Research Explores Negative Identity and Its Impact on Conflict Resolution | Pollack Peacebuilding Systems

March 4, 2021by Natalie Davis0

Summary of:

Cohen, J.R. (2020). Negative identity and conflict, 35 Ohio St. J. on Disp. Resol., 737.

Background & Theory

This article explores negative identity and how this contributes to conflict. Negative identity is defined here as holding an identity because one is not like another person or not part of a specific group.

Research Questions

Cohen, in “Negative Identity and Conflict” (2020), seeks to address the following questions:

    1. What is negative identity, and how does it contribute to conflict?
    2. How can people work through negative identity to resolve conflict?


The author explores this topic with available research related to identity, negative identity, conflict resolution, mediation, and examples. He first explains what negative identity is, how it might come about, and some of the issues that it might create. He explains why negative identity might cause conflict, and what some suggestions are to work through conflicts where negative identity plays a role. He finally leaves us with an example from a story in the Bible regarding a scenario where negative identity played a role and also came to a place of resolution.


Negative conflict doesn’t always, but often can come from a place of past hurt or experiences. Those holding negative identity may also generally lack empathy for the party they are “not,” due to the bias that a negative identity creates, either consciously or subconsciously. All of these potential factors can make conflict arising from negative identity very difficult to work through. However, there are ways to work through conflict where negative identity plays a role. Asking someone with a negative identity to work through why they have this identity and examine themselves more closely may be able to look past it to some extent. Finding a shared identity with the party one is “not,” or being open to listening to another perspective may also help reach resolution.


What This Means

  • Negative identity is more prevalent than most of us realize, and can both create conflict and keep conflict ongoing due to bias against the group that one does not identity with. Finding ways to navigate this when this is involved in conflict may be challenging, but it is possible to work through.
  • Willingness is key: Participants in a conflict resolution process where negative identity is involved who are willing to hear other perspectives, willing to find their commonalities with the other party, or willing to examine their own thoughts and identities may be the key in resolving that conflict at hand.


Final Takeaway

For consultants: Finding ways to encourage willingness in closed off clients might help speed the process along. Understanding when negative identity plays a role may also change how you address a conflict.

For everyone: Examining our identities, thoughts, and feelings is vital to continued growth, and as noted above, at times with resolving conflict. It never hurts to better understand ourselves!

Natalie Davis

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