Introductory Resources to DST: Part 2

The materials presented below offer an introductory subset of literature to further your exploration of DST and its foundation in social psychology, complexity science, and the field of peace and conflict. These resources inform our insights into understanding, thinking about and engaging with intractable conflict, complex social systems and sustainable peace.

Journal Articles

Rethinking Intractable Conflict: The Perspective of Dynamical Systems 
Robin Vallacher, Peter T. Coleman, Andrzej Nowak, Lynn Bui-Wrzosinska

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An intractable conflict is one that has become entrenched in cognitive, affective, and social-structural mechanisms, a transformation that effectively distances the conflict from the perceived incompatibilities that launched it. (Vallacher, Coleman, Nowak & Bui-Wrzosinska,  2010)

Research on conflict presents a wide range of ALM Landscape image
factors and processes associated with intractable conflict.  The challenge, however, is to provide a coherent perspective that supports action.  This article, presented in a question and answer format, explores the application of the dynamical systems perspective as an approach to understand the mechanisms that keep intractable conflicts ‘stuck,’ including our need for coherence in the face of complexity and ambiguity, the loss of adaptability, and our desire for a stable platform for action. [More…]

Abstract:  Intractable conflicts are demoralizing. Beyond destabilizing the families, communities, or international regions in which they occur, they tend to perpetuate the very conditions of misery and hate that contributed to them in the first place. Although the common factors and processes associated with intractable conflicts have been identified through research, they represent an embarrassment of riches for theory construction. Thus, the current task in this area is integrating these diverse factors into an account that provides a coherent perspective yet allows for prediction and a basis for conflict resolution in specific conflict settings. We suggest that the perspective of dynamical systems provides such an account. This article outlines the key concepts and hypotheses associated with this approach. It is organized around a set of basic questions concerning in- tractable conflict for which the dynamical perspective offers fresh insight and testable propositions. The questions and answers are intended to provide readers with basic concepts and principles of complexity and dynamical systems that are useful for rethinking the nature of intractable conflict and the means by which such conflict can be transformed.

Vallacher, R. R., Coleman, P. T., Nowak, A., & Bui-Wrzosinska, L. (2010). Rethinking intractable conflict: The perspective of dynamical systems. American Psychologist, 65(4), 262-278.

Peace and Conflict:  Journal of Peace Psychology
Special Issue: Dynamical Systems Theory and Conflict
Editor:  Fathali Moghaddam, PhD

Authors include Wieslaw Bartkowski, Andrea Bartoli, Lan Bui-Wrzosinska, Peter T. Coleman, Morton Deutsch, Larry Liebovitch, Jay Michaels, Naira Musallam, Andrzej Nowak, Ryszard Praszkier, Sorin Solomon, and Robin Vallacher.

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This special issue conceptualizes and investigates intractable social coPeace and Conflictnflict from the perspective of dynamical social psychology. This approach represents a distillation of the concepts, methods, and tools associated with dynamical systems and complexity science that were initially developed in mathematics and the natural sciences. Articles in this special issue address interpersonal to international contexts, formation of attractors and insights from social simulation modeling, and a case study where the emergence of peace in Mozambique is viewed through a dynamical system lens.

(2010) Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 16(2), 211-230.


Attracted to Conflict: Dynamic Foundations of Destructive Social Relations
Robin Vallacher, Peter T. Coleman, Andrzej Nowak, Lynn Bui-Wrzosinska, Katharina Kugler, Larry Leibovitch, & Andrea Bartoli

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Attracted to Conflict book cover

Conflict is inherent in virtually every aspect of human relations. This book addresses the subject of intractable social conflict as self-organizing phenomena, emerging quite naturally from the ongoing dynamics in human interaction at any scale—from the interpersonal to the international. Using the universal language and computational framework of nonlinear dynamical systems theory in combination with recent insights from social psychology, intractable conflict is understood as a system locked in special attractor states that constrain the thoughts and actions of the parties to the conflict. [More…]

The emergence and maintenance of attractors for conflict can be described by means of formal models that incorporate the results of computer simulations, experiments, field research, and archival analyses. Multi-disciplinary research reflecting these approaches provides encouraging support for the dynamical systems perspective.

The book reframes the essential features of conflict in terms of the principles, metaphors, and methods of dynamical systems. The following two chapters, in particular, provide groundwork for further study of the dynamical systems theory and intractable social systems.

Chapter 3
Foundations: The Dynamical Perspective on Social Processes [More…]

This chapter explores the relevance of dynamical social psychology, showing how seemingly different aspects of human experience can be understood in terms of basic principles of dynamical systems explored in other areas of science. It traces insights from the early days of social psychology including the legacy of Kurt Lewin through to the emergence of dynamical social psychology. The basic research strategy of dynamical minimalism is also presented. The insight, derived from the study of nonlinear dynamical systems, holds that complex phenomenon can be understood through a small number of simple rules interacting over time leading to complex social phenomenon.

Chapter 6
Escape: How Conflicts Can Be Transformed [More…]

Many things to resolve intractable conflict have been tried, at times making matters worse and not better. This chapter reframes conflict in terms of attractor dynamics and notes traps that we often fall into by treating conflict as problem to solve – from thinking in straight lines, marginalizing emotions, and privileging the short term to overly simplistic modeling.   The authors recommend that instead of solving the problem, the goal is to change the attractor landscape through deconstructing conflict attractors and building latent attractors that foster constructive processes. The chapter ends with offering three practices for addressing seemingly intractable conflict also presented in The Five Percent: complicate to simplify, build up and tear down, and change to stabilize.

Vallacher, R. R., Coleman, P. T., Nowak, A., Bui-Wrozsinska, L., Kugler, K., Leibovitch, L. & Bartoli, A., (2013). Attracted to conflict: The dynamic foundations of malignant social relations. New York, NY: Springer. (Note:  Available in print or as an E-book.)

A Case Study: The Emergence of Peace in Mozambique


Mozambique, after 16 years of violent civil war, successfully transitioned to peace in 1992. The following three resources offer a dynamical systems perspective of what happened and provides a case study to understand the implications of the dynamical systems theory. The trio of listed resources starts with a short five-minute video, followed by recommended reading in the The Five Percent by Peter T. Coleman. Lastly, the journal article, Peace is in Movement: A Dynamical Systems Perspective on the Emergence of Peace in Mozambique, suggests the transition to peace as an emergent process impacted by a variety of interdependent elements including unique local conditions that helped to shift the attractor landscape from conflict to peace.

Video: A Conflict in Mozambique – The Five Percent Problem
Peter T. Coleman

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This video provides a short five-minute introduction to the conflict as seen through a DST lens.

Book: The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts
Peter T. Coleman

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The Five Percent includes a more in depth and readable case study of peace breaking out after years of conflict. The three practices of complicate to simplify, build up and tear down, and change to stabilize are discussed.  Please refer to pages 187 – 217 for the case.

Coleman, P. T. (2011). The five percent: Finding solutions to seemingly impossible conflicts. New York, NY: Public Affairs.

Journal Article: Peace is in Movement: A Dynamical Systems Perspective on the Emergence of Peace in Mozambique.
Andrea Bartoli, Lynn Bui-Wrzosinska and Andrzej Nowak

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Bartoli, Bui-Wrzosinska and Nowak use the dynamical systems framework to explore the shift from an open, adaptive social system to a closed one with limited adaptive potential that maintained the conflict.  The reintroduction of adaptive functions into the social system is explored and its association with the emergence of peace.

Bartoli, A., Bui-Wrzosinska, L., & Nowak, A. (2010). Peace is in movement: A dynamical systems perspective on the emergence of peace in Mozambique. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 16(2), 211-230. doi:10.1080/10781911003691609

Ongoing Research and Additional Resources & Publications 

The Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR) at Teachers College is committed to developing knowledge and practice to promote constructive conflict resolution, effective cooperation, and social justice. The Center supports a robust basic and applied research agenda that includes exploring the Dynamical Systems Theory and its application to intractable conflict and complex social systems.  Please see the MD-ICCCR’s Research pages and, more specifically, their project on Intractable Conflict Dynamics for details of the current and past research in this area.

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