Interview with Morton Deutsch, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus and Founder of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR)

Dr. Morton Deutsch is one of the world’s premier social psychologists and a groundbreaking figure in the study of Conflict Resolution. Dr. Deutsch shared with us some perspective and details on the Global Community Forum (GCF), one of his current projects, reflections on his career and career advice. There are plenty of ways for students to be involved with GCF, so we encourage you to read more about it here.

Source: Teachers College, Columbia University

Source: Teachers College, Columbia University

What led you to develop the Global Community Forum?

I was impressed by the problems of climate change and the dangers that it consists of for the human community. It struck me that it would require cooperative, global action to deal with the problems effectively. To do it effectively in a global community, you have to have people who feel they belong to the global community, who identify with it and who want to help it be an effective community in pursuit of goals that are for humanity’s well being and for the planetary well being.

Please tell me more the original mission and how you developed the initiative?

We were looking at the global problems to be dealt with through the preliminary framework developed from my doctorate work in social psychology on group dynamics, conflict resolution, and justice. Along with two colleagues (Sarah Brazaitis and Eric C. Marcus), we put together a paper on developing a global community: “A Framework for Thinking about Development of a Global Community” (which is a chapter within the book Psychological Components for a Sustainable Peace).

With this conceptual entry, I then decided to do some research. We began asking people whether they would like to be a member of a “global human community,” as was defined by a certain list of characteristics that we provided. If so, would they be willing to make a commitment to take positive action to foster the values and goals of such a community? If they did not want to be a member or were not willing to take actions, we asked them why not. If they were, we asked them what kind of actions.

A main finding was that two-thirds of the people said they were willing to be members and would commit to taking positive action! However, the kinds of action were very limited. People, in general, if given the chance, really were (and are!) interested in becoming part of the global community. They didn’t know how to do it but they were willing.

So, we have done and are still doing more studies. For example, we are now in the process of identifying actions people could take to reduce the risk of climate change in their personal life, their community, their nation, and their global community.

The idea of Global Community seems to demand significant changes in the way people think about the world – what challenges do you see?

Psychological challenges are in the way. One clear problem is known as the “Dilemma of the Commons.” If people follow their own interest, if nations follow their national interest without thinking of their interdependent interests, they’re likely to end up harming one another rather than benefiting and gaining. So, how do you get a sense of interdependence in people till they recognize that the common interest is as important as their particular interest?

The second problem has to do with the time perspective. If you are only interested in your own well being or in your immediate family’s well being, then you’re not interested in climate change. You have to have an interest in your grandchildren, in a time perspective that holds future generations to have interest in climate change.

The third issue is about close-mindedness versus open-mindedness. To get to a sense of interdependence, you have to be able to have an open mind towards differences. That is, to be able to respect others even if you differ substantially with their views. You have to be able to feel you can have a constructive dialogue with the other vantage point, for instance. Then, here is the problem of conflict resolution. The attitude of many people of many groups if they’re in conflict is that they’re supposed to win, rather than the idea that both sides are supposed to win or that they could try together to find an agreement that’s beneficial to both. How to do that is what the research of Peter Coleman and the MD-ICCCR center do. In order to work on this, the other issues have to be addressed.

Your work in social psychology has had enormous impact in the field. What are you most proud of?

During the course of my career here at Teachers College I have had many visitors from Poland while it was a Communist state, including many social psychologists who were very active in the Communist Party and also some who were very active in Solidarity Movement. During that time, it came to a point when these parties were in process of negotiating possible futures for Poland. There were two leading negotiators, one from each party, representing their respective sides, and they were able to work out a cooperative, peaceful transfer of power from Communist Party to Solidarity! And, what’s even more, they say part of the basis for that was the fact they had learned about conflict resolution and how to negotiate in a constructive way from our conversations and readings. It was Dr. Grezlik representing the Solidarity Movement and Dr. Reykowski representing the Communist Party. They received the Deutsch Award for Social Justice in 2008.

I am also very proud of the many students I have had who have gone on to do very practical work to improve the world, especially Dr. Coleman. I continue to be impressed with what a very creative and productive person he is.

What guidance would you offer students now entering the field of conflict resolution?

There is still a lot to learn so it’s important to have an open mind about the possibility of new developments in the field. Secondly, I think it is important to maintain hope despite the cynicism that exists throughout most of our world. You can bring about positive change, and you can help bring improvement to the world. Not only see all the dark clouds; there are a lot of bright spots! There are a lot of people throughout the world working to improve it, and maybe we’ll get there.

From my perspective, you can think a lot of the problems of the world come from sheer intellectual ignorance. I see this in the way people approach conflict and the way they approach differences in values. Yet, one has to come to the most basic respect for all human beings; we’re all of the common human family while there are differences. There’s a lot of very good thinking about how to deal with this.

I was lucky enough to be a student of Kurt Lewin. He did not have the view that scientists should live away from the world; their ideas should have impact on the world. He would say, “nothing is so practical as a good theory.” He believed in action-research. My hope is that even as one is concerned with abstract ideas, one is also concerned with improving the world.

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