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Attracted to Conflict: Dynamic Foundations of Destructive Social Relations (Peace Psychology Book Series)

Vallacher, Robin R., Coleman, Peter T., Nowak, Andrzej, Bui-Wrzosinska, Lan, Liebovitch, Larry, Kugler, Katharina and Bartoli, Andrea
Springer-Verlag: Berlin, 2013
ISBN 9783642352799 (hb)

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Reviewed by Sebastian Schutte
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich

Cover of book Attracted to conflict packs a big promise: "The perspective developed in this book was motivated in part by the inability of traditional models of social relations to impose coherence on the multifaceted nature of conflict in human affairs".

The book is compiled in a somewhat cumulative fashion, featuring multiple sections and subsections per chapter, but is nevertheless well structured. Chapters 1-3 introduce necessary concepts and terminology. Chapters 4 and 5 introduce computational models and discuss their implications. The concluding chapters 6-8 discuss lessons learned and articulate policy implications.

Theoretically, the book is centered around the notion of "intractable conflict", referring to conflicts that are more persistent, destructive, and resilient to resolution than others. The authors argue that these conflicts are ruled by their own set of principles, which they try to identify and model. Two research traditions inform their approach: insights from experimental social psychology and the complexity sciences. In direct comparison, conflict research based in political science or sociology is somewhat underrepresented, which is certainly regrettable. Some of the most distinguished political scientists of the twentieth century have combined insights from psychology to explain war and peace, and mentioning the legacies of Lewis Fry Richardson, Karl Deutsch, Kenneth Boulding, and Herbert Simon in passing would have added a lot to the literature review. Instead, a section entitled "Ignoring relevant theory and research" on page 146 laments that nonlinear dynamical systems are omnipresent in nature and that "a deep, comprehensive, and heuristic account of this phenomenon [intractable conflict]" critically relies on corresponding theory.

Intractable conflict as a strong attractor state in the dynamic interaction between actors is certainly an innovative approach. While traditional empirical analysis usually focuses on treatment effects of some exogenous variable on properties of social and political conflicts, this perspective suggests that conflict itself can become self-perpetuating as a functions of its own history. The authors do a great job in translating their systemic insights into specific political and psychological processes (p.113-114). However, it would have been very interesting to discuss whether and to what extent this perspective differs from conflict being understood as an equilibrium state, as is commonly done in game theory. Moreover, extreme value theory and comparable research on heavy-tailed distributions could have been applied to illustrate the empirical reality of intractable conflicts.

The simulation models presented in the second half of the book demonstrate some of the proposed mechanisms. In addition to serving as illustrations for the theory, the authors also use them to identify strategies for solving intractable conflicts.

The book's insights are original and illuminating, but its brief mention of the practices and capabilities of mainstream social science does not do full justice to the rapid empirical and methodological developments in political science and sociology. Moreover, the derivation of policy implications is somewhat bold, given that the book features innovative theory and models, but no assessment of whether or not the model predictions or policy implications actually align with empirical reality. As the book's scope is very general, it should be possible to try out some of the conflict containment strategies derived from the models in randomized controlled trials.

In summary, this book is very well worth reading. The premise of crafting unifying paradigms beyond the realm of middle-range studies is certainly fascinating. Adding original insights from social psychology and the complexity sciences, this book is a welcome contribution to this overarching research program.


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