On May 23, 2001, Al-Hewar Center in metropolitan Washington, D.C., hosted a discussion with Conflict Resolution Specialist Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah about methods for solving personal and social conflicts. Jadallah recently earned her Masters Degree in Conflict Resolution from George Mason University and is currently working on her Ph.D. She specializes in the organizational aspect of conflict resolution. The event was moderated by Al-Hewar Center Executive Director Mr. Sobhi Ghandour.
resolution is a broad subject informed by many different disciplines, said
Jadallah. In the brief time allotted, she limited her discussion to a few key
points: Why are we interested in the field of conflict resolution? Why is it
important? She also discussed the origins of the field in the West and presented
some of the theoretical models that help us understand social conflict.
We are faced today
with very complex issues, she said. In fact, in the 20th century
there have been more war-related deaths than in all previous centuries combined.
From 1900-1990, 107.8 million lives were lost due to war, aggression and
violence. And there were many different types of war between 1860 and 1980: 67
interstate wars, 51 imperial wars, 106 civil wars... Some people argue that the
numbers are so high because now there is better global communication – more
information and documentation; however, the statistics, said Jadallah, support
the theory that we are living in a time of great insecurity.
technological and other advances, individuals still feel a significant amount of
personal insecurity. This is a serious problem, said Jadallah. Many people feel
alienated by the system, at the individual, group, and community levels, and a
lot of societal systems are not meeting the needs of the different people
involved. The Unabomber is an extreme example, but the frustrations expressed in
his Manifesto about how our institutions are run and even about the difficulties
of day to day life reflect the feelings of many average people. And in the
international arena, she said, none of the proposals put before the Palestinians
as a resolution to the Middle East conflict, meet their needs as individuals.
A new approach is
clearly needed, she said, and the West has developed its own system of conflict
resolution in response to this need. There have been many leaders in the field,
for example John Burton, who has had a lot of influence on the George Mason
University program. He wrote extensively about civil societies and world systems
and their failures. As an international relations scholar, he recognized that
the old models were not meeting the needs of the people. Another influential
scholar is Norwegian Johan Galtung who has over 1000 publications and books to
his credit. Galtung has written in a very interesting way about the sources of
conflict, said Jadallah.
resolution is such a large field that it has been broadened to encompass many
other disciplines, including human relations, law, psychology, sociology,
mathematics, and games theory, to name a few. Conflict resolution specialists
must try to understand the unit of analysis involved in the particular conflict
they are exploring. For example, are they studying the individual (encompassing
psychology or psychoanalysis), communities and societies (sociology); or
relationships between states (international relations)?
There are many
theories about the source of conflict. One theory argues that social conflict is
based on our genetic makeup and posits that people are violent by nature.
However, this theory was challenged in the 1980s, when UNESCO convened a group
of scholars and scientists to study whether humans really are violent and
aggressive by nature. The interesting conclusion, issued in UNESCO’s Seville
Statement, is that war is actually a learned trait reflected in cultural
“frustration aggression,” argues that humans are very goal-oriented, and
whenever they are prevented from reaching a goal, frustration and negative
energy are created which generate aggressive action on their part. In examining
how societies are structured, we see that a lot of frustration experienced by
people in their daily life is manifested in violence, for example, people who,
without warning, open fire on their co-workers. This is also evident when
minority groups sue their workplace for discriminatory behavior. This is all a
result of frustration within the system.
perspective, the “psycho-analytical theory,” is something which immigrant
communities, in particular, experience. This theory examines the psychology of
conflict. How do people form stereotypes? Images of ourselves versus others, are
based on images of an “enemy” or someone who is not like us.
We try to understand the psychology of people involved in a conflict –
what do they see in the other person? Why do people often arrive so easily at
de-humanizing or de-valuing others? There has been some very interesting
research on certain forms of cultural violence in which a culture teaches its
members that they are better than everyone else and puts other people on lower
levels, said Jadallah.
that is particularly applicable to current events in Palestine is that of
“relative deprivation.” This is a very useful theory for analyzing social
conflict, because it argues that there is a major gap between what one wants to
happen and how fast it is happening. In academic language, this is called the
gap between the “value expectation” and the “value capabilities” (i.e.
what an individual is personally capable of achieving). For example, when there
are peace proposals or negotiations or any attempt at reconciliation, things
often don’t progress as fast as stated in the written agreement, and this can
cause conflict. Managing expectations is, thus, a very important component of
resolving this type of conflict.
Another example of
relative deprivation can be found in the workplace. Institutions often promise
their employees more than they can deliver. Peoples expectations rise: they want
promotions, they want authority, they want to enjoy power, but the institution
does not always meet those needs. This causes conflict because there are
differences between the employees’ capabilities and what they are being
allowed to do.
argues that there are aspects of structures or systems that exacerbate the
relative deprivation gap. Whereas individuals can often resolve their
differences, structures or systems (i.e. environments) are often set up in a way
that does not allow resolution to occur. Galtung uses the phrase “structural
violence” to describe how the structure becomes – or causes the individual
or the group to become – violent. He has written very daringly as a scholar
about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in this context, said Jadallah.
theory is called “Basic Human Needs.” Maslow’s theories of the hierarchy
of needs states that we all have needs that must be met, and we put them in a
hierarchy. Some of them must be met immediately, some can wait. But these needs
are not always standard across cultures, societies or even individuals. Burton
argues that social conflict often occurs when there is a frustration of needs,
such as security and identity. Israeli rhetoric, for example, is always about
security. There is debate about whether or not this is true, but the feeling of
security is a very subjective thing. Burton states that if people’s security
is threatened, then their basic human needs are not being met. This case can be
argued on any level. For example, it could be argued that, globally, women have
not been a dominant and empowered group and so the lack of security may be a
basic need that is not being met for them. Burton also argues that people will
pursue their basic needs at any cost; so every time the system suppresses them,
for example groups like the Red Brigade or the militias in the US, if they are
not legitimized, if their identity is not acknowledged, if their security is not
acknowledged, then they will keep fighting.
formation” is another related theory. There are many theories about how people
identify themselves. What does a group membership say about who you are? For
example, a lot of Arabs say “I am more of a Muslim than I am an Arab.”
Others say, “No, I am a pan-Arabist and my identity as an Arab is much higher
than my religious identity.” This dialectic around identity is very important,
because conflict sometimes brings out certain identities in people that have
been suppressed or hidden. We may identify with someone as a human being, as a
colleague, or as an individual. But if there is a crisis with his group, we may
coalesce around this person, based on our mutual group membership. How the
parties understand and define themselves is a very important part of designing a
There are many
other theories used to understand and resolve conflict, including the “world
view” theory, which is how people understand the world, their culture, their
images and metaphors, and how they speak about themselves.
It is important to
recognize that conflict is not necessarily always bad, said Jadallah. It can
encourage people to engage in discussions around ideas and concepts. In this
context, conflict is positive because it allows the creation of a new shared
understanding. It also allows people to legitimize their interests. It can
present opportunities for people to express their needs, positions or interests,
which otherwise have remained unexpressed. Conflict might also strengthen group
identity by presenting situations around which people can coalesce. Of course,
conflict can also polarize people and resolution attempts can fail.
negative when it becomes violent, said Jadallah. Violence can take several
forms. A classic example is the person who feels he cannot get his point across
verbally and begins hitting another person. Aggressive driving or road rage is
another manifestation, as is verbal or psychological abuse in families –
including abandonment. When conflict becomes coercive, or violent, then steps
must be taken to stop the violence. Certain aspects of violence cannot be
Before any action
is taken, a conflict resolution specialist will make an assessment, which they
have become quite good at, said Jadallah. As the layers of a conflict are peeled
back, they usually find that it runs much deeper than how the parties initially
presented it. In assessing a situation, practitioners ask specific questions
based on the research methodology, and they listen for the stories and metaphors
– how the parties describe their situation. Are stereotypes involved? Is it
because of group membership? Ethnicity? Gender? Socio-economic class? All of the
factors that could be causing the conflict must be examined. Conflict resolution
specialists must ask, verify, reframe, and rephrase the questions in order to
gain an understanding of what the conflict means to the different parties.
(mediators, etc.) are also very useful. In studying group dynamics,
interpersonal behavior, and human relations behavior, it has been discovered
that bringing a third party into a conflict changes the dynamics. This person
can sometimes encourage the weaker party to express his issues or help the
stronger party reframe his issues. From a Western perspective, the third party
should be objective and should have no vested interest in the outcome; however
sometimes conflict resolution practitioners must factor culture into the
process. In the Middle East, for example, the parties often ask family members
to serve as mediators, and obviously, those family members do have an interest
in the outcome of the problem.
resolution specialists try to tackle the deep-seated issues in the hope that the
conflict can be resolved for every party involved, said Jadallah. These
processes are sometimes criticized because they take a long time, but the goal
is to find permanent resolutions so that the conflict does not keep resurfacing.
They also try to educate people on ways to resolve their own conflicts.
After the presentation, the floor was opened for a discussion with the audience, including a workshop for resolving specific conflict situations.
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