Understanding Conflict Resolution | Stats + Stories Episode 89 / 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

Rosemary Pennington: Narratives can guide us through a confusing and often contradictory world, helping us make sense of everything - from politics, to family, to statistics. They can also help us make sense of, and move forward from, conflict and trauma. That's the focus of this episode of stats and stories, where we explore the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. I’m Rosemary Pennington. Stats and stories is a production of Miami University's departments of statistics and Media, Journalism, and Film, as well as the American Statistical Association. Joining me in the studio is regular panelist John Bailer, Chair of Miami Statistics Department, Media, Journalism, and Films, Richard Campbell is away today. Our guest today is Sara Cobb. Cobb is the Drucie French Cumbie Professor at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution or S-CAR at George Mason University. She's also Director of the Center for the Study of Narrative and Conflict Resolution at George Mason. Her research focuses on the relationship between narrative and violent conflict, but she not only studies narrative, she's also a practitioner who uses stories to help resolve conflicts, whether they are international, domestic or familial in nature. Sara, thank you so much for being here today.

Sara Cobb: It’s a delight! I am looking forward to the conversation.

Pennington: How did you get started in this area of research?

Cobb: Well, hiding under my desk, of course when I was ten years old.

Pennington: Oh wow!

Cobb: As people of my age were exposed to the threat of nuclear war, it sort of owes a big imprinting, right? And I came away from that experience thinking there must be some alternatives. And I was certainly interested in the relationship between language and social processes. So it was basically, just followed my nose through a degree in English, but that wasn’t practical enough and then got a degree in counselling and that was too (diosyncratic that was like Goldilocks, right?

Pennington: (Chuckles)

Cobb: And I finally landed on a PhD in communication where I could study the dynamics of power, as they are roll out in the context of conversations at all these multiple levels that you mentioned.

John Bailer: So if you're going to be studying something like this, it seems that you need to have some formal definition of all the ingredients of what’s part of conflict. So could you sort of just summarize those pieces for us?

Cobb: Well I can give you a little bit of the history of the definition, you know…

Bailer: Oh perfect!

Cobb: It has been from, let's say the fifties and sixties onward, when Game Theory really took hold. A question, it's understood as competing interests and then people have to figure out what sort of moves they're going to do and they're following their rational choices and it's basically the rational actor model writ large and that's still undergirds our negotiations today. It still is rampant in business and in law. So it was a very colonizing definition of conflict. In the nineties, with Bosnia and other sorts of identity based conflicts, we realized that it wasn't just about competing interests. It was about identity and how people understand themselves and whether or not they feel like they're going to be annihilated or safe and that people are navigating not rationally but on the basis of deeply held emotions and cultural norms. They are navigating their relationships with others and will fight to the death over, for their own survival and that of their culture and their identity group. So that was an entirely different definition of conflict. Now we go into the you know, after 9/11, a lot of the identity based, of course the rational actor model still holds, but the work that I do is more about the empirical dynamics of discourse and language and how it's mobilized, and on the basis of how it's mobilized, people do things. So I've been less interested in what goes on inside of, for instance, the cognitive space and more interested in what goes on in the empirical, observable space of the stories that people are telling.

Pennington: So how do…

Cobb: So let me just finish, so I think conflict is, from my perspective, the definition of conflict, it's about narratives that are mobilized that delegitimize others and they have certain characteristics and features. But it's a narrative, it's a narrative story.

Pennington: So how do you study this?

Cobb: Well, people do it in different ways. There's a lot of empirical work that's done on texts, but you have to have the text. So for instance, do we have the text of ISIS? Yes we do, actually! We can look at the publications they put out. But do we have the empirical data of their conversations with other people and how they frame themselves? No, we have their published material. So there's a flaw I think, in the data that's available for the work that I do, when I have to rely on, or we have to rely on material that's put out to market their perspective. So I try to rely on conversations, you know, either at the…oftentimes it’s at the…let's say the conflict in Africa or even in the United States, I do research on hate groups, and talking to people who belong to these groups, in conversations, watching them in conversations with others, as well as reading that materials. They're all…hat's all sources of data.

Pennington: Does social media help you at all, when it comes to trying to get at maybe the conversations that you might not have access to? I know several scholars who study, you know, ISIS use of things like telegram to sort of try to get at some of that ephemeral stuff, that you miss if you're not there and you can't, you know, be in the field?

Cobb: I do think it's a valuable resource. The Web and all the social media postings and all that, and you could look at conversations, again, not only ISIS but the hate groups in United States, and track the way in which they are interacting and engaging the folks from their own group, or people who have different opinions, so I am on right now, a conversation, that I don't know how I got on, around climate change. And a lot of people on there are very interested in changing the mind and the speech of someone on this list that's been “denying climate change”. And so I'm tracking that…we have - there's a lot of data, let me tell you this much. I don't know fifty, sixty e-mails on this list per day. So I do think there's enough conversation on that to get some good empirical data.

Bailer: I'm also interested in some of the work that…you've even done simulations.

Cobb: Yes I have.

Bailer: And I find that kind of cool, to think about setting up experimentally, these conflicts where we have these competing, us and other dyads and then you think about how this plays out. So I guess I would ask you, first, to describe kind of what is the Prisoner's Dilemma, which seems like part of the foundation of this, and how have you built on that to empirically explore the idea of resolving conflict?

Cobb: Well the Prisoner's Dilemma is a game theoretic concept that is built right… anchored on the rational choice model, right? So, this is what started in the fifties, sixties, I referred to that a minute ago. So, it's the idea that there is a set of moves that are possible for people and that if they compete, they may win big and if they collaborate, both parties will win, but maybe not as big. So the dilemma then, for the prisoners, is to decide whether to cooperate with the police, and hope that their sidekick, who is in a different cell will also cooperate with the police. But if they cooperate with the police on one side, and the other side does not cooperate, then the person that cooperates gets the better deal with the police, and the person who decided not to cooperate is going to go to jail for a longer term. So it's a rather tidy framework that allows us to look at and conceptualize moves in conflicts. But I think it's got, you know, big flaws. You know it's a problematic…doesn't mean I haven't used it, I do in my research, to set up prisoners dilemma games and then watch how people engage and interact in that, in simulations.

Bailer: So in one of your studies you did that with a housing authority and a set of renters.

Cobb: Yeah. It was very interesting. That was in Amsterdam. The city runs a housing authority and they had to repair some buildings that people lived in and the renter community who's in the buildings, well they want the repairs done, they don't want to move out and they want to regulate the circumstances under which these repairs are done. So it requires negotiation between the city authority and the renters and we ran that simulation. I've done that, that's a prisoner's dilemma game and we've done that many, many times around those simulations and at that particular study you're mentioning, I did this to track the nature of the narrative that appeared over the course of the simulation, and you know, there are some very scary findings that came out of that study. And that has since been replicated in other studies, and one is that once the stories become fundamentally aggressive, they do not…you can’t reroute those stories back to a more collaborative stance. And if you look at the implications of that, for the Middle East for instance, or North Korea and the rest of the world, we have a problem. Houston, you know we've got a big problem to figure out how that works. Now there is some research that's done by Peter Coleman. He's got something called the Difficult Conversations lab at Columbia University and they're trying to track, what’s for the evolution of these narratives towards a more collaborative stance. So we do have some good data about how that works and basically it's about increasing the complexity of the narrative, so that, then you're backing up, sort of what's the turtle under that, you know, what supports that. And it would be kinds of spaces where certain kinds of conversations can take place and they're facilitated in a particular way. But for instance, the State Department is not tracking how to set up those spaces, nor how to engage people so as to increase the complexity of the narratives. They're operating as though they're in a prisoner's dilemma game for instance, when they sit down with North Korea.

Pennington: I was watching a You Tube interview, you were with some…you were explaining, when people discuss issues around dialogue, they can often find it unproductive and say, it's not worth doing, it sort of seems like you're suggesting that dialogue can work when around conflicts, when narratives are complicated. What do you mean by complicating narratives?

Cobb: Well the problem that we have, what contributes to conflict, are our narratives that have very, very binary moral systems. You’re either this way, which is good or you're that way, which is bad. And indeed, most of us live in relatively grey lives, you know, morally, where we realize, we can, you know, we can embrace freedom, which is a wonderful value but we also like privacy, but we also like that obligation, we have to proceed as responsible citizens to our neighbors, and we like to be connected to them. So there's a lot of grey area in life and these conflict narratives have very, very binary moral systems, they’ve got very skinny plotlines, usually three to four events. So when somebody tells me a story about what happened and why it's bad, it's not a two hour story. It's literally two minutes because they've told it over and over and over and over again and it's become a caricature of itself. It's very short, so they're very simple plot lines and then the characters in the story are either good guys or bad guys. They are either victims or victimizers and that, the absence of gray in the way in which people present themselves usually they present themselves as perfect and the other as terrible. Nobody's perfect and to the extent that people can own some of their contributions to the conflict and to the extent that they can allow the other to be less than terrible, more than terrible, right, there can be something not just terrible but in fact human, we can alter the descriptions of the characters and that actually increases the complexity the narrative. So narrative complexity is about changing the characters so they're more complex, increasing the plot so it's more complex, and changing the value system so it's not binary.

Pennington: You're listening to stats and stories and today we're talking to George Mason University Sara Cobb about narrative conflict and trauma. Sara, just recently Viet Ten Nguyen was on campus, talking about sort of the ethics around memory, and War and conflict and raised this point in his talk about how our understandings of trauma and conflict are often impacted by sort of, where we are in the generational cycle. So he was talking about how you know, his family were refugees from the Vietnamese War, for his family, for his parents, you know, Vietnam was one thing that was traumatic, but for him it was a different kind of experience of trauma. And so in your work, do you explore different ways we experience trauma in conflict?

Cobb: Yes, absolutely. In fact I'm working on a research now on trauma. I'm doing with two of my graduate students. One of them has been working in Bosnia on women that lived through the Bosnian war, and you know, how they put their life back together and the struggles they had to do that. The other woman has been working with refugees in Miramar and she's been studying the experiences of the women and largely I.D.P.'s, right, people who had to leave their homes. And so what we're trying to do is, look at not just intergenerational differences, which I agree is so important, because the nature of the trauma is going to be related to the experience that people have. But I have a broader agenda and that is to, I guess, is to de-psychologize trauma. Again, my interest is to try to take it out of the heads of individuals, and to try to look at the way in which it lives, as a social narrative phenomena. And if you go back to the speaker you mentioned, who was talking about intergenerational trauma that is because the stories that he lived with as a child, are different than the stories that his parents lived with.

Pennington: Right, and he raises it in his talks too.

Cobb: Right, so for me, it's the empirical presence of the narrative landscape that people are in and how they navigate that landscape, that constitutes whether or not they've got access to agency. And of the fabulous book by Lawrence Langer called Holocaust Testimonies, that he actually makes the point back in the nineties, that most violence disrupts the capacity to tell the story. And that's the most traumatic of all, because now you can't even describe what happened to you, because you can't put together the sequence of events in a way that makes it make sense or that contains, or at least with certainty, so I think that's what's going on now in the United States around race. You know we've got the new Equality and Justice Museum down in Montgomery Alabama which I went last fall and there there's a lynching memorial and people are telling the stories of what happened and what that means to us now. And I just attended last week, in Lowndes County appear close to George Mason, a public event, a dialogue around lynchings that took place in Lowndes and they're going to request the memorial to come up from Montgomery Alabama and be placed in Lowndes and the whole community is talking about it and so it's this is a trauma that now just doesn't belong to the people that were lynched or their families but it's a set of stories about pain and suffering that hopefully will be attached to people doing things differently. And it's that conversion from a story of suffering and pain, to a story of possibility and agency, that's what we would call healing, right, at least that’s my definition of it.

Bailer: You know I find it really interesting to think of the idea of…by increasing narrative complexity, you decrease conflict in a system. I can't help but think that there's some reason that the simple story, binary moral configuration is in place, in part because it’s you know obviously if I think it seems like it's strengthening this in-group feeling, while it separates between groups, it may enhance in-group feeling. I find this to be just an incredible conundrum to try to think about how do you infuse this complex story into a system that may seem to value kind of the simplicity of the story?

Cobb: Let's take two conditions, one where…the first one studied by Varshney, who studied ethnic conflict in India and he found that in groups that had a high level of what he called associational ties, they did not have high levels of conflict. They didn't have ethnic violence and it was because just as you're saying, there was bridging across networks, what he called Bridging capital. And when you have high binding capital which just means within group strength of the bond, you're going to have more conflict, you know and that's what got the United States with these hate groups that have got high bonding capital and very little bridging capital. So I think then the second condition I'd like to name would be, the second problem we have is not just that those things exist but how do we strategize for their evolution, how do we undergo that dynamic and so for instance in the hate research group, a group research I'm doing, it's been very interesting. People said things to me like, I've never talked to a university professor before. I know you're on the left, I can tell if I look at your clothes and you've been really respectful or I meet with a group of you know very very evangelical ministers, white ministers who are basically white supremacists and believe in preserving the White race and they tell me things like well, we do believe in freedom, we do believe in our country, we do believe in our history of equality and yes, then they say it. You're right, these views are not in keeping with the history and the Constitution of the United States, but we're afraid. Then we can have a different conversation about fear and what they're afraid of and how they got that way. So I think that we don't have sophistication yet, I mean this research that we're doing at the center and other people are doing it as well, I'm not the only person in the world, all of the Franken candidates read this fabulous book called Letting Stories Breathe, you've got John Winslate and others that have been in the California state in San Bernardino, wrote a fabulous book on narrative mediation, but it's these narrativized perspectives that are anchored in the empirical data, that conflicts are up against the rational choice model. They're up against game theoretic constructions of conflict. So until we can penetrate the big institutions like Department of State, you know, USAID and the military…so I do work with the military as well, I do analysis of working for them and it's been super interesting to see how narratives can be used to track the changes people…the changes in the stories they tell during the course of the war game and that's been you know I guess what I'm saying is the point I'm making is that this is empirically doable but we don't have the bandwidth yet on helping institutionalize this kind of research. That's why I'm delighted to be on this podcast.

Pennington: I'm going to sort of switch gears just momentarily given that my journalist compadre is not here, you study conflict, you study stories. I'm a journalist and have had issues with coverage. What issues do you see in the way journalists cover conflicts and do you think that contributes to this sort of embrace of a more simplistic understanding of conflict?

Cobb: Very much so. There's been a lot of good research on that. There was an interesting article, I think I sent it to you, ahead of this podcast by a woman named Amanda Ripley and she did a study of how reporters don't go, they don't move towards increasing complexity of the narratives involved. So when people are telling these very shriveled stories, they just pick those up and reproduce them and their reproduction of those conflicts narrative is going to ripple out, let's say and increase their uptake in the social context they're in. So I do think they're not trained to do this and I think it's you know, it's about they're trained to report the facts.

Bailer: Well I think it’s…oh I'm sorry…

Cobb: Go ahead.

Bailer: I was going to say it sounds like amplification. It's a temptation, without digging in and sort of deconstructing. It seems that empathy is a major part of trying to tell these stories. I'm going to…I’d like to push a little bit on the…not push, but explore the idea of opportunities or successes in conflict resolution. So you’ve described the idea of braiding as being part of, as an idea for transforming conflicts in the public sphere, and so I'm just curious if you can, first describe a little bit about what you mean by braiding in a narrative and then how that might lead to a successful conflict resolution, particularly if there's an example of that.

Cobb: OK. Usually in a public conflict there's folks that are already entrenched in their own narrative, right? And that we could call a narrative strand. Each group has a strand, its own like a strand of hair that you're going to braid together. But before you get to the braiding part those strands have their own integrity, right? They've had history, they have cultural values in them and they have the experience of a group that's telling that story. So conflict resolution cannot aspire to altering those stories, to try to take away that history or change the core values or deny the experience. It can't do that. So in the field of conflict resolution when people talk about narrative they're always you know, they're often thinking about what they call a shared narrative, and the strategy has been to try to make people's stories coalesce, as though they're the same. And I'm arguing with this concept of narrative braiding, that there needs to remain the integrity of each of the strands of the stories that are involved in the conflict. But they can be articulated around each other at inflection points. So you can find, for instance, a place where groups, we did this work in Amsterdam, but I've done it also in Guatemala. You can find places where people share, let's say a value system, that's not completely overlapping but it has some elements in common. So in Guatemala the value system that was inflective was one where the government wanted to preserve the beauty of a given region and preserve the ruins that were in that region and they felt an obligation to do that act of conservation. And the Indigenous people that were living there also wanted to perform that function. They believed that they had a central role to play in that. They just wanted to do it differently. So that's not a shared narrative, that's an inflection point, around which peoples’ stories can get woven together or braided together. So it's this…you know, putting them up against each other, articulating them around some inflection point. It could be an event that’s an inflection point, right? A moment that everybody remembers was an important moment. In the United States it could be, you know, the Revolutionary War in the beginning of our country or something like that. You can find these places where people can…where there's something that they can do, that where you can, you know, make these stories come into relation with each other.

Pennington: Well Sara, that's all the time we have for this episode of stats and stories. Thank you so much for being here today!

Cobb: Well it was just a deep pleasure and very interesting and I certainly appreciate the invitation. Thank you.

Bailer: Thanks Sara!

Cobb: Okay.

Pennington: Stats and stories is 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 you can find podcasts. If you’d like to share your thoughts on the program, send your email to Statsandstories@miamioh.edu or check us out at statsandstories.net and be sure to listen for future editions of stats and stories, where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.