How to transform zipper-shaped conflict narratives: a methodological approach in a nutshell


Andrea Zemskov-Züge

In order to transform conflict-supporting narratives, one needs to understand their construction principles. Then it becomes possible to facilitate processes with key narrators to encourage them to incorporate new elements in their proven narratives.

A narrative is a story, that is told in a certain way by a significant group of people, with beginning and end, as well as certain features, components and actors typically involved.[1] In recent years, Peace and Conflict Studies have undergone a „narrative turn“, based on the observation that conflicts are characterized by contradictory narratives. These describe the prehistory, occurrence, course and aftermath of violent conflict.[2] In conflict narratives, the conflict parties assess circumstances, proceedings and events, linked to the conflict. As a rule, the narratives differ profoundly between the conflict parties. Thus, their analysis can lead us to the construction principles of different realities, that shape the conflict.

These insights have influenced not only the field of Conflict Research. Peacebuilding practitioners in local NGOs and international organisations around the world develop methodologies in the attempt to transform a conflict system by changing how people think about the conflict and each other.

The israeli researcher Daniel Bar-Tal has developed a comprehensive theory of „conflict-supportive narratives“[3]. While his theory is rooted in the Israel-Palestine context, Bar-Tal describes general features and functions that can be found in various conflict contexts.[4] Conflict-supportive narratives provide an ideological system that explains, why the conflict is necessary. They allow moral disengagement from atrocities and maintenance of positive self-images. They delegitimize the opponent and justify group goals, encouraging a society’s willingness to sacrifice and help the conflict parties to represent themselves positively in an international context.  Therefore, between the sides, they create a persistent barrier to reconciliation and rapprochement.

To transform them, the conflicting narratives must be analysed and characterized not only by themselves, but in their relation to each other. Such analysis shows, that elements and events, that are important for one conflict side, are often displaced from the memory of the other side and vice versa. Both conflict sides emphasize evidence and events, that confirm their position in the conflict and omit those aspects, that might weaken their argument.

When talking about the Georgian Abkhaz war, the elements of the narratives on the Georgian and Abkhaz differ. While in Abkhazia, discrimination of Abkhaz in Soviet times and clashes between Abkhaz and Georgians in the late 1980ies are broadly remembered, in Georgia proper, the clashes of the Georgian National movement with Soviet armed forces (April 9th 1989) and the displacement of Georgians during and after the war are considered as important historical markers. [5]  In both narratives, this focus leads to a reinforcement of aspects, that support the own victimisation and displaces own sides faults.  

To describe this general observation, I have coined the term of „zipper-shaped“ conflict narratives[6]. This image suggests, that like in two sides of a zipper, while group A remembers mainly one series of conflict related events and colours them according to own perceptions, group B remembers a different series of events and gives them their own „colouring“.

In analysing their own narratives first and then exchanging them with representatives of „the other side“, conflict parties can develop a deeper understanding of escalation processes and root causes of their conflict. They can acquire a more informed and overarching perception of the conflict system.

To initiate a process of transforming conflict supportive narratives[7], three steps are necessary:

  1. For a start, dialogue participants must critically reflect and analyse own conflict-supporting narratives.
  2. As a second step they should get to know the other sides narrative and develop a general understanding of the differences and commonalities of both narratives. The goal is, to see, how they relate to and/or exclude each other.
  3. Only at a later stage in the dialogue process, both sides directly discuss about their historical narratives and experiences across the conflict line. At this stage, the parties will start to include some displaced information from the other side into their own narrative.

If the parties are well prepared and the encounter is facilitated in a sensitive and professional way, History Dialogue can help to overcome conflict supportive narratives, step by step introducing „other side’s“ experiences and information into both conflicting narratives. It is, however, important, that dialogue participants can develop a personal relationship to representatives of the other side and the facilitators enable trustbuilding between the sides.

The goal of such dialogue on the past is not to exchange the whole narrative, but to widen it, allowing other sides information to enter and challenge own convictions. The peace-supportive narratives, created in such a process, contain own and other sides’ failure and wrongdoing and help understand and accept other sides’ grievances. They analyse complex conflict causes, spelling out, in an exemplary way, reasons for individual choices and behaviour and fostering critical self-reflection on both sides. In general, the peace supporting narratives strive to avoid positive as well as negative stereotypes. The occurring new narratives can subsequently be fed into official discourses on both sides of the conflict divide.

In conclusion, it needs to be said, that the transformation of conflict supportive narratives can only ever be one component in a system of overarching measures to transform a violent conflict. Bevernage has pointed out, that reconciliation initiatives, by concentrating solely on the transformation of narratives, risk concealing root causes such as material and political interests as well as structural injustices.[8] Such objections must be taken very seriously. The work with conflicting identities and perceptions is an important component of conflict transformation, as long as it also strives to address “narrative inequality and unequal control over means of narrative production“. [9]


Further Information:


[1] For a more detailed definition, see: Bar-Tal, Daniel (2014): Sociopsychological Analysis of Conflict-Supporting Narratives. a general framework. In: Journal of Peace Research 51 (5), pp. 663f.

[2] Ware, Anthony; Laoutides, Costas (2018): Myanmar's 'Rohingya' conflict. London: Hurst & Company, p.107.

[3] Bar-Tal, Daniel (2014): Sociopsychological Analysis of Conflict-Supporting Narratives. A general framework. In: Journal of Peace Research 51 (5), pp. 662–675.

[4] For a general overview, see: Bar-Tal, Daniel (2014): Sociopsychological Analysis of Conflict-Supporting Narratives. a general framework. In: Journal of Peace Research 51 (5), pp. 662–675. For the functions, see: Bar-Tal, Daniel; Oren, Neta; Nets-Zehngut, Rafi (2015): Construction of the Israeli-Jewish Conflict-Supportive Narrative and the struggle over its Dominance. In: Political Psychology 36 (2), pp. 217-219.

[5] Zemskov-Züge, Andrea (2012): Erinnerung, Geschichtsbilder und zivile Konfliktbearbeitung - ein Erfahrungsbericht zur Anwendung theoretischer Konzepte in der friedenspädagogischen Praxis. In: Sicherheit und Frieden 30 (3), p. 168.

[6] ibid. p. 164–170.

[7] Zemskov-Zuege, Andrea; Wolleh Oliver (eds.): Changing the Past in our Heads. a facilitator's guide to listening workshops. Berghof Foundation, pp- 11-16. Berlin. available online:

[8]Bervernage, Berber (2018): Narrating Pasts for Peace? A critical Analysis of Some Recent Initiatives of Historical Reconciliation through 'Historical Dialogue' and`'Shared History'. In: Stefan Helgesson und Jayne Svenungsson (Hg.): The Ethos of History. Time and Responsibility. New York, NY: Berghahn Books Incorporated (Making Sense of History Ser, v.34), pp. 70–93, p.81.

[9] ibid. p.85.

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Issue: Diversity/Dialogue

a. Peacebuilding requires the integration of conflicting narratives. To that end, these narratives must be transformed/made “fit for peace”. How can this be achieved?
b. How can diverse perspectives be made visible in social discourse – or in a museum? What is the connecting element in this diversity? How can relativism and arbitrariness be excluded?


Dr. Andrea Zemskov-Züge is historian and currently works as independent consultant, trainer, and facilitator in the fields of dealing with the past and prevention of violence. She develops methods of dialogue and directly supports processes of dealing with the past.