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Summer Academy on Peace and Conflict Research

The Projektverbund Friedens- und Konfliktforschung in Niedersachsen held a Summer Academy on Peace and Conflict Research at the Protestant Academy in Loccum, from 20 to 25 July 1997

Peace research has many facets. Three major ones were dealt with at the Summer Academy in Loccum, in workgroups entitled 'Gender, Peace and Conflict', 'Psychological Barriers to Conflict Resolution', and 'Ethnicity and Group Conflicts'. The Academy was attended by thirty or so up-and-coming researchers from various disciplines in Germany, Israel, Norway, and Italy. Professor Günter Bierbrauer, co-ordinator of the Projektverbund Friedens- und Konfliktforschung in Lower Saxony and professor of social psychology at the University of Osnabrück, had had the original idea for the Academy, and had invited Beverly Crawford, a political scientist from the University of California, Berkeley, Lee D. Ross, a social psychologist from Stanford University, and James L. Gibson, a political scientist from the University of Houston to lead the workshops. A central feature of the groups was to be an interdisciplinary treatment of the basic theoretical and methodological problems that confront conflict resolution in the 1990s. In this respect, the Summer Academy was patterned on the preoccupations of the Projektverbund. (The latter, set up in 1993 on the initiative of the regional government of Lower Saxony, has to date sponsored a total of about seventeen research projects.) The Summer Academy was financed from Projektverbund funds together with grants from the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the University of Osnabrück.

(1) The 'Gender, Conflict and Peace' workgroup addressed feminist perspectives on peace and conflict research. Professor Crawford's enthusiasm as a 'born-again feminist' kindled the interest of the workgroup members--most of whom were having their first close encounter with feminist approaches--in the possible fruits of such approaches.

In order to be able to demarcate feminist approaches to conflict research from the traditional theories of international relations, the group had to begin by discussing the latter. Thus, Ms Crawford--whose expertise lies mainly in the area of comparative and case-study-based political science--explained that classical and structural realism, like liberalism, was ultimately based on a common--and dubious--premise. The world system, she said, was regarded as essentially anarchical, and this anarchy, in the Hobbesian sense of a 'state of nature', was considered to represent, per se, a fundamental threat to the world (order). In this mode of thinking, the decisive actors are reduced to states or organizations, peace is viewed as a temporary balance of forces, and the underlying condition governing international relations is seen as being the 'security dilemma'--the 'spiral of uncertainty'. From the point of view of method, these theories equated to logical positivism.

Forming as they do the politically dominant postulate, these theoretical approaches have a powerful effect: they explain, for example, why mothers send their sons to war. In conflict research, on the other hand, they come up against limits. Thus, in the analysis of the course of a war, they have only limited explanatory value. They offer only limited perspectives on forms of political opposition or on negotiations--not to mention instances of conflict resolution. Scholars wanting to modify these modes of thought 'from within', through constructive criticism, are confronted with a system-related dilemma: language and political structures manifest themselves as a system that preordains the direction of our thinking. This fact will emerge, if it has not done so before, when we begin to relate to language and political structures in a critical way--as Carol Cohn has demonstrated in her brilliant article[8] on the language of defence experts.

Beverly Crawford then outlined the different trends of standpoint theory, empirical and liberal theory, and, finally, critical theory, postmodernism, and deconstruction theory. Starting from the question 'What could a feminist perspective bring that traditional theories of peace and conflict don't bring?', the workgroup focused on the themes of nationalism and militarization.

Women play a special role in the rhetoric about the construct 'nation'--the role of mother, preserver of the nation, and also of the weaker party in need of protection. When a society is militarized, the attributes of the genders in 'gendered society' are exploited and the 'gender gap' is widened. Wartime rapes have a symbolic significance that must not be underestimated: they are intended as a means of destroying the opposing nation and humiliating its men. Thus the question 'What happens to women?' helps not only to render social structures visible, but also to provide a fuller analysis of nationalism, and thus also of war, and to combat these.

Using the examples of the Plaza de Mayo women in Argentina and the Greenham Common women, Ms Crawford showed how the game with gender stereotypes can be transformed into a means of resistance. By their presence, the women of the Plaza de Mayo pointed up the absence of the members of their family who had been taken away by the military and the secret police. By using the cultural stereotype of the unprotected and harmless woman, they were able publicly to shame their police attackers. The women of Greenham Common ridiculed the military apparatus by lampooning the would-be rationality of the military. Participants to the workgroup discussion cited a whole series of other cases in which women had managed to transform stereotypical features ascribed to them into forms of resistance. Thus, a few weeks before, nuns in a north German town had managed, by staging a sit-down protest, to get church asylum upheld in the face of police opposition. One woman in the group had had the experience, during a violent confrontation, of finding herself in a kind of maternal role which enabled her to intervene in a de-escalatory manner.

In the course of the exposition of feminist approaches, the workgroup discussed the problem of appropriate research methods. One thing that appeared especially problematic was the lack of falsifiability that characterizes subjective approaches to research--though the champions of positivistic approaches, who saw themselves as objective, were also criticized.

One area in which the group identified a clear line of thought common to all was that of gender-based perspectives in conflict research: like the US debate, the discussion focused on the idea of each gender giving a distinct analysis of the situation. To the basic feminist question 'What happens to women?' was added the question 'What happens to men?' But the group went further and produced a keynote question on the active role of women (and men) in conflicts, or in the search for solutions to conflicts. This question was: 'What do women (men) cause/produce?'[9] From these three keynote questions, the workgroup developed a matrix for operationalizing the questions at various analytical levels.

In the first of several exercises, the workgroup participants tried to apply the keynote questions or matrix to their own research work--and in some cases this opened up entirely new vistas. Although in the socio-historical way of looking at wars and protest movements, and in refugee studies, and also in mediation training, gender is acknowledged as an important factor, a specifically gender-based analysis promises a huge explanatory yield--as, for example, in interpreting the problems associated with the reintegration of Mozambican refugees.

At this point, new questions arose. What importance do other variables such as race, class, and age have, as compared with gender? Should gender simply further enrich ('reform') conflict research, as one important variable amongst many; or should current research be reset on a completely new footing ('revolutionized')? Do the protesting women of Greenham Common or the Plaza de Mayo represent alternative forms of resistance, or was their mode of expression not rooted precisely in the patriarchal system against which they were acting? What do women's groups whose attempts at political opposition or whose work as mediators in peace talks have been successful envisage as happening next politically?

There was much praise not only for the respectful and relaxed atmosphere that prevailed at the Academy, but also for the intensity with which the various themes of peace and conflict research were handled. This intensity was observable both in the workgroups and in the joint lecture-sessions, and again, both in the discussions and in interpersonal exchanges.

Freya Grünhagen, Birgit Behrensen

(2) In its discussions with Professor Lee Ross, the workgroup 'Psychological Barriers to Conflict Resolution' considered three core questions: What are the causes of conflicts? How can we understand conflict? How can conflicts be solved?

Biased Perceptions and the Perceptions of Bias

First of all, Lee Ross introduced participants to the importance of subjective interpretation. As part of an experiment conducted by himself and some colleagues, people had been shown television coverage of a massacre of civilians in the Lebanon. The viewers consisted of three groups of students: some 'pro-Arab', some 'pro-Israeli', and some neutral. The pro-Israeli and pro-Arab groups were each convinced that the reports showed the opposing side in a positive light and treated their own side unfairly; they also thought the prejudices thus manifested reflected the interests and ideology of the programme-makers. The two groups seemed to have seen different programmes. In addition, both sides were convinced that the nature of the depiction was such that it would win over neutral viewers for the opposing side.

The experiment succeeded in demonstrating, first, that people interpret facts differently, and, secondly, that these differences are related to the way in which the facts are perceived. In other words: data are perceived and interpreted in accordance with the needs, expectations, prior experiences, and objectives of the perceiving persons.

This can result in a particular problem--in negotiations, for example--if the solutions proposed by one side are perceived in a 'distorted' way by the other side, and are therefore rejected, and both parties fail to acknowledge their 'mental block'. In this situation, a third party can mediate as a neutral authority and can even itself put forward proposals as a way of avoiding such barriers.

Psychological Barriers to Conflict Resolution

As Lee Ross explained, psychological barriers are only one set of barriers. Strategic barriers (secrecy, deception, shows of strength, bluffs, etc.) or structural barriers (restricted channels of information and communication, claims of different interest groups, political constraints, etc.) can also have an effect.

'Yet there remains another wall', as Anwar el-Sadat observed in his speech to the Israeli Knesset in 1997. 'This wall constitutes a psychological barrier between us, a barrier of suspicion, a barrier of rejection; a barrier of fear, of deception, a barrier of hallucination without any action, deed or decision. A barrier of distorted and eroded interpretation of every event and statement.'

Hence, distorted perceptions and attributions can become a problem not only at the individual but also at the collective level. Other psychological barriers as cited by Lee Ross are: a) exaggerated insistence on an equitable or commensurate solution, without first--or at least--trying for an improvement in the status quo; b) reactive devaluation of proposals and concessions made by the other side; c) distorted interpretations of past events and present proposals; d) over-optimism in regard to as yet unnegotiated outcomes--in other words, each side thinks the other side 'will eventually understand my position and see things as I see them'; e) the fear of losing something; f) avoidance of dissonance.

The Tenets of Na*ve Realism

What Lee Ross described as the 'tenets of na*ve realism' offered a starting-point for understanding misattributions and distorted interpretations. As an illustration of a practical solution to a conflict, Lee Ross cited the following story about a credit card.

A bank and a chainstore made an agreement whereby the bank would give customers of the chainstore a credit card. Whenever customers paid with the credit card, they got a reduction of 2 per cent and the chainstore got a commission of 0.5 per cent from the bank. The bank assumed that the customers would settle their credit-card account at the end of the month. But this didn't happen. After a while, the bank realized it was making a loss of 3 million US dollars each month. The bank therefore wanted to opt out of the arrangement with the chainstore. But the situation for the chainstore was different: because of the credit card, it was making an extra 500,000 US dollars per month. The bank now wanted to alter the credit-card conditions. But the chainstore was against this, because it feared it would lose its customers. Would the bank go to court to secure the change in conditions? The costs of litigation were estimated at 10 million US dollars. What was to be done?

The bank wanted to get out of the heavy monthly losses. The chainstore was intent on preserving the good reputation it had worked up amongst its customers over the years. For the bank, reputation mattered less than the money it was losing every month. Because of this, it was possible for the bank and chainstore to find a solution. The chainstore sent its customers a letter in which the bank gave notice of the change in the credit-card conditions and gave the customers the opportunity to return the card if they wished to do so in view of the new conditions. Because the money was more important to the bank than its reputation, the bank could afford to take the blame for the change in the credit-card conditions. The outcome was that the bank was able to put an end to its monthly losses, and the chainstore was actually able to enhance its reputation of being really concerned to protect its customers' interests. And all this meant that a costly round of litigation was avoided.

Alba and Battia: A Dispute over Water

One of the most fascinating tasks in the group was the water-allocation problem. 'If there is to be a new outbreak of devastating hostilities in the region, it is more likely to be precipitated by a conflict over ever scarcer water-supplies than over traditional claims of political legitimacy.' Four negotiating teams were formed, two Alba and two Battia teams., so that the conflict could be discussed in two separate negotiating forums.

The instructions for this role-play stated that 'Alba and Battia are two countries that share both a dependence on a single source of fresh water, and a long history of mutual enmity and war.' The task was to secure an agreement on the partition of water rights, against the background of an overall settlement.

Alba is a small, prosperous country with an increasingly developed economy based mainly on technological development. Its neighbour, Battia, is much larger and poorer and has more inhabitants (15.2 million).Whereas Battia's area and population exceed those of Alba (5.4 inhabitants), water consumption in Alba has increased rapidly and is much greater: 675 mcl as opposed to Battia's 270 mcl. The demand for water stems mainly from agriculture and, to a lesser extent, industry. The proportion used for drinking and for domestic use is tiny.

The dispute over water rights is complex. There is the Moon River and the Star Lake, which form part of the border between the two states. The lake and the river are the only source of fresh water in the region. Alba has built a system of pipelines that transports the water directly from Star Lake to farms and towns all over the country. Battia, meanwhile, has not invested in such a system and draws water from the lake and river at various points along the waterway. Battia therefore remains vulnerable when Alba overuses the lake, particularly in times of low precipitation.

In addition to the general information, each side was given strictly confidential information. According to this, Alba's target was between 700 and 800 mcl. The Battia team were to negotiate 700 mcl. These goals made the negotiations more difficult. During the exchange of proposals some of the psychological barriers named above manifested themselves--reactive devaluation, for example, or fear of losing something. It took some time before the key to the water dispute was discovered: it is one thing to talk about water rights or sovereignty, quite another to consider water in terms of its value to each side. This can even mean that the same quantity of water has a different value for each side.

In the end, the following agreements were reached: ownership of the available amount of water was shared out on the basis of a comprehensive peace treaty--500 mcl for Alba and 500 mcl for Battia. In addition, during the current year, Battia would sell Alba 200 mcl of water at a price of 200 million US dollars. This would allow Alba to cover its high demand for water and would also provide Battia with the means of improving its irrigation techniques and of making more effective use of water.

What was important in this water dispute was, first, the change-over from positions to interests. When both parties began to see the water as a commodity rather than to concentrate solely on the ownership question, they were able to begin deriving the greatest economic use from it. Since the water had a different value for each side, depending on their need, they were in a position to meet somewhere in the middle, and, as seen above, this was of benefit to both of them. The second important aspect was that the parties established a precedent which showed that they could approach an issue jointly, and this was promising.

'In many conflicts' Lee Ross explained, 'there are opportunities for common ground. But you only find it if you develop a relationship that makes the focal point matter less. What is important therefore is not so much to try desperately to focus on common ground but to find ways to develop a relationship.'

Thomas Bundschuh

(3) The workgroup on 'Ethnic and Group Conflict' was led by Professor James L. Gibson, who has been researching public opinion for over twenty years. He has made a particularly intensive study of the question of whether the existence of democracy requires especial tolerance from its citizens. How tolerant are people when it comes to allowing those who think differently or look different a right to operate in the 'market place' of political ideas? In response to these two questions, and many others, Professor Gibson presented the findings of investigations carried out in the USA, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and also South Africa, which constitutes a particularly interesting and 'tricky' case of democratization because of its ethnic diversity. The breadth of these investigations, their methodological standards, and the concise summary of the current state of knowledge and the as yet unsolved research questions was very impressive.

According to Professor Gibson, research into tolerance is currently confronted with four research questions:

1. Studies in the former Soviet Union show that by 1990, the majority of the population had adopted every democratic value but one--political tolerance. Most people revealed themselves to be unwilling to allow groups who thought differently the right to free political activity. How is the non-adoption of this solitary yet central value to be explained?

2. The differing degrees of tolerance that exist amongst populations in individual countries, and between different countries, can best be explained in terms of the 'threat' factor: the more someone feels threatened by a group of people, the less willing he or she is to tolerate this group--that is to say, concede it a right to political activity. One things that is not clear is why people feel threatened to different degrees by one and the same group of people--people they have identified as their 'least liked group'. Possible explanatory factors here are personality traits or the degree of self-esteem, dogmatism, confidence, etc.--but so far no reliable link has been established. If we knew more about what aroused the feelings of threat, or how it did so, we could, in certain circumstances, break the link between such feelings and intolerance. Up to now, all we know is that the degree of unpredictability in a group--more so, surprisingly, than its readiness to resort to violence--bears a strong correlation to the degree of threat felt.

3. Another as yet unexplained phenomenon in research on tolerance is that tolerance in regard to a not particularly well-liked group of people can--as a result of discussion, long reflection, etc.--easily turn into intolerance, whereas an intolerant attitude can, unfortunately, be converted into a tolerant one only with great difficulty, if at all. This 'second sober thought' feature is one which Professor Gibson will shortly be looking into again in Russia.

4. The effects of intolerance are disputed, and hence so is the relevance of research into public opinion: Is it not the political lite that determines political fates, relatively independently of public opinion? So public opinion might be relatively unimportant? This can be countered by pointing out that the oppression and debasement of groups often take effect as official government policy, but is practised as a form of cultural oppression by individual citizens in the social sphere.

During the discussions with Professor Gibson, his (charactersistically) American appeal for a democracy that is an 'unrestricted market-place of ideas' contrasted with the more European notion of a combative democracy that lets its opponents know in good time where the boundaries lie. According to Professor Gibson's findings, an open, politically tolerated racism such as prevails in the southern states of the USA is better than a hidden one such as may be found in the north: paradoxically, blacks in the south feel freer than blacks in the north, and this may be explained by the fact that the predictability of behaviour in the south is greater than in the north, where officially non-permitted types of racism are constantly occurring. But the racism is less clearly predictable for blacks than it is in the south and in certain circumstances therefore activates feelings of threat and curtailments of freedom.

The discussion in the workgroup also frequently revolved around the scepticism that was felt in regard to research models or to the conclusions that could ultimately be drawn from the data collected--as in a paper by Mary Macintosh ('Getting along in an Ethnically Torn Bosnia-Herzegovina', 1996), in which the views of the population in regard to a multi-ethnic state structure in former Yugoslavia were collected and interpreted. Some of the doubts and objections were dispelled, but there were others which the participants went away with still unresolved.

Addressing the urgent question of what chance the new democracies in eastern Europe and elsewhere have of surviving, Professor Gibson cited quantitative studies showing that there are three essential factors which promote lasting democratic government: a) the wealth of a country, b) a relatively fair distribution of income, c) as mild a form of 'subcultural pluralism' as possible.

This last point in particular indicates the kinds of challenges which political development is up against in South Africa and elsewhere. However, Professor Gibson did add (with a wink) that studies revealed there was another characteristic which hugely boosted the chance of successful democratization. It was the answer 'yes' to the question 'Has your country ever been British?'. So the chances for South Africa could not be considered that bad after all.

At the end of the week, Professor Gibson recommended that those who were not so interested in quantitative research should read the book by Gary King, Robert O. Keohane, and Sidney Verba entitled Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton, NJ, 1994).

Gudrun Schwarzer, Daniel Klein

Contact: Prof. Günter Bierbrauer, Projektverbund Friedens- und Konfliktforschung in Niedersachsen, Universität Osnabrück, D-49069 Osnabrück, Tel.: +49 (541) 969-4803, Fax: +49 (541) 969-4763, e-mail:

[8] Carol Cohn, 'Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defence Intellectuals', Signs, 12 (1987), 687-718.

[9] This is not very good English, but it was what was identified as a match to the initial question 'What happens to women?'

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