Building Cooperation among Groups in Conflict: An Experiment on Intersectarian Cooperation in Lebanon

Building Cooperation among Groups in Conflict: An Experiment on Intersectarian Cooperation in LebanonAJPS Author Summary of “Building Cooperation among Groups in Conflict: An Experiment on Intersectarian Cooperation in Lebanon” by Han Il Chang and Leonid Peisakhin

Across much of the Middle East, relations between Shiites and Sunnis are strained.  In some cases, the two Muslim sects have a long history of grievances, and they cohabit in the region’s hotspots (e.g., Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain).  In this paper, we test several interventions designed to improve cooperation across sectarian lines.

The study – a laboratory in the field experiment – took place in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, where we asked a representative sample of Beirut’s residents to engage in a series of tasks designed to measure conditional and unconditional cooperation.  Conditional cooperation – a type of cooperation that entails strategic considerations about reciprocity – was measured by observing contributions in a public goods game.  Unconditional cooperation – a type that implies selfless other-regarding behavior – was observed in a standard other-other allocation game and also in a series of simulated elections.

The aim of the study was to test the effectiveness of a pro-cooperation appeal by experts and, separately, of a cross-sectarian group discussion on improving cooperation levels by comparison to a baseline.  The expert appeal followed the format of a short televised debate where prominent Shia and Sunni journalists discussed the problems associated with sectarianism and encouraged the shedding of sectarian identities in favor of a national Lebanese identity.  Group discussions centered around participants’ experiences with sectarianism and possible remedies to the problem.  To the best of our knowledge, ours is the first study to test the effectiveness of expert appeals on cooperation in a conflict setting.

We found that the expert appeal increased unconditional cooperation across sectarian lines as expressed.  Levels of conditional cooperation remained unchanged, and observational evidence suggests that lack of an effect was due to the fact that the expert appeal intervention failed to increase cross-sectarian trust.  Contrary to expectations, we found that group discussions had no sizeable effect on cooperation levels, although there was suggestive evidence that highly substantive discussions might, in fact, lead to greater cooperation.  We also established that when participants were offered money to support a member of their own sect – a proxy for clientelism in our study – the positive effects of the expert appeal intervention on unconditional cooperation were canceled out.

All in all, this study suggests that certain types of cross-group cooperation can be improved even in settings as divided as contemporary Lebanon.  Surprisingly, it is the top-down intervention (expert appeal) that, on average, appears to be more effective than a bottom-up one (group discussion).  What is unfortunate is that clientelism seems to negate the effects even of top-down appeals by experts.

About the Authors: Han Il Chang is a Research Associate at New York University–Abu Dhabi and Leonid Peisakhin is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at New York University–Abu Dhabi. Their research “Building Cooperation among Groups in Conflict: An Experiment on Intersectarian Cooperation in Lebanon (” is now available online in Early View and will be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.





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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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