Friday, November 22, 2013

Conflict, emotion, and engagement in science: Internal conflict (Part 2)

As I mentioned in a previous post, I come very much from a community engagement perspective in the sciences, having spent a lot of time working in cooperative extension and as a scientist in an environmental advocacy organization. These are arenas in which relationships between people play a central role in the scientific and technical work of the institutions as a whole, and certainly for individuals. Engagement work is, for me, the best and only way to work. It is really rewarding, but there is no denying that at times it can also be uncomfortable and challenging when we inevitably disagree or have different needs or whatever the case may be.

I am really interested in how to develop an approach in the natural sciences that more explicitly integrates relationships between people not only into how we communicate, but also into the fabric of the work itself. And within any discussion about relationships, the topic of conflict deserves special attention simply because it is a part of the territory, as we can all likely attest to from our own personal relationships. But, the good news is that while conflict can be challenging, it is also what leads to growth and change if we can learn to work with it.

There is a growing body of work about environmental conflict, and it's really interesting - things like whether climate change could be leading to increased violence and how best to manage conservation conflicts, and I myself sometimes wonder whether certain environmental issues are taking on the characteristics of intractable conflict. But, for now, what I am really interested in talking about is the role of our own internal conflict in science engagement. While many of us tend to get uncomfortable talking about conflict in general, it's even harder when we refocus the lens back on ourselves and our role in it, but being able to do so is vital.

Science put out a special issue on Human Conflict in 2012, and I'm going to provide a brief summary of what that was all about. Basically, the current understanding of conflict is that it stems from the “otherization” of individuals, groups, and even the natural world. The idea is that we tend to make people (or nature) "other than" or separate and different from ourselves. And this otherization leads us to more easily empathize with our “ingroup” and to dehumanize “outgroups." This is an interesting challenge because being able to identify the "other" is actually important from a childhood development perspective - it helps us to form our identities as children. But, it can become deleterious as we mature because it can lead to an emphasis on differences between “us” and “them" - so in some ways it's something we need to unlearn as we age. At the same time, new research is increasingly documenting cases of cooperation, peacemaking, and sharing that can also arise when otherization is reduced. In addition, the concept of reconciliation has shown that in animal communities, existing relationships can be used to resolve conflict.

Okay, so that was a bit of a whirlwind and generalized tour of a very large topic, but the basic point is that conflict manifests in our interactions with others and most of us prefer to see conflict as outside of ourselves, much of the real work involves contending with our own internal conflicts. So, one strategy for working through it is to actively expand our sense of self to encompass the other person, group, environment, or even parts of ourselves that we otherize. Another is deepen our sense of compassion and caring for others. That is why I spend a lot of time working on the practice of deep listening and the value of contemplative practice in engaged scientific work. These are the kinds of tools that have helped me to be more comfortable with conflict and the other wide range of emotions that arise when I focus on relating.

Conflict provides, paradoxically, a challenge and an opportunity. If we can accept and even value conflict as a natural outgrowth of an effective engaged approach in the sciences, it also changes the capacities we want to cultivate in ourselves and our profession in order to be a part of a solutions-oriented process.

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