Interview: Creativity and Conflict Resolution with Tatsushi Arai

By Michael Roberts and Carla Lineback

Tatsushi Arai is a professor of conflict transformation at SIT Graduate Institute. Arai has worked as a trainer, mediator and dialogue facilitator throughout the world and previously taught at the National University of Rwanda. His most recent book is titled Creativity and Conflict Resolution: Alternative Pathways to Peace. We spoke about creative processes, contemporary conflict and peace research, Mozart, and sardines.

SIT Graduate Institute Professor Tatsushi Arai

World Learning: What is this book about?

Tatsushi Arai: The book basically looks into how creative, group-based, social processes emerge, how they come to be accepted or rejected, and eventually come to be sustained in a social context for transforming seemingly intractable conflicts.

The book looks at 16 cases of intergroup conflict from community to international conflicts, and tries to see the patterns as to how they have been transformed or handled constructively. By definition I looked at the cases that demonstrate some elements of breakthrough instead of concentrating on continuous intractability. I think I reversed the usual question. Suppose those conflicts have been transformed. Then what are some of the patterns? It’s not so much of what the practitioners and stakeholders on the ground see as conventional patterns of transformation, but what they see as unprecedented yet workable.

WL: How do you define creativity with respect to conflict transformation?

TA: I define creativity differently from the ways many artists and psychologists would define creativity. I see creativity for conflict transformation as a sustained, interactive and group-based process where a small number of stakeholders involved in a given social conflict come up with a seemingly unconventional insight to respond to the root causes of that conflict. Importantly, the insight has to be subsequently accepted as workable by a growing number of other stakeholders.

People say that in conflict we have to be creative. But what is the substance of that creativity? There has been a lot of work done on creativity research by psychologists, looking into Einstein’s mind, or Mozart’s mind. Although it is very important to look into it, those works focus on individual creativity. That is different from Israelis and Arabs, or Peruvians and Ecuadorians who construct a rather nebulous but certainly recognizable social process that requires decades, sometimes generations of transformation.

WL: What can readers who do not work in the field of conflict transformation learn about creativity from reading your book?

TA: So long as there are contradictions in social interactions, and those contradictions stand in the way of our human fulfillment, then I think the insight is very applicable.

Take a very simple example. I am a meat eater and my wife is a vegetarian. On Saturday morning we always take family time for four hours with our six year-old kid. My wife usually wants to go to a vegetarian place for brunch, and I would like to try a hamburger at McDonald’s once in a while. Here lies a conflict!

This conflict may not be as intractable as Israel and Palestine, but it is nonetheless two visions and one set of resources. The most sensible solution is to find a place that offers both meat and vegetables. But if you have a deeper dialogue as to why we have this ritual, then my wife will say, “This guy is always running around, teaching and traveling.” The solution could be that we arrange chairs outside on our veranda, and we sit and we talk about what happened during the previous week over a nice cup of tea. It can be big things and small things.

Basically overcoming seemingly incompatible goals requires shifting the parameters of the conflict, redefining the goals, and coming up with different principles by which to see the challenge.

WL: What makes this book unique?

TA: Western social science, of which contemporary conflict and peace research is a part, is characterized as looking at social phenomena empirically. By empirically I mean a systematic evidence-based process. If you seek empirical evidence, you have to look at data. To look at data, you look at the past and the present. But peace building is always a future-oriented process. How people actually imagine a less violent, more peaceful society is an exercise of imagination.

It is not only the study of the past and present that is needed, but also a study of the future possibilities that transcend the destructive patterns of the past and present. That is not the strength of western social science. This challenge in western social science is replicated in the educational system in American society, generally speaking. In the absence of systematic ways of learning and teaching how to create a peaceful future, should we leave it to intuition? Can we somehow open the black box and see the structure of that intuition? If you don’t teach our children how to do it, then how do we expect that when they grow up, they will automatically shape the future in a way that is peaceful and creative?

The search for the future is undeveloped compared to the study of the present and the past, and that is based on the structure of western social science.

WL: Was there an “aha moment” in your research?

TA: While doing my research I was really into Mozart. I learned that on one occasion he came up with a symphony within a split second. If you play this symphony with an orchestra, it would take seven minutes. How could you have the whole of that music in a moment?

Mozart gave me an “aha moment.” Creativity is a very instantaneous, intuitive process which is also true to conflict resolution creativity. But another “aha moment” was that conflict resolution creativity for the reasons I mention is so different.

When I was doing my research, one day I took a break and took my son to an aquarium. I saw thousands of sardines swimming in a fish tank. It is a very holistic process, but it has its own patterns as to how leadership is formed. That was also a moment when I crystallized what this group-based interactive process may look like.

Watch Arai’s video of sardines swimming in an aquarium:

YouTube Preview Image

WL: Who do you hope reads this book?

TA: I am hoping that practitioners, researchers, students, and also the attentive general public will read this. Usually these people are very busy, and perhaps my book will be in competition with some other priorities. I wrote the book in such a way that there is a very succinct summary at the end of each chapter so you can skip each chapter and read the summary. Still by looking at the summaries it can still have some coherence.

I think those features of the book will somehow contribute to disseminating ideas.

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