The Advantages of Links with Weak Peripheral Groups in Environments of Conflict
Authors: Ivan Gyozo Somlai
The Advantages of Links with Weak Peripheral Groups in Environments of Conflict
Consecutive attempts at negotiations between governments and insurgents have often failed, resulting in costly prolongation of hostilities. A need-based research to enable meaningful negotiations was thereupon initiated, resulting in pertinent findings such as: an obstinate reliance on traditional bilateral (antagonist-protagonist) negotiations when such forms may be anachronistic and contextually inappropriate; the existence of peripheral stakeholders (whom I call the ‘web in the shadows’) which by their diversity and potential or real influence could affect the outcome if properly channelled; sustained interference by outside actors (other governments and international groups); the multiplicity of sectors affected and the complexity of finding durable resolutions, thus favouring an interdisciplinary approach. I embarked on a resulting investigation of other applicable research as well as processes enabling peripheral groups to have a platform for input on the fate of—in effect—their own country. One promising concept which has resonance with this quest is that of weak links, which holds that assiduous use of weak ties can enhance access to novel, non-redundant information, can be crucial for technical advice and diffusion of ideas, strengthen collective expertise and bridge social classes and networks. Such a concept blends admirably with my original insurgency stakeholder research and consequentially recommended TransStakeholder Approach (TSA). Salient features of weak link theory can be pragmatically applied to the TSA and enhance interdisciplinary extrapolations, thus contributing to resolution efforts in conflict environments. My purpose is to provoke participants with possibilities and motivate exploration of interdisciplinary research.
Keywords: Conflict, Insurgency, TransStakeholder, Weak Ties
'Consider not only present but future discords… If one waits until they are at hand, the medicine is no longer in time as the malady has become incurable.' Machiavelli
Sociology of knowledge exponent, the Hungarian Karoly Mannheim (1929), argued that those who had particular experiences were the only ones with a shared world view which could not be understood by those without that same experience. He further espoused that “human affairs cannot be understood by an isolation of their elements” (Mannheim, 1929). Though proven right, there has been a continuum[i] of failed negotiation and mediation attempts precisely because a small group that purports to represent a broader population monopolises discussions. It is clear that there is a dire need for application of processes which are more inclusive and more empathetic to those affected by the outcome of negotiations.
Frequent “confusion on the side of the informants is significant, because it is important to understand conflict causes, dynamics and actors in order to be able to solve existing conflicts. If the reasons for conflict and its actors are not known, it is difficult for the affected groups to launch a process of effective conflict resolution. If conflicts are not resolved, insecurity and the potential for more violence persist” (Pawlitzky & Jánszky, 2008).
In 2002, approximately 7 years after the insurgency in Nepal had commenced, it had become obvious that consecutive attempts at negotiations between the government and the Maoists had failed and no end to hostilities was in sight. Through connections with both sides I was then requested to seek reasons and make recommendations for overcoming this impasse. A need-based research up to 2007 to enable meaningful negotiations was thereupon initiated, resulting in pertinent findings such as: an obstinate reliance on traditional bilateral (antagonist-protagonist) negotiations when such forms may be anachronistic and contextually inappropriate; the existence of peripheral stakeholders (whom I call the ‘web in the shadows’) which by their diversity and potential or real influence could affect the outcome if properly channelled; sustained interference by outside actors (especially the UN, US, UK, India and Pakistan); the multiplicity of sectors affected and the complexity of finding durable resolutions, thus favouring an interdisciplinary approach. I embarked on a resulting investigation of other applicable research as well as processes enabling peripheral groups to have a platform for input on the fate of—in effect—their own country.
The involvement of peripheral groups has been a neglected aspect of negotiations. On the surface, engagement with disparate, often smaller and weaker groups seems a futile exercise precisely because of the lack of strength and influence of peripheral groups. Critique received during my investigations included peripheral groups’ having inadequate power; often isolation with respect to other groups; and the reality, or perception, of an inordinate amount of time needed to organize, orient and mobilise such groups to advantage. In other words, peripheral groups are considered weak in contrast to the key disputants and, therefore, inutile to the process.
On the other hand, from my practical experience in conflict environments[ii], a considerable number of bilateral negotiations have failed or have been broken for reasons that rival the preceding points. A process perceived as strictly bilateral alienates most citizens by disregarding potentially better intelligence, useful information and more trustworthy methodologies. With regards to timelines, even a cursory review should make sceptics out of negotiations with only bilateral or key disputant believers: Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Israel/Palestine, DPRK/South Korea (this, in effect, bounces between bilateral and multilateral) and scores of lingering insurgent disputes within the Indian subcontinent itself are but a few examples of disputes unresolved through traditional means.
“It is becoming ... more clear that the peaceful order we hope to set up is not something that will spring quite suddenly out of a large conference. It will depend on the thought and work put into it before the war is over”. Lord Halifax, 1944.
With the following ideas I wish to provoke and encourage the reader and practitioner to leave room for fresh approaches, research other disciplines and patiently adapt relevant processes.
Taking the conflict in today’s Pakistan alone, even a cursory quest for all the sectors involved in the, related to conflict with Taliban and notwithstanding other sectarian, ethnic, cultural and geographic altercations, would make evident the following major, affected elements:
Religion: disputes about interpretation by sects and political groups
Commerce: severe disturbance or commercial routines; bankruptcies; shortage of goods
Education: delays in classes; physical destruction of schools and universities
Health: fleeing of staff; unavailability of medicines; facilities destroyed
Transport: delays, disruptions affecting food, medicines, general commerce
Food: insufficient quantities/quality available; overpricing by feudal entrepreneurs
Law & Governance: disturbance of, absence of, or maladministration of laws
One might say it is natural that such aspects be affected; well, yes, but then why are these elements not considered in negotiations? The answer is that either because they are imputed to be integral to the negotiating components anyways, or because the power centres market themselves as the only ones who could negotiate and do not think it necessary to involve others.
It should be obvious that any resolution need consider—if not in depth—at last nominally, all of the sectors and several of the disciplines; this leads to interdisciplinary / transdisciplinary approaches and research not simply for academics, but for those who would be involved in mediation and negotiation.
The qualification for negotiating is not only one’s wealth or power. Disciplines required for assiduously approaching multifarious angles include political science, administration and management, organizational development; physics; mathematics; sociology; sociolinguistics; psychology; history and social anthropology; engineering; economics; environmental science; language etc.).
An example from the construction of a hydro-power dam is illustrative. The issue is not merely installing turbines, but making critical decisions taking into account all the multiple technical, environmental, economic, socio-cultural, agricultural and other factors that should be harmonized. Moreover, managing problems - as best as possible - depends on available (and reliable) evidence, conflicting stakeholder interests and ideologies, hidden assumptions, conjectural evaluation of future trends, disponible means for action, and, last but not least, what Warfield (1989) calls ‘underconceptualization’ by the situation's stakeholders, due to their prejudices, misinformation, etc... Obviously, no specialized knowledge - i.e. about a specific small part of reality, fits the needs, because none contains information about the interplay of numerous different elements, factors and functions.
The issue of protraction
“Civil wars are far less likely to end in peace agreements than are international wars, and more than a third of civil wars restart within a few years” (Glassmyer and Sambanis, 2008). Moreover, renegotiating peace agreements after abrogation are often more costly in time, money and lives (Stanford University, 1997). Hence the urgency attached to implementation, rather than to mediation itself. Crucial to optimizing success is a combination of speedy resolution of conflict and appropriateness of the resolution process itself. As noted above, there have been a plethora of conflicts unresolved for years, and “if the process is delayed, the (insurgents) would become more entrenched, stronger and less willing to compromise; and the general population would have many more people with family or friends caught in the physical or psychological crossfire, leading to an increase in vindictiveness” (Somlai, 1997). With ineffectiveness hitherto of many negotiation and mediation efforts, references to some fairly recent studies are highlighted below.
Hartzell and Hoddie (2003, 2007) have posited that power-sharing provisions have a cumulative impact. Or, as further explained by Derouen et al., (2009) the more power-sharing provisions there are built into an agreement, the greater the prospects for peace. Hartzell (2009) again offers from her research of factions that participated in civil wars between 1945 and 1999 that “although destroying opposing groups’ organizations has little effect on the duration of the peace, an agreement among rivals to share power can help to prolong the peace”.
In an examination of 220 internal armed conflicts, Fuhrmann and Tir (2009) found that “the nature of domestic-level territorial conflicts, such as tactical advantages facing the rebels, allow the fighting to continue,” albeit “territorial issues are not simply reducible to the concerns of ethnicity and identity in explaining protracted civil wars, as much of the conventional wisdom suggests.”
A promising adjunct process
One promising concept which has resonance with this quest is that of weak links, which holds that assiduous use of weak ties (Granovetter, 1973) can enhance access to novel, non-redundant information, can be crucial for technical advice and diffusion of ideas, strengthen collective expertise and bridge social classes and networks. Such a concept blends admirably with my original insurgency stakeholder research and consequentially recommended TransStakeholder Approach (TSA) (Somlai, 1997); moreover the concept has been adapted by various disciplines. In this presentation I shall share salient features of weak link theory and suggest how it can be pragmatically applied to the TSA and enhance interdisciplinary extrapolations, thus contributing to mitigation efforts in conflict environments. My purpose is not to prove a new theory, rather to provoke participants with possibilities and motivate exploration of interdisciplinary research.
Strong ties, exemplified by accepting two major disputants as the only parties capable of negotiating, and having both of the major disputants relate only to trusted and very close allies can become too emotional to make rational progress probable. In a related vein, sharp differences between the strongest disputants can derail intentions.
Interdisciplinary applications of weak ties
If agreement can be had about the deleterious effects of delayed agreements, we can then proceed to consider how ‘weak ties’ theory has been used in a number of interdisciplinary areas, giving us some support and confidence in being able to extrapolate its use in conflict management, especially in abetting the purposeful and advantageous use of a broader cross-section of stakeholders in order to both accelerate as well as to ameliorate accords. Herewith are some examples, each followed by implications to conflict mitigation.
In Organizational Development
Grant (1996) and Wernerfelt (1984) claim that groups which can take advantage of their collective expertise and knowledge are likely to be more innovative, efficient, and effective. Inherently, collective expertise subsumes not only strong links and more overt or vocal ties but unassuming, peripheral linkages as well. Nurturing of weak ties coupled with enhanced trust also
provides knowledge from more socially distant regions of a network (Burt, 1992; Granovetter, 1973). “Once a knowledge receiver’s level of trust in a knowledge source is held constant, the structural benefit of a weak tie’s ability to provide non-redundant information should become apparent” (Burt and Knez, 1996).. They further argue that it is weaker ties --more so than stronger ones-- that lead to the receipt of useful knowledge; and trusted weak ties may be even more helpful.
Negotiators claim to represent constituents, but the constituents themselves might not buy into the bargain if they have not been consulted, prepared, and reconciled to the situation. It has been argued that a failure to open peace processes to early grassroots participation, i.e. the participation of elements of the local population, means that there will be difficulties selling the outcome to those who ultimately must abide by it if not internalize its relevant provisions (Byrne, 2001). These grassroots ‘weak tie’ elements, while ultimately integral to the success of any agreement by virtue of their understanding and acceptance of the same, are normally considered as unnecessary to the peace process.
In a somewhat similar vein, Leij and Goyaly (2006) make the point that “Weak ties are more likely to open up information sources very different from one's own. Also, a society with few weak links is likely to be scattered into separate cliques with little communication between cliques.”
“Complex organizations”, according to Hansen and Morten (1999) “make the search (for work) process difficult and uncertain. Existing relations that span subunits therefore become important because they serve as channels through which both useful knowledge and information about opportunities for knowledge use flow.”
In a study of social networks, Cross and Parker (2004) elucidate on how “…we are all dramatically affected by information flow and webs of relationships within social networks. You can probably describe your close relationships accurately, but studies show that as you move beyond your immediate circle, your accuracy likely begins to fall off.....(and) this lack of understanding can have substantial implications for individual and organizational performance.” Interestingly, “weak ties are associated with less ability to modify working arrangements but they do provide greater resource flexibility in terms of the ability to exit the relationship” (Zolin, Kautonen, and Kuckertz, 2009).
In History and Sociology
An interesting postulation by Ikegami (2004) holds that “weaker ties that drew together clusters of people in unexpected ways.....create alternative realities by periodically allowing.....people to slip outside the boundaries of convention .By connecting individuals to larger worlds of network, imagery and meaning, at least some of them (may) begin to consider their true identity in wider terms than the formal identities bestowed on them”. Similarly, as argued by Milroy and Milroy (1992), a weak-tie social network model can bridge the social class and social network.
In a document by Dutra and Gassmann (2009), they repeat a well-recognized but oft neglected aspect that interaction between actors needs understanding of the availability of resources and power between the actors in question, together with consideration of their cultural differences or values.
In Political Science
Burde (2004) maintains that “if strong ties are present, such as old friendships in a village, individuals may be more reluctant to violate a social norm (such as speaking with a member of another ethnicity), and thus, strong ties may in fact inhibit developing bridging capital.”
Weaker ties are more supple and flexible, less rigid and obsessive, enabling people to cool down faster, to perform calmer evaluations of situations, to choose calmly which emotions to hold on to and which to abandon, and to refrain from uncontrolled eruptions into hot aggression (Bond, 2004).
Other peace studies have taken the perspective of relationship balance. Ellis (2007) has noted that “strong tied members will often have similar interest and they will disregard the interest of the weak tied member. As a result, conflict between weak and strong tied members will be high.” “Thus, the structure of the relationship is unbalanced and therefore conflict prone.”
In a study by Yang (2007), according to Milroy and Milroy (1992), a social network with weak ties is often where language innovation takes place. Adaptations of (a) writing system in Internet language provide interesting evidence for the innovations within a weak-tie social network.
Overall implications for the field of conflict
One must not now take for granted that, therefore, weak ties theory can apply to conflict situations as well; however, that is exactly the intent of my focus and, that I feel need be further examined. New theories can be generalisations which, subject to investigations, could be proved.
It is a fact that ignoring peripheral groups discounts, out of hand, any value-added potential to influence the balance of power or to contribute to broader public acceptance of decisions. Weak ties’ research offer insight to conflict mitigation processes. We need to seek effective means to solicit the input of concerned marginalized groups on the issue of state restructuring and seek citizen input in a clear and straightforward manner on contentious constitutional issues most frequently raised at the local level. Harnessing of weak ties imputes an individual’s belonging to a large society, rather than a local neighbourhood group, thus optimising opportunities for contribution and improving chances of ameliorated agreements, if not outright success.
A possible application of weak link is its tie back to stakeholder analysis and integration of diverse stances and to more stakeholders’ solutions. We have seen briefly how protraction is often the fallout of agreements. There are compelling reasons, certainly for the incumbent government, to reduce the time taken for negotiating a deal, if for no other reason than to minimise the chances of tactical stalling and rearming of rebels. It has been amply shown that, even with truces or presumed longer term accords, conflagrations can repeatedly flare up, with sustained misery for the common people caught in the cross fire. Fundamental reasons for the inability to bring peace or for the resurgence of hostilities are covered elsewhere (Somlai, 1997); the premise of this paper is that often key disputants are unable or unwilling to come to an agreement. It therefore becomes incumbent on other citizens to motivate the factions or force the factions to the table. This leads us to the judicious involvement of appropriate stakeholders (Somlai, 2008) who, in greater reach than hitherto done, must be engaged through a variety of strategies.
Organizational Development has shown us that an extended network with the periphery can avail useful, different and trustworthy information which may not have been previously known; moreover, the participation of weaker links may actually help with buy-in to later decisions. Another utility of weak ties is that they could be more easily terminated once used, as opposed to the typical strong ties of major players from whom one could not detach quite as easily. By engaging an otherwise disconnected web in the shadows, augmented stakeholder involvement can even enhance individual autonomy.
History and Sociology suggested that use of weaker ties props up an individual’s confidence and may improve societal cohesion by enhancing one’s identity within society.
Political Science proffered that often it is representatives of social services, such as teachers and health workers who, because of their exposure to and involvement with a cross-section of their social strata, have the comfort to meet similar professionals despite their being from other ethnic, religious or political communities and the resulting confidence and willingness to discuss issues that may be difficult but which impact them all. Thus in contexts where two opposing groups seem to have little in common, the identification and use of ties that are weak but which likely have sufficient common understanding may be helpful in at least discussions, if not negotiations.
In Sociolinguistics, convincing research suggests that innovations can be nurtured in an environment conducive to linking weak ties.
I now paraphrase my favourite interdisciplinarian, Magoroh Maruyama. Consider issues in an NWFP district regarding water supply service delivery: a social organizer would communicate with villagers in a familiar vernacular. Speaking with male committee members would further necessitate one type of communication, whereas with more reclusive women, yet another style and vocabulary. Such consideration is essential so as to develop accuracy in understanding each other. Back at her or his office, the social organizer would use another form with colleagues. Thereafter, in conversation with the government Public Health Engineering Department, other, perhaps bureaucracy-oriented language would be used, and with a water systems technical expert yet a different, technical jargon would come into play. Reporting and discussions with implementing partners, executing agency and donors would use yet another language. Different communication paradigms about the same context can, at times, be incommensurable (Magorah, Maruyama, 1974) if neither can be fully stated in the vocabulary of the other.
This intimates that in negotiations as well there needs to be the ability to understand and be able to communicate in different languages. “Difficulties in the partnership lie not so much in the fact that the communicating parties use different vocabularies or languages to talk about the same thing, but rather in the fact that they use different structures of reasoning” (Maruyama, 2974). “It is more likely that delegates would be talking past rather than with each other, because of differing backgrounds, perceptions, experiences, world views and aspirations” (Somlai, 2007).
Lobby networks present another perspective on how weak linkages could support ideas for ameliorating conflict mitigation efforts. Carpenteret al. (1998) outline how the flow of policy information through `issue networks' determines which lobbyists get access in policy-making. Drawing upon the `strength of weak ties' argument, the authors argue that policy information passes more through acquaintances (`weak ties') than through close, trusted, contacts (`strong ties').
There are yet other potentially useful process ideas from domains other than “weak ties”, each of these refers to some modality of augmented stakeholder interaction. Network analysis (Governance Reform…, 2007). “…..is the .....technique for identifying the connector, also known as broker or resource linker. This analysis uses interviews to determine who links individuals and groups in an organization or institution. ..... network analysis is the understanding that networks and coalitions always exist, and they exist in forms that are not always obvious or intuitive.”
Another possible research link is polycentrism or industrial systems polycentric environments (Ovi, 2001), which are “characterized by a network of formal associations and informal relations among interest groups” which have quite frequent communications and cooperation amongst each other. “A ‘polarized’ environment functions quite differently: within groups and associations, ties are quite strong, but the link between different groups is quite weak”.
Horizontality[iii] should also be investigated for extrapolation of more efficient stakeholder involvement. “The building of communication and collaboration relationships across organizational boundaries — otherwise known as ‘horizontal management’ or ‘horizontality’ — is.....vital....to create a coordinated and optimal division of labour between teams, departments, regional branches, and occupational functions. Managing horizontally is a particularly daunting challenge because it requires special interpersonal and leadership abilities, an organizational culture of trust, on-going communication, and careful planning--not all..... fall(ing) within the direct control of a single individual. The import of this management technique could also facilitate acceptance and use of more inclusive forms of gathering, discussing and disseminating information within conflict environments.
“All happy families are alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
It is not incumbent on any society to legitimize its government as the only valid mediator of social relations, even with an insurgency. The control of diversity, composition and input to negotiation processes must become as much a civil society initiative as it is a prerogative of manipulation by the elite or other influential forces. Studies in natural resource management have found that “until recently, accepted theory has assumed that resource users will never self-organize to maintain their resources and that government must impose solutions. Research in multiple disciplines, however, has found that some government policies accelerate resource destruction, whereas some resource users have invested their time and energy to achieve sustainability” (Ostrom, 2009). In this vein, it can be acknowledged that government (and of course opponent) decisions can be counterproductive, whereas non-disputant stakeholders could develop more reasonable solutions.
However, research is lacking in the identification of ideas from other disciplines and experimentation with their transferability and potential for assisting understanding and utilization of conflict management, resolution, mediation and transformation. The preceding is an enquiry into just one theory which could embolden key disputants efforts at reaching out to peripheral groups in order to invigorate the process and, concomitantly, peripheral groups potentially being proactive in motivating key disputants to act appropriately. Furthermore, while he preceding can bolster my espoused TSA process, the lesson ought to be the need to research other disciplines for finding answers to quandaries which in our own protected forests are too close to see. Social relations must be exploited to help to integrate such expertise and to no longer assume that the bases of power—i.e. the key disputants—are coincidentally repositories of wisdom.
The strength of democracies is that the voice of the weak could be heard; but this right is often not exercised! Broader input of stakeholders to a negotiation process is a plausible alternative in view of traditional processes not having produced much success. Opportunities must exist for exercising influence on making desirable appointments or cancelling inappropriate ones for negotiating teams. The alternative is disorder and helpless acquiescence, along with cognitive capacities of unqualified interveners being overwhelmed by complexities resulting from focusing on conclusive results rather than on a process which concentrates on comprehension of underlying causes and the changing of previously deleterious directions.
 This article has been previously published as a book chapter in Moonis Ahmar (Ed, 2010). Conflict Resolution Research in South Asia (63-82). Program on peace studies and conflict resolution, Department of International Relations, University of Karachi, Pakistan. The paper is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author, editor and previous publisher.
[i] As a sampling only, vide: Kashmir—ongoing for over 60 years; Sri Lanka—8 accords between 1957 and 2009; Middle East—11 accords between 1967 and 2008; Georgia—12 accords between 1994 and 2009; Mexico—11 accords between 1995 and 1996; Philippines—24 accords between 1976 and 2009; numerous South Asian regional insurgencies.
[ii] Hungary (1956), Nepal (1976-2009), Honduras (1988), Nicaragua (1988), Indonesia (1995-2003), North Korea (2004), Pakistan (2008-2010), Russia (2002-2006), Slovakia (1997-2003).
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About the author(s)
IG Somlai has worked in or with 3 insurgencies in Central America and Asia as well as experienced a revolution in his early years in Europe. Educated in Europe, North America and Asia, his 18 years’ service at three universities as well as global multisectoral consulting with interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and inter-religious teams, has provided him insights in mediation, motivation, multinational team harmonization, disaster and humanitarian response training and effective project management. Ivan remains an Associate - Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives, University of Victoria (www.capi.uvic.ca/); Managing Editor (since 2006) - International Journal of Social Forestry (www.IJSF.org); and Director - ETHNOBUREAUCRATICA (http://ethnobureaucratica.weebly.com). Correspondence may be directed to Ivan.Somlai@INSEAD.edu