How Group Level Conflict Is Changed by Interaction Rituals
Ethnopolitical conflicts are pervasive in a culture and involve a relationship between locally situated parties and larger groups. The conflict is perceived as both an interpersonal problem and a group level problem. Attempts to resolve these conflicts are significantly at the interpersonal level in the form of communicative contact experiences that seek to change relationships in the hope that such changes will find their way to group levels. If intergroup contact of any sort (problem-solving groups, dialogue groups, civil society) is going to claim efficacy then there must be some principled relationship between interpersonal interactions and the larger world of social structure. This calls to mind work by Giddens on the relationship between communicative interactions and the pre-existing structural world (e.g. “culture,” “ethnicity”). Sociologists refer to this as the micro-macro link and the connections between the real-time world of individuals and the larger world of social structure. Conflict resolution experiences rely on interdependence between forms of interpersonal communication and broader group goals. For example, communicative contact between conflicting groups can have multiple goals. One goal can be immediate and concern change or attitude adjustment on the part of those participating in the communicative encounter, while a broader goal is concerned with the relationship between the communicative encounter and the conflict as a whole. Israeli and Palestinian high school students, for example, might interact in order to appreciate each other’s values and culture, and then have mechanisms to return to their home communities to transfer their experiences and widen the impact. A macro category such as “Israeli” or “Palestinian” serves as a shorthand for numerous micro communication and cultural behaviors. This leaves room for definition and change of meaning.
The term interaction ritual from Goffman refers to the motivations, resources, and messages of language users who are parties to conflicts to produce histories, cultural content, and stored memories. Ethnopolitically divided groups distort these processes on the basis of attribution errors, incompatible narratives, interpretive disjunctions, incomplete scripts, biased indexicality, and perceptual biases thereby producing dangerous, damaging, and inaccurate macro categories. Some interaction ritual chains (e.g. mutual victimization claims) are counterproductive and circulate in the larger community thereby perpetuating the conflict. Controlled encounters designed for positive change have new interaction rituals as a goal. A category for the other group such as “violent,” “backward,” “manipulative,” “deceptive,” or “rigid” contain the reality that lives in the network of communicative relationships. By changing the interaction rituals and activating the network of communicative relationships it’s possible to alter the group’s reality and alter the categories of meaning that sustain the intensity of the conflict. Macro categories of meaning (gender, ethnicity, group identification) are enfolded into individuals and displayed in communicative practices. Biased meanings are thus easily foregrounded in the context of ethnopolitical conflicts.
For example, one of the macro meaning categories for intractable conflicts in general, and the Israelis and Palestinians in particular, is “victimhood.” (See Eidelson and Eidelson for more on victimhood.) Victimhood is that state where groups feel a loss or sense of insecurity and diminished self-worth because of aggressive outsiders. Each group feels as though victimhood correctly characterizes their condition. Third person affects and group level perceptions supports the notion that even when individuals do not feel victimized, they believe that victimization characterizes their group. Typically, ethnopolitically divided groups argue about who has suffered more and “compete” for the most victimized status. The macro category “victim” serves as a short hand for a compilation of micro-experiences. Talk in localized contexts produces interaction ritual chains that circulate like capital between micro-and macro levels of reality. By changing the interaction rituals group members can change the nature of the circulating symbolic capital. Just as the label describing someone’s personality (e.g., friendly, aggressive, authoritarian) is an encapsulation of interaction encounters, so too are macro descriptive terms of group experiences. Conflict resolution is about changing communicative relationships in micro-contexts so that the phenomenological reality of the concept changes at the macro level.