State of the Planet

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Faculty Profile: Peter Coleman

Peter Coleman, Co-Executive Director of the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4), created four short and engaging videos about intractable conflicts for AC4, an interdisciplinary research consortium led by Coleman and housed at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. To watch Coleman’s comfortable and dynamic on-camera performance, you might think that he was an actor rather than an academic—and you wouldn’t be so wrong.

Coleman began his professional career in the 1980s as a professional actor in New York working in television, theater and film. Although he left the spotlight (until recently) to serve as a mental health counselor for violent inner-city youth at the Regent Hospital, the offstage version of the “Peter Coleman Story” followed its own exciting arc. Fast-forward two years, Coleman became the hospital’s marketing director, and through that affiliation, the chair of the Yorkville Civic Council’s Task Force on Youth Violence. It was then and there that Coleman found his true calling as an expert in conflict resolution, even though he says that, at that point, “I wasn’t trained. I was just working from my gut.”

Eventually Coleman did train as a mediator for the New York State Criminal Court system, and that became the springboard to a doctorate in social and organizational psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University. Today, in addition to his duties at AC4, he works as the director of both the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR) and the Institute for Psychological Science and Practice (IPSP) at Teachers College, where he is also professor of psychology and education. He teaches courses in conflict resolution, social psychology and social science research and is a member of the Earth Institute faculty.

Coleman is an expert in intractable conflicts, which he says describes five percent of the world’s most difficult conflicts. However rare these conflicts are, they undermine the security and well-being of societies everywhere. For over ten years, Coleman was the the lead investigator on “Modeling the Fundamental Dynamics of Intractable Conflict,” a project funded by the McDonnell Foundation that applied the principles and methods of dynamical systems theory to understand what Coleman calls “the five percent problem.” The project was conducted by an interdisciplinary research team that, besides Coleman, includes Andrzej Nowak and Robin Vallacher, two social psychologists with expertise in the application of dynamical systems to cognitive, interpersonal, group and social phenomena; Larry Liebovitch, a physicist with expertise in formal descriptions and modeling of system dynamics; and Andrea Bartoli, a social anthropologist and practitioner who specializes in international conflict and genocide prevention.

Coleman formally joined the Earth Institute in 2009, although his collaboration was already well underway. “The Earth Institute is trying to affect significant change in some very dire and complex social systems, and many of them are, in fact, in the middle of conflict zones.” Coleman sees his Earth Institute affiliation as a way to begin to “reorient our work from problems to solutions” and “marshal efforts related to sustainable peace.”

Coleman holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in social and organizational psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a B.A. in communications from the University of Iowa. Coleman is an affiliate of the International Center for Complexity and Conflict (ICCC) at The Warsaw School for Social Psychology in Warsaw, Poland. In 2003, he became the first recipient of the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association (APA), Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence, and in 2015 was awarded the Morton Deutsch Conflict Resolution Award by APA and a Marie Curie Fellowship from The EU.

Coleman also edits the award-winning Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (2000, 2006, 2014) and his other books include The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts (2011); Conflict, Justice, and Interdependence: The Legacy of Morton Deutsch (2011), Psychological Components of Sustainable Peace (2012), and Attracted to Conflict: Dynamic Foundations of Destructive Social Relations (2013). His most recent book, Making Conflict Work: Navigating Disagreement Up and Down Your Organization (2014), won the 2016 Outstanding Book Award from The International Association of Conflict Management. Each of these booksrepresent the culmination of his research in the Intractable Conflict Lab at Columbia University, a research facility designed for the study of conflict dynamics in cases of highly polarizing issues and asymmetrical power relations.

He has also authored over 100 articles and chapters, is a member of the United Nation Mediation Support Unit’s Academic Advisory Council, is a founding board member of the Gbowee Peace Foundation USA, and is a New York State certified mediator and experienced consultant. He also founded the MD-ICCCR Science-Practice Blog, the WKCR (89.9 FM) monthly radio program Peace and Conflict at Columbia: Conversations at the Leading Edge, and is a frequent blogger on Huffington Post and Psychology Today. Dr. Coleman’s work has also been featured in media outlets such as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, This American Life, Time Magazine, Fox Business, CBS, Fast Company, and Chicago Public Radio.

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