In post-conflict societies, many people seem to talk about compromise, often without a clear idea of what it is. In the broadest sense, compromise is understood to be about feelings connected to making concessions between people or ideas. People love it or hate it – we speak of compromise being a “dirty word”, and refer to “no compromise” as a virtue, while also applauding efforts at building bridges across conflicts. When we like it, we associate compromise with restoring broken relationships and reconciliation with between former antagonists, returning (or coming for the first time) to a sense of wholeness. When we’re opposed to compromise, it is equated with appeasement, of being compromised by concessions, surrendering, and continuing (or disguising) the brokenness. In the latter perception, people feel that they continue to be beaten by weapons that the concessions have allowed others to keep; in the former, restoration turns swords into ploughshares.

These ways of talking about compromise have two unfortunate consequences. They establish a simply binary divide between reconciliation and retreat, and they reduce compromise to a set of emotions. So let’s try a different way. Let’s try to transcend the binary and go beyond feelings. If compromise does, as we believe, have the potential to not only make life better for many, but actually save lives that would otherwise be taken in violent conflict, it’s worth taking time to understand it better.

So what is compromise?

The research outlined here focuses on three conflicts – in and about Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Sri Lanka – to illustrate the meaning, challenges, and possibilities of compromise. Each of these places represents an example of significant social transformation, and each may have a long way to go. Whether in Northern Ireland, South Africa, or Sri Lanka, compromise has not (yet) necessarily left people happy, with new ‘rainbow nation’ identities, able easily to love erstwhile enemies, readily willing to turn the other cheek and with a sense of wholeness and completeness in relations with erstwhile protagonists – although it can; compromise comes at a cost and feelings of grief and loss which may never dissipate. Or at least this panoply of feelings is momentary, coming and going. Feelings of retreat exist side-by-side with reconciliation. Wholeness and brokenness co-exist in degrees of disharmony.

We propose that compromise is the reciprocal practice of tolerance toward former protagonists in the public sphere, involving an act of will to avoid behaving and talking in public space in the ways that people’s emotions in the private sphere would normally dictate. 

People have a capacity to perform actions and talk contrary to how they feel, enabling them to disguise deep emotions and pretend others; and there is often a sharp distinction between the public and private sphere. The private sphere is the domestic sphere, the sphere of home where people take off their overcoat, strip away the public mask, and relax.  The public is the sphere of social roles outside the home, the sphere of work, politics, and civil society.  In Erving Goffman’s terms it is “front stage” space, not backstage, where we conform to public expectations, act according to socially agreed roles, and talk with a civil tongue and with the absence of ‘hate speech’.

The public/private distinction is no longer entrenched, for in this cultural moment in the West, the public and private overlap – behaviour formerly restricted to the private sphere is now made into a public performance (politicians crying, open displays of grief, declarations of religious faith by public figures, and expressions of public anger and the like). A measure of this change is found in the comparisons of the public display of private emotions at the funerals of Sir Winston Churchill (1965) and Princess Diana (1997). The ‘stiff upper lip’, the ‘emotional reserve’ that was thought once to define both public decorum and private manners has long disappeared, if it ever existed to the extent imagined.

As we understand it, compromise operates within a repertoire of emotional and behavioural responses to stress within a social context. There seem to be six mediating factors: feelings of hope, the capacity for forgiveness, the ability to transcend divided memories of the former conflict, perceptions of the fairness of the concessions, views about whether in practice the concessions are reciprocated, and the social networks in which people are located. These need further explanation.

Hope is personal and societal at the same time. It is the cognitive process of anticipating some future desired-for state but it is materially affected by the social conditions that help sustain the anticipating. The hoped for goals can be individual or social, referring to personal aspirations for oneself or for society generally; people can become excited by anticipating both personal and societal goals. It’s reasonable to assert that feelings of hope (that is, the capacity to anticipate) and the expectation of achieving goals in the future (personal and societal) will affect people’s capacity to compromise. Feelings of uncertainty about the future and people’s failure to anticipate hoped-for societal goals may be related to their expectations of the outcome of the process of compromise. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is likely to be affected by structural and demographic factors—notably, the extent to which respondents incorporate Biblical notions into their moral ideas about forgiveness. Theological loyalties may be important in differentiating people’s understanding of the requirements for forgiveness, and the moral landscape by which non-religious people locate forgiveness bears consideration. We emphasise memory because people’s capacity to forgive is commonly believed to be related to their ability to forget (hence the phrase ‘to forgive and forget’). We do not subscribe to this view; forgetting can be impossible in the short to medium term.

More importantly, we submit that compromise will be impacted by the way in which the initial disagreement and conflict is remembered and how the wider historical past into which the disagreement is located is understood.  Compromise does not require forgetting but a conscious decision in which people determine to transcend divided memories for the purposes of relational closeness (the ancient Greeks referred to this as remembering to forget); the greater the capacity for transcendence, the more likelihood of garnering and sustaining compromise. People’s sense of the fairness of the concessions and that the concessions are reciprocal and are being kept to by all parties to them also affects their capacity to compromise in the sense we understand it here. That is, people’s ability to fulfill their obligations under the agreement is likely to diminish with the perception that the concessions are unequal or erstwhile opponents have abrogated their obligations. Reciprocity and fairness are essential components of compromise.  The beliefs people have about the conflict and its resolution, and others’ involvement in them, bears upon their capacity to compromise, for this affects the social networks to which people belong and through which the management of emotions is partly accomplished. The ‘communities of emotion’ that dense social networks constitute can support or undercut a person’s capacity to compromise.  Which of these outcomes transpire depends in large part on the quality of the social relations people had with protagonists prior to the conflict and the impact that the violence had in restricting their post-conflict networks to their own group member. People’s social connectedness with a like-minded social network of compromise is essential to its practice.  Thus, both the level of social connectedness of people and the nature of those with whom they feel connected are important mediating considerations in the development of compromise.

While this notion of compromise may be universally applicable, specific locations throw the process of compromise into particularly vivid relief, making it more easily accessible. The focus of our research is on victims of communal conflict, which requires another important set of distinctions.

Emotions as performed behaviour 

Emotions have a short shelf life, but in the absence of conscious mindfulness, we lack any anticipation that these feelings will decay; we typically expect to continue to feel what our emotions tell us at the moment of their experience. Compromise does not require people to stop feeling or to suppress emotions. Consensus needs to emerge around agreement to perform the ritualised behaviours and forms of talk that people may not personally feel but which are recognised as socially productive for the maintenance of the reciprocal accord in the future. This becomes feasible given people’s participation in mutually reinforcing social networks where compromise is socially practised.

Victim, victimhood, and victim identity

Victims are those who have experienced conflict-related harm. Harm needs to be understood in its broadest sense to cover medical, emotional, relational, and cultural hurts. Hurts can be real or imagined. They can also be direct (to the individuals themselves and their immediate family), indirect (to others whom they know personally), or collective (to society generally). Where group membership is important to the individual victim’s sense of identity, people will experience harm to the group(s) with which they identify and develop a sense of groups as victims. This is different from ‘collective hurts’, since this term describes the scale of the experience (that it affected everyone).  To describe group(s) as victims encapsulates that individual victims feel they belong to particular group(s) that suffered specific harm. Methodologically, therefore, it is important to disentangle personal and group dimensions to victims’ experiences. This is not to be taken simplistically, that somehow we could interview groups, as it were; it would be impossible to locate people with legitimacy to speak on behalf of groups. In this research, groups are accessed through the affiliations and loyalties of individuals who are members.

If victims are defined by the experience of harm, ‘victimhood’ is different. It is the process initiated by the (real or imagined) experience of harm and describes the course over time that the harm and its consequences take and the procedures by which they are managed. Victimhood is a developmental process, involving change in how the experience is packaged and handled over time (captured in the phrase that victims ‘move on’) and varies with time according to all sorts of cognitive, relational, political, social and cultural factors. Developmental processes, however, do not necessarily go only in the forward direction; ‘moving on’ is matched, in colloquial terms, by ‘hanging on’ or ‘going back’.

We envisage that ‘moving on’ in the developmental processing of victimhood is affected by whether or not a ‘victim identity’ has emerged which restricts victims’ social networks in ways that inhibit participation in communities of compromise. Here, the victim experience becomes, in Max Weber’s terms, the ‘master status’, the central defining identity marker. Victims (individuals or groups) develop ‘victim identity’, therefore, when the victim experience consumes all other identity markers and is used as the ‘mental map’ to explain life’s subsequent fates. The (real or imagined) hurt explains who they are as a person and their social position—not ‘normal’ notions of aging, the conventional array of personal and social life events, or the natural ‘transition stress’ associated with all major political changes. The development of a victim identity seriously impacts the social connectedness of victims, evident perhaps in social withdrawal (lack of connectedness) or participation in restricted social networks with similar others (partisan connectedness), such as with own-group members or within the victim support group. It is interesting to explore whether ‘victim identity’ is related to scale (that is, more common with ‘direct’ rather than ‘indirect’ or ‘collective harm’), that nature of the victim experience (that is, whether it was medical, cultural, relational, and so on), to the level and extent of its consequences, and the nature of victims’ social networks. It might also vary with the nomenclature victims use to describe themselves.

Victims or survivors?

Many victims prefer the term “survivor”. It follows that if victimhood is a development process and is managed over time to the extent that victims ‘move on’, “survivor” becomes the more appropriate term for those who are successfully managing their victimhood. The possession of a victim identity seems incompatible with the nomenclature of survival and its concomitant associations with progress, forward movement, overcoming, prevailing, and surmounting. Survival is an ongoing process, always in the state of being rather than an end state, whereas victimhood is about conquering a victim experience that can never be conquered, but the transition from victim to survivor (or to victim and survivor) represents a rubicon and a new developmental stage in the processing of victimhood.

Victims and post-conflict compromise

Compromise is the reciprocal practice of tolerance by victims toward former protagonists in the public sphere, involving a conscious determination to avoid behaving and talking in public space in the ways that victims’ emotions in the private sphere would normally dictate. Compromise is performed behaviour in public space, artful in the sense that it is constructed by victims in its performance when relating and talking about former protagonists and uncoupled from what they feel and say in the private sphere. Victims may lack any of the feelings associated with the ritualised behaviour and forms of talk connected with restoration, reconciliation, and wholeness with the former enemy (i.e. they are pretending compromise) and are performing behaviours and talking entirely contrary to how we feel (i.e. they are disguising their private emotions). Compromise can exist as a social practice, in other words, long before victims come to feel it as an emotion in private. The nature of the victim experience, however, the course the victimhood process takes over time, and the social networks within which victims locate and perform their affective and relational behaviour may preclude some (or all) victims from realising or accepting this.

Victims will have their own notions of what compromise is, whether or not they personally are capable of displaying it and under what conditions it breaks down, as well as a sense of whether others practice it (and thus whether or not it is reciprocal) and the extent of it generally in Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. This requires interrogation of whether the harm that defines their victim experience extends to the groups they identify with and whether group harms are experienced as personal and are incorporated into their personal process of victimhood. It is also important to explore ways in which notions of group victimhood are understood and may be important in determining the dense social networks victims participate in after the conflict is over. Compromise social networks do not necessarily manifest in participation in cross-communal networks or in patterns of social relations that now includes the erstwhile enemy, but they do involve social connectedness to others that reinforce the reciprocal practice of tolerance toward former protagonists in the public sphere (that is, compromise). The management of their victimhood over time will focus some of our attention, as will the level of victim identity they appear to display and express.

Victims’ own accounts, however, are not unproblematic. We examine the forms of behaviour and talk that they see associated with compromise, their sense of the differences between the public and private displays of emotions, and their personal capacity to apply this with respect to their own feelings, behaviour, and talk towards erstwhile enemies. The momentariness of emotions means that compromise is a ‘just tolerable discomfort’ in which victims oscillate between remembrance and forgetting, reconciliation and retreat, despair and elation, and wholeness and brokenness. Victims reflected on this disharmony within themselves and were asked to examine under what conditions (personal, social, political, etc.) their practice of compromise in the public sphere breaks down (either in the form of their public displays of confrontation or recoil into the private sphere of personal feelings and thoughts). They were asked the same about the practice of compromise in the public sphere by others, especially former protagonists. In order for us to locate victims’ personal practice of compromise in terms of the mediating factors we believe that impact it, victims were asked about their feelings of hope for the future, notions of forgiveness, capacity to transcend divided memories of the conflict and its wider historical backcloth, views of the peace process and whether erstwhile opponents are keeping to their obligations under it, and about the social networks to which they belong and whether or not their social connectedness supports compromise.


Compromise is a messy concept. It is normative (relating to evaluative moral standards) but not necessary a norm (something practised); it is not always perceived as virtuous (evaluated morally as ‘good’), nor is it everywhere a social value (a cultural belief). We began by arguing that compromise was more than a feeling or spirit – the common way in which it is discussed; it is, we contend, a social practice. That is to say, it is an accomplished behaviour, the performance of which draws on deliberate strategies of action and forms of talk. The sociology of emotions illuminates how feelings are simultaneously enacted in behaviour and language scripts and are profoundly affected by the social relations people feeling these emotions have. There is, however, no social or genetic encoding that ties specific feelings to particular forms of action or talk since the performative behaviour involved in the social construction of emotions can encourage the disguising of feelings (acting and talking in public in ways contrary to private feelings) or pretending emotions (acting and talking in public in ways that display emotions we do not actually feel). The distinction between the public and private performance of emotions, premised on the separation of public and private space, is key to the meaning of compromise. Compromise is, we argue, the reciprocal practice of tolerance toward former protagonists in the public sphere. As such, it exists only in its performance; social practices give it meaning.

However, people’s capacity to begin (and continue) to practice compromise depends on their ability to maintain the public-private dichotomy. Today this is a blurred binary, as the public and private increasingly blend. With respect to emotions, which have a raw intensity, urgency, and impatience, it can be extremely difficult to initiate and maintain the public performance of compromise and either disguise what momentarily seem ‘true’ feelings or pretend others. This must be especially so for victims of communal violence who have experienced real or imagined harm in one or more of several ways, leaving the process of victimhood as a life-long problem to be managed. This makes the focus on victims an intellectual strength, however, supporting our view that this topic throws into unusually high relief the factors that garner and maintain the practice of compromise. We argue that the practice of compromise by victims in the public sphere is mediated by a series of cognitive and relational variables that makes its performance easier to contemplate and enact – capacity to hope, capacity for forgiveness, capacity to transcend divided memories, beliefs about the fairness of the peace process, that its concessions are being kept reciprocally, and the nature of the dense social networks that structure victims’ social connectedness in the post-conflict stage. Compromise has both cognitive and social dimensions therefore, but this does not mean it is an attitude trait or a social value independent of its performance as a social practice or that attitude and value change must occur before compromise can emerge. Compromise need not become embedded psychologically in people’s minds as an attitude trait or sociologically in their value systems as a cultural belief; it will probably never become virtuous, at least for the victims and the war generations themselves, because it is a ‘just tolerable discomfort’ where reconciliation and retreat occur in disharmony. It needs to be embedded as a social practice, as a set of performances uncoupled from emotions, attitudes, and social values, capable of being performed long before, if ever, people feel wholeness and completeness with their former enemies.

– John D Brewer