Paul Wehr

Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder

Topics: conflict stages, intervention, listening

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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A: My work really parallels the development of the peace research and peace studies movement, which started in the late 1960s, late 1970s, which was in part a reaction to the Vietnam War. So for the last 30 years or so, that movement has been growing and been creating academic institutions, practitioner institutions, where the study of conflict and how to make it less harmful, has really grown into what is in some cases a industry. So I've been associated with the development of that movement. Most of my work has been in the university, developing peace study programs, doing conflict research, teaching conflict sociology, and being involved in the creation of the institutions of peace and conflict research. I was also cofounder of the consortium on conflict fifteen years ago at the University of Colorado. That is the kind of institution building that I've been involved in for 35-40 years.

I started out at Haverford College, which is a Quaker college in Pennsylvania. In the late 60s we created something called the Center for Non-Violent Conflict Resolution where we applied sociological research methods to the research of the use of non-violence by social movements. That resulted in a number of publications and methods for movement organizations using nonviolence resistance, which were quite common during the Vietnam War period. That interest in nonviolent and confrontation, as well as the use of nonviolence in social movements, led me to do a number of sociological studies. It led me to a number of various parts in the world. I did a number of those non-violence movement studies in Denmark, Scandinavia, Norway, Czechoslovakia, India, and the United States of course. In the late 1970's here, we had a huge movement around the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, near Boulder here. It was a very large and sustained non violent resistance reflecting citizen's concerns about nuclear population because the plant was polluting with radioactive materials in surrounding areas, but also because of the threat of nuclear war, which was very much heightened during the late 70s and early 80s.

My most recent endeavors led me to Central America in the late 80s and early 90s when US foreign policy teamed up with military dictatorships in Central America to essentially put down popular movements for democracy and social equality. At the same time in the late 1980s I was doing research,

we began here at the university a graduate concentration in social conflict. That was done within the sociology department. It was one of the few graduate level programs at the time, where the student could essentially specialize in the study of harmless conflict. The approaches to doing conflict in ways that would not have harmful consequences. Not always totally non-violence, but the principle of minimizing harm and maximizing the possibility of reconciliation as you were actually in conflict with your opponent.

So with the methods you were using, through the principles and values that you were reflecting in the movement and so forth. So we attracted the attention of a lot of young people around the country, as a program to which they could come. It responded not only to their intellectual curiosity and interests, but also to their values base. So for about ten years we had a very active concentration in social conflict, where their graduate degree, or PhD, and in some cases both, was in sociology. So that they could be jobs out there in the established academic market, but where they were able to work to further their normative interest in developing less harmful ways of engaging in conflict and reaching settlement, and promoting reconciliation, and so forth doing conflict in a creative way.

We graduated probably 30-40 graduates, half PhDs, half Masters graduates in this area of social conflict. As I was telling you several of our graduates have gone on to be really well known values members of conflict management, for example John Paul Lederach, is I think the best known presently. I worked with him very closely, particularly on Central American mediation and reconciliation projects. Another one who has made quite a name for himself is Randy Compton who is very instrumental in the development of peer mediation in the United States amongst school children and teachers. Teaching school kids how to resolve their conflicts without harm. There are a number of others I could mention. That was one of the highlights of my career, being instrumental in setting up that program, seeing so many good young sociologists come through it and who are really doing good things in the field right now.

Q: Is there a particular moment of possible practice or observation that you've found to be very inspiring in your career?

A: Well, I mentioned the joy that I was getting this week in seeing this conference and the kinds of things that were going on, the kinds of creativity of it all. How everyone who is involved is working toward spreading this knowledge, adding to it, involving many more people out there in its use, and the joy partly in seeing this, but in knowing how difficult it was in bringing the Consortium to this point.

I was the third co-founder, along with Guy and Heidi [Burgess], of the Consortium. They have done most of the work, but I was involved very much in the beginning, not so much now since I've retired. But being involved with them in building it and seeing now the kind of fruition of what we've worked for, particularly what they've worked for is a high point.

The social conflict concentration was another high point.

The third that comes immediately to mind was in an intervention that I did about five years ago.

Here at the university, the physics department had become paralyzed with an internal conflict, especially in one of the divisions. The conflict between individuals and factions, in part of the department, had become so heightened, and so destructive, that the department had actually suspended recruitment of graduate students and new faculty until this conflict could get resolved. And word was spreading around the world physics community, "Don't go to Colorado, there's just too much conflict there." The chair of the department came to my office one day and said, "Could you help us? We need help." So I gave it some thought, because physics is the Queen science, and often physicist don't believe that they need help from anyone, that they're the ones who have the answer. I thought about that, whether I would be accepted as an outsider, as a sociologist, as a soft scientist. Would I just be seen as a meddler? I said I would give it a try. I didn't know how I was going to approach this, but I had been using in my courses, with my students, several approaches to conflict management. One is the concept that I developed back in the late 70s, which is known as conflict mapping.

Another is an approach that Roger Fisher has used; I think he used it in his work as an advisor to the Carter administrations, during the Camp David negotiations in the later 70s. It's called Single Text Agreement. So I used those two concepts in my teaching, and they were the logical first stops in my consideration of this, and how I might approach it. The first step was a mapping step. I went around and first I identified all the parties in the conflict. Then I went around and interviewed each of these parties, two-hour interviews. I used a template for the interviews, which was essentially a mapping form. I told them I'd like to understand what's going on here. I need you to describe to me what you think is happening here, who the parties are, what the issues are, what the possibility for resolving this conflict is. All of these questions I was asking them, and recording the interviews. And telling them it was a mapping exercise and we could only get a really accurate map of the conflict if a lot of different perspectives, a lot of different observers participated in it. It was a mapping process.

I told them I was going to make a draft map of the information and circulate it to you, and I want you to critique it. I want you to tell me where it's wrong. This all came back again. This is just the mapping part. And we went through four maps before everyone essentially agreed that this was what was going on, and included in that there were suggestions about how the conflict might be resolved. So we had a map to work with, to build an agreement on, but maybe more importantly we had initial agreement from all of the people involved in the conflict that this was in fact what was going on. So this was a successful step. And I made them very aware of that. I said, "Okay, you've reached a first agreement on this, even though you've never been together in the same room talking about this, but this is what you've told me, and I've represented it, and you've agreed on it."

The next step was the single text agreement where you draft from the suggestions of the mappers of what could be done to resolve it. You draft an agreement, a set of rules of communication for example, rules by which people agree to behave in the future. It could be as simple as don't email someone, go and talk to him or her. Because part of the conflict was all of these aggressive emails going back and forth, but people afraid to confront one another face to face. The communication was just horrible. The tension level was very high. Here were two people, who's offices were side by side, who weren't really speaking to each other in the halls, and they would get back to their computers and they would cuss each other out electronically. So communication was a major part of this agreement in other words, how were going to communicate with one another.

The first draft of this agreement went out, and I solicited critiques on this, what would you not accept, what was possible and so forth. We went through another four drafts of that single text agreement until we finally got to a point where we could say, ok, I think this is good enough, I could sign this, I could put my name to this. So we got everyone in the same room, the agreement for every single party to sign on to it and I brought along a bottle of champagne. I had a toast, and a peace signing session. That was about five years ago. And that agreement has held. To this day I see one of the principle conflicting parties quite often at the recreation center and I ask him how it is going, and he says fine, so that's a high point.

I was kind of a facilitator. I got to use the concepts that I taught. Sometimes they say, "If you can't do, teach." And here is an illustration of taking what you teach and doing it. Of course, I would always do this in class with students. We would actually do this with their personal lives, where they had conflicts and so forth. So I was actually doing it and illustrating, but not so much outside of the teaching framework.

Q: I don't think many people have such an opportunity for people to make such a direct link between the theory and the practice. Particularly in a university setting where they are so famous for infighting, and irresolvability.

A: I think out of that came my conviction that

every intervention should be a multi-module one. You have to have a bag of tricks, or methods, and you mix and match depending on the situation. There is no single magic bullet, no single magic method. That's one of the things that is being suggested by this Columbia experience. Importing 'Getting to Yes,' importing the BATNA, as the way to resolve Columbian violence has led to a backlash. They call it a "blow back" now, of negative consequences simply because you were relying on a method that is being sort of transplanted from one culture to another as kind of an easy fix and that's just not possible, I think.

Q: What about the mapping tool? Is that something that you can use universally to decide what bag of tricks you can bring to a certain conflict? Is that universal, or is even that bound by certain restrictions?

A: Well, its hard to say because I haven't used it very much, maybe not at all, outside of the North American, US, context. Except very recently in the Dominican Republic when I gave a short, weeklong course there in January, and early February. Where as part of the teaching approach, I had the participants, who were all young professionals in Dominican society, everyone from lawyers to teachers were there. I used the mapping process as a pedagogical tool. It seemed to work very well with them. Now Dominican society is not that far removed from US society. There is a very strong link between the two, especially New York City and Dominica. These people were fluent in English, or at least read English, so it was pretty modern society. But there it seemed to work, to be very useful. So hopefully its not too culture bound.

One thing that I haven't done is to take it a little further and say ok, now we have this map, now what in this map, is a sector of resources for resolving this conflict-third parties, thirdsiders, in the area that you enlist, or even in the actual conflict. So there is that sector in actual mapping concept.

But I haven't taken it further to say what kind of a multi-model package of techniques should I look for, would this suggest, what kind of specialist would you involve. And of course my inclination more and more is to move away from bringing in outside experts. I call it the tyranny of the experts. The idea that these people know and you don't. This is where John Paul's work is so good in that it looks for the answer within the community itself. Not bringing in someone from the outside, even though he comes in from the outside. But helping the communities to see that they have the answer within them. Within national society it's much more a question of establishing communication links between levels in societies and so forth.

But I haven't actually played that out at all.

Q: So it sounds like there are two valuable lessons that we've learned as a field are, there's no standard approach that can be tailored to every conflict approach and that its probably more beneficial to work with methods that already exist indigenously, wherever the conflict exist, and tyranny of the expert can be as harmful as it can be helpful. What other lessons have you learned from the field?

A: First an illustration from your last point.

It's probably a mix of indigenous peacemaking and some external intervention. That is the lesson that came out of this research in Nicaragua, and mediation in Nicaragua. Is this concept of the insider partial, and the outsider neutral mediation, or intermediation - the idea that when you combine these, you get a much richer mixture of possibilities. The outsider is always very important - the observer - the mediator coming from outside the conflict, is very important because those in conflict are always looking, knowing they're being watched, by someone else. That tends to put them on their best behavior. Of course, everyone wants to settle a dispute, and yet we need the internal, indigenous resources to make it a good agreement to make sure that it actually persists, that it survives, that it continues. So this mix of outside and inside is very important.

Other lessons I've learned is that it takes a great deal of imagination and staying power to develop something new, a new approach. Especially when the established institutions are so often resisting it. It seems to me that if we know anything about social relations and social structure, it is that the established structures and the privileged groups in society will always try to keep things as they are. Or at least if change is necessary, it has to be as slow as possible.

So there's this kind of inertia of the status quo. Yet that status quo is always going to be challenged by those who have less, the less privileged, the poor, those who don't have the power. So that means that conflict is inevitable, and its always going to occur, because you're always going to have some structure of more and less power, more and less privilege. So conflict is inevitable. You're going to have to have a way to deal with it. And that approach to dealing with it is going to be more destructive, or less destructive, more harmful, or less harmful.

So the idea then is to find the less harmful ways of doing conflict. I like to use the term Harmless conflict - how to do harmless conflict. This doesn't exist; it's an ideal type. It's a concept. One can approach it, but one can never attain it because we are humans and we are imperfect. Human approaches to problems are never perfect and you never get a full solution to the problem. But I think that idea of this harmless conflict movement, if you will, the conflict knowledge movement, is to make the inevitable conflicting parties who ever they might be aware of the options out there, that there are many more options than weapons, then military force, than forcing your opponent, humiliating your opponent, reaching so called peace that way, because of course that's no peace at all and that doesn't work.

I think that the whole movement that we've been involved in for the last 30-40 years is to study, apply, test, try out, publicize, give people information about the many ways of doing conflict, many ways of making it less harmful, less costly, just try to get it out there. Just so more and more people can try it and talk about how they can do successfully, but also talk about ways that it has been tried and hasn't worked, and why it hasn't worked. Well, maybe they didn't do it this way, and they should have, whatever. The ideal behind it is a just and non-violent world. We are very far from that now. Humans have to improve on how they do conflict, simply because it's too costly not to. So we are a part, we hope of that improvement process.

Q: What are the major obstacles facing our field?


Well in the knowledge business, which is very structured, very territorial. Academic disciplines have their territories that they've carved out, and they protect those very fiercely. And that's at universities, for example, departments, schools, law, engineering, arts and sciences and within each of those departments you have more specialization, with a particular expert, who are often very specialized in that segment of that discipline. So this is again, another illustration of the tyranny of experts, of specialists. That's why trans-disciplinary approaches have such a difficult time.

One illustration at the University is environmental studies. It is doing pretty well, but because it doesn't have a roistered faculty, because it doesn't control much of a budget, it has a lot of majors, but it's not very powerful. It exists in spite of itself. It exists because so many students are interested in environmental studies. It's a classic trans-disciplinary field. But it's got resistance from all of the other disciplines, because that's just the way the organizations work, and individuals too. So that's a great obstacle to any trans-disciplinary intellectual effort, like peace and conflict studies.

There are already disciplines like political science, like sociology, psychology, like law, and they're are all set up with their perspectives. In fact, hey what is law if it's not about conflict? And only in the last 20 years has law become interested in mediation and arbitration. It has carved out a section of that for itself. So you have lots of lawyers turning into mediators. There are so many lawyers in world, they can't make a living and they have to expand their field and that is Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). So they've put their stamp, the lawyer stamp, on conflict management. That is one of the reasons why program on negotiation, BATNA, and the Fisher approach are so popular is because it has such strong representation from a strong disciple of law. So law here has carved out its piece of conflict management. That in a sense takes away from the movement in general. In another way it is a boost for it. So what you've got, is the Peace and Conflict field acting as an umbrella field. But there's resistance. Our social conflict concentration in sociology is a good illustration. The reason that it no long exists is that it tried to be multi-transdisciplinary, it tried to go beyond sociology.

The whole intellectual enterprise is structured around these disciplines and the rewards systems are all pushing for these disciplines, they are not pushing for cross-disciplinary, that's not where the rewards are, the jobs neither. The inertia of the status quo is the biggest obstacle. Its means that the movement does benefit from the participation of these different disciplines, however much that is and you also get concepts from theses different disciplines coming in. And a multi disciplinary approach really grows as it borrows from these different disciplines. So what you get in conflict theory, as illustrated in the book at I just published with Otto Bartos on conflict theory and how its been building and how its been applied. You look at concepts in there, most of them are from sociology, psychology, political science, anthropology and so forth, but conflict theorists have been building their own little set of theories, pulling from these different disciplines, because all of these conflict theorist had their training in these other disciplines. With the exception of very few people coming along now, like John Paul, who's training is in sociology, but it's broader than that, because it had to be. So what I would hope to see in the future is a growing group of academic people who have the conflict focus. As opposed to their more narrow discipline focus, the problem focus rather than the... I don't know if that will happen, but that has been a major obstacle.

Q: Are there other things that you think people coming into this discipline should know?

A: You don't get rich at it. The rewards are really for people who become totally involved in the established order, the established institutions. The peacemaking I would say is not in that category.

Now there are a few instances in which a discipline, like law, that have taken Peace and Conflict research and have developed this approach and have sold this approach to all the industries out there. The program on negotiation at Harvard was for some time making quite a bit of money. They were going to all these corporate headquarters and showing them that in fact it could work better if you did it this way. So for them, I think, I don't know if that's continued, but their book is a best seller in 20 different countries, and has been translated into a number of world languages. It might be possible for a few.

On the other hand, there is the psychic, or spiritual income, with working with something that you feel is important. Not only that you can make a good living at it, but that you feel better about humankind. You have to add that into your income. And it's substantial. So you won't get rich money wise, but it's a very rich and fulfilling life otherwise, and it's very exciting.

People in this field always have to be good listeners. In the academic world we tend to want to talk more than to listen. We like to hear ourselves talk. So I would suggest for people coming into the field that if they're not good listeners already, they should develop good listening skills because the best conflict specialists are the ones who listen, watch, observe patiently, before they even begin to try analyze what is going on.

So taking it all in, mapping it, giving it some thought, trying out drafts, gives you the best map.

But the maps are always changing, so you can't turn off your hearing aid. You've got to be constantly listening for new developments, new facts, so the map is a constantly evolving guide. Listening is very much a part of that. And involving the parties in the solution is very important. Involving them in the mapping and the creation of the agreement is very important, so that everybody owns it; everyone has a piece of it. So I would suggest peacemakers should be particularly careful with that.