Nature Magazine Highlights the Work of Columbia’s Conflict Researchers

A March 11, 2015 article in Nature details the strides that Columbia’s M.S. in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NECR) faculty members have made in understanding the mechanics of intractable conflict.

Dan Jones writes, “A growing chorus of...conflict researchers have been pushing for a fresh approach — one that views intractable conflicts as dynamic, complex systems similar to cells, ant colonies or cities, and analyzes them with the mathematical and computational tools developed over the past 30 years in complexity science.”

Peter Coleman, NECR faculty member and executive director of the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation Conflict, and Complexity (AC4) explains the previous understanding of conflict this way: “People had their simple, sovereign theories about why conflicts become intractable. It's because of trauma, or social identity or a history of humiliation.” He says, “We understood pieces of the problem, but not how they interact.”

Coleman encountered the work of social psychologists Robin Vallacher and Andrzej Nowak. The two suggest that complex systems are like a “landscape of hills and valleys. The behaviour of the complex system corresponds to the path of a ball rolling across this landscape. The trajectory becomes very complicated as the ball is deflected by the hills. But eventually, the ball will get trapped in one of the valleys, where it will either cycle endlessly around the walls or sink to the middle and lie still.” Coleman realized that this was an apt depiction of “the stable, if destructive, patterns of social behaviour seen in intractable conflicts.”

He joined forces with colleagues who were similarly interested in advancing the discourse on the complexity of conflict. In 2004, he, Vallacher, and Nowak created the Dynamics of Conflict working group. “In 2009...Peter T. Coleman, Beth Fisher-Yoshida, and Andrea Bartoli, launched...AC4, along with the Masters of Science Program in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NECR),” according to AC4’s website.

Naira Musallam, a member of AC4, critiques the current approaches to managing conflict: “We compare fluid situations to fixed things. We think in straight lines rather than loops, we focus on understanding problems and assume that this will lead to solutions, and often miss the unintended consequences of well-intentioned interventions.”

While these researchers hope to inform the development of more effective solutions in strife-ridden regions, fellow scholar Robert Ricigliano reframes how we should view future progress: “Success doesn't mean that we've ended the conflict. It means we've engaged a system so that violence declines over time.”

What kind of impact can these researchers and professors make with their findings on conflict? For one, they can help clarify and perhaps disentangle the forces that plague the most cataclysmic sites of intractable conflict. Jones writes, “Their tragic poster child is the 68-year-long Israeli–Palestinian conflict. But the list also includes India and Pakistan's equally long battle over Kashmir, and Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been riven by conflict since 1996, as has South Sudan since its inception in 2011. Any number of intractable conflicts may now be emerging in the Middle East as Libya, Syria and Iraq are ripped apart by sectarian violence and with the rise of the Islamist group ISIS (see 'Intractable conflicts'). The intensifying civil war in eastern Ukraine may eventually join the list as well.”

Read the rest of the article on Coleman, AC4, and innovations in conflict resolution in Nature.