Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2009

Publication Title

Law and Contemporary Problems

Publication Title (Abbreviation)

Law & Contemp. Probs.





First Page


Last Page



In the past few years a number of scholars in a variety of intellectual disciplines have contributed to a better understanding of dyadic conflicts and their resolution. In particular, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, lawyers, and others have explored the dynamics of apology and its role in deescalating disputes and promoting forgiveness and reconciliation. Furthermore, we have a better understanding today of the benefits to individuals from forgiveness and reconciliation. Victims who are able to forgive their transgressors have better psychological and physical health and lead richer lives.2 Because lawyers tend to focus their attentions on legal disputes, a growing body of legal scholarship attempts to apply these insights to help promote apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation in courts and alternative dispute-resolution fora. This scholarship has in turn provoked a debate among legal scholars regarding the proper use of apology and apology-promoting tools in the context of legal disputes.

The early legal scholarship in this field focused on dyadic disputes. More recently, however, legal scholars have applied the interdisciplinary insights to group conflicts. In the area of apology, for example, one legal scholar has relied on interdisciplinary insights to advocate court-ordered apologies as a civil-rights remedy in cases of civil-rights violations committed against groups of individuals. Similar insights were used to explore the role of apology for helping to resolve international conflicts between states. One author uses these insights to advocate that corporations apologize for product defects and accidents that cause public harm. And another scholar has used the insights to argue that the American Bar Association should apologize and make reparations for its prior exclusion of African American lawyers. Although this development is exciting (after all, who wouldn’t like to see group conflicts and civil unrest avoided), most legal scholars have failed to think carefully about potential differences between dyadic and group conflicts and their resolution. To what extent can insights from apology and forgiveness in dyadic disputes be imported into the group-conflict context? How might differences between the two types of disputes necessitate differing dispute-resolution techniques? And specifically, how is disputant resistance to conflict resolution changed or amplified in the group-conflict context? A group of legal scholars at Vanderbilt Law School, affiliated with the Law and Human Behavior Program, wanted to bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars whose expertise lies in and around conflict resolution to explore this question.

We partnered with the Andrus Family Fund, which generously provided us with the necessary funding to host this conference. The Andrus Family Fund has provided funding to a number of conflict-resolution practitioners who have played important roles in promoting peace, reconciliation, and problem resolution to groups around the world.9 Some of the techniques used by the Fund grantees are adapted from the work of William Bridges, who developed a conceptual framework for how people transition to changes that affect their lives in important ways. The Bridges framework treats transitions in three phases. External changes often require internal psychological transitions, which involve “(1) an ending, (2) a neutral zone, and (3) a new beginning.” In the ending phase, the individual struggles to accept the end of an old way of being. Our connections to people and places, jobs, activities, ways of being, and attitudes help to define us, and the loss of any of these connections can cause not just mourning for the loss of that connection but also a kind of crisis of identity. Endings thus can be painful even when the change is desired. According to Bridges, ending experiences typically involve disengagement, dismantling, disidentification, disenchantment, and disorientation. In the neutral zone, the individual feels confused and anxious, because she does not yet know her new state of being. But in this stage the individual is able to be very creative and to conceive many possibilities for future courses of action.15 In the ending phase the individual adopts her new course of action or sense of self, or both, and reintegrates her new identity with the enduring elements of her old identity.16 Transitions are often aided by rituals set in place to mark the phases of transition and their significance to the individual. The Andrus Family Fund believes that conflicts throughout the world are often caused by or take on their own difficulties in responding to transition. Understanding the Transitions Framework and its implications for dealing with difficulties can significantly aid the process of promoting peace and reconciliation.

In addition to providing the conference funding, the Andrus Family Fund was able to provide us with a connection to successful conflict-resolution practitioners who had thought a lot about the relationship between transition and conflict-resolution theory and practice. At the same time, the Fund was equally interested in the question of the extent to which work on individuals can be translated to the group-conflict context. Andrus Family Fund President Steve Kelban noted privately at the conference that the Fund had always proceeded under the assumption that learning about individuals could be applied to groups. But to what extent is this so, and how, if at all, should legal and social policies take into account differences?

Of course, this is a huge question that cannot be resolved in a single conference. Many of the participants were addressing the question only indirectly, and, like any good conference, we crafted as many questions and disagreements as we did seeds of understanding. Even so, conceptual progress was made at the conference, and the product of the individual scholars’ and practitioners’ thinking is provided in this issue. Before describing the basic thesis of each of the articles in this issue, let me elaborate on some of the insights regarding group-conflict resolution that were identified at the conference.


© 2009 Erin O'Hara O'Connor


First published in Law and Contemporary Problems.

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