Managing Social Conflict-The Evolution of a Practical Theory

Article excerpt

This article describes the co-evolution of a process and a theory. Through the 1990s, the process known as "conferencing" moved beyond child welfare and youth justice, to applications in schools, neighbourhoods, and workplaces. In each of these applications, conferencing has assisted participants to acknowledge and transform interpersonal conflict, as a prelude to negotiating a plan of action. Much analysis of conferencing has been linked with social theorist John Braithwaite, whose work has influenced the development of a multidisciplinary theory of these process dynamics, and the development of guiding principles. Key links between theory and practice are described in chronological sequence.

Key words: Conferencing, conflict management, restorative & transformative justice, deliberative democracy

Introduction

This special issue of the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare examines a process and a body of theory. The process is known as "conferencing", and it is being used by a growing number of professions. Conferencing provides a conversation with a formal structure, and that structure enables participants to address constructively an incident or issue that has caused significant conflict between them. Different titles distinguish applications of conferencing in different fields of professional practice such as child welfare, corrections, and schools. "Family group conferencing" is a common title when the process is used in social welfare.

Key features are consistent across the various applications of the conferencing process. In all of them a third party convenor brings together in a circle the group of people affected by the issue in question. The convenor directs the group's conversation through a series of stages, the last of which involves developing an action plan to improve their situation.

A growing body of evidence indicates that conferencing can improve the quality and quantity of relationships within each participating community. Various theories have been used to explain why and to justify the use of family group conferencing and other versions of the conferencing process. One social theorist has been particularly prominent in these dialogues and debates.

Braithwaite's theoretical work was first linked with the practice of conferencing in the early 1990s. Accordingly, we have now had over a decade of dialogue and debate about the fit between conferencing practice and a body of social theory of which Braithwaite's work is exemplary. This dialogue of theorists and practitioners has continued as conferencing has spread well beyond its initial applications in child welfare and youth justice. The dialogue has helped keep the conferencing process aligned with the programs that deliver it, and with underlying principles.

My contribution to this special issue comes out of an unusual relationship between theory and practice. In the early 1990s, as academic advisor to a pioneering conferencing program in Australia, I connected the conferencing process with the theory outlined in Braithwaite's (1989) then-just-published Crime, Shame and Reintegration. I subsequently evaluated aspects of that program under the aegis of a federally-funded research program.

After working in state government policy development and program implementation, I co-founded a company to promote conferencing and related conflict management practices. I was thus involved in the expansion of conferencing both geographically (to programs in North America and Western Europe), and to sectors/professions beyond justice and social welfare (including education, workplace relations, and community development). In this article, I outline some lessons from this experience of promoting conferencing and related processes within various programs. These lessons are arranged in chronological order, and are linked with ideas found in Braithwaite's work.

Some of the lessons discussed here have direct relevance for social welfare applications of conferencing. …