Resolving Conflict and Building Peace in Social Networks: An Impossible Task?

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution

Given the often overwhelming complexity of many social networks involved in well-intentioned initiatives – reducing urban violence, peacemaking in communities, peacebuilding in nations – one wonders how and if anything ever gets accomplished.

In a ground breaking new approach published in a recent edition of the American Psychologist, dynamic network theory (DNT) offers hope. DNT integrates the science of social networks and psychology to show how a small set of eight social network roles can help us to understand conflict management and peacebuilding in complex social systems. They include:

Goal strivers: People who are directly pursuing a given goal, desire, or intended behavior (like reducing violence).

System supporters: People in a social network that support Strivers in their goal pursuits, such as through empathetic, instrumental, monetary, or other types of support.

Goal preventors: are those people attempting to prevent or thwart other people’s goals or desires.

Supportive resistors: are people in the network supporting others involved in resisting others.

System negators: are people reacting negatively to others that are pursuing goals.

Interactants: are individuals interacting around others involved in a goal pursuit , who are not helping, hurting, or even observing the process. For example, they may be innocent bystanders that are not aware that a serious conflict is happening nearby.

Observers: those observing behaviors in the system, but taking no actions.

These eight roles allow us a grammar to begin to visualize any social network is functioning.

DNT provides dynamic network charts as one method to help visualize how social networks are involved in making peace. A user-friendly version is offered by Westaby and Redding (2014) in the form of a network conflict worksheet that can be used by practitioners and researchers for gaining a systemic perspective about the wide cast of characters that may be involved in a specific conflict or intractable issue. The worksheet can be used to collect information from individuals in the network, or to facilitate group discussions by initially breaking the groups into different sides of the conflict to minimize overt conflict between parties, and then later bringing the sides together to develop a deeper understanding of the social conflict.

ENDNOTES

Westaby, J. D., Pfaff, D. L., & Redding, N. (2014). Psychology and social networks: A dynamic network theory perspective. American Psychologist, 69, No. 3, 269–284. DOI: 10.1037/a0036106

Westaby, J. D. & Redding, N. (2014). Social networks, social media, and conflict resolution. In Morton Deutsch, Peter T. Coleman, and Eric C. Marcus (Eds.) The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (3rd Ed). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

                        author

Peter T. Coleman

Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation),… MORE >

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