‘Interactive problem solving’ in conflict resolution

Herbert C Kelman and Ronald J Fisher, editors, Herbert C Kelman: a pioneer in the social psychology of conflict analysis and resolution, Springer International Publishing, Heidelberg and New York, 2017 (to be issued in paperback 2019), pp. xix and 151.

Herbert C Kelman’s application of social psychological approaches to conflict analysis and resolution has been very influential. This book brings together a set of his texts written between 1990 and 2007, mainly exploring his work on the Israeli-Palestine conflict: ‘Social-Psychological Dimensions of International Conflict’; ‘Applying a Human Needs Perspective to the Practice of Conflict Resolution’; ‘The Role of National Identity in Conflict Resolution’ and ‘Group Processes in the Resolution of International Conflicts’.

An initial chapter sets out Kelman’s ‘Personal Reflections on My Work in Conflict Analysis and Resolution’: this is an extremely useful summary of some of key themes and arguments in his work, as well as providing insights into the experiences and wider social issues which shaped his outlook.

As a young Jewish boy, Kelman escaped the Nazis by moving with his family from Austria to the USA, via Belgium. His initial studies in social psychology focussed on how ‘persuasive communication’ can lead to the formation of attitudes – and to people changing their views. This was part of wider work on intergroup attitudes, in which American psychologists were concerned to contribute to reducing prejudice and discrimination. Kelman’s interest in how people come to adopt and act in line with particular attitudes become led to him formulating a now classic distinction between three forms of social influence and attitude change: compliance, identification and internalisation.

As a postdoctoral student in the early 1950s, Kelman was, he recalls, ‘very active in CORE—the Congress of Racial Equality—which had pioneered in the use of Gandhian methods of nonviolent direct action in the struggle against racial segregation. I helped to found a CORE chapter in Baltimore and was actively involved in all aspects of CORE’s ultimately successful campaign to integrate the luncheon counters in Baltimore’s five-and-ten cents stores’. He met his wife Rose at this point – she was a fellow activist.

Influenced by the work of the Australian diplomat John Burton, Kelman developed plans to for ‘interactive problem solving’, setting out proposals for workshops which would ‘produce changes in the particular individuals participating’ in these events, and would also involve finding ways to ‘transfer these changes to the policy process’. In actually trying out such approaches, Kelman developed such concepts as ‘the uneasy coalition’ and ‘working trust’, and the value of involving ‘political influentials, who are not currently in official positions’, but who are in productive contact with those who are.

A major issue which Kelman has focussed on is the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because of his practical work in this area, it ‘became a major point of reference and source of illustrations’ in his writings about the nature of international conflict and its social-psychological dimensions, and this is illustrated by much of the material collected in this volume.

Kelman always writes in a straightforward and practical way. He sets out his approaches and his reasons for adopting – and adapting them – in an open tone, which communicates his enthusiastic interest in working with people and being alongside them as they try to understand and address conflicted and disputed issues. Kelman’s work is a very stimulating resource for conflict resolution practitioners, and this book provides a good introduction to it.


Review published December 2018