Oliver Fink (University of Basel), has been a researcher in Prof. Eran Halperin’s ‘Psychology of Intergroup Conflict and Reconciliation’ group at the Hebrew University Jerusalem for the last three years. He studies the intergroup processes that maintain intractable conflict. His work was supported by the WeContribute Foundation.
Kai: Oliver, your research into the emotions of intergroup conflict follows a growing trend in International Relations. What makes this research so interesting?
Oliver: Since my time as humanitarian aid worker in Africa’s Great Lakes Area, I have been fascinated by the dynamics of intractable conflicts. Even during my career in organisational psychology and human resources, I kept following what’s going on in this field. New lines of research around group emotions and emotion regulation were being established. At some point I thought ‘it’s now or never,’ and got in contact with the most relevant research group, and I was lucky: they accepted me. Thanks to the funding from WeContribute, I was able to engage on a fascinating journey of exploration and discovery.
My research investigates the emotional mechanisms of asymmetric intractable conflict, especially violent collective action during times of escalation for the so called ‘low-power group’. Basically, we ask the question: “What exactly goes on in the hearts and minds of Palestinians in the face of negative conflict events?” This question is currently especially relevant, as the whole ‘annexation’ discussion is heating things up again. Our results help explain seemingly ‘irrational’ conflict behaviour and lay the foundation for conflict transformation approaches.
Kai: Untangling these processes is everything but straight forward. What is the biggest challenge for you to tackle these questions?
Oliver: Indeed, the challenges are the intractability and complexity of conflict dynamics. So many factors are involved, but as a scientist, you have to limit yourself to a small subset that you can really measure well, and control effects. Fortunately, I have many talented colleagues at our research group tackling different aspects of this maze. While I have mainly focused on the Palestinian perspective for various reasons, they look into the equally important Israeli viewpoint, with its own complexities due to the great diversity of population groups within Israeli society.
I also have been drawn to ‘real’ fieldwork in contrast to more experimental laboratory approaches. This poses its own challenges, especially in the Palestinian Territories, for example in terms of access and trust.
Kai: Your research is pushing the boundaries of our knowledge about conflict, via interdisciplinary approaches. How do you, as a ‘career changer,’ stay abreast and develop your working hypothesis?
Oliver: It is of course crucial to read the current publications and to attend scientific meetings whenever possible. One great example here is the very interdisciplinary Basel Peace Forum (https://basel-peace.org/2020/), where we have been present the last few years. I also stay up-to-date and develop new ideas by exchanging and discussing ideas with other scientists. Having been accepted in an excellent research group is a huge privilege; I learned a lot in the last three years.
Also, I was always intrigued by the applied side of research and scientific fieldwork. I think we should aim to prove the usefulness and relevance of our work ‘on the ground’, so I was involved in concrete grassroots projects in a ‘scholar-activist’ tradition, which again gives useful input into one’s scientific work.
Kai: So, why not an applied project? In what ways can you as a basic scientist contribute?
Oliver: Before any intervention we should try to understand underlying conflict dynamics better. As a former aid worker, I still have the so-called “do-no-harm principle” ingrained in me. There are many examples in social psychology where we were surprised by experimental results, so ‘blind’ interventions can easily backfire. ‘Well intended’ can be the opposite of ‘well done’.
But overall, for example when you look at the data of the ‘Copenhagen Consensus’, peacebuilding could be so much more effective compared to other disciplines. Esther Duflo and her colleagues won the Nobel Prize in Economics last year for her work on evidence-based methods to fight poverty. Tackling conflicts is such a relevant topic – especially in the Middle East – that it’s absolutely worthwhile that we aim for the same high standards in peace and conflict work.
Kai: What motivates you to pursue these challenging questions?
Oliver: Personally, I come from the Christian peace-making tradition, like the Quakers or Mennonites. Making a difference in a messy world entrusted to us, to the best of our capabilities, is a relevant mandate for me to engage in. I think especially as Christians we have a responsibility for reconciliation between different people-groups, and it seemed much more relevant to me than the career I was pursuing before. When you look for example at data from the aid organisation Save the Children, you face heart-breaking realities. One in six children worldwide is now living in areas affected by conflict, and over the last thirty years, this number has increased by 75%. These trends are especially relevant to the Middle East. Two in five children in the Middle East live in a conflict zone, which is the highest rate globally.
To end with a more local story about my motivation: not many people know that here in lovely Zurich, ‘Bellevue’ got its name because it allowed such a beautiful viewpoint from which to watch the Anabaptists being drowned in the Limmat in the sixteenth century. Several years ago, I witnessed a large reconciliation meeting between American Anabaptists and the Swiss Reformed Church. Sometimes things take a long time, but it was a very moving experience.
Kai: The funding situation in research is not always easy; publishing results takes a lot of time. How do you stay motivated?
Oliver: The type of research we are doing is indeed complex and takes a long time. Already during my time in Eastern Africa, I was in contact with a group of very committed local peacebuilders, doing grassroots initiatives, sometimes at great personal cost and with little funding. They were a true inspiration.
Our time as a family in the Holy Land has been a deeply fascinating experience on so many levels. My wife worked in a Palestinian-German school; our children were exposed to both cultures. We met great people and developed lasting friendships – on both the Palestinian and the Israeli side. That alone is its own reward.
Kai: Let’s look a bit closer at your actual research results. Is it true that the deepest root of outbreaks of violence within groups which are oppressed by a more powerful group is the feeling of humiliation? If so, what lessons should the Israeli policy establishment learn and apply from this?
Oliver: Several researchers suggest indeed that Humiliation is overall the most crucial emotion, especially in the Palestinian context although there is an ongoing debate about emotional roots of violence with for example combinations of Anger or Hatred as other prominent contestants. In our own research in the Palestinian context, Humiliation seems extremely important in predicting violent action under conflict escalation experienced as provocative or insulting. These findings are especially relevant in the light of the current annexation discussion.
In principle it’s not difficult to take our findings into account – “Don’t humiliate people”, but the Israeli society – as can be seen by three recent election rounds – is itself very divided and polarized. Therefore, the use and consideration of emotions in Israeli politics is mainly targeted at an Israeli audience, taking the Palestinian side into consideration is not on their agenda.
Kai: What do you think the national project or goal of the Israeli political establishment is vis-à-vis the Palestinian population? How do you think they intend to achieve the desired results? And what specific advice would you give to Israeli officials in regards to achieving its goals, in light of your research results?
Oliver: Many Israelis – especially now – are occupied by their own problems beyond the Palestinian cause and are hardly exposed to the Palestinian society and perspective. When I started here, I completely underestimated how varied the Israeli society is, so there is a wide range of goals due to an incredibly diverse society. If we look again at emotions, arguably the most important emotion in the Israeli context is fear, which is counter-intuitive when thinking about its enormous military and economic power, but results in strong needs for security and according action.
As the high-power group in this conflict they will outmanoeuvre the Palestinians easily on all possible levels, the question is at which cost. My home entity in Switzerland, SwissPeace, is advocating for a ‘light-footprint’ approach in peacebuilding. My research indicates that a light footprint approach in conflict management might be equally beneficial for everyone.
I find the power of advice very limited though, as the responsibility for implementation stays always with the decision maker. Borrowing from concepts like prefigurative politics or some of the Eastern European dissenters against communism, I prefer to model the change I want to see in my own realm of responsibility.
Kai: Would you agree or disagree with the following statement: The driver of long-term, intractable conflict generally is rooted in contrasting identitarian narratives, including both the narrative of each side about “us” and the narrative of each side about “them,” and the conflict cannot be ended, resolved, or changed significantly in character unless the root narratives are changed?
Oliver: Understanding narrative and identity of the conflict parties is equally crucial in intractable conflict and several research groups are collaborating with us that have specialised in this and there are very useful joint publications.
Some of my work on behavioral change of former violent activists touches on both of these topics, but I’m far from an expert. Narratives build over a long time though, based on concrete experiences – I can’t just say ‘here I have a better one, now you all apply it’. The advantage of working with emotions is, that in contrast to narratives and identity they are fluctuating much more and therefore might be an easier target for regulation processes.
Kai: Is there a dominant meta-narrative, situating each people-group within a stable ‘us’ and ‘them’ framework, that you think could achieve enduring global peace if all people-groups of humanity adopted it – and which is non-sectarian and realistically compatible with the great diversity of human cultures?
Oliver: There is experimental proof that you can have effects when framing certain principles for example ‘general humanity’ in contrast to more ‘tribal’ (in the wider sense) identities. In the real world it gets more difficult though, as these meta-frames for example religion or national values can potentially turn as well into sectarian and divisive uses as history has shown. Humans seem to be prone to fight and separate or even individualize themselves from bigger entities, the challenging question is how we do this…
Kai: Is there any specific set of practical structured reconciliation exercises that you know of, perhaps an existing framework that has a ‘brand-name’ or a leading practitioner, which can take almost any two people from ‘opposing’ sides in a conflict, and lead them to mutual respect and an openness to conciliation? Please be specific – the intent of the question is to recommend to would-be peace-workers a known method that is especially effective when applied.
Oliver: Reconciliation is very important to me personally, but also a complex and difficult endeavour. We have to start from the ‘heart’ rather from a ‘technique’ in our approach. Intractable conflicts are so ‘loaded’ that interventions can easily backfire if discovered as ‘gimmick’ without real interest by the other side [“Why do you try to talk me out of my fully justified emotions?”]. Empathy is studied a lot in this context, unfortunately it is notoriously elusive and very difficult to induce for people who want to resist.
In terms of a technique, there is interesting work not from researchers but writers and activists on relatively simple approaches like mutual storytelling, that seem quite promising. As the so-called ‘high power group’ has very different psychological needs, namely harmony, compared to the ‘low-power group’ which reaches out to justice, this approach could achieve a mutual awareness of these needs. Our research in the Palestinian context shows that what we call ‘respectful encounter at eye level’ can have incredible effects, not as technique but as attitude towards other human beings. We are also just starting a fascinating research project together with the Kelman Institute, evaluating how to talk constructively about conflict, which hopefully brings further clarity and more nuanced results into this complex issue.
Kai: What is the role of thought-leaders or political leaders in achieving reconciliation? If the leaders of two peoples agree to make peace, perhaps after going through practical structured reconciliation exercises (as per the previous question), does that suffice to lead to peace?
Oliver: Conflict transformation needs to happen not only at the top but throughout the whole society. If you have the leaders on board, great, but normally you have to start with different people. An important Israeli peace researcher once said: “The process of psychological change almost… [always] begins with a small minority and continues with a slow process of unfreezing and changing beliefs and attitudes.” So, you have to start on a small scale with the ones that are open to it on the ‘fringes of society’ even if national leaders are not on board. Despite polarization tendencies in the Middle East and all over the world, this ‘work on the fringes’ is also happening and we could play a small part in it in the Israeli-Palestinian context, let’s see what the future brings.
Kai: What specific advice would you give to civil-society would-be peacemakers looking to make a significant difference in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Oliver: Don’t come with solutions, come with honest questions. Listen to people in their difficult circumstances, not necessarily their concrete answer – if they knew the solution, they would have applied it ages ago – and discover their context. The problem is that it is very difficult to stay open to the narrative of both sides equally, which is what we specifically tried in our approach and hopefully achieved tiny steps in the right direction. And speaking as a scientist – validate your approaches empirically before you start and evaluate your programs for impact. As I said before, “well intended is not always well done”.