How do we interrupt the Increasing Gap between the Haves and Have-Nots?

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10 Big Ideas on Peace and Justice from the Career of Morton Deutsch

Peter T. Coleman

Morton Deutsch, eminent psychologist, Columbia University professor, mentor extraordinaire, and one of the founders of the field of conflict resolution, died last March at age 97. Deutsch spent his illustrious career creatively and systematically studying ways to make the world more just and peaceful. He was a tough-minded and tenderhearted scientist with an intense commitment to developing psychological knowledge that would be relevant to important human concerns. In other words, he was deeply theoretical and genuinely practical. He believed in the power of big ideas to improve the world, and in the vital role of science to refine them.

In honor of his passing, I have selected a series of ten major scientific contributions that Deutsch made in his efforts to promote a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. These are by no means his only contributions – there are indeed many more. However these are those I have found as most consequential to my own research and practice, and that I feel are most likely to have the biggest impact on our future. Brief snapshots of each contribution will be presented here in a series of 10 weekly blog posts in approximate chronological order of the questions he studied over his lifetime.

9. Addressing Inequality and Systemic Oppression: How to interrupt the Increasing Gap between the Haves and Have-Nots?

Somewhat later in his career, Deutsch became particularly concerned about the rapidly increasing gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” in institutions and societies across the globe. His assessment of scholarship in the area was that it did an excellent job of characterizing the intractability of the phenomenon, but that it offered little utility for interrupting patterns of injustice or sustaining constructive changes when they did occur. As a result, he organized a faculty seminar at Columbia focused on identifying effective strategies for interrupting oppression and sustaining justice. The starting point of the seminar was a discussion of a new paper Deutsch had drafted entitled, “A Framework for Thinking about Oppression and its Change”. The framework outlined his thinking on the nature of oppression, the various forms it takes, and the factors that keep it in place, as well as a series of strategies and tactics for awakening a sense of injustice in victims and victimizers and overcoming systems of oppression.

The faculty seminar later led to a two-day working conference which brought together 80 invited participants from a wide variety of disciplines, political and community activists, public intellectuals, philanthropists, and graduate students interested in contributing to scholarly and practical work in this area. Deutsch’s framework for overcoming oppression and various other outstanding contributions to this event were subsequently published in a special issue of Social Justice Research in 2002. It also led to the establishment of the Annual Morton Deutsch Awards for Social Justice, an event honoring distinguished and promising contributions to social justice, which was aimed at stimulating, incentivizing and celebrating both distinguished as well as early career contributions to scholarship, practice and activism for interrupting oppression and sustaining justice.

Some of the distinguished scholars and practitioners recognized since the establishment of the awards include:

  • Michelle Fine, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at The City University of New York;
  • Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone; Mahzarin Banaji, Professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University;
  • John Jost, Professor of Psychology at NYU and past Editor of Social Justice Research;
  • Janusz Reykowski, Warsaw School of Social Psychology and Janusz Grzelak, University of Warsaw;
  • Sister Elaine Roulet, who founded multiple programs that connected incarcerated parents with their children at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility;
  • Claude Steele, Social Psychologist and Provost of Columbia University;
  • Ervin Staub, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst;
  • Gene Sharp, Eminent Activist and Scholar on Non-violence and Senior Scholar at the Albert Einstein Institution;
  • Gretchen Buchenholz, the Founder and Executive Director of the Association to Benefit Children;
  • Abigail Disney, filmaker, philanthropist, and renowned activist for women and peace;
  • The Fortune Society, one of the brightest lights in NYC fighting for and serving formerly incarcerated individuals in critical and innovated ways;
  • Michael Wessells, for his work in child protection worldwide; and most recently
  • Professor Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College, Columbia University for his research on microaggressions.

The example set by all these individuals continues to inspire and mobilize new generations of scholars and activists.

Mort Deutsch was an intellectual giant with a true moral compass, on whose shoulders many in the fields of peace, conflict and social justice stand today. The foundation he has provided for our work is sound, lasting and ultimately promising and optimistic. His insight, passion and commitment today live on in all of us.


Deutsch, M. (2006). A framework for thinking about oppression and its change. Social Justice Research, 19(1), 7-41.