AN EXPERIMENT IN “PRACTICE TO THEORY” IN CONFLICT RESOLUTION
Proceedings Editors: Sandra Cheldelin, Christopher Honeyman,
and Maria R. Volpe
What don’t we know about conflict and its resolution?
What do we need to know?
How would we find out?
The articles presented in these Proceedings stem from a unique meeting, designed to raise these deceptively simple questions. The 2002 Hewlett Theory Centers* conference, held in New York in the spring of 2002, was organized to draw on the wisdom of some of the field’s leading practitioners, and to challenge scholars to create new theories, responsive to new needs.
This venture has been a four-way collaboration, including two theory centers — the City University of New York’s Dispute Resolution Consortium, housed at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in midtown Manhattan, and George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, in Fairfax, Virginia — and the Hewlett-funded Theory to Practice Project, based in Madison, Wisconsin, as well as the Foundation itself. (The Foundation, at the other organizers’ urging, did not take a funder’s usual hands-off role as to the details. Program Officer Melanie Greenberg became a primary organizer of the “international disputes” discussion which led to several of the contributions in these pages.) Previous meetings of faculty from the Hewlett centers often focused on the research agenda of a particular theory center, or on a circumscribed set of problems. We designed the 2002 discussions, however, around what a Theory to Practice steering committee member (Craig McEwen) had defined as scholars’ broad-based need for improved “question-finding.” We hoped to examine and develop broad links between very different ways of studying and addressing conflict, by drawing from the rich and multifaceted examples of conflict characteristic of New York City, one of the world’s most diverse and international settings.
The planning process — a two-year series of complex and detailed discussions — began well before the events of September 11, 2001. It goes without saying that subsequently, 9/11 and its aftermath became the dominant underlying theme in much of the work of the conference. Because we believed that the knowledge, experience, perceptions and ideas of a number of domains of activity are at present not fully integrated into conflict resolution as a general field, we enlisted a particularly diverse group of contributors in the design of our agenda, and narrowed our focus to four “communities of conflict” in which New York provides a rich selection of real-life examples. From these, we sought to generate significant discussions, reflections, and the creation of new directions for knowledge-seeking.
Three areas of focus that emerged from our discussions were race relations and ethnic conflicts; dispute processing used by police — particularly hostage negotiators in New York City; and conflicts within and around the United Nations family of organizations. One significant change occurred, as our original fourth “community of conflict” — corporate disputes — gave way to a focus on 9/11 and its aftermath. But throughout, we were particularly interested in the possibilities of mixing people from a variety of fields of conflict, to see if unexplored themes emerged, and we designed the meeting with as much interdisciplinary, small-group discussion time as possible.
We believe this interdisciplinary focus has strongly influenced the writings that resulted. Because one of our goals has been to encourage others to convene meetings that will create a really cross-disciplinary dialogue throughout the many subfields that make up “conflict resolution” we will give a brief summary of our approach here, and we also invite readers interested in the “nuts and bolts” to review the articles and comments in Section IV. of this site.
The meeting was designed around four sessions of roughly a half-day apiece. In each session, we began with a plenary discussion, in which practitioners of rich experience were cast as “answerers,” with an interdisciplinary panel of scholars recruited to prepare questions. (Panels of “questioners” were chosen to balance the strengths of the Theory Centers with the in-depth knowledge of scholars based in New York-area institutions.) Each session also included discussion time in small subgroups (mixed as to types of experience), sized to ensure a rich and thoroughly interactive discussion. The first session used the experiences of current and former Chief Hostage Negotiators of the NYPD, and of the New York office of the FBI, as the basis for investigating where our theories of conflict and its resolution may, as yet, be inadequate for understanding conflict where the threat of violence is immediate, or where other types of extreme stress alter the “usual” patterns.
The meeting then turned to an examination of ways of defining what we need to know, but don’t, about conflict within and between communities where there are strong identity differences involved. We used as the main backdrop the experiences of a diverse cross-section of New York-area clergy, whose collective experience included conflict based as much in race, class, ethnicity and gender, as in religion as such. The third session addressed what we can learn from the United Nations’ work around the world to prevent and manage intractable conflict. We examined how we frame intractable conflict, how we think about international intervention in ongoing violent conflict, and how the work of the United Nations dovetails (or not) with the diplomatic, NGO and academic communities working in intractable conflict situations.
The final session sought to draw together elements of the previous three, since the events and issues surrounding 9/11 seemed to demand that they be considered in light of community, religious, ethnic, racial, and international disputing — all under great stress. The invited “answerers” represented Muslims against terrorism; the Special Master charged by Congress with establishing a prompt and fair compensation scheme for the most direct victims of the attacks; and the experience of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict — i.e. three very different perspectives on what 9/11 might be considered to be “about.”
The outpouring of ideas at and after this conference was gratifying. About twenty articles are published in these Proceedings. Another fifteen are published in the October, 2002 issue of Negotiation Journal, a special issue on the results of this conference; and in the forthcoming January, 2003 issue, Negotiation Journal will publish an “In Practice” section focused on “Intractable Conflict from the Bottom Up,” including articles by Harold H. Saunders, David M. Malone, and Robert A. Baruch Bush, all of which also evolved from the Hewlett Centers meeting.
In total, the result of the Hewlett Centers’ gathering has been a rich interplay of ideas between professionals with very different backgrounds — including police who work as hostage negotiators, clergy from diverse faiths, diplomats, lawyers, and a matching array of scholarly specialties. This, we hope, might constitute something of a template for future discussions in a field which often claims to be “interdisciplinary,” but in which that term has often been interpreted to mean a somewhat restricted frame of reference. We believe the articles published here and in Negotiation Journal speak for themselves, and that discussions constructed to ensure a rich andtruly interdisciplinary interchange should become the norm in conflict resolution, if “our field” is to achieve its true potential.
It is intrinsic to the Theory Centers structure that what scholars think matters: What they discover, or fail to discover, has consequences in the “real world.” In responding to our request that those who were invited to the meeting consider writing something new in the wake of it, our colleagues were free to focus on any session(s) as source material, and any thematic direction, that most drew them. We hope that readers of these Proceedings — concerned as they typically will be with the direction and prospects of a still half-formed field — will find the results thought-provoking and even compelling.
* The theory centers constitute a complex structure for intellectual inquiry. Beginning in 1982 with the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, there are now eighteen such centers, interdisciplinary programs at a number of leading colleges and universities around the United States. For a list, see http://www.colorado.edu/conflict/hewlett/index.html