stable structure – a well developed
narrative about the conflict:
– about its origin, its course, its present state, its future. The narrative
provides clear explanation of the conflicts and guidance for dealing with
(Bar-Tal uses the terms: conflict memory and conflict ethos),
• Emotional reactions develop into a collective emotional
• The social and institutional support for the narrative and
emotional orientations becomes highly elaborated.
According to Bar-Tal this is a socio-psychological infrastructure of
the intractable conflict.
Some implications for CR
• Potentially, we may think about strategy of CR as
addressed to any of the key components of the
infrastructure. It seems however that changing the
cognitive construal of the conflict situation should be its
major component.
• Unfortunately, the cognitive construal of the IC is a closed
system and changing it is a formidable task;
– It has a very high assimilative potential (new information are
assimilated to the system or rejected) - it means that it is highly
resistant to change.
• Bar-Tal and his co-workers (2009) suggest that, as a
remedy, one should apply procedures aimed at training
the open mindedness.
Alternative strategy
• I would like to argue that in developing CR strategy we might
focus on some group forces.
– Under certain conditions social groups tend to engender Synergic
Tendencies (ST) that foster CR processes.
• ST can be initiated when people began to appreciate that
there is some category that applies to them and their
protagonists as a basis for superordinate identity (Sherif,
Gaertner and Dovidio, Mummenday, Reykowski).
• ST may modify the attitudes of the key actors of the groups
in conflicts and help them in the development of a new
construal of the conflict situation.
• On the basis of the new construal the key actors may agree
on some changes of the real situation that reduce or solve
the major conflict.
I contend that there are some real life cases where processes of
this kind took place.
The case
• The conflict resolution process that led to the end of so
called “communism” in Poland and triggered out the snow
ball changes in East Europe. Ultimately the changes
affected the situation beyond this region, as well.
I will discuss the process known as Round Table Negotiations (RTN February-April 1989 ) – from the participant-observer perspective.
• One reservation: I do not claim that the conflict resolution process in
the RTN case can be used as a universal model for application in
other seemingly intractable conflicts. Nevertheless, the analysis of
this case can reveal some more general mechanisms that might
operate in other circumstances, as well.
• Ruling forces in Poland.
– NB. The ruling elite had a relatively broad support of people
connected with the system by their socio-economic position
and/or ideological and political beliefs.
• It was a large group: in the free election in 1989 several candidates of the
government obtained between 35 and 40% of the vote and some of them
up to 48% (only part of 1989 election was free).
• “Solidarity” leadership.
– “Solidarity - the very broad socio-political movement representing
Polish aspiration to democracy and sovereignty from Soviet Union,
with a strong adherence to Catholic Church. It had support of
majority of Polish society.
• Mediating agent: the leadership of the Catholic Church.
Interested in peaceful resolution of the existing conflict,
– Supporting Solidarity but in good contact with the ruling forces.
Initial conditions: Perceived balance of power
The two sides were both strong and weak.
The "Government" was strong because:
– It had strong security forces,
– It had a support about 20-25% of the population,
– The major destabilization could evoke military action of the neighbors.
The Government was weak because:
– It was not able to improve the social and economic situation,
– It was unpopular among majority of the Polish society,
– It had to cope with internal conservative critics who believed in the
heavy hand politics.
The "Solidarity" was strong because:
– It had a broad societal support,
– It had relatively well developed organizational network (in underground),
– It had a support of the Catholic Church.
The "Solidarity" was weak because:
– Its initiatives and appeals had a declining impact on the society,
– Its leaders' authority was dwindling,
– New forces were appearing on the horizont.
Perceived balance of power
The objective situation may foster the cooperative
approach to the emerging problems if people realize that
it is a kind of balance of power and can not realistically
predict its further development.
The major obstacle to the development of such
approach is wishful thinking or ideologically motivated
zeal that interfere with rational analysis of the situation.
Wishful thinking and ideological zeal while always present
in some segments of the society, tend to flourish in
situations which instigate strong emotions.
Some years before RTN the policy of the government was
aimed at reduction of strong emotions in the society.
Intractable conflict?
“Conflict begins in human mind therefore its ending also has to be initiated
in the human mind” (Bar-Tal 2008)
The initial state of mind of the protagonists – major divisions:
• Ideology
– One side perceived themselves as the representative of the social
aspirations to democracy and national sovereignty,
– The other side believed that it must protect the security of the state and
the Polish raison d'état.
• Interests
– These who possessed the power wanted to protect it;
– These who were powerless wanted to limit the existing power or to take
it away from power holders.
• Narratives
– Discrepant views of recent history, evaluative judgments of the past and
present situations, discrepant theories (ethos) of the conflict.
Intractable conflict? (cont.):
• Personal experience:
– On the Solidarity side, there were people who, for several years
(some of them for decades), were involved in illegal opposition
movement being persecuted and incarcerated for extended
period of time. They were supposed to negotiate with
representatives of these responsible for their ordeal.
– On the governmental side there were people who remembered
that they were attacked very viciously and, according to their
view, unjustly by their opponents.
• Distrust
– “S” representatives had in mind long list of historical events
indicating that the ”communists authorities” were unfaithful: they
used to break they promises or to lure their partners into
– The other side feared that their partners are irresponsible
wranglers, inspired by the foreign forces (eg. CIA).
Intractable conflict? (cont.):
• The both sides had among their supporters numerous
groups full of fear and hostility toward the other side – they
did not believe in negotiations.
• While probably it is not a complete list of the divisions, the
list indicates that we may find here all the characteristics of
the deep sited antagonism build upon:
Divergent narratives telling completely different stories,
Conflict of interests in the zero-sum form,
Threat for the basic values,
Threat for identity, and positive self image,
Harm and wrongdoing.
• But in spite of it, the opponents (enemies) were able to
start the conflict resolution process.
Approach to the negotiations: cooperative orientation
• Typical approach to negotiations in deep sited conflicts –
antagonistic (competitive) orientation, negotiations as a
• Cooperative orientation: searching for an agreement
acceptable for both sides.
– It was related to publicly formulated Solidarity ideology (while not
very often put into practice),
– It was related to the composition of the negotiation team of the
governmental side - most of the negotiators were people who
advocated, for a long time, for the idea of cooperative solution of
the conflict.
Definition of the situation – goals of the negotiations
• Initial definition of the goals: competitive positions
– “S”: to obtain legalization of the “Solidarity Union” as
independent organization and paying political price – participation
in not fully democratic election,
– “G”: to include “S” into political system and obtain its support for
major economic reform.
• Modification of the definition: common problem solving
task (debate)
– Democratic transformation of the political system – major reform
of all its institutions. Avoidance of a counteraction of internal and
external enemies of the reform.
• Complexity of the definition: combination of common and
competitive tasks (bargaining and debate)
– Divergent views, divergent interests, divergent hierarchy of values.
Normative structure of the negotiations: their
implicit and explicit rules
• Principle of strict equality of two sides
– Even in small details (eg. Size of teams, chairmanship, order of
discussion, buses, access to media etc.)
• Principle of respect for the other side
– Strict ban on aggressive and derogatory utterances,
– No attempts at manipulation of the partner, misleading him/her etc.
• Perspective taking,
– The efforts to perceive the conflict situation also from the other side.
Attempts at presenting own position in terms that could be
understood by the other side and attentive listening to its concerns.
• Rational analysis
– Elimination of affectively charged topics (past wrongdoings),
Normative structure of the negotiations: their
implicit and explicit rules (cont.)
• Principle of public accountability
– Dilemma:
The right of the public to the full knowledge about the
content of agreements vs.
The need to protect the negotiators from public pressure
(the dangers of radicalization).
–Solution: Organization of the negotiations.
• NB. It could be noticed that political theorists advocating
the deliberative approach in democracy describe
principles of deliberation in similar terms (Gutman and
Thompson 1996, Rosenberg 2002)
The outcomes
• Signed agreement that initiated the process of the system’s
– legalization of Solidarity as a independent organization,
elimination of censorship, formation of free media, change in the
justice system etc.
– election that introduced Solidarity representatives as legitimate
participants of the power system that eventually led to formation
of the “non communist” government.
Formation of the Third Republic of Poland
• The end of the lasting for several decades vicious,
sometimes violent political conflict. Transformation it into
democratic competition.
Part three
Theoretical comments
The role of group processes
• Two basic mechanisms in group relations: Synergic
Tendencies (for in-group) and Antagonistic Tendencies (for
out-group) - some exceptions.
– In intergroup conflicts the AT prevail facilitating conflict escalation.
• Group conflict can be reduced by means of development of
common goals (Sherif 1958, Mummenday and Wenzel
1999, Geartner and Dovidio 2000) and mutually accepted
normative structure (Reykowski 2007).
– The common goals and common norms are likely to activate a
kind of common identity facilitating the Synergic Tendencies.
• In intergroup conflicts, especially between large groups, the
key role is played by groups’ leadership
– Leaders as prototypical members of the groups.
• Common goal as the basis and consequence of cooperative
orientation - definition of the situation in terms of the
common task. Preconditions:
– belief that in spite of large differences there are some values
shared by both sides (Pyszczynski et al. 2008),
– “humanization” of the opponent.
• Consequences of cooperative orientation for mutual
– Deutsch crude law of social relations: “…processes and effects
elicited by the given type of social relationship also tend to elicit
that type of social relationship” (1973).
(NB. It is not the same as premature concessions that are likely to
produce reactive devaluation - Ross 198 ).
Consequences of cooperative orientation
• Focus on searching for solutions to the main existing problems
on the basis of perspective taking and dual concern (Pruitt):
– Interests: Rational analysis of the existing differences and possible
agreements. Cooperative approach reduces a tendency for zero-sum
– Values: Respect for the values of the other side. Searching for practical
measures that take into consideration values of both sides (Reykowski
– Identities and positive self image: Respect and equality as protection
against arousal of identity and self-esteem threat.
• Orientation toward future
– No attempts at getting agreements between the discrepant narratives,
– No attempts at dealing with the past wrongdoings.
Those are very difficult tasks that might interfere with getting agreement.
What was lacking in RT approach to the conflict
• Past wrongdoings (injustice) do not disappear from
people’s memory – they influence social relations in a
very negative way.
– The danger of reigniting of the conflict or politics of vengeance
• Importance of the reconciliation process.
– Reconciliation between societies is not a necessary
precondition of reduction of the conflict but is important for
– Reduction of the conflict may facilitate the reconciliation.
The problem solving and reconciliation are the separate CR
tasks. I assume that they do not have to be dealt with
simultaneously – the problem solving, even partial,
should have a priority as it paves the way to
Key conditions of CR process
• Perceived balance of power (Imbalance instigates coercive
• Cooperative approach: readiness for searching solutions
acceptable for both sides,
• Definition of the situation (at list partially) as the common
problem solving task:
– Recognition that there exist some shared values,
– Recognition of legitimacy of the other side,
• Acceptance of the rules of rationality, equality, mutual
respect, perspective taking, public accountability.
• Problem solving approach supplemented with