Oct 09, 2012
As part of our mission, we not only want to create social entrepreneurs but highlight existing ones doing commendable work in their community. In this installment of our Agent of Change blog series to celebrate our involvement with TEDxMIA on October 23rd we are highlighting speaker Peter T. Coleman, a complexity scientist, accomplished author and professor at Columbia University on how he is creating an impact through science, psychology and education around conflict.
I have long believed in the power of ideas to improve our world. I also believe in the critical role science plays in advancing and refining those ideas. Growing up in the 1960s in Chicago and experiencing school desegregation, a violent anti-war movement, and a non-violent civil rights movement first hand, instilled in me early on a strong sense of macro worry: concern over the state of our society and our world. After working with violent youth in New York City in the 1980s, I returned to school to learn how to bring the power of ideas and science to bear on addressing difficult social ills. This continues to be the core of my intellectual and professional life. For over 15 years, I have studied issues such as the use and abuse of social power, intractable conflict, humiliation and conflict, polarized collective identity formation, multicultural conflict, and sustainable peace.
Recognizing that our science has limitations which manifest in incomplete metaphors, models and methods, I work from multiple disciplinary perspectives; from the more precise to the more holistic, often in multidisciplinary teams, and employ a wide-variety of methods. Trained as a social psychologist but influenced by complexity science, I have worked to expand the orientation of the field of peace and conflict studies from a reliance on more micro, short-term models and methods to the inclusion of more complex, holistic, dynamic approaches. I have also strived to avoid the insular jargon of academic language and to communicate our research findings in an accessible and engaging manner (and am occasionally successful).
Today I am Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University where I hold a joint-appointment at Teachers College and The Earth Institute and teach courses in Conflict Resolution, Social Psychology, and Social Science Research. I am also Director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (ICCCR) at Teachers College, Columbia University, Chair of Columbia University’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity (ACCCC), and a research affiliate of the International Center for Complexity and Conflict (ICCC) at The Warsaw School for Social Psychology in Warsaw, Poland. I also edit the Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (2000; 2006; forthcoming), which aims to translate theory and research on conflict and peace in a useful and accessible manner. My most rece nt books include The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts (2011); Conflict, Justice, and Interdependence: The Legacy of Morton Deutsch (2011), Psychological Contributions to Sustainable Peace (July, 2012), and our newest book, The Gravity of Conflict (forthcoming in 2013). I have also authored over 70 journal articles and chapters, dozens of op eds, and am a New York State certified mediator and consultant.
But I am primarily a theorist and scientist. I am engaged in several related programs of research on the dynamics of peace, justice and conflict. My scholarship has focused primarily on the intractability of two related problems: 1) systems of enduring, destructive conflict and, 2) systems of dominance and oppression. I became interested in studying these issues initially through my experiences working as a counselor with violent urban youth in psychiatric hospitals, and then through my work as a community mediator for the New York State Criminal Courts and as an instructor in a course on preventative diplomacy at the United Nations. These problems can manifest themselves in families, schools and other organizations, communities, and nations. They tend to be complex, long-lasting, and difficult to work with, and thus are relatively understudied by contemporary social scientists. My approach to this research is to develop conceptual models that address gaps in existing theory, often through eliciting insights from informed participants (local stakeholders and practitioners), and then to empirically test the models using a variety of methods. My scholarship bridges the theory-practice gap in my field by bringing new insights from research to bear on important technical and social problems, and by honoring practical expertise in the development of new theory. My research is primarily oriented to scholar-practitioners, leaders, and policy makers working to ameliorate difficult problems such as ethnopolitical conflicts within and between nations, polarized community conflicts over basic value and identity differences, and ongoing patterns of violence and discrimination in schools and organizations.
In 2003, I began convening a multidisciplinary team of experts (physicists, anthropologists, political scientists, psychologists and applied mathematicians) who developed a new theoretical model of intractable conflicts that employs concepts and methods from dynamical social psychology- in particular the idea of attractors (patterns in data that resist change) - and portrays enduring conflicts as those which have lost the complexity and openness inherent to more constructive social dynamics, resulting in closed, self-reinforcing systems. To date this project has resulted in over 40 publications and 45 conference presentations by our team, publication of a new trade book (The Five Percent), a new scholarly book (The Gravity of Conflict), a special issue of Peace and Conflict: The Journal of Peace Psychology, development and publication of an on-line computer visualization tool for working with intractability (Nowak, Bui-Wrzosinska, Coleman, Vallacher, Borkovsky & Jochemczyk, 2010) and, with TC’s Ed Lab, the creation of several short introductory videos on intractable attractors. We are also currently developing an executive education module in this area to train diplomats, mediators, community organizers, and leaders of NGOs in the model and methods. I have a strong sense that this work will lead to unparalleled breakthroughs in our field.
I am also privileged. Privileged to be a white, healthy male US citizen in a world that benefits us unfairly and often unquestioningly. Privileged to have been able to go back to school and earn my degrees. Privileged to work with an extraordinary group of colleagues and students in a place like Columbia University. And privileged to be able work hard everyday to leverage my privilege in our struggle to make the world a more just and peaceful place.
To get more insight on the role of conflict in societal issues from Peter T. Coleman and his ideas for framing our future, join us at TEDxMIA on October 23 in Miami, Florida. We will be live tweeting the highlights on-site, follow us on Twitter at @LoneGeorgeCo and lookout for interviews and videos from the event on Facebook.