The Polarization Report Is Out

Language and Communication in Conflict Resolution

Language and Communication in Conflict Resolution

Sana Vaidya, Beyond Conflict Graduate Fellow

This series explores the changing trends in the conflict resolution field over the past 30 years. In conversation with practitioners working across different contexts, we trace the evolution of thought and practice that shape the way forward.  


Dr. Marika Landau-Wells is the second feature in this series. A social scientist and Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Landau-Wells conducts research on the effects of cognitive processes on political mechanisms. To gain more insights about the conflict resolution field from an academic point of view, our conversation started off examining the intersection of behavioral science and the understanding of conflict. 

Q: How does brain and behavioral science affect how you understand violence and conflict?

Dr. Landau-Wells: I ground most of my research into conflict and security in the brain and behavioral sciences.  We do not yet know as much as we would like about how the brain works, but I think it is still useful to constrain our explanations of violence and conflict based on what we do know. As a social scientist, I am acutely aware that it is possible to invent myriad explanations for violence, conflict, or other social phenomena.  Grounding our explanations in what we know about the mind and brain is important because it provides a check on our own preferences and biases for how the world should work.

Q: What role does methodology play in your understanding of conflict resolution?

Dr. Landau-Wells: I’m not sure I would call it a methodology, but I think conflict resolution is a space where our intuitions are powerful and often wrong – something I learned from Dr. Emile Bruneau.  Using scientific approaches to study what strategies do and do not promote resolution is important because these methods can provide a check on our intuitions. These approaches create space for us to be wrong and for us to be okay with that. 

Q: How has the field evolved from the beginning of your career?

Dr. Landau-Wells: I’m still at the beginning of my career so I can say that not too much has changed since I started doing research.  But generally, there seems to be an increasing comfort with using brain and behavioral sciences as reference points in program evaluations of all kinds.

Q: Have education frameworks changed?

Dr. Landau-Wells: I do think that there is increasing demand for interdisciplinary research and teaching.  I teach a class for undergraduates at UC Berkeley on the political psychology of conflict and security.  It’s not a class with much precedent. I didn’t find many similar courses when I started to design my own.  But there was plenty of demand from students, so I think that these types of interdisciplinary courses will become more common over time.

Q: Which areas do you think are understudied that have potential to inform the way people think about conflict?

Dr. Landau-Wells: I think language and communication are probably understudied with respect to how we think about conflict.  There is a tendency towards simplicity in the analysis of conflict and language at the moment – looking at the use of particular words on social media or in government communications, for example.  There are reasons why word usage is the focus, of course.  As one example, studying word choice allows researchers to deploy some of the newer analytic tools, including certain machine learning approaches.  But I think much of what we do to motivate one another to take part in conflict, or to end it, resides in meaning as much as, if not more than, diction.  I think the study of conflict-related language, especially meaning and discourse, could benefit from greater attention. 

Q: What do policy-makers need to consider in domestic and international contexts?

Dr. Landau-Wells: I suppose I would reiterate my point about intuition often being wrong.  Most policy-making operates on a timeline that is too fast for scientific research and that discrepancy gives permission in some sense for policy-makers to rely on their intuitions rather than on research.  However, the stakes surrounding conflict and conflict resolution are often incredibly high and so I think – at a minimum – policy-makers need to appreciate that their intuitions about why conflict occurs and what it will take to end a conflict may be wrong.  That doesn’t offer them a solution, obviously.  But it does suggest that policy-makers should develop longer term relationships with researchers who have deep expertise and who can be called upon in a crisis.  In the U.S. at least, these kinds of connections have historical precedent, during the Cold War for example.  It should be clear that policy-makers should not simply be hunting for rubber-stamp approvals from the research community though.  Rather, they should be willing to entertain suggestions and advice from people who spend their lives critically considering the causes and consequences of violence and conflict.

An academic perspective like that of Dr. Landau-Wells is crucial to understanding conflict resolution because the field is as intersectional in theory as it is in practice. The practitioners of tomorrow are taught and conditioned by the teachers of today. Dr. Landau-Wells touches upon salient but understudied aspects of the role of intuition, language, and the use of brain and behavioral science in research and conflict resolution.

Dr. Marika Landau-Wells is a social scientist and Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley, conducting research on the effects of cognitive processes on political mechanisms.

Sana Vaidya is a Beyond Conflict Graduate Fellow, and current master’s student in Conflict Resolution at Georgetown University, pursuing a certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies.

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