Faculty Research Profiles

NADIM N. ROUHANA – PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL NEGOTIATION AND CONFLICT STUDIES

From his experience growing up as a Palestinian in Israel to his extensive research and practice in the field, Nadim Rouhana has examined protracted social conflict from various angles. Rouhana’s research highlights the centrality of identity, history, and justice in such conflicts and underscores the need to develop theory to understand these conflicts and tools with which to approach them.

As founding director of Haifa’s Mada al-Carmel—Arab Center for Applied Social Research, which examines conflict in multi-ethnic states, former director of Point of View, an international research and retreat center at George Mason University’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, and author of myriad publications, Professor Rouhana comes to The Fletcher School with an illustrious career under his belt. He sees his installation at Fletcher as an opportunity to critically examine conflict studies and develop a new paradigm of conflict resolution that will be inclusive of perspectives beyond those developed in the West.

Rouhana identifies a number of omissions and assumptions in the existing paradigm, including a strong tendency to symmetricize conflicting parties. This is a mistake, Rouhana argues. Power asymmetry should be a fundamental consideration in conflict analysis as it results in differing views on the agenda, relative importance of the status quo, and visions of change and an optimal future.

“As researchers, conflict analysts, and third parties,” Rouhana says, “we have to be very careful about symmetricizing conflicts. We also have to allow the parties themselves, including the low-power party, to define what issues concern them most.” He speculates that when the focus shifts from conflict analysis to conflict resolution, high-power parties’ concerns tend to dominate the agenda.

Rouhana’s new paradigm challenges existing assumptions and emphasizes, in addition to the question of power asymmetry, issues of history, historical responsibility, and social justice, each of which is largely absent in applied conflict resolution. Rouhana stresses the imperative of addressing social justice when restructuring opposing parties’ political relations to respond to universal values of equality and social justice. By placing greater emphasis on comprehensive conflict analysis, and by giving history and justice their due place, Rouhana seeks to make conflict resolution more relevant to what has been called ”the third world.” “It is hard for many political cultures to talk about conflict resolution,” he argues, “particularly people in the third world who are involved in these conflicts, without bringing history and justice to the table.”

As a predoctoral student associate and a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, Rouhana studied under Professor Herbert C. Kelman, with whom he worked on an approach called the problem-solving workshop (PSW). The PSW was designed as a one-time event focusing primarily on pre-influential participants. Cognizant of the limitations imposed by the one-time event, Rouhana, together with Kelman, worked to pioneer a new approach called the continuing workshop. Informed by a socio-psychological approach, the continuing workshop features regular intensive meetings between high-ranking non-official individuals over a long period of time. The meetings are designed to facilitate constructive interaction between opposing parties in an effort to advance jointly formulated ideas on how to address major issues of dispute in a given conflict.

Conflicts over non-negotiable human needs such as identity and recognition, on which a compromise is not workable, transcend traditional ripeness theory and render traditional power-based negotiations fundamentally ineffective. From Rouhana’s perspective, the continuing workshop moves closer, but not close enough, to addressing this lacuna by connecting conflicting parties in a safe and informal setting with the opportunity to explore, freely and deeply, both sides’ concerns, needs, and constraints. But, to have the potential to produce genuine trust and contribute to foundations of eventual enduring reconciliation, a PSW should be able to address the more challenging issues of history, responsibility, and justice, which it has traditionally ignored.

Despite its immense potential, Professor Rouhana views the continuing workshop’s achievements with mixed feelings. The workshops failed to address the full range of issues in conflict studies, he admits, including the centrality of history and justice. Yet they highlighted the importance of allowing each party to define its own agenda, of respecting these positions, and of fighting the tendency to give more credence to issues presented by the high-power groups at the expense of other concerns.

“Unlike negotiations,” he says, “which are obviously appropriate in many international and domestic settings, and which are influenced by the power relations between the parties, I think it’s important to realize that people might have other ideas of how to deal with the fundamental issues in protracted social conflict. We have to be respectful of their concerns. These ideas and agendas differ depending on where the party is in the power relation matrix.” To advance the methodology of PSWs, Rouhana says, we have to respect less powerful groups’ views about the importance of justice, responsibility, and history.

Rouhana’s recent publications and projects underscore his commitment to highlighting the importance of history in conflict studies. He is currently planning a conference at Fletcher, “Looking Past, Looking Forward: The History and Future of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” with a colleague from UCLA. The conference kicks off a project to discuss future relations between Palestinians and the Israelis by examining the nature of their past encounters. Rouhana defines the goal as “bringing the conflict’s history, and the nature of the original encounter itself, into discussions about the future.”

Elise Crane, F11