Individuals, Groups and Intergroups: Theorizing about the Role of Identity in Conflict and its Creative Engagement

M. Alberstein, Jay Rothman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Proactively engaging identity issues in conflict situations has become increasingly common in the last decades, and may be considered as part of a second generation of the growing field of conflict studies and intervention. This paper argues that identity is a distinct category underlying all conflicts, and not just as one of many basic human needs. This paper examines expressions of identity through reference to three distinct levels of analysis – individual identity, group identity, and intergroup identity. A basic argument which the paper promotes is that second generation conflict engagement models (Transformative Mediation, ARIA, and Narrative forms), shift attention from individualistic identity to group identity. We develop a few arguments:First, we believe that it is both theoretically interesting and practically useful to view identity as an underlying layer of all conflicts which is more or less salient. When it is less salient (as in personal conflicts) and most salient (as in group conflicts) this will determine the type of intervention a third party may conduct. We put forward this schema of conflict as both a vehicle for analysis and intervention planning.Second, conflict engagement models should fit the level of identity on which they work, and working on the group level should be a default choice when various levels of identity interact. Individualistic identity "I am like no other" informs an underlying layer which consists of needs and interests. The Group Identity in which "I am like some others" with the major experience of a person being part of a specific group, sees identities as largely socially constructed and collectively expressed. The Intergroup Identity, in which one feels "I am like all others" incorporates the previous notions, since it contains the assumption that individuals are socially constructed as in the group identity level, but it weaves it into a notion of identities at play with each other much as individuals interact and co-create each other in the interactions. Third, working on the group level of identity should be done through a shift to an intermediate level between group and intergroup. Although the intergroup level conceptually is the more accurate and can be used for analysis and theorizing about identity in conflicts, in terms of conflict engagement work, we found that aspiring to an intermediate level in which group identity is challenged, but intergroup identity is not a goal for itself, is the most productive method to deal with what we used to called identity-based conflict.Fourth, this paper lays out the foundation for future extensive conflict engagement research which will articulate in a nuanced way the way in which various model of conflict engagement deal with group identities and reconstruct them. It also calls upon rich case studies of concrete interventions in identity conflict which will examine and code identity expressions by using the conceptual framework suggested above.
Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)631-657
JournalOhio State Journal on Dispute Resolution
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2013


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