Theories are like bellybuttons-everybody has one and all are surprisingly different. Last Sunday Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in which they described their research on beliefs about conflict and peace in the Middle East. In brief, they argued that what many outsiders consider rational and logical solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, insiders consider irrational and illogical. The reason has largely to do with sacred beliefs. In spite of the name, these are not religious beliefs, per se, but rather any deeply held beliefs that sit at the core of our world views and are highly resistant to change.
In an earlier post I described beliefs in general as a pile of pick-up sticks, with the most resistant to change-the sacred beliefs-at the bottom of the pile. Accordingly, altering sacred beliefs in any significant way will disturb all the rest. At best this is exhausting, at worst traumatic.
Given the variety of beliefs that abound regarding social problems and solutions, it seems that program designers and policymakers are always treading upon someone’s sacred beliefs. One of the practical questions we have been wrestling with is how to help groups of people with disparate world views reach consensus about programs and policies. With the approach that we have been developing, we engage a broad range of stakeholders in a simple, iterative process in which they reveal what they believe and why.