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Common Knowledge 9.1 (2003) 100-118

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Disputes As Complex Social Events
On The Uses Of Positioning Theory

Rom Harré and Nikki Slocum

How can social psychology contribute to the resolution of seemingly intractable conflicts? A new and promising approach to this conundrum has come from the most recent developments in that field—from what is termed "positioning theory." 1 If there were a way of bringing to light underlying patterns in the expression of conflicts, persisting patterns that serve to maintain the hostile stances of the antagonists, a change in such patterns might make the expression of conflict more difficult. In a way, the conflict might thereby be resolved. If a conflict can no longer readily find expression, then in a sense, it ceases to exist. In this presentation, we outline the basic principles of positioning theory and illustrate how they can be put to work to reveal some of the sustaining narrative forms that nourish conflict. There are no general forms. Every instance is unique.

An assumption shared by all practitioners of the "new psychology" is that psychology is the systematic study of the creation and management of meanings. Positioning theory is the basis of one of the current research techniques with which the dynamics of the creation of patterns of meanings can be brought to light. When the psychologist turns his or her attention toward the unfolding of [End Page 100] social episodes, what is most striking is how complex and yet orderly most stretches of social life turn out to be. Also striking is the rapidity with which the patterns of dominance and influence among the participants in social episodes change. Psychologists have rarely attempted to study the flux of social life. Instead, most social psychology has been based on the search for the conditions in which enduring cognitive states, such as attitudes or prejudices, come to exist. Attitudes are presumed to be relatively permanent states of a human being and to be quite difficult to change. Conflict is often conceptualized in terms of the enduring personal cognitive states of antagonists. The rapid fluctuations of opinion that people actually display in what they say and do cannot be coped with in the traditional framework of psychological research.

For instance, in 1934, a study of racism, now famous, produced a very puzzling result that was, at the time, inexplicable. Richard T. La Pierre sent a questionnaire to a number of motel managers asking them, in confidence, whether they would be prepared to offer a room to a couple of mixed race. Nearly all said that they would not. The second phase of the study was to send a mixed-race pair to each of the motels to ask for a room. In every case, a room was offered. 2 To take another example: it is often said that the degree to which someone comes to like another person is a function of the frequency with which they meet. Once established, personal liking or hostility is presumed to be a stable personal attribute. However, personal relations are notoriously fickle and fluid. Much depends on the precise situation in which people are involved. Perhaps attitudes to another person or to categories of persons are not permanent cognitive states at all. Could they simply be surface features of the way in which social episodes evolve? Instead of attempting to change alleged cognitive states, perhaps the conventions of social action could be transformed.

We will try to show how the use of positioning theory as an analytical tool can lead toward an understanding of the way conflicts are expressed and perhaps toward some hypotheses about how that understanding could be exploited in the resolution of those conflicts.

The Origins of Positioning Theory

The inspiration for the development of positioning theory came partly from long-standing dissatisfaction with the essentially static conception of the psychological bases of social interactions—a conception that had taken root in the 1950s and 1960s. The alternative preferred by positioning theorists is to regard social episodes as displaying story lines, as if they...


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