ACResolution: You’ve been in the conflict resolution
for a long time, David. When and how did you begin?
What was the state of the field?
DEM: I started in the mid-seventies. I was asked to
mediate a case, never having mediated anything in
my life. I did so, and found that I had a calling. That
was important because it told me something about
my relationship to the field, and I’ve been able to
recognize that particular relationship in lots of other
people. In general a calling is a good thing, because it
means a lot of people put a lot of time into something
they really care about.
But perhaps it isn’t only a good thing. It may have
some drawbacks. The notion of it being a calling,
suggesting that there’s a kind of higher value to
which members are committed, may encourage a
lack of flexibility and openness as to the nature of
what we do. I have worried from time to time that our
field is too committed to the notion that what we do
is the only right thing to do; that the way we do it is
the only right way.
This is a problem, in terms of research; it’s a problem in terms of our teaching. I’m not sure it’s a
problem in terms of our practice, because we don’t
have enough evidence about that.
ACR: How has the field changed since the 1970s?
DEM: It’s certainly grown voluminously with regard
to the numbers involved, programs for education and
training, the number of people who think it’s a good
thing, and the number of publications, both academic
and popular. So it’s moved in that way. We also have
a vocabulary we didn’t have then. But its growth has
largely been horizontal, so to speak. It’s grown into new
fields and countries. I’m not sure it’s grown in terms of
depth. I’m not sure we know a lot more today than we
did 40 years ago, in terms of how this ought to be done,
whether we know more about how conflict functions.
We say we know a lot, but what is the evidence that
we are right about that?
ACR: Freud once said that, "It almost looks like
analysis is the third of those 'impossible' professions
in which one can be quite sure of unsatisfying
results. The other two, much older-established, are
the bringing up of children and the government of
nations." Is conflict resolution turning out to be a fourth
DEM: Yes, but the question is, why is it impossible?
What is impossible about it? Why can’t the problems
be solved? The answer may be due to the fact that
conflict resolution is much more complex and varied
and subtle than the kind of research we do can capture. If you look at the levels of funding that go into
neuroscience, into genetics, into artificial intelligence,
and the kind of micro-levels those researchers go
into in their work, we do nothing remotely like that.
And if you think that bringing peace into the world
is more important than, say, bringing a Roomba into
your living room, then one might have thought we’d
invest that much, but of course we don’t.
ACR: Why do you think that is?
DEM: I don’t know whether to say that the money
hasn’t been invested because nobody has confidence in our ability to do that research, or whether
we just haven’t thought to try to get the money
at that scale. Nor have we begun to build the field
through research. Social sciences never have done
research as well as natural sciences, because the
subject matters are really quite different from each
other. But my sense is that we are, rather like therapy, more stagnant in terms of understanding what
we do and why it succeeds or fails, or whether
indeed it succeeds or fails.
We live more on our hope – practitioner hope –
as well as the hope of the people who hire us and
want it to work. Conflict is painful, conflict is difficult,
conflict is costly, our clients say. You people claim
to know something about it, so let’s give you a try.
That doesn’t sound a lot different from what people
say about therapy, especially therapy that isn’t connected to pharmaceuticals.
If our field were to connect to pharmaceuticals,
that might change things. If it were to connect more
to neuroscience, which is of course happening at the
edges, that might change things. If someone could
show that understanding certain aspects of how the
brain works might have an impact on dealing with how
What Works? How Do We Know?
An Interview with David E. Matz
has worked extensively with Arab and
Jewish groups in
United States and
the Middle East, as
well as in Nigeria
and China. He is
also a co-funder
of The Mediation
Group. In 2016 the
the David Matz Fellowship in his honor.
David E. Matz is Professor Emeritus of Conflict Resolution in the McCormack Graduate School
at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, where he founded the conflict
resolution program in 1986.