A tribute to Herbert Kelman´s research and practice (31 March, 2012)

On the occassion of Herbert Kelman´s 85th birthday, Charles Greenbaum highlighted two very special aspects of his research and practice:

“Herb’s achievements are many, but there are two aspects of Herb’s research and practice that are important to mention. One of these aspects is specific to Herb’s activity, while the other relates to the wider implications of Herb’s special approach to managing and reducing conflict among peoples.

Herb took remarkable care in the planning and execution of the intensive weekend intergroup workshops that he organized at Harvard University involving representatives  of the Israeli and Palestinian communities. I had the privilege of participating in one of these workshops.  In these meetings students in Herb’s seminar acted as observers and as a “third party”.  Herb and Rose worked as a team to give maximum opportunity for each side to present its views. There were opportunities for informal discussions among participants outside the sessions during breaks, with an informal get-together at the end of the workshop at Herb and Rose’s home.

Herb and Rose managed to create an atmosphere that was “business-like”. The activities included  formal meetings, presentations of views, and interventions by Herb and the third party to enable the sides to clarify their stands and enable the possibility of narrowing of gaps in the meetings. The informal activities  created a feeling of warmth and trust. The timing of these activities in the course of the meetings was precise. Most interventions came in the later stages.  The participants had ample opportunity to react to any interventions or suggestions.  These procedures, so I understand from Herb, were  replicated  from year to year, so that Herb has a multi-year  base from which he can draw conclusions and formulate hypotheses about the processes of change of attitudes and behavior in a conflict, and of the elements that hinder change.

In his writing Herb has suggested that the workshops yielded insights into the processes that groups in conflict undergo when attempting to resolve a conflict.  For me the workshop provided a model for the organization of meetings for intergroup understanding, and an opportunity to learn about the lives of individuals in Palestinian society.  It raised hopes that communication and dialogue may have an effect on people’s thinking and behavior.

The second point that is important to mention is the unique methodological and ethical approach that Herb developed in the course of his work. Herb’s work constitutes a classic example of  action research, in the spirit of Kurt Lewin:  the researcher takes action and assesses what has been done. The assessment is often difficult to do, and therefore few researchers take on the task to which Herb devoted himself: performing group interventions with middle- or high- ranking officials and academicians from each conflicting side in effecting and assessing progress in conflict solution.

However, Herb’s work  is unique  not only in its approach and in the population he studies but also  for the way ethical and methodological issues are handled within the context of the research. Most action researchers  do not undertake  actions or interventions unless they can be assessed and evaluated systematically. In simple terms if the action cannot be assessed, one has to give up on the action. Herb’s approach is the opposite: if the research interferes with the action, then the research must be modified, even at the expense of methodological rigor. In Herb’s view the assessment is important but the action, the attempt at conflict resolution, is critical.

Herb has thus dispensed with tape-recording the sessions in order to create an atmosphere in which people would be willing to talk literally off the record. Herb allows the participants to remain anonymous, so researchers reading reports of the sessions do not know exactly what positions the participants hold in their home societies. These and other aspects of the interventions make assessment and replication by other researchers difficult. For Herb, these are secondary issues. The most important goal is to enable the participants to reach the maximum level of understanding and agreement that is possible. Researchers may still learn from the detailed description of the procedures used in the workshops that Herb has provided in his writings.

Herb’s research has thus made a unique contribution, and the extent of that contribution, since its effects may not be apparent immediately, may only appear in the long term. The research leads to thoughts of extension and amplification. One such direction is the development of  models of communication between individuals who have achieved understanding with “the other side”   and politicians and the public on their own side. This is the problem faced by the Geneva Initiative and similar proposals, and constitutes a challenge to all who engage in negotiation for conflict resolution. Herb himself has been criticized by those who misunderstand his approach as going too far in accommodation to the other.

Though there is still much work to be done on the role of the social scientist in conflict resolution among peoples, Herb’s work has demonstrated that social scientists have may have an important role in reducing conflict through directed workshops with opinion leaders, academics and public officials.  This unique work took courage to carry out.  It provides the base for helping us all in our efforts toward eliminating violence and protecting human rights through achieving better understanding among peoples.”