THE MANY PATHS TO CONFLICT KNOWLEDGE: SURMOUNTING INFORMATION OVERLOAD


CONFLICT RESEARCH CONSORTIUM

Working Paper 94-70, July, 1994

By Paul Wehr, Guy Burgess, Heidi Burgess, Marty Gonzales

Department of Sociology

Conflict Research Consortium

University of Colorado at Boulder


This paper was written with a small grant from the Conflict Resolution Consortium, University of Colorado. Funding for the Consortium and its Small Grants Program was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The statements and ideas presented in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Conflict Resolution Consortium, the University of Colorado, or the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail: crc@cubldr.colorado.edu.


Copyright (C) 1994. Conflict Research Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.

Funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the University of Colorado, the Conflict Resolution Consortium is a coordinated program of research, education and application on three of the University's four campuses. The program unites researchers, educators, and practitioners from many fields for the purposes of theory-building, testing, and application in the field of conflict resolution. Current focus areas include international conflict; environmental and natural resource conflict; urban, rural, and inter-jurisdictional conflicts; and the evaluation of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.

WORKING PAPERS

The Conflict Resolution Consortium working paper series includes a variety of papers written by our members as a part of their research. Usually these papers are in preliminary draft stage and are being prepared for eventual publication in professional journals or books. Other papers record discussions from Conflict Resolution Consortium seminars and plenary presentations.

The purpose of the working paper series is to generate a dialogue about the work presented. Readers are encouraged to respond to the papers either by contacting the author directly or by contacting the Consortium office.


ABSTRACT

Both those who study and those who practice conflict resolution must struggle with an enormous volume of written information. The theoretical and methodological literature on conflict resolution must be made more accessible to researcher and practitioner users. Concentrat ing on the literature concerning racial and ethnic conflict, the authors discuss a number of computer-guided pathways to conflict-relevant knowledge that could reduce informa tion overload and maximize a user's return on investment in literature searching. Broad, medium and narrow search strategies are discussed that assist a user in identifying and locating the core knowledge in the field.

INTRODUCTION

This paper explores strategies for making peace and conflict research more accessible and usable by researchers and practitioners confronting difficult and violent conflicts. Many of us have long been involved in research intended to support the creative resolution of social and interna tional conflicts. To our disappointment, little of that research has found its way into practice. Yet the volume of conflict research continues to expand. Journals proliferate, papers inundate, databases suffocate, literature of every sort floods researcher and practitioner alike. The resulting information overload causes researchers and practitioners to ignore useful research because they lack the time to find or read it. To render the vast array of knowledge accessible and useable, we must find new ways to glean and focus it for conceptual and practical utility. That is the central problem we address in this essay.

Although the record of conflict research being effec tively applied has not been good, we believe that important social scientific ideas could be usefully applied if properly modified and effectively presented to those who might use them. Would not viewing conflict as a transaction process through the lenses of Homans'(2) or Emerson's(3)

exchange theory enhance negotiation and mediation strategies and tactics? Might not conflict management specialists find considerable gain in distinguishing the functional and dysfunctional aspects of a particular conflict episode or structure, then building an intervention strategy around the former?(4) Might not confrontation be more productively structured with insight from the interaction frameworks of Goffman(5) and Collins(6)? Could not conflict be more effec tively studied and managed with a wider understanding of escalation processes and how to moderate them?(7)

This paper presents some methods of knowledge presentation, organization, and retrieval that we have tested and used. They can be easily implemented by conflict researchers and practitioners to overcome information overload. With readily available, inexpensive computer systems and telecommunication technologies, researchers and practitioners can use these techniques to find literature relevant to their particular needs.

We also explore here some information exchange approaches on the horizon—techniques not yet widely used, but promising for addressing the information overload and research application problems. These methods would permit both more efficient information retrieval and better knowledge exchange. Ideally, we envision a two-way flow of information between practitioners and researchers. Practi tioners would identify problems for future research, share their experiences with different approaches for case study and evaluation, and suggest improvements in conflict resolution processes. Researchers, in turn, would contribute theoretical insights which clarify conflict processes; system atically evaluate when and why intervention methods work and do not work; and develop more efficient ways for making such information available to users. With such an exchange between researchers and practitioners, conflict resolution effectiveness could be enhanced.

INFORMATION OVERLOAD

The Problem

Our interest in the problem of information overload and research utilization has been stimulated by our work to develop a conflict resolution database at the University of Colorado. Originally intended to contain the most impor tant and useful literature in the peace and conflict fields, the database now contains over sixty thousand entries.(8) Scanning it reveals much valuable information. Yet it's sheer volume discourages potential users, and makes it difficult to manipulate. They cannot read everything in it, even on a fairly narrow topic. How does one distinguish the relevant from the rest? How does one use this bibliography, and others like it, to find exactly the information one needs?

The problem is exacerbated by the so-called informa tion superhighway. Global search capabilities and inexpen sive electronic publishing is making more and more information available every day. However, without organiza tion, the information superhighway is becoming much like the Los Angeles freeways at rush hour. Much effort is wasted as scholars sift through masses of information in search of the core literature which, from their perspective, really matters. Precious intellectual and material resources are wasted as people repeatedly "reinvent the wheel." Likewise, in the field, practitioners working with difficult conflicts may fail to take advantage of available knowledge because they do not have time to carefully review all the research that might be relevant to a particular case. There is simply too much information—with too little organiza tion—for users to find what they need or to master the core knowledge of a field. In the social sciences, if we cannot reduce the volume of information, we can at least design better ways to synthesize it, eliminate duplication, and make it more accessible to users at minimal cost.

The Solution: Better Highways, Better Signs

Just as the Los Angeles freeway system needs improve ment, the social sciences need better "highways" to obtain information with better signs to guide travellers to what they need. These signs should enable scholars and practitio ners to easily find information which serves their immediate purpose. The system should allow travellers to search the literature base, find publications of potential interest, and quickly review them for applicability to the immediate task. It would help if such a search system could also identify sections within publications which dealt with particular topics.

There are several computer methods which perform these search, retrieval, and review functions, but combining them in a workable system would be a formidable task. As a feasible alternative, we suggest a series of intermediate steps opening a set of windows to allow users to focus upon those aspects of the core knowledge most useful for their work.

MAKING THE LITERATURE MORE ACCESSIBLE AND USABLE: THE RACIAL AND ETHNIC CONFLICT BIBLIOGRAPHY PROJECT

A Pilot Effort

As an initial test of our ideas, we developed a limited bibliography of the racial and ethnic conflict literature. Our approach would be valid for any other subset of the conflict literature as well. We focused our pilot effort on racial and ethnic conflict for two reasons. First, it has current promi nence in national and global affairs. Second, we, ourselves, did not know that literature well and wished to. Like others reviewing a particular literature, we were unfamiliar with many of the key authors and ideas. In addition to needing to know more about the substantive topic, we wanted to learn how we could access those ideas most quickly and effectively.

In this project, we were confronted with three prob lems: 1) identifying the key literature; 2) organizing the knowledge it contained for easy accessibility for researchers, teachers and practitioners; and 3) disseminating the knowledge rapidly and economically to each of those groups. Our preliminary efforts produced a 57-entry bibliography and a companion computer file, Ethnic Conflict: A Pilot Core Bibliography.(9) In it's current form, this document will be most useful to those researching and teaching about racial and ethnic conflict. We have begun to develop ideas about ways to make the knowledge more accessible to practitioners as well, and this paper will present a number of them.

The Literature Base

Critical to the retrieval of useful knowledge is the distinction between the literature base and the core litera ture. The literature base is the full set of literature available on a particular topic. As shown in Figure 1, it might best be portrayed as a large and intricate web of interrelated information. The ethnic and racial conflict literature base is a subfield of the larger base of conflict and peace research literature. It is supplemented by literature in other subfields, for instance mediation, international studies, nonviolent action, and so on, all of which contain distinct, yet overlapping, sets of knowledge.

Within the racial and ethnic literature base are five interrelated components: theory, case studies, data, theory testing, and theory application. There is much overlap of these five components with similar ones in each of the other subfields. One goal here is to explore how the literature in one subfield might be made more accessible and useful to those familiar with that in another.

The Core Literature

As in any discipline or subfield, so much research is now being published on racial and ethnic conflict that researchers and practitioners cannot read everything. They need a way to distinguish the essential ideas from ones that duplicate, supplant, or are peripheral to their immediate problem. We define the core literature as that which presents the most succinct statements of a field's key ideas. Our intent is not to exclude ideas, but to make those generated by the field more accessible. Thus, a key goal in separating the core literature from its larger base is to eliminate duplication of ideas. The core literature contains the crucial material everyone working in that field should know. Figure 2 shows

the core as an inner, dark circle, with the full literature base being the outer white circle. Both the core and the literature base have the same five components—theory, theory testing, theory application, case study, and data. But the core is much more focused, with the redundant and peripheral material eliminated.

Identifying the Core

The term "core" suggests densely packed concepts and techniques at the center of a field of knowledge...in other words, that which is essential to know if one is to effectively use that field. We might conceive of that core rather as a web of interrelated concepts and methods. Such a web or conceptual system not only organizes a knowledge field for users, it points out the gaps and areas of weakness in a field for those expanding and refining it. The web is built around a number of "bridge-works." These are books, articles or monographs that suggest, at least implicitly, how theory might be applied in practice. Our project takes a first, halting step in web-building to support more effective knowledge utilization. Identifying and organizing core knowledge is a multi-stage process. We were searching for theory and concepts useful for academic people interested in theory application. Furthermore, this knowledge would have readily discernible practical value for conflict resolu tion practitioners.

How does one locate the core literature in an unfamiliar field? There are a number of approaches. They can be classified as broad, medium, or narrow search techniques (Figure 2). Wide searches get a lot of informa tion, much of which is probably not needed. The benefit, though is that one does not miss a lot. Narrow searches generate a short list of very specific information. They are excellent tools if they are available—unfortunately the tools to enable researchers and practitioners to make effective narrow searches are just currently being developed.

Broad Search Strategies

Broad searches are most commonly done using library public access catalogs and bibliographic databases that can be searched by computer. These are provided by libraries, academic research centers, and commercial services such as DIALOG. Access can be direct through modem connection or indirect through borrowed or purchased CD-ROM disks. The Internet also provides access to many of the world's major research libraries and on-line abstracting services. These systems are very power ful for searching, provided the user understands the many ways in which publications of their interest are indexed. Choosing the best search terms is of critical importance.

Choosing search terms: An early, but critical decision involves how widely or narrowly to choose your search terms. Cast the net too wide and you haul in information overload. Cast too narrow, and you miss much useful information. We decided to cast broadly at first. Not only did we search for "ethnic conflict" and "racial conflict," we also tried "nationalism," as we thought that many of the current nation state struggles were rooted in ethnic conflict. This search yielded a catch of many hundreds which we then picked over for those that looked most relevant, most important, and most accessible. (Items in foreign languages, published abroad, or not readily available to North Ameri can readers, for instance, were eliminated. While such concerns do indeed exclude much important material, our modest ambitions and minimal resources at this early stage forced us to use such restrictions.)

Search Strategy: For this pilot effort we began by searching our own 60,000-entry information exchange database, which yielded many hundreds of citations. We used the same approach to search Sociofile database (the CD-ROM version of Sociological Abstracts). We had hoped to review Peace Research Abstracts (PRA) as well. Unfortu nately, it was not available at the University of Colorado library CD-ROM. Searching the book version with its very broad descriptor categories was simply too time-consuming to be worth the effort. Another wide search strategy is to use the Internet to search a variety of library catalogues. (Internet library catalogs and CD-ROM abstracts are available at practically any good research library. The CRC's Information Exchange is also currently available at low cost, but is not yet widely used.)

We reviewed the results of the first broad-term search for more effective second search strategies. There we identified the search terms, classification codes, and "buzz words" which others use to describe the subject area in question. We then conducted a second-tier search with those revised terms. This often neglected approach is likely to identify citations that would have otherwise been missed.

With a multidisciplinary subject such as racial and ethnic conflict, one must search a number of databases. It is generally easier to download search results to a computer file than to deal with slow and cumbersome printouts. With a bit of clever searching and replacing, using a good word processor or software designed specifically for the purpose, a user can directly incorporate search results into a biblio graphic management program such as EndNote Plus.(10) This greatly simplifies the mechanics of preparing cited refer ences. A good interlibrary loan department staff can get for a patient user just about any requested publication.

Assessing Significance: Weighing the potential significance of a piece for furthering research and field application was a somewhat intimidating task. Unfortu nately, Aha! concepts do not simply jump out of biblio graphic material. Abstracts, when they were available, were useful guides. While abstracts exist for most journal articles published since 1970, few of the books in our database were abstracted. Ideally, researchers compiling a core bibliogra phy would read each of the works under consideration to assess their value. That is seldom possible however. We had to make our assessments based only on the title, the author, the descriptor terms, and what we could find out about the works from other sources.

For instance, we queried our colleagues about which books they found to be most valuable in their work. We also tried to test our judgement against the Social Science Citation Index. There we were met with a problem we have yet to solve, the substantial gap between a work's prominence in the academic enterprise and its practical utility. But we were able to determine how often a work is cited, which may give some indication of its importance. (See Medium Search Strategies, below.) Our collection process went through many iterations, as we added publica tions to our list, and deleted others, to obtain a list of reasonable length which contained those works likely to include the important ideas in ethnic conflict research. The result was a list of books and articles, which are not yet "the core literature," but rather our first step toward one.

Time and resources permitting, we will expand this core list by: 1) surveying participants in the "Many Paths to Peace" conference for additional core literature; 2) scanning the annual review volumes of appropriate disci plines such as sociology and political science; 3) reviewing syllabi from university courses on ethnic conflict for relevant material; and 4) building a bibliography tree (see below).

Medium Search Strategies

Since broad-based searches also produce informa tion overload, we explored several ways of prioritizing the results from them. These pathways to the core are repre sented in Figure 2 by the medium-width arrows.

Bibliography Tree: A more focused window to the core literature is opened through systematically compiling bibliographies from significant works in the field. Refer ences repeatedly cited in these bibliographies become candidates for inclusion in the core. While useful, this technique is not a good indicator of the value of recent works, simply because there has been less time for other authors to use them. Thus, the bibliography tree approach favors older classic publications at the expense of newer articles which may combine the best of older theory with new insight in a more succinct statement of core knowledge in particular areas.

Social Science Citation Index: In addition to collecting copies of bibliographies from key works, one can use the Social Science Citation Index (SSCI) for the same purpose. The user first consults a comprehensive abstracting service such as Sociofile to identify key journal articles on the topic in question. One can then use the Social Science Citation Index to find what works were cited in these publications. If these citation lists are downloaded to a disk, one can then combine the cited references from all of the original works and sort them alphabetically with a word- processor. This will quickly show which works are cited most often, and are potentially most important for the core.

ORGANIZING THE KNOWLEDGE FOR USE

Most research retrieval systems stop where we have currently stopped in the ethnic conflict project. They compile bibliographies of authors, titles, descriptor terms, and sometimes abstracts. They publish these listings alphabetically on paper or on computer-based systems. Some are available on-line. But few go beyond the simple bibliographic listing toward a more dynamic system of core ideas, which are easily accessible, understandable, applica ble, and updatable. That is the sort of core knowledge system we envision.

There are several information components neces sary for such a core knowledge web. First, there is the theoretical knowledge produced by scholars who have written about ethnic conflict resolution (not just the bibliographical citations for such knowledge). Second, there are what might be called application methods, the "folk knowledge" in circulation among practitioners who more than likely have not shared it in published writing. Third, there are the potential users of all of this informa tion—researchers, practitioners, and people themselves involved in ethnic conflicts who want to know more about how to resolve them. Those users can feed back informa tion about the usefulness of particular theories or practical techniques in particular situations.

Dissemination and Exchange

A final task was to design an information system that would serve the right users inexpensively, then facili tate their feedback to help correct and refine the informa tion they use. Such feedback could range from simple correction of bibliographic data to the development of interactive systems to enable any user to retrieve exactly the information they need quickly and easily. Revision and refinement of conflict knowledge concern individual user interaction with the database. But there is the equally important potential for electronic user interaction with one another.

One of the exciting developments created by the information superhighway is that researchers, practitioners, and users can be in instant communication with one another. Systems such as ConflictNet already exist to facilitate the communication between groups and individu als concerned with conflict. More of such electronic networks are being established all the time.

The technology is now available to create what Guy Burgess has elsewhere referred to as a "virtual institute".(11). Within this "institute without walls" so to speak, there could be "project teams" or "working parties" formed around specific problems such as ethnic conflict moderation (ECM). Some members of an ECM team might only be involved as consumers of information through an online dissemination network. A major goal, however, would be to steadily increase their direct interaction with other team members by way of Internet and other communication channels.

At the heart of such virtual institutes would be found a core set of essential concepts and methods that users could access easily, use, test, and refine. Such a full- text system goes far beyond our initial attempt to build a core bibliography. It would need to have one or more mechanisms developed which would allow users to find precisely the information the need, use it, and then respond to that information in an interactive way. We now suggest three possible ways of doing this that are presented as narrow search strategies in Figure 2.

Narrow Search Strategies

Guided Search Systems: All of the broad and medium search systems discussed so far leave it to the users to structure their searches for the core literature. As faculty who assemble study programs for students well know, this task can benefit greatly from consultation with an expert colleague. A similar guided search for essential literature could be done by the conflict researcher using the computer as expert-surrogate. With "expert system" or similar software, the computer cum advisor would ask users a series of questions to guide them to information they would not otherwise have thought to look for. Such an expert system could be developed by someone familiar with both the core literature of a field and typical questions people ask and problems they face.

Electronic Comment Conferences: Electronic networks such as ConflictNet and Internet can, theoretically, permit a widely dispersed group of scholars to interact much as if they were in the same location. This virtual institute could reduce information overload by facilitating information sharing about publications participants have found to be especially useful. Participants in such an enterprise could ask colleagues around the world for suggestions about key literature, or solutions to particular problems. Respondents could confer electronically around suggested strategies with the original inquirer. This kind of interaction is already common on thousands of computer bulletin boards. One need only create such a board focused on the topic of interest (such as ethnic conflict) that is widely advertised (and thus known about) and inexpensively accessible to anyone with a computer and a modem. The key to making such a system work is broad participation across the field. This will come as computer equipment becomes increasingly more powerful, cheaper, and easier to use.

Utility Modules

A final component of the core information web would be a system for distilling knowledge with practical application value from theoretical material and case studies. This might be done in several ways. One idea we have developed is the "utility module"—a modest attempt at bridging that yawning chasm separating concept and theory from method and application. The utility module would include a simple description of a key concept and some actual or hypothetical methods emerging from it. These would be accompanied by an illustration of the conditions under which it might be successfully applied. By way of illustration, we present here a sample utility module we created based upon work recently done by Kent Arnold.(12)

Sample Utility Module

Concept: interaction ritual

Author(s): Erving Goffman, Randall Collins

Source(s): Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual (1967); Collins, Theoretical Sociology (1988)

Definition: A conversation that requires the co-presence of individuals, that creates a common focus of attention for those individuals, that invokes a common reality for them viewed as something sacred, signifying membership in a common group, creating a reference point of moral solidarity among them. Such conversations involving two or more individuals can be private or public, with impact limited to those in direct conversation or with wide influence such as a conversation between public figures presented through the mass media to large audiences. Such rituals, repeated in countless conversations across a society, create, enhance or diminish moral solidarity levels and commitment to societal bonds and integration. Interaction chains are formed that produce more or less societal solidarity, and more or less intergroup harmony or hostility within the society.

Affiliated concepts: interaction chains; sacred objects; micro-encounters; conflict interactions; oppositional utterances.

Supporting literature: (While this particular module emphasizes concepts and techniques useful for resolving and moderating ethnic conflict, it might refer the user to supporting categories of literature that describes the suffering in ethnic conflict, pressures that lead to ethnic warfare, escalation and other pathological processes that intensify ethnic conflict and the like. The user might thus be led to a wider literature base supportive of effective intervention in ethnic disputes and conflict).

Application potential: Conflict management specialists can design ways to modify conflict interactions in an ethnic conflict setting so that the elements of the interaction rituals therein encourage a common definition of the conflict, common sacred objects, agreement on what are unacceptable conflict techniques and what are preferred resolution methods, moral solidarity both within and between groups and so on.

Application example: Designing dispute settlement procedures for two of the most destructive conflict arenas in South Africa: the taxi wars, and migrant worker hostels.

It remains to be seen whether such modules will be helpful in supporting in social science the kind of symbiotic relationship between theoretical and applied work one seems to find in the health and environmental sciences.

FUTURE POSSIBILITIES

We have suggested how peace and conflict researchers and practitioners might have easier, more useful access to theory and method in the academic literature. Should this model of organizing and exchanging knowledge prove even moderately successful with ethnic conflict, it could be applied to other conflict types ranging from the interpersonal to the international. It is not too early for us to be considering how we might overcome linguistic, cultural, economic and class barriers to its wider use. One could envision a global network of conflict research utilizers.

The information searching and sharing pathways we have discussed in this paper are some possible benchmarks along the road to what might be called a Global Virtual Institute for Peace Research and Practice. Such virtual institutes already exist in biology and physics, bringing their members close enough together, on a day- to-day basis, that the economies of scale associated with large, joint projects can be achieved. Such an electronic institute of conflict researchers and practitioners might provide its members with the following services:

CONCLUSION

In this paper, we have suggested how improving access to peace and conflict literature could forge a closer interdependence of researchers and practitioners. Practice would benefit more from theory than it now does while research would be more driven by practical need and experience from the field than it now is. While these ideas obviously need fuller development, they are realistic. Other fields are doing much of this already. The technical preconditions have been met. The computer systems exist and they work. We must now organize our field to use them more effectively.

(1) This paper was prepared for presentation at the 1994 American Sociological Association Conference, Los Angeles, California, July, 1994. All ideas presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Consortium, the University, or Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e- mail: crc@cubldr.colorado.edu.

© 1994. Conflict Resolution Consortium. Do not reprint without permission.

(2) Homans, George. 1961. Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

(3) Emerson, Richard, 1972. "Exchange theory, Part I: A Psychological Basis for Social Exchange." In J. Berger, M. Zelditch, and B. Anderson, eds. Sociological Theories in Progress (Vol. 2), pp. 38-57. Boston: Houghton-Miffli

(4) Simmel, Georg. 1964. The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press; Coser, Lewis A. 1956. The Functions of Social Conflict. New York: Free Press.

(5) Goffman, Erving. 1967. Interaction Ritual. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

(6) Collins, Randall. 1988. Theoretical Sociology. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch.

(7) Coleman, James. 1956. Community Conflict. New York: Free Press; Wehr, Paul. 1979. Conflict Regulation (Chapter 3). Boulder, CO and London: Westview.

(8) The Conflict Resolution Consortium's Information Exchange is a 60,000-entry computerized bibliography of the peace and conflict resolution field. It is available, with search software, from the Consortium for $35.00 (additional charges for certain formats).

(9) Gonzales, Marty, Guy Burgess, Paul Wehr, and Heidi Burgess. Ethnic Conflict: A Pilot Core Bibliography. Boulder, CO: Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, 1994. Available on request from the Consortium (see note 1).

(10) EndNote Plus: Enhanced Reference Database and Bibliography Maker. Niles and Associates, Inc. 2000 Hearst St., Suite 200, Berkeley, CA 94709, 1988-1991.

(11) Burgess, Guy. 1992. "Telecommunications, Information Storage and Retrieval, and Peace and Change Research." Peace and Change, Vol. 17, No. 4, October 1992, 458-477.

(12)Arnold, Kent. 1994. "A Dispute System Design Analysis of Taxi and Hostel Conflict in South Africa's Transition to Majority Rule." Unpublished MA thesis, Department of Sociology, University of Colorado at Boulder.