Peter Coleman: What Psychology and Mathematics Can Teach Us About Conflict

In the field of conflict resolution, Prof. Peter Coleman is one of the most prominent leaders and thinkers. He has co-edited and authored several books on the subject matter, including The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice and his most recent book Making Conflict Work: Navigating Disagreement Up and Down Your Organization (September 2014).

He’s also the director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR) and the Executive Director of the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation Conflict, and Complexity (AC4 at The Earth Institute at Columbia).

Trained as a social psychologist and previously mentored by the renowned psychologist Morton Deutsch, Coleman brings his unique perspective to the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NECR) program at Columbia University.

We met with Prof. Coleman one spring morning at his office at the MD-ICCCR, housed at Teachers College. He discussed his approach to complexity and conflict, the interdisciplinary nature of NECR, and how he trains students to rethink solutions to intractable conflicts.

Can you talk a little bit about what makes the NECR program distinctive?

I think that the NECR program is a really great and really promising program. It draws students from all over the world who are interested in both science and practice. They want to go beyond theory – because that could imply ideas that you get while sitting on the couch. We believe in the power of ideas, but also the importance of empirical science to refine and develop those ideas, and, ultimately, in the application of those models in the real world. We have a scholar/practitioner approach. We really try to keep science and practice as close as possible.

In the course that you teach for NECR, what kinds of activities take place? Is it more theory-based, or more practice-based?

My course is really predominantly about ideas, research, and theory. In every class, I ask students to pre-read the material, and I present some fundamental ideas. There's a fair amount of discussion, and then oftentimes, there is an exercise of some type. It’s a way for them to experience what multicultural conflict looks like or feels like.

One of the assignments is to watch one of eight different films that are about conflicts. Students then try to apply a theory. I define theory as an arbitrary structure that you impose on chaos to make things meaningful and predictable. So I say, "Choose a theory from class, and then apply it to the film, and tell us, does it make the film meaningful and predictable?" That's one example.

Can you tell me about the research that you do on complexity and conflict?

For most of my career, I've studied difficult, long-term conflicts. These are what we call intractable conflicts, which happen in families, organizations, and across the world. Israel/Palestine is usually what comes to mind. About 10 years ago, I got some funding to convene a group of people to apply ideas from complexity science to understand why conflicts get stuck for so long. We already knew how to approach simpler conflicts – how to negotiate, how to mediate, how to use diplomacy.

But there's a small percentage [of conflicts] that just get stuck and are not responsive to those kinds of techniques, despite everybody's good faith attempts to solve these problems. Through the lens of complexity science, we started to study those clashes. We brought together an eclectic group of physicists, anthropologists, political scientists, and psychologists, to work together, talk together across disciplines, and use what we call dynamical systems, which are systems that have a lot of different pieces that are always interacting, and they evolve and change as they interact.

We also have a moral conflict lab. Beth Fisher-Yoshida has been involved in that work as well. These efforts are all related, in that we try to understand why these things get stuck, and what ideas from mathematics can help us understand that, and then how to do our research differently and how we might effect change differently, and in a more effective and sustainable way.