“Devoted” Conflict Actors Are Not “Rational” Actors
The participants in intractable conflicts are not “rational” actors; they are, as Scott Atran explains, “devoted” actors. Intractable conflicts are intergroup conflicts and are on the rise. The actors use a logic of identity (I must preference the maintenance of my identity) rather than a logic of consequences (I must maximize my gains) and thus set into motion the construction of ingroup-outgroup distinctions that produce communicative distortions (e.g., false polarization, stereotypes, and attribution errors) and generate misunderstanding and confusion at best, and violence at worst. Identity conflicts and the chauvinism that accompanies them are a major obstacle to peace and a major challenge to a liberal society based on pluralism and respect for differences. The most typical explanation for these ethnic conflicts is Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis which is seen as replacing the competition between communism and capitalism with fault lines attributable to ethnoreligious groups. These are intergroup conflicts that require changes in how members of communities interact and perceive one another. Such conflicts are particularly defined by intense ethnic and religious forces and are a recent and virulent form of group conflict.
Divided societies have been studied in an effort to understand their causes and possibilities for resolution. Accordingly, analyses of psychology, economics, politics, and security dilemmas are typical. But a few exceptions notwithstanding , the role of communication has received less attention. There has been a strong tradition of using rational choice theories to explain these conflicts along with social psychologically informed research tradition. Security studies and economic theories represent a second and third strand of research each of which draws on rational choice theoretical assumptions. Rational choice theoretical models assume that group behavior is driven by the consequences of a reward- cost payoff. The utility maximization assumption has been criticized as expecting humans to be cyborg-like maximizers assuming decisions are made in a world of perfect information, when they are not, and failing to understand humans as creative information processors that are subject to more than rational forces. Identity and cultural processes are at the heart of group conflicts and it is essential to explore how culturally constructed identities connect individuals through perceived common experiences. These connections, which are communicative contact links, organize behavior and are responsible for interpreting reality in such a way that conflicts can be mitigated.
Communication is central to understanding and working with these intractable conflicts for four reasons. First, communication is elemental to the conflict; microlevel interactions structure behavior, and actors in intractable conflicts think about the communication process. They strategize, discuss, and manipulate symbols, all in an effort to control others and define themselves. The significant meanings of these conflicts do not reside in individuals but are accomplishments of the participants driven by social and political circumstances. Secondly communication is relevant to both micro and macro levels of society. At the micro-interactional level people argue, persuade, inform, and develop relationships. And then these interactions accumulate into macro structures such as institutions, media systems, and cultural forces that constrain behaviors with respect to racism, sexism, prejudice, and a host of other cultural stereotypes and distortions. These symbolic processes of communication are what bind individuals to political systems. Third, simplistic communication processes cannot resolve intractable conflicts; we know conflicts require interaction. Diplomacy, dialogue, mediation, negotiation and any form of conflict resolution is fundamentally communicative in nature. It is the communication process that reaches across cultural divides and provides the mechanisms by which conflicts are processed. Finally, modern intractable conflicts are ethnopolitical in nature and identity conflicts. They are deeply symbolic and complex with unclear boundaries. Such conflicts require deeper communicative engagement designed to widen the circle of identity and inclusion.
These processes are not naïve or soft, they are the requirements of problem solving.