Fierce Entanglements

Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict

by Donald G. Ellis (Author)
©2015 Textbook XVIII, 227 Pages
Series: Language as Social Action, Volume 17


The third in a trilogy on communication and ethnopolitical conflict, this book focuses on multicultural groups significantly divided by politics and religion. These groups have become «fiercely entangled»; that is, they are inescapably politically, socially, and culturally interdependent. Using the Israeli Palestinian conflict as the primary example, Ellis offers a timely analysis of how communication can begin to untangle these groups. Group differences lead to cultural differences – some of the most difficult aspects of a conflict. This book examines the nature of group differences as well as solutions-based conflict resolution that is embedded in theories of communication and democracy.
Ellis argues that resources are unequally distributed and differences are the norm. Politics is used to manage these differences and although communication is the fundamental tool of conflict management, there are other components in resolving conflicts that complement communication approaches. Dialogue and deliberation are posed as workable responses to untangling these differences and managing intractability.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • The Current Volume
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Foundations of Multiculturalism
  • Some Multicultural Themes
  • Liberalism and Multiculturalism
  • Liberalism and Communication
  • Communication and Personal Processes of Identity Development
  • Structuring Cultural Identity
  • Multiculturalism and Intergroup Processes
  • Dialogue and Multiculturalism
  • 2. Group Rights
  • What Is Multiculturalism?
  • Democracy and Group Differentiation
  • Kymlicka, Taylor, and Group Rights
  • Multicultural Group Conflict and Group Rights
  • Citizenship and Communication
  • Some Misleading Ideas about Cultural Groups
  • Communication and Multicultural Relations
  • Multiculturalism and Meta-Discourse
  • 3. Reasonable Disagreement
  • The Concept of the Public
  • The Contemporary Public
  • Ethnic Group Culture As a Public Good
  • Communication and the Construction of Cultural Goods
  • Disagreement and the Public Sphere
  • Reasonable Disagreement and Democratic Communication
  • Reasonable Disagreement As Generalized Reciprocity
  • 4. Theorizing Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict
  • The Nature of Ethnic Conflict
  • Asymmetry and Ethnopolitical Conflicts
  • Conflict Maintenance, Resolution, and Transformation
  • Approaches to Conflict and Theories of Communication
  • Five Theories of Communication
  • Comparing Theories
  • 5. Dialogue
  • The Ideal of Dialogue
  • A Perspective on Dialogue
  • Dialogue and Difficult Disagreement
  • 6. Deliberation
  • Dialogue and Deliberation
  • Differences
  • Collective Reasoning
  • Collective Disagreement
  • Reciprocity
  • Initiating Deliberation
  • 7. Difficult Conversations
  • Conceptual Foundation of Difficult Conversations
  • Communication, Religion, and Conflict
  • The Conditions of Difficult Ethnopolitical Conversations
  • Conflict Propensities
  • Islam and the West: A Difficult Conversation
  • 8. Islam, the West, and Conflict Resolution
  • Narratives of Rivalry or Complementarity
  • Reframing Extremism
  • Conflict Resolution in Islam and the West
  • The Definition of Peace
  • Intercultural Communication between Islam and the West
  • Democratic Pluralism, Communication, and Conflict
  • Getting to Communication between Divided Groups
  • Constructive Confrontation and the Movement toward Dialogue and Deliberation
  • The Call of Dialogue and Deliberation
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index


← vi | vii → Preface

This book is the third in a trilogy devoted to communication and ethnopolitical conflict. I had spent my entire academic career studying conflict in groups beginning with a Master’s Thesis in 1974 and continuing for the next 40 years to explore the roots of these issues along with various branching detours into communication theory and discourse analysis. I had always been interested in communication in groups, with particular emphasis on conflict, but in 2003 I spent the summer as a Fellow at the Asch Center then at University of Pennsylvania. The Fellowship included intense discussions and seminars with political theorists, psychologists, and political scientists all of whom were experts and interested in some aspect of political conflict, especially those political conflicts where ethnicity and religion were implicated. The Asch Center experience crystallized my interests, and I turned my full attention to intractable political conflicts with particular interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since then, and even before 2003, I had spent time in Israel and was increasingly interested in Israel-Palestine as a prototypical example of ethnopolitical conflicts. An Israeli academic colleague and friend, Ifat Maoz, was instrumental in helping me understand the process of conducting research in Israel as well as exposing me to the nuances of the culture and the conflict. Ifat and I were conducting research since 1998, and we had accumulated publications concerning communication processes that characterize interactions between Israelis and Palestinians (cf. Ellis & Maoz, 2002; Maoz & Ellis, 2001).

At the completion of the Asch Center Fellowship in the summer of 2003 I was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Israel for the academic year 2004–2005. During that academic year I taught at Tel Aviv University and completed the first book, Transforming Conflict: Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict. I wrote the book during my Fulbright year in Israel with the goal in mind of melding issues in communication with ethnopolitical conflict. ← vii | viii → I wanted to bring together disparate literatures from communication, psychology, sociology, and political science and look for convergences. Ethnopolitical conflict is clearly influenced by multiple disciplines each of which provides insight into the issues relevant to these conflicts. Such conflicts are informed by political conditions, economic issues, ethnic psychology and sociology, and are dependent on communication processes for their expression and resolution. Moreover, new patterns of communication such as the Internet and social media have altered the landscape of these conflicts and offer new outlets for contestation as well as resolution. Crucial issues in identity and issue framing are all highly dependent on communication processes. For the most part, communication scholars specializing in conflict studies have not been interested in ethnopolitical conflicts. The line of literature in communication and conflict, within the disciplinary institutions of communication, is mostly focused on organizational contexts and interpersonal conflict. The book, Transforming Conflict, was perhaps the first to outline and discuss an array of issues that brought together in one volume the psychological causes of ethnic conflict as well as the underutilized communication perspective. Transforming Conflict assumed the importance of social processes in ethnopolitical conflict thereby undergirding the communication processes that contribute to violence and identity and other key issues in these conflicts without assuming primordialism or ethnic essentialism. And, secondly, concepts such as essentialism were treated as socially constructed, which makes them the result of interactive and symbolic processes. Finally, the book focused on conflict resolution and the particularly important role of communication. Surely conflicts are somewhat managed at the macro level in the form of diplomatic and negotiation discourse. But ultimately people have to talk and the book provided a foundation for the importance of ideas related to dialogue and deliberation.

Transforming Communication triangulated a body of literature and made connections between psychology, politics, and communication but did not focus at all on the technical details and close analysis associated with interaction patterns characteristic of dialogue and deliberation. Deliberation, or the process of preference formation by democratically grounded decision making that ensures an emphasis on the highest quality arguments and the most inclusive and fair processes, does not even appear in the book. And dialogue receives a few pages of treatment in the chapter on resolving conflict. Consequently, I was dissatisfied with the lack of a more focused role for communication processes in resolving conflicts. Almost all discussion of conflict resolution from political theorists is from the macro perspective focusing on elites, leaders, and diplomatic discourse. I wanted to grapple with the issues in ← viii | ix → how the management of group differences needed to be grounded in political processes and democratic sensibilities in order to ensure the fairest contestation designed to solve problems. The examples in all three of these volumes are drawn from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because that is the conflict I am most interested and the most knowledgeable about. These books are not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict per se, but it is clearly the most illustrative example of any number of issues.

Transforming Conflict led me to the literature on deliberative democracy and argument. There is a burgeoning literature on deliberative democracy (Dryzek, 2000; Gastil, 2008), and it has captured the attention of communication and political science scholars such that communicative politics is a matter of making decisions and expressing positions under ideal communicative conditions. The deliberative approach begins with the assumption that material and symbolic rewards are not distributed equally, and this makes for the politics of difference. Conflict management is essentially a matter of controlling these differences and keeping them in check. And excluding violence, communication is the only mechanism for managing these differences. I was looking for a way to think about communication approaches to managing difficult conflicts, and the deliberative democracy literature was highly instructive. Consequently, I wrote Deliberative Communication and Ethnopolitical Conflict, which was published in 2012 and devoted to issues in deliberative democracy but with a special attention to communication. Habermas (1987) had certainly theorized about the highest forms of deliberation consisting of ideal moral speech conditions and the best arguments. But Deliberative Communication was designed to flesh out issues in decision-making, democracy, and the realities of communication. The book does not focus on dialogue or deliberation as much as it does communication implications for deliberation.

Deliberative Communication was also an effort at extending the boundaries of deliberative theory to see what other issues they touched upon. Hence, the book has chapters on media and deliberation, group decision-making processes, the public sphere, identity, intractable conflicts, and argument, all of which are part of the deliberative process. An important argument in that book is that democracy and political problem solving were fundamentally discursive and this was true of a problem-solving approach to ethnopolitical conflicts as well; in other words, the management of conflict between contesting groups requires a public devoted to free and open discussion about shared interests, and the discussion focuses on the common good rather than manipulating each other for private advantage. Discursive democratic environments produce new meanings among participants, they focus on arguments and ← ix | x → evidence-based policymaking, they are sufficiently inclusive and representative of all stakeholders and constituents, and recognize the role of media and various sources of information. Deliberative Communication was designed to hone in on the communicative and symbolic issues pertinent to the deliberative process. It recognized that ethnic groups were responsible for much of the instability in the world and that communication is the most viable approach to managing this instability. More than a few political theorists have written about argument, discursive democracies, and symbolic contestation as foundational to democratic societies (e.g., Gutmann & Thompson, 1996, 2012), but none had concentrated so intently on the intersection of communication theory and democracy.

The Current Volume

This book takes a slight step back and examines the nature of group differences including their rights as well as continuing to examine solutions based on conflict resolution that are embedded in theories of communication and democracy. The basic argument, as outlined in Deliberative Communication, is that resources are unequally distributed and differences are the norm. As a result, politics is the management of these differences, and even though communication is the fundamental tool of conflict management, there are other issues in resolving conflicts that complement communication approaches. Multiculturalism is also the norm. Group differences always lead to cultural differences which can become some of the most difficult aspects of a conflict. This volume focuses more on multicultural groups that are characteristic of ethnopolitically divided groups and have easily become “fiercely entangled.” A fiercely entangled relationship is contentious and difficult to extract yourself from. It is based on inescapable interdependence and the resultant entanglements that come from political, social, and cultural interdependence. Fierce Entanglements begins with the ideas surrounding multiculturalism even though I do not use multiculturalism in the strictly social policy sense of the term. The word “multiculturalism” discussed in Chapter 1 refers to the serious political, moral, and communicative attention that group differences require. The chapter discusses types of multiculturalism and the political response to multicultural demands. What is termed multiculturalism is simply part of the essence of the democratic state (Dryzek & Dunleavy, 2009). It means that minorities in particular, or any group emerging from a different culture, will be encouraged to retain aspects of that culture. Those aspects might be religious, linguistic, or social. But in any case governments and societies are in the business of encouraging and maintaining cultural distinctions. ← x | xi → Societies divided deeply on the basis of religion and ethnicity, however, and strapped with difficult and intractable conflicts, are not helped much by standard multicultural policies. When one group defines its identity by the rejection of the other group – such as the case of Israelis and Palestinians – then the solution has to be either separation, or consociational arrangements, or communicative. I made reference to macro level consociational arrangements in Transforming Conflict, and Chapter 4 of this book recognizes its role in conflict theory, but this volume concentrates on communicative issues with particular attention to dialogue and deliberation. A communication approach seeks to tame difficult differences through culture contact (Allport, 1954), identity widening (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000), dialogue (Anderson, Baxter, & Cissna, 2004), and deliberation (Dryzek, 2010; Ellis, 2012). Multiculturalism and intergroup conflict are complementary bodies of theorizing, and this volume tries to integrate them even further.

Group differences in multiculturalism are a definitional part of all societies and the liberal society in particular. Thus, it is possible to talk about group rights in the same vein as individual rights, and these rights are taken up in Chapter 2. The issues pertaining to group rights emerge more from political science and are discussed in a particularly articulate and compelling manner by Kymlicka (1995, 2012) and Dryzek and Dunleavy (2009). Group rights are controversial because they call for legal arrangements that protect cultural differences and sometimes privilege one group. Such differentiated rights are a philosophically defensible condition of liberal societies but they do form the basis for intergroup conflict. Moreover, Chapter 2 discusses the extent to which differentiated group rights form the basis for conflict resolution. Chapter 2 helps establish the legal and argumentative foundation for the inevitability of pluralism and the recognition that discourse from either the personal or institutional realm is required to close up the gaps of indeterminacy.

Conflict cannot be managed peacefully and skillfully if one or both parties refuse to budge from an ideological position. A key assumption of democratic discourse is that the best thinking emerges from the confrontation of perspectives, empathy, and the vigorous democratic engagement. As Young (2000) clarifies, the other side must not be considered an enemy to be destroyed but an adversary to be engaged. And the multicultural society we have been discussing implies the acceptance of differences and the use of communication to control these differences. Hence, there is the possibility of reasonable disagreement. Chapter 3 explores the very important concept of reasonable disagreement, which is dependent on the idea of “the public” where concerns are shared and a collection of people discuss a common fate. Related concepts to reasonable disagreement are ideas like “compromise” or “tolerance,” and ← xi | xii → these are substantive intellectual and democratic positions and not simply idealistic preferences.


XVIII, 227
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (September)
politics religion conflict resolution democracy conflict management
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 227 pp.

Biographical notes

Donald G. Ellis (Author)

Donald G. Ellis is Professor of Communication at the University of Hartford. He is a Fellow in the International Communication Association, a Fulbright scholar, former editor of the journal Communication Theory, and author of numerous books and articles.


Title: Fierce Entanglements
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