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ECPR Standing Group on the European Union 10th Biennial Conference LUISS, Rome

Competing with Escalation: Reconstruction and Externalization as Alternative Conflict Dynamics

Public Policy
David Laws
University of Amsterdam
David Laws
University of Amsterdam
Martien Kuitenbrouwer
University of Amsterdam

One of the features that make escalation so pernicious in public life is its comprehensive and self-sealing quality. Escalation engages and weaves together fears about the implications of history with worries about the risks associated with current problems and concerns about the threats posed by the behavior of others. This fabric gets grounded in the anger that is mobilized and in the emotionally charged narratives that assign blame and responsibility to the 'others' whose actions are creating the trouble we experience. As interpretations of experience enters into behavior in these cycles of attribution, fears become manifest in actions and so anchor the conflict in a self-confirming cycle that deepens with each turn.

Much practical work on escalation remains occupied with mitigating this cycle by reversing its dynamics (de-escalation). In this paper we examine reconstruction and externalization as alternative dynamics that can compete with the grip that escalation has in public controversies. Reconstruction and externalization create alternatives through designed forms of engagement. In reconstruction, this starts by rooting interaction in stakeholders' memories via storytelling about the history of the conflict. The polarizing dynamics that evoking memory triggers in escalation are evaded by immediately situating these stories with respect to one another in a sequential reconstruction of the conflict. The physical rendering of the stories in a map of the conflict acknowledges memories and enrolls their power, but, in doing so, sets a frame and a context in which stakeholders can witness and explore together how the interplay among their interpretations is creating the dynamics in which they feel trapped. Externalization works in a similar direction. It opens conflict dynamics to reflection via a conversational partnership that unfolds in a sequence which begins with a description of the problem as familiar and known and then creates distance by, first, objectifying the story told about the problem and, then, analyzing 'its' activities and impacts and the chains of association that sustain it. The partnership and sequence together provide the context in which it becomes possible to discuss options for action. In this paper we describe and compare the work of reconstruction and externalization as alternatives to escalation. We do this through analysis of case accounts of working with stakeholders caught in escalating policy controversies over urban development, immigration, and energy development.
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