Reducing Conflict | Stats + Stories Episode 95 / by Stats Stories


Dr. Sara Cobb has a Ph.D. in Communication (UMASS Amherst) and is the Drucie French Cumbie Chair at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR) at George Mason University, where she was, from 2001-2009, the dean/director. In her current role as faculty she teaches and conducts research on the relationship between narrative and conflict. She is also the Director of the Center for the Study of Narrative and Conflict Resolution at S-CAR, which provides a hub for scholarship on narrative approaches to conflict analysis and resolution. She is co-editor of the journal Narrative and Conflict: Explorations in Theory and Practice

+ Full Transcript

John Bailer: I’d like to welcome you to today’s episode of Stats and Short Stories. Stats and Short Stories is a partnership between Miami University and the American Statistical Association. I’m John Bailer, Chair of the Department of Statistics at Miami, and I’m joined today in the studio by my colleagues, Rosemary Pennington, Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film. Richard Campbell, a Former Chair and Founding Chair of the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film. We’re happy to be joined today by Sara Cobb. Sara is the Drucie French Cumbie Professor in The School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution or S-CAR, George Mason University. She’s also the Director of the Center for Narrative and Conflict Resolution at George Mason. Now Sara, I want to ask you about the differences between conflict escalators and conflict transformers. What do you mean by positions or social orientations that may lead to more conflict, as opposed to those that might transform it?

Cobb: Okay, I think it’s a great question. My theoretical orientation, which is to conflict, which is, grows out of narrative theory and narrative practice, is anchored on this idea of positioning, positioning theory, basically. This is developed by Rom Harré, who is a fabulous philosopher, and a book he wrote some years ago called, Positioning Theory. He basically noticed that people get indexed, just like you would in a card, in a card catalogue. They get indexed in conversations, by the way in which they position themselves and how they are positioned by other people. So, we grew up in families where we’re indexed by our own family into a set of cultural stories and we get further indexed by how our parents might describe us, particularly, as oh, she’s so smart, or he’s so talented in sports, whatever. Those are all indexing. Those were all positioning. But in the context of, when we think about conflict, what we see are these indexing, these positionings by others that delegitimize people, and so people are index located in a moral space that’s fundamentally delegitimate, and let me tell you, nobody will tolerate that. Nobody puts up with it. Nobody. Only depressed people perhaps, but maybe very depressed people, but not nations, not identity groups, they won’t tolerate it. So, what people do is struggle to reposition themselves. So, they go to talk to their interlocutors, the others that have delegitimized them and say, no, no, you don’t understand, they make justifications, denials, and excuses, none of those are effective. So, the very things we do to reposition ourselves, to try to address the way we’ve been delegitimized, it’s like quicksand. The more we struggle, the deeper we get into it. So, then the question comes, how can we transform the dynamic that is now set in place as people struggled to reposition themselves after being delegitimized, and the question is, often they can’t, by themselves, get out of it, unless they’ve read Sara Cobb’s work and other people’s work. But for the most part, folks are not able to get out of it by themselves, so then we need third-parties of some kind to support the creating an environment, a process by which new kinds of conversation can take place, and in those conversations, and they can be formal mediations, or facilitated meetings, or dialogues, or formal negotiations even, that person with the third-party role can support this – the changes to the narrative space that enable, that reduce the de-legitimacy of the parties and increase the regard, or respect, or appreciation for the other. Now that sounds like kumbaya and it’s incredibly complicated work that can be done. We have the narrative tools to do it. And yesterday, for instance, I was at the Environmental Protection Agency giving a training on narrative approaches to conflict resolution, teaching people who are working often in super fun sites, how to engage the public in a way that reduces the conflict on the ground using these tools. They’re very effective.

Rosemary Pennington: So, if something escalates to violence, if you have this indexing and this sort of conflict over indexing, and it becomes violent, is there a way to dial back from the violence, or do you just have to let it run its course?

Cobb: No, no, no. There are ways of dialing it back, and I think there – you need an addition to, once the violence erupts, you need, not only narrative transformations, but you need other sorts of social processes like rituals. You may need TRC’s, you may need theatre, you may need a bunch of other things that help people talk about what happened.

Rosemary Pennington: What’s a TRC?

Cobb: Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So, you know, you may need processes to document what happened so that there’s some sort of legacy that’s anchored, a story that’s anchored about, this is what these people did to these other people, and you can’t get – you can’t pull back from the violence until there’s an established narrative that provides a historical anchor for what happened, but you still can support the evolution of the groups. I think if you look at what’s happened in South Africa that hasn’t been – there’s been not a, I wouldn’t say a total reconciliation, but we don’t have the kind of violence that we had in the 90’s. So, the same thing with the racism in the United States, we’ve got a lot more – we had an incredibly violent history in the United States that arose from racism, and we don’t have that anymore. We’ve got other – we still have persistent racism and perhaps in other forms, but we don’t have lynching’s anymore. So, I think that – I think you can come back from violence.

John Bailer: Well, Sara, thank you for sharing this incredibly important work. I think that you’ve outlined a number of aspects of aspirational activities for both society and for us at a local level, now I have to think about the fights that I’m going to have around the university in a different way.

Cobb: Yeah, get your narratives complex there.

John Bailer: I’m going to have to do some serious work on braiding these narratives together.

Cobb: Okay, great, wonderful.

John Bailer: So, that’s all the time we have for this episode of Stats and Short Stories. Sara, thank you so much for being here.

Cobb: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

John Bailer: It’s been great. Stats and Short Stories sis a partnership between Miami University’s departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism, and Film, and the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on Twitter, Apple Podcast, or other places where you can find podcasts. If you’d like to share your thoughts on our program, send your email to or check us out at, and be sure to listen for future episodes of Stats and Stories, where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.