Why Psychoanalysis Provides That Extra Bit to Conflict Studies

Olivier Loose
Dec 8, 2019 · 5 min read
Incorporating psychoanalysis into conflict studies may prove helpful for practical intervention strategies.
Incorporating psychoanalysis into conflict studies may prove helpful for practical intervention strategies.
Source: pixabay.com

The field of psychodynamics is an umbrella term for all the theories in the field of psychology — yet, most specifically, psychoanalysis — that largely center on unconscious mental processes, such as enemy imagery formation, when studying conscious human behaviour.

Quoting psychoanalyst Charles Rycroft, psychoanalysis “interprets human behaviour in terms of the self that experiences it and not in terms of entities external to it, such as other-worldly deities and leaders, and […] regards the self as a psychobiological entity which is always striving for self-realization and self-fulfilment”¹.

Bringing in Conflict Studies

Many psychosocial, psychopolitical and conflict transformation scholars, such as Tim Hicks, Vamik Volkan, Malgorzata Kalinowska, Stevan Hobfoll, Henri Tajfel, Ronald Fisher, Herbert Kelman, Alon Ben-Meir and others, have each in their own way made the case for a more pronounced role of psychology in conflict studies.

As a case in point, Ronald Fisher denotes that “individual-level psychologists (especially those of a psychodynamic bent) see unrealistic conflict as common and as rooted in intrapsychic processes”².

According to Fisher, unrealistic conflicts emanate from differences arising in the mind rather than from objective disparities in the real world, whereas realistic conflict is characterized by the latter.

Volkan recognizes the merit of perusing inter-group conflicts through a psychoanalytical lens, and strongly endorses a psychodynamic analysis of inter-group conflicts prior to engaging in any kind of intervention⁴.

Indeed, to discern the concept of large-group identity, he argues, it is fundamental to fathom the intra-group and inter-group psychodynamic processes at play⁵.

Conflict Resolved. Is It Really?

While not denying its importance, reaching agreement on issues in inter-group conflicts does, however, not axiomatically lead to the disentanglement of underlying conflict dynamics⁶.

After all, it is the process of reconciliation that holds the capacity to restore damaged conflict relationships in divided societies⁷.

In this context, I favour a psychodynamic approach that transcends any specific phase of conflict resolution. I hereby follow psychosocial and conflict scholar Daniel Bar-Tal’s reasoning, which interestingly points out that understanding the psychodynamics of inter-group conflict can be useful for both conflict resolution and reconciliation processes⁸.

Furthermore, psychopolitical scholar Kurt Jacobsen pinpoints that “rational choice notions, supposedly stripped of emotion, consistently lead to distorted depictions of human action”⁹.

To that extent, psychoanalytical scholar Emanuel Berman stresses the importance of the quality of self-other relations in reference to a person’s happiness¹³.

Lingering Enemy Images Perpetuate Conflict

It is a truism that very often conflict interaction in inter-group conflicts is enmeshed in a web of negative stereotypes, self-defeating, hostile attitudes and unconstructive relationships.

Psychosocial scholar Adriano Zamperini et al. fittingly argue that, “the psychosocial foundation of enemy images in processes of perception, identity formation, and group processes plays a continuous role”¹⁴.

In many socio-psychological studies, it has been amply demonstrated that perceptions shape an individual’s attitude¹⁵, which in turn accounts for behaviour¹⁶. For example, psychopolitical and conflict scholar Dean Tjosvold purposefully stresses the point that the perception of “goal interdependence very much impacts how individuals interact, which in turn affects outcomes”¹⁷.

Psychoanalysis Unveils Its Added Value

What is more, psychosocial scholars Rachel Ben-Ari and Yehuda Amir interestingly remark that personal contact “should be regarded as a necessary but not sufficient condition for producing a positive change in ethnic attitudes and relations”¹⁸.

In my view, the sufficient condition ought to consist of incorporating psychodynamic theories into conflict studies because, with the words of Jacobsen,

In terms of inter-group dynamics, Fisher maintains that a cognitive perspective to an intervention suggests that, “the perception of homogeneity within a group and heterogeneity between groups, as well as in-group favouritism, needs to be countered. This includes challenging out-group stereotypes and biased causal attributes which in-group members use to “explain” out-group members’ behaviour”²⁰.

Fisher continues by saying that a correlation exists between the promotion of shared interests between groups and the diminution of in-group bias and between-group differences²¹.

However, Jacobsen pertinently contends that “[c]ognitive psychology, unlike psychoanalysis, usually exempts practitioners from being prey to their own forms of unexamined irrationality”²².

Helpful Practical Implications

As a result, and holding on to a sliver of hope, intervention strategies that constructively aim to address and surmount biases and negative stereotyping, might in the course of time benefit from a deeper understanding of what role psychodynamic processes could play in conflict studies.


[1] Rycroft, C. (1966). Psychoanalysis Observed, Constable, pp. 21.

[2] Fisher, R.J. (1990). The Social Psychology of Intergroup and International Conflict Resolution,Springer-Verlag, pp.31.

[3] Volkan, V.D. (2013). Enemies on the Couch, Pitchstone Publishing, pp.87.

[4] See Volkan, V.D. (2013). Large-Group-Psychology in Its Own Right: Large-Group Identity and Peace-Making. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 10(3), p.241.

[5] Volkan (2013), pp.221.

[6] See for instance Edmunds, D., and Wollenberg, E. (2001). A strategic approach to multistakeholder negotiations. Development and change, 32(2), 231–253.

[7] See Lederach, J.P. (1997). Building peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies. United States Institute of Peace Press Washington, DC.

[8] Bar-Tal, D. (2000). From Intractable Conflict Through Conflict Resolution to Reconciliation: Psychological Analysis. Political Psychology, 21(2), p.355.

[9] Jacobsen, K. (2013). Why Freud matters: Psychoanalysis and international relations revisited. International Relations, 27(4), p. 395.

[10] Jacobsen (2013), p.399.

[11] See for example Gawerc, M.I. (2006). Peace-Building: Theoretical and Concrete Perspectives. Peace & Change, 31(4), p.439.

[12] Bar-Tal (2000), p.356.

[13] Berman, E. (2015). In the Eye of the Storm: Israeli Psychoanalysis and its Political Surroundings. Psychotherapy and Politics International, 13(2), p.88.

[14] Zamperini, A., Andrighetto, L and Menegatto, M. (2012). The Deconstruction of Enemy Images for a Nonkilling Society. In: Nonkilling Pyschology, eds. D.Christie et al.(Honolulu, HI: Creative Commons, Center for Global Nonkilling, 2012), pp. 324.

[15] Dijksterhuis, A., and Van Knippenberg, A. (1998). The relation between perception and behavior, or how to win a game of trivial pursuit. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(4), p.865.

[16] Ajzen, I., and Madden, T. J. (1986). Prediction of goal-directed behavior: Attitudes, intentions, and perceived behavioral control. Journal of experimental social psychology, 22(5), 453–474.

[17] Tjosvold, D. (1998). Cooperative and competitive goal approach to conflict: Accomplishments and challenges. Applied Psychology, 47(3), p.288.

[18] Ben-Ari, R. and Amir, Y. (1988). Intergroup Contact, Cultural Information, and Change in Ethnic Attitudes. In: The Social Psychology of Intergroup Conflict, eds. W. Stroebe, A.W. Kruglanski, D. Bar-Tal, and M. Hewstone (London: Springer-Verlag, 1988), pp.153.

[19] Jacobsen (2013), p.397.

[20] See for example Fisher (1990), pp.54.

[21] Fisher (1990), pp.55.

[22] Jacobsen (2013), p.395.

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Olivier Loose

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I am a writer at A Circle Is Round (https://acircleisround.com) and my articles reflect one common theme, i.e. our interconnected nature. Enjoy the reading!

Unique Mindsets

Every person has a different perspective on life that can be unique. This publication wants to portray the unique mindsets and ideas that come from writers.

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