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While stories have circulated for millennia, narrative as a way of understanding and engaging with conflict is relatively new. Only since the 1990s, has the field seen a vast proliferation of narrative as applied to conflict resolution. (Cobb, 2013; Lara, 2007; Nelson, 2001) These scholars and others recognize that communities function so long as they have a “capacity for resolving conflicts, for explicating differences, and renegotiating communal meanings.” (Bruner, 1990; 47) Narrative approaches provide a means of locating individual and communal meaning and renegotiating understandings of identity which allow for conflict transformation. Narrative analysis also helps explain how marginalized people remain marginalized. Narrative intervention helps people renegotiate their social positions and reclaim lost agency from these marginalized positions. Narrative evaluation can be used to measure discursive shifts over time. This article provides a theoretical overview of narrative approaches to conflict answering: (a) What is narrative and what is its potential as a tool for understanding and responding to conflict? (b) How might we conduct a narrative analysis of a conflict? (c) From this analysis, how might we then construct narrative interventions and program evaluations?
Narrative Approaches to Understanding and
Responding to Conflict
Sarah Federman*
While stories have circulated for millennia and constitute the very fabric of life in
society, narrative as an optic for understanding and engaging with conflict emerged
in the field of conflict resolution only in the past few decades, and has already
amassed an array of significant contributions (Bar-Tal and Salomon, 2006; Cobb,
2013; Grigorian and Kaufman, 2007; Kellett, 2001; Lara, 2007; Nelson, 2001;
Rotberg, 2006; Winslade and Monk, 2000). They encompass several spheres of
action. Narrative analysis provides a means to locate individual and communal
meaning in their discourse and to pinpoint conflicts in their world views that
threaten their identity and agency. Further, it helps explain how marginalized peo-
ple remain marginalized. Narrative interventions allow for conflict transforma-
tion, helping people to renegotiate their social positions and reclaim lost agency
stemming from marginalized positions. Narrative evaluation highlights the flexi-
bility of that model to measure change through a detection of discursive shifts over
time. This article provides an overview of narrative approaches to conflict, answer-
ing: (a) What is narrative and what is its potential as a tool for understanding and
responding to conflict? (b) How might we conduct a narrative analysis of a con-
flict? (c) From this analysis, how might we then construct narrative interventions
and programme evaluations?
Keywords: narrative, conflict resolution, development, assessment, evaluation.
One way to understand cycles of violence and protracted conflict is to visualize
them as a broken narrative. A people’s story is marginalized or, worse, destroyed by
the dominant culture, and by this act, meaning, identity, and a place in history are
lost. This is the deeper challenge of peacebuilding: How to reconstitute, or re-story,
the narrative and thereby restore people’s place in history.
–John Paul Lederach (2005: 146)
*Sarah Federman is an Assistant Professor at the University of Baltimore in the department of
Negotiations and Conflict Management. Federman completed her doctorate at George Mason
University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution where she studied the role of the French
National Railways (SNCF) in the Holocaust and the on-going conflict in the United States over
whether the company has done enough to make amends. She used narrative and ethnographic
methods to construct a narrative landscape of the conflict over time and to better understand
the social construction of victim-perpetrator binaries. Federman began this research as a masters
student at the American University of Paris.
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Narrative Approaches to Understanding and Responding to Conflict
1 What Is Narrative and What Do We Know about It?
Through narrative, we tell both what we believe to be true and what we know to
be false. Through narratives, we construct our understanding of ourselves and
even create the physical world (Law, 2000). Narratives have shown themselves to
be powerful social forces that formulate identities and constrain as well as guide
actions. Cultural and familial stories affect how we make sense of the world and
our role within it; they provide a moral framework that evaluates action. How-
ever, we think of our stories as our own, and rarely understand how inexorably
bound they are to the social and political (Law, 2000). The stories we tell position
ourselves relative to our social environment. Larger stories about right/wrong,
acceptable/unacceptable and significant/insignificant control how we experience
and how we express ourselves and allow others to express themselves. When cer-
tain narratives (stories, perspectives) dominate, other experiences (marginalized
or contradicted by those dominant stories) become marginalized, oppressed or
supressed, leading to both latent and overt conflict. Marginalization can erupt
and express itself in the form of crime, protests, boycotts, uprisings and socio-
political movements (such as Black Lives Matter, Gay Pride, etc.). Delgado
describes marginalized groups as out-groups whose identity defines the bounda-
ries of the mainstream, and “whose voice and perspective – whose consciousness
– has been suppressed, devalued and abnormalized” (Delgado, 1989: 2412).
Vibrant societies seek to ensure that the narratives of these groups circulate as
openly as the narratives of the dominant culture. But this diversity is infrequent
in conflictive societies, where the constraints placed on marginalized narratives
perpetuate power differentials and create barriers for a co-constructed future.
Example: Marginalization in U.S. Politics
President Obama’s victory speech for his second term did not directly address
the 49 per cent of the U.S. voters who did not vote for him. By not acknowl-
edging these citizens directly, he missed an opportunity to unite the country.
Romney voters became “the losers” while Obama celebrated with those who
helped him win. This had ramifications for the 2016 election; Donald Trump
connected strongly with these unacknowledged voters to secure his win. A
narrative analysis of this speech would identify multiple missed opportuni-
ties for his second term as well as future elections.
2 Narrative for Conflict Resolution and Development
Rooted originally in semiotics and in literary theory, the field of narrative analysis
as a lens to understand and intervene in conflict development, conflict analysis
and conflict resolution is relatively new. Its prehistory and early history were
nourished by the foundational contributions of semiotics, literary theory. During
the 1970s–1980s, attention to narrative was mostly focused on “folk story-tell-
ing” (Livo and Rietz, 1986; Polanyi, 1985). By the late 1980s–early 90s, narrative
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Sarah Federman
theory exploded, providing frameworks for both methods of analysis and for
practice (Brenneis, 1988; Bruner, 1990; Cobb, 2013 Delgado, 1989; Lara, 2007;
Nelson, 2001; Senehi, 2002). Narrative approaches to conflict analysis and resolu-
tion became relevant as they acknowledge that communities function so long as
they have a means to negotiate and renegotiate meaning and identity in a way
that provides new avenues for conflict transformation.
This article makes the case for the power of narrative approaches to conflict
analysis and conflict management at all levels – individual, familial, institutional,
inter-agencies, inter-government, and broadly speaking, socio-political. Regard-
less of the type of conflict, leaving problematic narratives intact will eventually
upend any results achieved in mediation, negotiation or community dialogues.
For this reason, narrative transformations constitute a key towards the creation
of lasting change. In other words, changing actions long-term requires changing
the stories that prompt or justify those actions. Without acknowledging how sto-
ries circulate, who controls their circulation and who remains excluded in these
stories, projects will struggle to sustain themselves and conflicts will resurface.
Narrative approaches make the unavoidably complex web of storylines visible and
provide a guide to practitioner’s interventions.
Narrative approaches provide a way to understand how stories function in
communities and how to intervene when destructive stories circulate.
From this perspective, dominant narratives are those that reflect and sustain
beliefs that make up the cultural norms, such as notions of right and wrong and
social roles. Counterstories challenge those dominant beliefs. Narrative practi-
tioners’ interventions aim at increasing the textures and complexity (and poten-
tial contradictions) of dominant narratives as well as making them open to coun-
terstories, old and new. The ability of those counterstories to be heard and legiti-
mized is a key indicator of the narrative health of a community.
3 Narrative Analysis
Narrative analysis refers to the exploratory process that works to identify and
locate conflict narratives. An awareness and understanding of what Bruner
(1990) called the environment’s narrative architecture provides the foundation
for effective planning of ethical interventions that support and foster develop-
ment. In turn, conflict narratives – narratives at the core of conflictive situations
unveiled by a keen narrative analysis – characteristically suffer from oversimpli-
fied characters and plots, with storylines that work mainly to legitimize the self
and delegitimize others, thus increasing polarization (Cobb, 2006).
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Narrative Approaches to Understanding and Responding to Conflict
Example: Narrative Approach to a Development Project
In a small Brazilian town, the following two dominant narratives have been
found to circulate, distilled from an analysis of conversations with multiple
voices of its inhabitants:
Without the sugar industry, we have nothing.
Anyone who works in sugar is a hero in our community.
The first narrative tells us about the perceived importance of sugarcane. It
also suggests that other industries might be undervalued and the community
may not be seeking ways to diversify. The second statement tells us about the
status of sugarcane workers, suggesting that those who depart from the trade
will experience a lower status in society. This too may discourage diversifica-
If a development project seeks to help the local economy to diversify, it must
destabilize these dominant stories. Narrative interventions could include
strategies that elevate, in the eyes of the community, the benefits of other
crops or industries. Reframing how a town sees itself will be vital if diversi-
fied development efforts are to be sustainable. Embedding and elaborating
new stories, helping people describe their town and their own interests dif-
ferently while helping those in charge of the diversified development project
to engage with the community’s needs, rather than creating confrontative
discourses, will be a vital component of any lasting intervention.
In the example above, traditional assessments methods might overlook the pow-
erful identity connection the community has to sugar. Narrative helps reveal the
identity connections and stories that keep people situated as they are and per-
ceive change as threatening to their identity. Even adding, for instance, corn cul-
tivation in adjacent fields to a town that believes it is “a sugar town” may prove
conflict-ridden. Helping people change how they see themselves and their com-
munity will help them be more resilient and adaptable, moving forward. Before
discussing how to shift such identities, this article first considers tools for narra-
tive analysis.
Structural, functional and poststructural narrative analysis tools draw from the
fields of linguistics, philosophy, literary theory and sociology. The structural
approach examines the actual components of a narrative (plots, characters, roles,
etc.). The functional approach explores how narratives are performed in social and
political contexts. The poststructural approach considers how narratives create
identity, requires reflexivity on the part of the researcher and considers this anal-
ysis as germane to intervention. In a poststructural approach, the conflict is not
simply represented by the narratives: the narrative is considered, in fact, the
locus of the conflict. These three modes of analysis will be discussed in detail in
the sections that follow, to then deal with a description of narrative interventions
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Sarah Federman
and as a tool for evaluation. For more about how to collect narratives, see Shkedi
4 Structural Analysis
Bruner claims humans simply have a predisposition to “organize experience into a
narrative form, into plot structures and the rest.” (1990: 45) The most common
forms of structural analysis are Labovian (Labov and Waletzky, 1997), genre (Bru-
ner, 1991), narrative grammar (Greimas, 1971), scenario analysis (Blum, 2005)
and actant analysis (Greimas, 1971). All these approaches seek to deconstruct
narratives, and then, classify them. Labovian analysis breaks up narratives into
analytic units to be examined. Chatman (1975), Mishler (1995), Brenneis (1988)
and Hardy (2008) all apply narrative to the field of conflict resolution and advo-
cate for the classification of narratives into genres, storylines and other typolo-
gies. However, when the work of these authors is analyzed, an interesting transi-
tion can be noted – there is a movement from narrative theory applied to linguis-
tics and literary or historical analysis, as is the case with Chatman’s work, into
that theory applied to conflict resolution, such as in the work of Brenneis and
Blum’s (2005) scenario analysis can be useful for cases where we might want
to construct and consider possible futures. This can be conducted at the track I or
track II level, either with high-level officials or with the community.
Actantial analysis (Greimas, 1971) offers a systematic way to breakdown the
“who, what, when, where, why” of narratives and is especially helpful when
deconstructing cultural myths. This can often be a first step towards a more com-
plex analysis. Louis Hébert’s (2006), “Tools for Text and Image Analysis: An
Introduction to Applied Semiotics,” introduces Greimas’ the six actants used in
conflict analysis.
1Shkedi discusses various forms of narrative surveys that can be done in the field with the under-
standing that there are certain “data” that must be collected in narrative form, “the richness of
human events and thought cannot be expressed in definitions, statements of fact, or abstract
propositions. It can only be demonstrated or evoked through story” (2004: 90). Shekdi provides
different methods through which stories can be collected (collective case study, case survey,
meta-ethnography, narrative survey); each approach attempts to overcome the limitations of the
other. Shekdi favours the narrative survey, which uses the interview as the main mode of data
collection followed by an extensive process of categorization of each narrative.
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1 Subject
a Who/what are the narratives discussing?
2 Objective/ goal
a What is the goal of this narrative?
3 Adjuvants/helper
a Who helps voice the narrative?
4 Receiver
a Who is meant to receive the narrative?
5 Sender
a Who is sending out the narrative?
6 Opponents/Traitors
a Who challenges the narrative?
Structural analyses help us identify the narrative components and how narratives
circulate, but cannot answer questions about how such narratives come into
being, the social dynamics between players or the locations of meaning making.
Functional analysis helps speak to these limitations.
5 Functional Analysis
Functional approaches explore the dynamics between people, providing tools for
the understanding of dominant and marginalized narratives.2 More than struc-
tural approaches, functional methods look for where meaning is constructed.
Functional analysis looks at storylines, speech acts and positioning (e.g. how peo-
ple place themselves morally or socially in relation to one another). These analy-
ses help us understand how the society functions, how certain narratives come to
be the status quo and what forces keep them dominant.
Some functional approaches encourage analysts to make the distinction
between collective stories and personal stories. Of course, the person can never
be wholly separated from culture; the two are inextricably linked. Individuals are,
in part, constituted by the environments in which they were raised and operate,
and will tend to perpetuate these environments and norms. Yet, this does not
mean there is no self separate from the culture. Through functional analysis, we
can explore how individual expressions become subsumed by dominant stories.
For example, individual stories tend to be influenced by hegemonic discourse on
collective suffering, regardless of how far removed they may be from the individu-
2The functional approach to narrative assessment looks not at components of the narrative nor
even the plot as much as the social and psychological contexts and functions of narrative; in
other words, at how narratives function, and how and where they are produced in a culture
(Mishler, 1995). For example, to what extent is any autobiography always structured by class and
context (Steinmetz, 1992)? From this perspective, “language does not simply neutrally represent
pure reality but is always imbued with culturally located meanings” (Winslade, 2003: XX). Again,
herein lies the critique of structuralism, because language cannot represent reality neutrally.
Only distilling narratives to their component parts can provide a sliver of the insight available
through different analytical approaches. Further, the social constructionists’ stance in narrative
analysis illuminates how power moves through discourse.
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Sarah Federman
als’ experience of suffering (Coulter-Smith, 2000), and even how conflictive those
two levels – the individual’s and the collective’s spheres – may be (Steinmetz,
1992). As individual narratives are not fully determined by collective stories,
detecting where the spaces exist between these stories can help develop interven-
tions that promote individual agency in relation to problematic collective stories.
Harre and Lagenhove’s (1991) positioning theory, derived from the field of
social psychology, offers a means of analyzing the rights, duties and obligations
people have in their society. They examine how what people say and do are under-
stood and evaluated, based on what others in their social category say and do.
Conducting a functional analysis using positioning theory, Harre claims positions
also come in twos: if one person is positioned as the teacher, for example, another
must be a student. As positioning always places people relative to one another,
the way in which they are positioned relative to each other will constrain some
narratives and augment others.
In turn, Bruner challenges Ricoeur (1980) when he argues that people follow
their cultural roles regardless of their innate disposition or conscious discern-
ment, “People are expected to behave situationally whatever their ‘roles,’ or
whether they are introverted or extraverted, whatever their scores on MMPI or
whatever their politics. As Barker put it, when people go into the post-office, they
behave ‘post-office’” (Bruner, 1990: 48). Winslade’s (2009) discussion of discur-
sive positioning addresses how people position and are socially positioned at the
moment of speech acts.
In sum, functional analysis includes the identification of:
the various storylines;
positions of the actors relative to the storylines;
the linguistic performances undertaken in the telling.3
Example: A Study of a Small Group of Rebellious Adolescents
Archakis and Tzanne (2005), studying a small group of mischivious “counter-
culture” adolescents in Greece, analyze how they “delegitimate established
figures of power and authority in order to legitimate their own group and
present a positive image of themselves.” These authors’ functional analysis
show how these youngsters were constructing their identities based on their
resistance to authority figures. While it is not abnormal for young people to
create identities relative to, and contrasting with, existing power structures,
positioning theory provides a lens to enrich an understanding of the tie
between their core stories and their counter-characters’ and opens the field
to potential interventions if conflicts escalate.
Functional approaches help us understand how people situate themselves relative
to one another, including as “the other” the norms of their community. This
approach’s weak point relates to its origins in logical positivism, as it locates the
3The combination of “incompatible” storylines and positions (the first two points above) contrib-
ute to what are known as intractable conflicts.
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Narrative Approaches to Understanding and Responding to Conflict
researcher as outside the observed system, avoiding reflexivity and downplaying
cultural differences. Poststructural approaches – discussed in the next two sec-
tions, where “Analysis” and “Interventions” are dealt with separately (if not ques-
tionably!) for purposes of clarity – speak to this limitation.
6 Poststructural Analysis
Poststructural approaches see narrative beyond a means of recounting social real-
ity or even giving it meaning. These approaches consider “personal narrative as
central to the development of a sense of one’s self, of an identity” (Mishler, 1995:
108). In regards to data collection, in poststructuralist approaches, narratives are
not something to be simply extracted and recorded in some mythical pure form:
Narratives are co-created in conversation. Therefore, the collection and analyses
are as political as the narratives themselves. Issues of power, marginalization and
dominant/counter narratives must all be considered both within the community
as well as in the space between the researcher or practitioner and the community
being studied.
The three forms of analyses discussed above (structural, functional and post-
structural) provide a variety of starting points for researchers interested in
understanding the role of narrative in conflict. These approaches can be used
together or separately at different points within the research process. A structural
analysis, for example, could be performed before fieldwork to help identify the
conflict parties. A functional analysis can be performed to understand the rela-
tions between these parties and a poststructural analysis can consider the
researcher’s role in the co-creation of the data. While analyses and intervention
are inseparable in the poststructural approach, for clarity’s sake, the next section
considers intervention as distinct from analysis.
7 Narrative Intervention
Because narrative approaches view conflict as the manifestation of identity strug-
gles, interventions entail identity transformations (Cobb, 2010). Poststructural
narrative interventions operate from the premise that identity is malleable, con-
tinuously evolving and co-constructed in interaction. Problematic identities can
be internalized and victims can perpetuate their own victimization.
Example: A Member of the Dalit Caste
For example, if someone in India from the Dalit caste (the “untouchables”)
believes they have no worth and nothing to contribute, they may never break
out of the “untouchable” identity. Any development project aimed at empow-
ering this individual will fail unless the person can also rewrite the story of
his/her identity. Through narrative intervention, even the most problematic
identity can be changed.
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Sarah Federman
Practitioners conduct interventions as consultants in conflicts, and via coaching,
mediation, in public forums and via workshops in which they work with partici-
pants to create better-formed stories about themselves and each other as well as
the conflict as defined. Some of the technologies used within these forums are
fishbowl interviewing,4 World Cafés (Brown, 2005) and scenario-building (Rici-
gliano, 2015). All forums and formats seek to include marginalized perspectives
and co-create a richer understanding of the past and of each other. The process
also helps participants develop the kind of critical intelligence needed to improve
relationships and decrease present and future conflicts. Practitioners must work
carefully with groups to elaborate new identities and storylines in a way that does
not deepen conflicts or create new ones.
Narrative interventions promote positive peace not only by addressing pro-
tracted conflicts, but also, by upending latent conflicts and dynamics left unad-
dressed in more traditional mediation and dialogue processes, dynamics that
wreak havoc on many well-intentioned traditional conflict approaches. In fact,
unless marginalized groups can recreate their identity and relocate themselves in
relation to their community, conflicts tend to resurface. Hence, silenced perspec-
tives must be voiced or they lead to latent, potentially violent conflicts (Scarry,
1987). In a successful intervention, previously conflictive stories about the self
and others transform into stories that promote agency, adaptability and resil-
ience for all members. These healthy stories resist binary constructions and polar-
ized thinking (good/evil, loving/cruel, victim/perpetrator). These new resilient
narratives which lack the language of blame (“it is their fault”) and negative
attributes (“they are just cruel people”). People and groups will be ascribed with
many traits. Problems will be framed as the result of complicated patterns of
interactions, norms and pressures, not simply the result of the failure of one indi-
vidual or group. After successful narrative interventions, participants will be able
to speak about an interrelated whole, complicated by time and interdependence.
Because of space limitations, this article can only nod to several overlapping
approaches to narrative intervention: constructive storytelling (Senehi, 2002,
drawing on John Paul Lederach’s work on imagination for peacebuilding), narra-
tive mapping (White, 2007), re-storying identity (Nelson, 2001) and the creation
of counterstories (Delgado, 1989).
Constructive storytelling – the process that is informed by postmodern nar-
rative models – does not mean storytelling in the folk sense. In this context,
storytelling means crafting narratives about ourselves, situations and collective
experiences in a way that promotes resilience and addresses latent as well as overt
Nelson (2001) points to complex fictional novels as a means of developing
this imagination. Fictional novels offer examples of others living in complex envi-
ronments and finding their way forward. Through the process of engaging with
fiction, individuals can engage more deeply with the complexities of life and more
fully imagine possibilities for themselves.
4For an example of fishbowl questions, see: <http:// slitoolkit. ohchr. org/ data/ downloads/ fishbowl.
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One way to help practitioners to construct a more robust story is through
White’s (2007) narrative mapping approach. These landscape maps locate conflict
parties and marginalized voices. When participants in a mediation process co-cre-
ate these maps, they more clearly see the web of narratives operating and their
location within these webs. Then, they can more easily go about the work of iden-
tity transformation. Nelson (2001), using an example of a group of nurses who
wanted to improve the way doctors in their hospital perceived and treated them,
shows how once the map of social positions is made visible, new counterstories
can be created. She writes about the nurses having “damaged identities” vis-à-vis
the doctors and how they worked together, successfully, to transform that iden-
tity in a way that elevated their status and improved the functioning of the hospi-
tal, through pragmatically developing counterstories to the existing circulating
“official stories” about nurse roles and abilities. The nurses’ counterstories even-
tually transformed how doctors saw them. Their daily reality was changed.
Delgado (1989), an early proponent of inserting or amplifying counterstories
which challenge the dominant narrative, asserts that this approach “can open
new windows into reality, showing us that there are possibilities for life other
than the ones we live” (p. 2415). Mishler (1995) offers another example of iden-
tity transformation. He observes how Alcoholics Anonymous members transition
from identities as alcoholics to non-drinkers and recovering alcoholics, a transfor-
mation of self-concept that is key to the programme’s ongoing success.
Hardy’s (2008) narrative intervention approach uses coaching to help indi-
viduals transform their conflicts at a story level. She helps people shift their sto-
ries from melodrama into tragedy. In melodramatic stories, the protagonist/
storyteller sees herself solely as a victim, intent on convincing any listener of
their version of the story. When operating within a melodramatic framing (think
soap operas), characters remain passive ultimately – things happen to them –
crippling their own agency. In tragedies, the narrator or main character has
agency, may navigate a complex web of relations, power dynamics, social norms,
and at times, difficult political realities, makes decisions and lives with their con-
sequences. The narrative intervention helps making these complexities visible
and highlights the ability of the individual to make decisions within these con-
texts. In Hardy’s approach, transforming the identity of the narrator is less
important than shifting her relationship to her circumstances.
Narrative mediation builds on the strength of the format of traditional forms
of mediation (Curle, 1986), but shifts its focus. In Winslade’s (2003) narrative
mediation technique, supporting individual interests is secondary to creating an
environment in which respect and equality allow for the formation of an alterna-
tive story and repositioning of the individual in that “new” context. To make
room for alternative story versions, he (as other authors, cf. Cobb, 2010) favours
a conversational technique developed by White and Epston (1990), called exter-
nalization. Externalization moves the conflict outside of the self, and in collective
work, outside of the relationships. Treating the conflict as something external
helps preserve the good relations and sidestep blame. Relationship becomes the
focus, not outcome. This differs from some traditional forms of mediation that
seek to preserve the relationship by first coming to an agreement. By starting
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Sarah Federman
with the relationships, the process has the potential to not only resolve the pres-
ent concern, but also, prevent future conflicts. Whether working via mediation,
coaching, and workshops, those conducting narrative interventions aim at mak-
ing visible the problematic stories in circulation. Then, the stories become the
problem, rather than the individuals or the “other.” When conflict participants
co-construct these stories, they are more likely to uphold and perpetuate them,
leading to lasting outcomes. These new stories tend to represent a more complex
world and a greater level of interconnectedness between the parties.
Example: Working-Class Formation
In his research on working-class formation, Steinmetz (1992) found that the
elaboration of coherent narratives created greater class cohesion if stories of
class were constantly included. In other words, healthier narratives recognize
connections to one another. If, however, individual or collective identity
remains exclusionary or isolated, narratives will be less able to work to reduce
The conflict field has paid increasing attention to the ethics of intervention
(Barry, 2002; Goodhand, 2000). Practitioners increasingly ask themselves, “Who
am I to come as an outsider and involve myself in your conflict?” The justification
for community outsiders to intervene is that the narrative webs in which conflict
parties live limit their ability to see beyond their present reality. What people can
imagine for themselves and those in their lives is limited by what they have seen,
and is being reinforced by similar stories circulating in their world. Narrative
practitioners, in turn, confront the complex task of unpacking their own stories
about the conflict as is informed by their culture and world views.
Example. Creating a Shared History: Israel & Palestine School Textbook
Adwan and Bar-On (2004) explored a narrative approach to the project aimed
at contributing to build peace in Israel and Palestine. Understanding that
deep-seated conflicts can shift slowly and over large periods of time, they
focused on modest goals. They worked with Israelis and Palestinian school
teachers to co-create a school history textbook. As Adwan and Bar-On men-
tion, during “periods of war and conflict, societies and nations tend to
develop their own narratives, which from their perspective become the only
true and morally superior narrative. These narratives devaluate and even
dehumanize their enemy’s right for a narrative” (2004: 514). In turn, these
views become formalized in textbooks that seed those problematic narratives
into the next generation. These authors worked with the schoolteachers to
create “a school booklet that contains two narratives” (p. 516). The booklet
aimed to help students learn to understand and respect history both from
their own and from the Other’s perspective. Adwan and Bar-On believe that
part of the success of their project was due to having actual texts as a product
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Narrative Approaches to Understanding and Responding to Conflict
of their work, something material that teachers could integrate into their
classes. This approach applies specifically to conflicts centered around history
and memory.
8 Evaluation
Narrative can also be used as a tool for project evaluation, as a progressive shift in
narratives with positive markers such as reduction of marginalization, increasing
of complexity, incorporation of previously silenced voices and counter-narratives
and a dominance of zero-sum logic.
Example: Australian Agricultural Programme Evaluation
Dart and Davies (2003) conducted a narrative evaluation of agricultural pro-
grammes in Australia. This evaluation added a story collection to the existing
quantitative measurements. Programme evaluators interviewed 134 farmers
involved in a dairy farming improvement project, focusing on questions of
“most significant changes.” The stories were collected using a standard for-
mat and circulated among the funders as part of the overall evaluation. The
benefit was that the farmers, funders and the programme implementation
team developed an increasingly shared vision not only of the ongoing results,
but of the very goals of the programme. Changes in strategy, when needed,
were more easily developed collaboratively and implemented, aided by this
opening of communication lines. Staff morale improved in the process of tell-
ing the stories, and success stories helped evaluators and funders see where
progress was being made even when quantitative results may not have yet
reflected those changes. In fact, farmer success stories guided the direction of
the next funding cycle. In the view of those authors, the approach they fol-
lowed enriched, and was enriched by, quantitative approaches.
Cobb (2006) created a “turning point” model for evaluation that relies on narra-
tive transformations (discourse shifts) over time along a sequence of stages
1 Delegitimizing Self
2 Moderate Legitimacy for Self and Other
3 Reconstruction of Shared History
4 Construction of Shared Future
5 Reflection on Shared Values
In Stage 1, the individual or group questions their previous assumptions of the
infallibility of their own position as exclusively good and unquestionably justified.
In Stage 2, each party in the conflict begins to envision components of legitimacy
in the other’s construction of the conflict narrative, in addition to relative legiti-
macy in the components of their own narrative. In Stage 3, the formerly opposed
parties construct their past as a shared one, rather than as two mutually isolated
narratives. In Stage 4, the acknowledgement of shared history creates the basis
from which a shared future can be constructed. The notion of a shared future is
The International Journal of Conflict Engagement and Resolution 2016 (4) 2
doi: 10.5553/IJCER/221199652016004002002 165
Sarah Federman
critical, as it counters the frequently damaging assumption that their life would
improve if the other party could simply be eliminated, translated into social
exclusion policies when not of genocidal ideologies and practices. In Stage 5, the
parties conjointly root their commonality by reaffirming explicitly their shared
values as a result of a joint mindful exploration.
Evaluators tracing these narrative shifts over time will also assess whether or
not individuals enact agency and are aware of that capacity, whether they count
on tools to improve their situation in other conflict situations and if they enact
new ways of viewing their prior counterpart, the Other.
9 Conclusion
The narrative lens, emerging and evolving from the fields of linguistics and poet-
ics, finds itself quite at home in the field of conflict resolution and development.
It provides a powerful novel approach to understand conflict, conduct research,
intervene and measure the effectiveness of interventions. Because narrative
approaches operate at a story level, the lens proves comfortably adaptable to dif-
ferent cultural contexts. Because of its ability to navigate the politics of stories
and unveil both “official” and dissenting, marginalized voices, and bring to the
surface stories of oppression and of suppression, creating narrative dialogic
spaces adds a liberating quality to conflict resolution, cementing changes through
the creation of shared futures.
Narrative theory offers a plethora of ways to understand and analyze con-
flicts. To that end, this article introduced structural, functional and poststruc-
tural approaches that may be used when working with individual parties or con-
jointly at different stages within a mediation project. For those interested in nar-
rative interventions, I have introduced elements and tools specifically related to
narrative mediation, coaching and workshops with strong potentials for promot-
ing lasting change. While the formats may differ, narrative interventions share
the goal of developing more encompassing stories that deconstruct and challenge
the conflict while the parties recognize themselves and the other more richly in
stories that are both transformed and transformative. Evaluation methods from
this tradition can also be used to complement quantitative approaches by match-
ing statistical indicators with discursive shifts, and also used to inform evaluators
about the relative vulnerability of various groups and anticipate future violent
outbreaks or community upsets.
Whereas traditional conflict resolution approaches focus on results (meeting
needs, speaking to interests) to preserve relations and stave off violence, narra-
tive approaches promotes a narrative ecology to create a community – including
parties previously in conflict or even confrontation – that is more adaptable and
with enhanced critical skills and resilience. Parties previously engaged in conflicts
emerge from the process politically and ethically enriched and newly integrated
into a larger, safer community. And, not less important, these transformative
experiences also enrich, recursively, the world view of those professionals who
facilitate the process of narrative interventions.
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