Conflict resolution: Challenging “us versus them”

The rise of right-wing populist and anti-immigration political parties and the continuing sectarian conflicts across the world all contribute to the tensions associated with globalisation. Cambridge Enterprise supported a programme designed by University researchers to address these issues across various groups whilst it was still in its infancy.

Dr Sara Savage, a social psychologist based in the Department of Psychology, partnered with Cambridge Enterprise to operationalise a programme with the aim of preventing ideological extremism and intergroup conflict. The model, developed by Dr Savage, Dr Jose Liht and Dr Eolene Boyd-MacMillan, has achieved wide success and is being taken up in countries around the world. Savage and Boyd-MacMillan subsequently obtained funding from Cambridge Enterprise Seed Funds to meet the growing demand for their work by establishing a not-for profit company: ICthinking (Cambridge) Limited, with Simon Pellew, OBE, as CEO.

In many places around the world, and under difficult conditions, people with widely differing viewpoints are compelled to rub shoulders – often uncomfortably – with each other. In doing so, people often experience that their values and their identity are under threat, whether that threat is real or perceived. Personal and cultural values are a primary motivating force, underpinning the way people think, behave and relate to the wider world. When individuals feel that their values or identity are under threat, they tend to go into cognitive constriction, failing to see or even consider opposing points of view. This way of thinking becomes quite self-limiting, potentially leading to a clash with those who disagree, and can affect any group or belief system.

A series of original programmes to address the tensions of worldview clash has been designed by Savage, Boyd-MacMillan and Liht. The programmes use multimedia and role-play activities to give participants the tools they need to see some validity in differing viewpoints, while remaining true to their own values.

These courses don’t so much ‘engineer’ a change as remove obstacles to young people being able to think about the social world according to a wider array of their own values.

Dr Sara Savage

The aim of the programmes is to promote social cohesion while respecting difference by promoting participants’ Integrative Complexity (IC) – the ability to see value in differing viewpoints around a given issue, and to perceive a wider framework that can make sense of difference. The first of these courses to be rolled out, Being Muslim Being British (BMBB) designed with Liht, serves as a primary prevention to build resilience in Muslim youth against the pull of radical groups and radical discourse that has been so prevalent online. The team has thoroughly tested twenty five BMBB programmes around the country, as well as in Kenya, Scotland, and now Finland. The team is also working to develop ‘all extremisms’ prevention programmes with Ealing Borough Council in London schools, and in other parts of the world.

“These courses don’t so much ‘engineer’ a change as remove obstacles to young people being able to think about the social world according to a wider array of their own values. By creating a safe context with the necessary resources, the obstacles disappear and people are free to think for themselves,” says Savage.

“Our courses are about enabling young people to flourish. We present a dilemma and give them the resources to try out various solutions for themselves – we never steer them toward a particular solution.”

In addition to the BMBB programme, Boyd-MacMillan and Savage have received three consecutive grants from the Scottish government to address sectarian issues between Catholic and Protestant groups as well as tensions regarding immigration, education, employment, and other social issues in Scotland. Boyd-MacMillan has been running the Conflict Transformation course in colleges and professional networks, addressing religious and social inter-group conflicts. A total of forty-three assessed IC courses now show significant gains in IC (the ability to engage with opposing viewpoints). All of these programmes have run through Cambridge Enterprise’s Consultancy Services team. The team also works through ICthinking (Cambridge) Ltd and the Department of Psychology.

You can learn more about ICthinking in our film.

Photo credit: London – Portobello Market by nabekor via Flickr

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