The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (Book Review)

Reviewed by by Carrie Menkel-Meadow
Professor of Law, Georgetown U Law Center
Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 2000; 649pp.

This review is dedicated to the memory of James Boskey, whose contributions as an ADR book reviewer and field leader are incalculable and are truly missed.

Make room on your bookshelf for a weighty (in intellectual value and space) new tome. This newly published collection of field-synthesizing essays presents the work of an outstanding group of theorists and practitioners (and researchers and trainers!) who are trying to

practice what we all preach – having conversations across a variety of divides. Of what use is theory if it cannot be tried and tested in the fields

it attempts to explain? How can we make sense of our practice and intervention choices? Are they effective? Effective for what? Can our

“tools” in conflict resolution really be used to reduce violence, improve collaborative problem solving, enhance democratic discourse, affect

both group and individual decision making and most challengingly, achieve “justice”?

This group of scholars and conflict resolution practitioners present about thirty chapters of material, reviewing (mostly from the

perspective of the discipline of social psychology) what we have learned from studies and theorizing about intrapsychic, interpersonal and

intergroup processes, the role of conflict, culture and creativity in change, and what we know and don’t know about difficult and intractable

conflicts. Informed by the work of many, but inspired by the life-long work of social psychologist Morton Deutsch of Columbia University

(author of the classic, The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes (1973)), these essays link research in social group

processes, as well as individual problem solving and decision making, to several practice settings (including mediation and anti-violence

programs in the schools) and explore the significance of particular findings and patterns for training and education. The book’s chapters

explore such fundamental topics as trust, justice, power relations, communication patterns, motivation and intentionality, personality,

persuasion, aggression and violence, conflict, culture, creativity, and internal (as well as social) processes for problem solving, decision making

and conflict resolution. In this, the Handbook serves as an excellent reference work for anyone in the conflict resolution field seeking to

uncover the roots of our models of working and the assumptions and realities of human behavior on which they are based. But beyond this

usefulness as a “reference”, the Handbook goes further, with virtually every chapter concluding with some suggestions about the relation of the

particular theoretical or research insight to the world of practice, including some suggestions for training and education in the field.

The book grew out of conversations across the theory/practice divide at Columbia’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict

Resolution, and we are the richer for the inevitable tensions and challenges that we all know occur in those settings. Informed by paradigms of

competition and cooperation and destructive and constructive conflict, and applied to settings as diverse as international and diplomatic

conflict, as well as national and individual acts of aggression and violence, peacekeeping efforts in schools, and mediation interventions in many

environments, these essays explore the breadth and depth of our new field.

The Handbook of Conflict Resolution now takes its place alongside at least two other volumes that have attempted to straddle helpfully

the theory and practice divide — Lawrence Susskind et.al. (eds.) The Consensus Building Handbook (Sage Publications, 1999) and Kenneth

Arrow et.al. (eds). Barriers to Conflict Resolution (Norton, 1995). These books seek to inform our practices by explaining distortions in

individual and group cognitive and social processes (attribution theory, loss and risk aversion, the availability heuristic, reactive devaluation,

judgmental biases, framing) and then suggesting correctives, in both individual and group processes (creativity, collaborative problem solving,

decision-making, both rational and naturalistic) to enhance the quality of both processes and ultimate outcomes. The Handbook of Conflict

Resolution, by linking research and theory to practice and training issues, goes beyond the “piling on” of negative cognitive and social

psychology, and suggests (with models, charts and graphs where appropriate) how more positive skills can be taught and implemented to

improve human interaction.

The Handbook’s authors never leave far behind its senior editor’s concern for justice and its various forms (distributive, equitable and

procedural) and thus the book is particularly appropriate for those of us who teach conflict resolution in law schools and are most concerned

about the interaction of conflict resolution, dispute resolution, and legal and social justice.

The Handbook goes a long way in providing a common vocabulary for those of us who work in this field, across disciplines. If I had any

one complaint about an otherwise superb volume, it is that the book might have drawn from more multi-disciplinary resources. “Problem

solving” and “decision making,” as well as “culture” and “justice,” are concepts that legal scholars, anthropologists, sociologists and political

scientists have also used and tried to explicate in the context of dispute resolution. Perhaps the next Handbook will be a truly multi-disciplinary

volume (which both the Susskind and the Arrow books aim for at different levels of theory and practice). In the meantime, we have an

excellent resource book from which to explore the core concepts of our field and from which to develop teaching units and training modules.

Indeed, as a recent gathering of dispute resolution professionals at Columbia discovered, the book itself provides an excellent exercise in

brainstorming teaching concepts — pick your favorite chapter (mine are chapters 9 (“Problem Solving and Decision Making in Conflict

Resolution”), 16 (“Creativity and Conflict Resolution: The Role of Point of View”), and 24 (“Teaching Conflict Resolution Skills in a

Workshop”)), then write a lesson plan and develop some experiential exercises!

                        author

Carrie J. Menkel-Meadow

Carrie Menkel-Meadow, who is also the director of the Hewlett-Georgetown Program in Conflict Resolution and Legal Problem Solving, is a national expert in the areas of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), civil procedure, the legal profession, legal ethics, clinical legal education, feminist legal theory, and women in the legal profession. Additionally,… MORE >

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