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After the War is Over: Group Dialog and Reconciliation

The following analysis is from Volume 3, Issue 3 of the Peace Science Digest.
Citation: Radnitz, S. (2018). Historical narratives and post-conflict reconciliation: an experiment in Azerbaijan. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 35(2), 154-174.

In the trajectory of a conflict, the post-violence (also: post-climax or post-war) phase is crucial in that it will determine how the conflict progresses. Will there be a path toward reconciliation or regression back toward destructive conflict? The author of this article asks how easy it is for people in a post-war setting to change their attitudes toward former enemies. The article aims to understand what takes place “after the smoke clears” by looking at how individual and collective memories are an impediment to reconciliation for many years, sometimes across generations. These kinds of collective memories are often created and upheld by one-sided nationalist narratives about the conflict, including victimization of the self and blame of the other. The “other” of the conflict then is often viewed through a negative stereotypical lens as a threat, and often dehumanized. It is in this context that the author investigates whether discussing the dominant conflict narratives can influence such attitudes. In other words, the author tests theories of prejudice reduction in post-war societies.

Collective Memory is the socially constructed memory held by any kind of social group—from an entire society to identity groups within a society. Multiple collective memories can be drivers of conflict and uphold injustice but also offer opportunities for healing and violence prevention.

The study specifically looks at the neighboring countries of Azerbaijan and Armenia, who fought a war in the 1990s characterized by intergroup animosity.  The research experiment involved identifying a sample of 308 adults from Azerbaijan with different demographic characteristics and then randomly assigning them to three different narratives about the conflict.  The first narrative emphasized placing blame on Armenia for its role in the conflict. The second one emphasized a common identity between the two sides based on their commonalities. The third one deflected blame onto a credible third party, in this case Russia. In addition, the participants were then assigned either to deliberate on their respective narratives alone in written form or to participate in small group discussions on their respective narratives with others. Attitudes were then measured by evaluating the participants’ beliefs about Armenians (common interests as well as stereotypes) and policies relating to reconciliation.

The following are key findings of the study. Contrary to what one might expect, not the tolerant but the blame-ridden narratives produced the most conciliatory attitudes. In addition, the group discussion setting was influential in impacting people’s perceptions.  The research thus has shown that even in engrained conflict situations, people can change their attitudes. The two main conditions for this to happen are: (1) the narrative gives people a source of blame they can identify with; and (2) this narrative is discussed openly in a group setting. The combination of what was said (blame-ridden narrative) with how it was processed (group discussion) allowed people to step outside the officially sanctioned narratives. Given that the blame and deflection narratives were consistent with previous beliefs and thereby validated these, people felt safe enough to elaborate on and develop more conciliatory attitudes. Moreover, the people in the group discussion were all from the same ethnicity in Azerbaijan. This suggests that there was a basic presumption of like-mindedness and mutual support, leading to an environment of trust in the discussion. This in turn can allow for deeper and broader engagement with the issue rather than resorting to the usual talking points directed at an outgroup. Such discussions then can influence attitudes in a more conciliatory direction.

Talking Points:

  • Conflict narratives emphasizing blame or deflection can, counterintuitively, contribute to more conciliatory attitudes, especially if individuals have an opportunity to discuss them with others they trust.
  • Conflict narratives emphasizing common identity between enemy groups do not necessarily contribute to more conciliatory attitudes, especially if they make individuals feel like their pre-existing conflict narratives are not being recognized.
  • By validating previous beliefs blaming the “other,” group discussions can enable like-minded people to feel safe enough to reflect inwardly and develop more conciliatory attitudes.

Contemporary Relevance:

At first glance, a study on a past conflict between the countries of Armenia and Azerbaijan might seem of little relevance to those not directly affected. The focus of this study, however, is crucial: what happens after the smoke clears? Most attention is given to conflicts when they are at their highest levels of escalation, namely war. However, with the cessation of hostilities and the signing of formal peace agreements, conflicts are far from resolved. The Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict is a so-called “frozen” ethnic conflict, resulting from the fall of the Soviet Union, where the relationships and attitudes between many of the people who experienced it are likewise frozen in a state of animosity and distrust. Normalizing relationships and reconciliation are at the far end of the conflict transformation spectrum and require deeper processes of structural and cultural peacebuilding. Insights, like those provided in this research, on how to foster attitude changes toward adversaries are exactly the ones that can contribute to these peacebuilding efforts. In this sense, the lessons from this study apply to many post-conflict situations, whether between nations or ethnic groups, or any other context where polarization has created hostile “us” and “them” groups.  On a cautionary note, we need to be careful with generalizations to avoid “cookie-cutter” solutions as discussed in our analysis “Overcoming Barriers to Effective Knowledge Sharing in Peace Research and Policy” (in this issue). These findings come out of a particular historical/political/cultural context which always needs be placed at the core of any resolution approach. In Azerbaijan, for example, informal networks and discussions like the one simulated in the laboratory experiment are common to the culture. Nonetheless, these findings can still make us think twice in other post-war contexts about simply assuming that conciliatory narratives will be those most conducive to conciliatory outcomes.

Practical Implications:

The insights from this study are useful for practitioners in the applied peacebuilding community. Whether involved as mediators or process facilitators, peacebuilding practitioners can adopt some clear steps in their work with stakeholders in conflict. First, contrary to the intuition of most conflict resolution professionals, conflict parties should be allowed to openly discuss blame (on the “other”) or deflection of blame (onto a third party) for the conflict. In doing so, conflict parties are not forced into another narrative that seems more conciliatory—that of a common identity among conflict adversaries—but instead are validated in their existing beliefs. This, according to the study, allows for greater introspection and deliberation on the existing narrative, leading to more conciliatory attitudes. Second, according to the findings of this study, conflict parties should be given the opportunity to deliberate on their dominant conflict narratives in discussions with other like-minded individuals, which can open up space for more conciliatory attitudes to emerge.  As with any other conflict resolution attempts, a clear and ongoing assessment of the conflict context must come before any approaches like these are brought to the table (see “Overcoming Barriers to Effective Knowledge Sharing in Peace Research and Policy” in this issue).

Continued Reading:

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