Northrup, Terrell A. "The Dynamic of Identity in Personal and Social Conflict".

Intractable Conflicts and Their Transformation. Ed. Louis Kriesberg, Terrell A. Northrup and Stuart J. Thorson. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989. Pp. 55-82.

Summary by Mariya Yevsyukova.

Copyright 1997 by the Conflict Research Consortium


In this essay Terrell A. Northrup talks about "the role of identity in the development, maintenance, and transformation of intractable conflicts" (p. 55). She defines identity as a psychological sense of self as well as self as it relates to the world. Self-definition takes place on different levels: interpersonal, community, organizational, cultural or international. If conflict involves a threat to identity, it becomes intractable. In this summary I will mainly concentrate on describing Northrup's ideas about identity conflict transformation. Before presenting this issue, I would like to give a brief summary of the model that she uses in analyzing the dynamics of conflicts. It consists of five components: (1) conflicts unfold over time; (2) conflict is a multidimensional phenomenon (intrapersonal aspects of the conflict interact with social or relational ones, and both of them are influenced by higher level political, economic and social changes); (3) conflicts evolve around multiple issues; (4) conflicts contain realistic and nonrealistic issues; (5) power distribution among the parties plays an important role in conflict development. Identity, according to Northrup, operates as a dynamic. It evolves in a party's relationships with the surrounding world. She defines the identity dynamic "as the tendency for human beings, individually and in groups, to establish, maintain, and protect a sense of self-meaning, predictability, and purpose" (p. 63). The dynamic of identity provokes changes toward escalation and rigidification of conflict. The author divides the operation of identity in escalation into four stages: threat, distortion, rigidification, and collusion. The process is sequential, with a movement to the next stage increasing intractability of the conflict and decreasing the possibility of de-escalation.

The Transformation of Intractability

Based on the theoretical framework described above, the transformation of intractable conflicts involving identity issues is not likely to happen from within. In further discussions, the author focuses on the distinction between the settlement of a specific conflict and its transformation, and strategies of transformation of a destructive identity dynamic.

Settlement versus Transformation

In order to understand the difference between settlement and transformation, the author looks at different levels where change in conflict can occur. Those levels are determined by how strong the impact of the change is on the core identity. The first level includes changes that are peripheral to the core identity, such as those happening outside the original issue of confrontation. Second level changes influence the dynamic of the parties' relationships. Changes in the core identity belong to the third level. The effect of the change will vary depending on what level the change occurs. Peripheral changes can create settlements, but they will not produce long-term transformation. Prospects for transformation are better when the nature of the parties' relationships is altered (second level). Identity changes (third level) encourage changes in relationships and behavior. These might not involve short-term peripheral settlements, but they transform the conflict itself.

The second level transformation can be encouraged by a common external threat to both parties, that would make them cooperate and, as a result, change their perceptions about each other. Another possible way is for a third party to intervene and force the parties in conflict to redefine their relationships. The third way might exist if a subgroup within a party is able to establish some cooperation with the opponent. The final possible way to alter the nature of parties' relationships is for conditions to change unexpectedly. The author gives an example of an ethnic conflict where a horrible accident happens like a bomb killing schoolchildren. This accident can produce a change in the way the two groups deal with their disagreements. The danger of level two transformation is that it depends on the longevity and institutionalization of the cooperative relationships. If the time of cooperation was short and the new patterns of relationships were not structuralized and ritualized, a real transformation might not happen and the parties might get back on the conflict track. Transformation is more likely when the parties' self/other identities are changed. For example, they might start seeing similarities between themselves and accept differences. These are third level changes. They require long-lasting efforts, but they transform intractable conflicts more completely

Strategies for Change.

Thinking of the implications of strategies for change, it should be said that strategies that start from the second level are the most effective. They do not produce as much pressure and are not as threatening to the established identities as third level strategies. In addition, they provide time to design action plans that are directed at changing identities, without which long-lasting transformation is unlikely. Examples of level three strategies are psychotherapy, arresting abusers in the cases of spouse abuse (it alters the perception of acceptability of abuse on both sides); and dialogue groups. All these strategies start with analyzing and changing the relationships and then move toward identity transformation. In this article the author establishes that identity plays a very significant role in escalation, maintenance and transformation of conflicts.