Louis Kriesberg

Professor Emeritus, Sociology, University of Syracuse

Topics: costs and benefits of conflict, complexity, intractable conflict

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: Ok, so fire off some of those sound-bytes that you've been talking about?

A: It occurs to me that in these recent years, whenever something looks particularly awful in the world, somebody would come up to me and say, "What would you do NOW?" My usual response is, "Why didn't you ask me 10 years ago?" with the implication that things are a mess now, but they are a mess for reasons that were developed over a long period of time, which should have been looked at and attended to. If we had paid better attention to that which some of us were saying, they would have been better attended to.

The other little piece that I think people in conflicts that are deteriorating need to be reminded is that conflicts get worse as each side blames the other. Blaming others is very natural because we know that we are good people and we are doing good things, therefore the problem must be the other side. The fact that the enemy who must be making things so bad doesn't recognize that he is and doesn't see our goodness is further proof of their evilness and their lack of understanding. Therefore it proves more that they are at fault and that they must change. I think some recognition that that is an interactive process is important and it in fact is disempowering to think how it abdicates the possibility of change to the other side. We're much better off thinking about what can we do that might change this interaction, which actually gives you more power than not.

Q: So you are controlling your own actions, which ultimately affect the diad or triad or however many parts there might be.

A: Yeah.

Q: Any more pearls of those?

A: What I thought I might do is talk about the development of the field of conflict resolution as it's developed. I am going to take the liberty of using my own life course as one example in the way of how the fields have evolved and do so in a way that it is a personal story for many, many people all over the world. In my case, I grew up with the stories and news accounts of wars, the Spanish and Japanese invasion of China, and then the outbreak of WWI. I grew up with the sense of horrors and tragedies of those and events, wishing to prevent their reoccurrence. It shouldn't happen and I began thinking of ways in which that could be done, how I could help do that. I needed to know more. I went to school, college, graduate school, I was trying to figure out how to do that. I went into sociology thinking that that would give me the most general understanding and underpinning for such social processes. In the professionalization of sociology I noticed some tension between conventional sociology, looking at a variety of issues, and conflict only being a side issue for many people and what I really wanted to work on.

I went back and forth between topics, advancing a career and also doing work trying to understand the underlying basis for cooperation for institutions; which would control and guide conflict in a way that was well enough regulated that people did not end up in mutually destructive violence. So I did a dissertation on the way in which a steel grade market calls for national loyalty may affected people's conduct. I did some research on the UN secretariat and on international non-governmental organizations.

I had a Fulbright scholarship for doing work in Germany and, research on the development of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECC). In each of these things, I was thinking of very fundamental processes in which conditions could lead to a very destructive conflict being avoided.

At some point I was also doing relatively traditional sociology, publishing articles in books on matters of poverty, I wrote a book called "Mothers in Poverty," and on the provision of medical care. At some point, I think at Syracuse University, I realized I was now a full professor and I could do whatever I wanted. I would focus on much more what I entered this field to do, and that was to try to understand issues that led to a fuller peace. By then, I had become familiar with people who had this interest, in sociology and outside, peace studies groups, people interested in social movements, non-violence.

I also began to think of more immediate ways of dealing with the threat of particular destructive conflicts and how to prevent them from escalating so badly. I was again working on US-Soviet relations, which I've always been interested in. My parents had come from what was then Russia and is now Belarus and Ukraine, when the threat of the Cold War confronted them. I also became interested in Israeli-Palestinian relations and saw that as a very threatening and possibly escalating conflict which had already erupted previously into tragic wars.

I continued to work on both the very general ideas about the nature of conflict and how that might be resolved. In trying to bring sociologists to pay more attention to this I wrote a book called "Sociology of Social Conflicts". I had some colleagues that were doing this work also, such as Elise Boulding and some others. I was also doing some other work on the US-Soviet relationship, looking at peace movement work, and at the way in which public opinion was related to the escalation and de-escalation.

When I wrote the book about the sociology of conflicts that came out in the 70s, I noticed that interestingly enough all the literature was about reasons for conflict erupting and escalating. There was hardly anything about de-escalation and hardly anything about how peace was achieved, I really began focusing on what I felt had been neglected and looked at ways in which conflicts begin to de-escalate, the ways at which overtures are made, and making sure they are not too misunderstood so they're not counter-productive.

I began publishing on that and noting that other people, not surprisingly were also beginning to pay more attention to that. I soon became more familiar with the other people working in peace studies and the emerging field of conflict resolution. There were people at Michigan and other institutions that were publishing a journal on conflict resolution, the whole set of ideas could apply to the kind of questions that I was raising.

By the 70s that whole movement towards conflict resolution really began to flourish, for a variety of reasons. There had been some of this research based, theoretical work, there had been some studies, negotiation, and past work on negotiation and labor-industrial relations, but also there was an interest in what can be called alternative dispute resolution. I was interested in self-help, a reaction to the developments of the 60's, in fact they produced some sense that some conflicts really were healthy and necessary. The reaction to some of that research was to begin to figure out ways in which it could be done better and ways in which the conflicts could be resolved in a mutually satisfactory fashion. Suddenly, I felt that I was riding a wave with a lot of other people, and it was very gratifying.

Syracuse University had long had an undergraduate program in non-violent conflict and change. Ocats had been the director of and afterwards, he and I and others at the University formed a group that looked at this at a more international level. The grant from the Hewlett Foundation established a program on the analysis of resolution of conflicts in 1986. We discovered that there were many graduate students that were excited at working in this, we'd always had some because we of the non-violence studies program. We already had some reputation in that and after we developed the program were a flourishing enterprise where there were institutions providing teaching and training and financial support for us to do this work. The institutionalization brought more and more specialized theories.

Q: Is the realization that some conflicts are good, where the phrase, or the title of your book, "Constructive Conflicts" come from?

A: Well, it comes from 2 things. One is from a basic principle of conflict resolution theory which is that conflicts are not inherently bad, in fact, not only are they inherent in social life, but they often necessary to advance justice, to maintain autonomy, to promote freedom. They are good values that are often seemed to be gained only through struggle. I had always believed that and some of my interests in this field was also to advance justice, yet the struggles often seem to be counter-productive when they go on too long and too destructively for all parties.

So I wanted to emphasize the concept that conflicts can be waged in a way that is mutually not destructive so the results as well as the conflict can be constructive. It was a way for synthesizing a lot of my interests, not conflict resolution narrowly conceived as what goes on at the negotiating table, but in negotiations that are mediated by some 3rd party, but all that leads up to that and follows that in way that a conflict erupts, and escalates badly or not so badly. How it can be transformed, how once an agreement is reached, it needs to be implemented, and changed as conditions change. I wanted to elaborate that, to make that accessible to people who may enter for a variety of reasons and not for a relatively narrow perspective.

Q: One of the parts of that book that particularly interested me was a section on the impact of global forces on local conflict. It seemed after I read that chapter I was a little disheartened by the possibilities of effecting change through some sort of intervention or even advocacy, because in that chapter you talk about economic forces globally, social-political forces can influence conflict so there seems like there is very little that can be done in the meantime.

A: Well that's one possible reaction I fear, but I would put a little cast on it. The world is increasingly integrated, but forever the disputants are not neatly bounded entities, they always have been and always will be open systems of openly porously bounded groupings and it is that very fluidity of it

and non-boundness, that gives you the chance to transform a conflict so that it's less destructive. It isn't as though these are fixed entities that must be locked into a conflict, they are a part of a larger whole and in a larger context they might seek to be mutually beneficial possibilities of cooperation or shared identity. It also means that you can find allies throughout the world and that opens up all kinds of possibilities for change.

Furthermore no conflict is controlled by any party or any particular actor if it were, it wouldn't really be a conflict; order would be already established. So the change requires participation and engagement with many different kinds of people at many different levels. I see that as meaning that everybody makes a difference rather than making you feel helpless that should make you say, "Hey! What I do does matter! Even if it is to avoid and walk away, that has an effect too". Each of these conflicts is made up of a whole set of other conflicts that are internal to it and external to it, we just happen to define it one way or another but we can redefine it, or help redefine it.

Q: Ok, I appreciate you clarifying that for me. I have much more of an understanding of the chapter then I had.

Tell me about roles, shifting roles, and how people in this field can wear different hats at different times.

A: Well, I've been an academic basically for most of my life now, but in doing that I've taught, done research, and written about that in a theoretical position, but also in doing that I've also been a student throughout. I've learned through the students, who I try to teach, through their experiences. They've been very active in a variety of roles in a variety of countries. In doing research, I've ended up kind of being what I'd call a "quasi-mediator"-carrying information from one side to another, I'm an American, studying US-Soviet relations, interviewing Soviet officials, academics and colleagues. I'm giving them some information, and they're giving me some, which I then communicate back to my compatriots. It's a kind of Track II work at a variety of levels, sometimes quasi-official work with a sort of people to people diplomacy. I'm doing research but I'm also doing Track II, I'm also subverting them and also perhaps subverting my own country.

All of this is going on more or less at the same time, one's a little more salient than another. I'm Jewish and working on Israeli-Palestinian conflict I'm looking at it as someone who feels a sort of solidarity with Israel but also a sort of solidarity with Palestinians. Just as an American I feel some sort of solidarity with the Soviets, because that's where my parents came from. I would walk around Moscow and Leningrad and people there looked like my relatives. The fact that I can have some of that emotional connection also gave me some credibility when I was doing research.

It also gave me access to people in these places because it was another kind of bond that I would have because of my own history and my own actions, sometimes as an advocate, because of all this time I would write op-ed pieces, saying what our government or our people should do. I would not think of that as being private, and knowing some of the people I interview, collect the data from, I'd be aware that I'd said these other things, in these other roles and in some ways this opened up opportunities to talk to people that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

For a long time I'd been a part of a group called SAMED- Syracuse Area of Middle East Dialogue. A few of us started it in 1981, it was designed to be constituted of people of equal numbers who were US citizens of Palestinian/Jewish affiliation, or from neither of the above communities. At some point we learned that SAMED was the Arabic word for steadfastness which was one of the PLO organizations and we both discussed whether we should change our acronym, but we decided not. The group continues over all these years to act as advocates of a negotiated settlement between Israelis and Palestinians

leading to the establishment of 2 states. Also acting as advocates with our government and the American public, and to some extent to encourage that so far as we did within each of our own communities with our relations and connections in the Middle East. So here I was in some sense an advocate, from an intermediary position, acting often as a kind of communicant between different communities. I think when we first started, both the Jews and the Palestinians were a little nervous about how our respective communities would regard us for these contacts.

In fact others were needed to make the bridge because we didn't know each other in a city the size of Syracuse. We were surprised that we were in some ways a matter of curiosity in our respective communities, people would say, "What do they think?", and we would translate what "they" thought for them. We also learned how to use language. That knowledge would be useful in coming out with consensual statements, because we would only issue statements that we would all agree upon.

Q: So you've issued one to date?

A: We did issue statements after great discussion. In making that discussion, we were always careful. I think the Palestinians didn't want to loose their Jews, because if their Jews didn't have any credibility in their community they weren't of much use. That was also true for the Jews relationship to the Palestinians who wanted to make sure that these were legitimate, credible Palestinians who had some standing in their community.

So we had to construct ways of phrasing things, which could retain as a broad of base that we could. It was very educational, I certainly learned a lot. It helped me in doing my research and in writing because it gave me a depth of understanding over time that any given interview could provide. It gave me access to people. Each of these different roles that I was playing could be helpful for the other roles that I wanted to play. At times, it probably did get in the way. It's possible that someone would not want to see me because of some visible thing that I had said or done. I would say overall I could not had done any one of my roles as well if I had not been doing some of the others. That mixture of activities provided me with insights, with confidence, and some emotional sensibility that I think is necessary to do this kind of work.

Q: OK, one more. Having been a disputant, a participant in dialogues, a researcher, and a shuttle diplomat to a certain extent, where do you see the link between theory and practice?

A: Well, I had been trained, in the old days, to think of theory and practice as being quite distinct. To some extent there is this idea that in theory we try to make generalizations and look at major forces that are relatively non-manipulable. While as a practioner you want to do things that will make a difference. That can be distorted because you work with a theory that will give you power, otherwise you're not likely to believe that it's worth trying to do what you're trying to do, unless you're a believer in separation, that I once was. You can't really do one without the other. Certainly you can have some kind of theory whenever you're doing some kind of practice, some independently based theory can give you a context. It gives you some sense of where is a good point to intervene and some sense of what is likely to work and what were the past circumstances give you improves your ability to be an effective practitioner.