Date of Publishing:
March 7, 2021

Interview with Shifra Sagy: On Narratives, our own and those of others

Ruth Anderwald, Leonhard Grond, Shifra Sagy

Shifra Sagy is the director of the Martin Springer Center for Conflict Studies and its multidisciplinary graduate program of conflict management and resolution. As an emeritus professor of psychology in the Department of Education at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, her primary research interests include salutogenesis and coping and adjustment to stressors. She is involved in political psychology studies concerning the historical and political consciousness among children, adolescents and adults. In the past decades, Shifra has been engaged in peace education in the Palestinian – Israeli context at all levels – teaching, lecturing, writing, researching, participating and initiating dialogue workshops.

We spoke with her about conflict research based on collective narratives, salutogenesis and dizziness.

Ruth Anderwald — Our interest in what we call dizziness started from our viewpoint as artists. In creative processes, dizziness, as in the uncertainty of the process, or in the staying open and flexible in terms of possible artistic outcomes, can become a resourceful driving force. Thus, we started with the hypothesis that dizziness can become a productive and creative resource.
Our artistic research defines dizziness as an unpredictable movement or the sensation of such movement, causing a shift from the given to the uncertain. Dizziness can happen on different scales, from the personal to a societal dimension, from the staggering body to a system in turmoil. To illustrate how dizziness can be a resource to us, we often use the example of staggering. When staggering, a reflex sets in, relaxing one leg and tightening the other leg’s muscles. As a result, we have the chance to regain our balance. So, it represents an increase in our possibilities, we may still, fall, we may stagger on, or eventually regain balance. Without this reflex setting in, when fainting, for instance, we will fall with certainty. Staggering adds uncertainty, but at the same time gives us more possibilities. In medical science, dizziness is a symptom of disease or illness. Using the example of staggering, we want to emphasise that dizziness can be seen as a resource, even in a physical, corporeal sense. Even though the process of staggering increases uncertainty, nevertheless this uncertainty creates a spacetime moment that creates more possibilities for us. Understanding dizziness needs thinking in movement, which reminds us of the salutogenic model that we also read as a concept of complex motions.[1]

Leonhard Grond — If dizziness can be used a resource, we should consider  how it can also be used to help groups who find themselves  collectively navigating states of dizziness. In our eyes, the salutogenic model and our interest in navigating dizziness have something in common: they both focus on navigation through uncertainty. In this context, we came across your conflict research on narratives based in the concept of salutogenesis. Viewed through the prism of dizziness, we understand narratives as increasing possibilities to better face and navigate through states of uncertainty. In the following, we would like to start with a basic question. What is a narrative from your point of view as a conflict researcher?

Shifra Sagy — In opposition to some other psychologists who focus on the individual narrative, my focus is on the collective. The narrative is the story that a collective tells itself about where it comes from, who it is, who it will and wants to be. The collective’s belonging, its past, present and future – everything is included in this narrative.

Another focus of my research on narratives is the context and role of narratives in conflicts. Mainly, of course, in the Palestinian-Israeli context, but we also focused on the Kosovo conflict, with a doctoral student of mine, who did a focus group with Albanians and Serbs in order to study their narratives. Moreover, my team, my group of students and I, did research about different inner-religious conflicts in Israel, too, e.g., the conflict between the religious ultra-Orthodox groups and the national religious groups in Israel, and we researched the narratives among different Palestinian groups, among those who live in the West Bank, and those living as Israeli citizens, for instance. In this research, we found out that their narratives are not only very diverse but sometimes completely different, which shows us that there is a conflict no less fierce inside the various groups of Jews and Arabs, than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other focus groups, we found narratives about hidden conflicts as well as about open and violent ones. You can often feel the narratives of these different collectives in your bones when you talk to the people, even if they may lack the words to describe them to you exactly.

LG — How do narratives that we tell ourselves about ourselves, as communities or societies, influence the way we live and act?

SS — What our research found was the following: the stronger you cling to the narrative of your collective, the more you legitimise it, and the more you are able to feel an intense empathy towards it. The stronger you are bound to this very narrative, the stronger you are pitted against the other, the opposing or contradictory narrative. You, in fact, will even deny the legitimacy of the other narrative, and thus the group. In this context, it doesn’t matter who the other group is, or what the other narrative is about. We studied this phenomenon in different geographical contexts and in different conflicts from the religious to ethical, and even in post-conflict phases, and we always found that same pattern.

What I try to do with these findings, is not only treat them as a researcher but also be an ‘active bystander.’ I am actively trying to twist this pattern of thinking in my society, trying to develop a possibility for us to still have strong feelings toward our own collective’s narrative, but at the same time being able to stay open to other ones. If you are confident about your collective narrative, you should be able to be open to a different one as well. Here I am referring to a principle from individual psychology that we did not find in our research on collectives: the more self-confident and self-assured you are, the more you can be open to others.

We found that the possibility to achieve this openness for collectives lies within learning to gradually become able to acknowledge the other narrative or group. You need to learn more and more about the other story, which we have done in practice with participants, for instance, through taking trips to different locations and through specific meetings with members of the other groups. But then waiting, just waiting also plays a role, waiting for the participants of this exchange to recognise their own and the opposing narratives. People don’t recognise the other’s narrative because they don’t know enough to understand, recognise and eventually acknowledge it. It is not a teaching process, I want to emphasise, but a process of giving opportunities for people to meet, talk, reflect, understand, and recognise each other.

My group of students and I are also a collective and a diverse and changing collective for that matter. Usually, I have a really mixed group of students, Jews and Arabs, working together on their narratives, but one time I had mostly Jewish students, as the Palestinian students could not attend. So, I did this process with a group of Jewish students only, and it works either way. After one year, the Jewish students did not show any lower identification with their initial Jewish narrative, but they could open their mind to the other, the Arab narrative and the complication and complexity of and between the two narratives. They were able to recognise that there is not only black and white, right or wrong, good and bad but to accept that things are much more complicated. In the end, the identification with their own narrative was as strong as before, while the readiness to be open to the other narrative had manifestly increased over time. I propose that this process should be done in high schools, too. But although I am a member of the Council of Higher Education, my narrative is not such a popular one and is different from the one of the Minister of Education. But nevertheless, we already managed to implement our method for kindergarten education.

Right now, I am busy funding my current project in Lydda, a mixed town, where both Arabs and Jews live, but the communities live quite separately from each other. It was not easy getting the Ministry of Education and the local municipality’s allowance for this project that plans to switch the teachers once a week, meaning that a Jewish teacher will teach in an Arab kindergarten and vice versa. The outcome of the first year was amazing! The teachers, children and the parents who were suspicious initially – especially the Jewish ones – grew much closer, and increasingly felt that they were doing something important for themselves, and for their community, and their country. When the kindergarten opened after the Covid-19 induced break, everyone involved was very avidly asking to re-start this project. Now, we are in the second year of this experiment, and we are still scientifically studying this project. But what I can already say is that the narrative’s role starts with the kindergarten, it starts within your own family, and the role and impact of narratives in conflicts are highly significant.

RA — Do you already know if this early exposure to narratives will have a lasting effect? Is it easier for a person to be exposed to divergent narratives if this happens from an early age on?

SS — I am a conflict researcher, not a psychologist, so I don’t know the exact effects of the narratives on very young children. But what I can see in this project is that it has an impact. Already from an early age on, you are able to become open to other narratives. What we know from research is that children are attracted by likeness. At a very young age, they prefer to play with children of the same skin colour, and they rather take presents from adults who are of the same skin colour. I guess, I could tell you more about that after the end of the project. But I think that we should generally open the children’s minds for several narratives in our world.

This has positive effects as, for example, in growing up bilingual. Me, for instance, I am the exact opposite. Being the daughter of Zionists coming from Europe, I grew up only with the Jewish Zionist narrative and Hebrew as the only parental language. For a certain time, this was good enough for me. Growing up, it took me a really long time to recognise that there are other narratives around me, that I didn’t know at all. In my generation, there are Jews that met Arabs only in war! At least, in my generation, other than that there was no contact with Arabs at all. It was only as a lecturer at my university that I got to know an Arab student better. She is Bedouin, and when I met her, I started to talk to her and learned about her narrative. Over time, even our families became friends, and she is now a Senior Lecturer at our university department. But before that, I never had contact with someone with a different narrative, such as the Arab or the Bedouin narrative. I genuinely believe that getting in touch with and knowing other narratives apart from your own should already take place at an early age. Some educators and even people from the Ministry of Education are convinced that they need to build up and strengthen the child’s sense of identity through a strong singular narrative. But our research shows us that, on the contrary, knowing another narrative does not interfere with identifying with the one from your family or collective. When you get to know the complicated and complex world, you can become even more confident within your own story of the world. Such is the story of my life.

RA — From our point of view, this merging of narratives is especially interesting because, we would say that if a specific narrative is confronted with a different narrative, this could create dizziness, as in a kind of confusion or uncertainty, and that increases the complexity that you have to deal with. Many people are afraid of that or see it in a negative way. The point is, as you said, it may be difficult, but it is not negative.

SS — I think we really have the same point of view here, even if I never talked about dizziness before. Chaos is a crucial concept in salutogenesis, which should not be confused with positive psychology. The central philosophical core of the concept of salutogenesis is that we are all born into chaos, we are born in a world that is not homogeneous.[2] The positive psychologists put it differently. They say that we are born under homogeneous circumstances, but that there are some troubles that we have to overcome. I say, no. The basic concept of salutogenesis is: We are born in a chaotic, challenging, strange and dizzying world.

LG — Do you see in the salutogenic model a possibility to integrate different narratives?

SS — I do. I was a doctoral student of Aaron Antonovsky, and after many years of salutogenic research, I combined the salutogenic model with conflict research and integration of both scientific “narratives” that you can find in the Handbook of Salutogenesis.[3]

RA + LG — At the moment we deal with a global crisis caused by the pandemic that has hit hard most parts of the world. Do you see a change in our collective narratives from the  political perspective , caused by the COVID-crisis?

SS — Years ago, it was a fact that Europeans and Israelis lived different realities in terms of violent conflicts, with the Europeans avoiding trips to Israel because of the tensions due to the conflict situation. But when the COVID -crisis started to spread, I recognised a shift in this attitude toward the idea that we all are “in the same boat” now, we all have the same invisible enemy, and we all need salutogenic resources to deal with this crisis.

So, my colleagues and I started research around this topic and produced a short paper considering eight countries: Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, and, of course, Israel. We found out that early on in Israel, the leftists’ mental health was lower and their anxieties were higher, and that the right-wing adherents felt much better.[4] In the context of this study, we looked at it again. The right-wing group’s mental health had decreased because of a decrease of trust level in the leadership, including in the Prime Minister and all institutions in charge. If we don’t believe in the administration, this affects our mental and physical health negatively. For me, what gives me the proper answers to my questions is not my personal view but on the one hand, the data of our research and on the other hand, a team of researchers that represent all the different parts and narratives of our complex society in Israel and internationally. What we found out about Austria and Switzerland in the first stage was that there is a lot of trust in the political leadership.

But now it is the same as within the right-wing group in Israel. There is a decrease in trust. Even my Swiss research partner tells me about demonstrations in Switzerland. There is a change in the feeling that everything is OK and that we can trust our leaders to do the right thing.

LG — Do I understand you right, that first, at the beginning of the epidemic there is an increase in the national sense of coherence[5] and after a while, we can observe it decreasing?[6]

SS — Yes, I think the national sense of coherence is very important at that point, and I see a decrease in it, even among right-wing voters. Nevertheless, in my eyes, it is not the meaningful component of the sense of coherence that is decreasing, but more the other two components, the comprehensibility and the manageability. We found that all over the world, people are using their personal sense of coherence much more at this moment. In terms of prediction of the state of mental health, this is the most predictable variable. In the Mediterranean countries, we rely on the structure of the family much more. The national sense of coherence was also important, but now there is a switch from seeing it in a positive way to a negative one, which is connected to the higher-level distrust in politicians.

The first ones to join our research group were the Dutch. I was so jealous about their data showing that they trusted their leaders so much more than we do in our society, but as the crisis progresses, it turns out: not anymore! In this respect, it seems that the virus shook the whole world!

LG — Is this the usual process, that the sense of coherence (SoC) stays quite the same, but the comprehensibility and the manageability decrease, or is it specifically related to the pandemic?

SS — Usually, we look at the concept of national SoC as a whole, and we don’t separate it into its components of comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness. But I must say, and this is just my personal opinion, the country I live in, and the people I belong to, are still very meaningful for me, living here is very significant for me. But at the same time, I feel that all the comprehensibility, understanding and cognitive acceptance of what is going on politically during the crisis is decreasing. There seems to be a gap opening up between the different components. Until now, I supported looking at the concept in its wholeness, but now, I think, we need to find the balance and interplay between the emotional and cognitive elements. What certainly took place was a decrease in our feelings, a decrease in the two components of behavioural and cognitive decrease in our feelings. But as I told you, the most significant variable was the personal sense of coherence all over the world. At last, what we are left with is our own view of the world.

RA — Does that also mean that our bonds with each other as a group or society are not as close?

SS — Maybe we don’t see the collective sense of coherence as strong a resource for how to cope and relate. I see this orientation toward the personal SoC more as a resource to cope with such threats like the pandemic. However, I don’t think it’s only the virus. It relies on something deeper. At least, in my society in Israel, the virus came during a deep political crisis. The virus only deepened it and, we could say, expressed to the outside world what we are already feeling deep inside. In this context, I also think of the election of Trump some years ago. It showed certain attitudes very distinctively, for instance, the attitude of separation, that we are to care only for ourselves, pitted against globalisation, against solidarity, against all the values that we felt were important in the time after WWII. Equally, Covid-19 came and gave us a reason to make apparent what already lay hidden deep within our societies and collectives.

RA — In Austria, the notion of solidarity is interesting because now it is still not more than an expression. For a long time, it was part of social-democratic thinking, and even now, it still has meaning in this situation. But it’s still not revived, even though there is an urge for solidarity, we even see it in action when we wear masks or get a vaccine, but there is no meaningful renaissance and recognition of the word and action. Paradoxically, despite all this, the idea prevails that everybody can do it best on her or his own.

SS — That’s what we found, too. As I told you, the personal sense of coherence was the most significant. I feel it very strongly, as I grew up here in Israel, and I feel that there is usually strong solidarity. For example, some years ago, when my husband and I made our first trip to the U.S.A., we saw a man hit a woman in the street. It was an awful thing to do, but everybody passed by without looking. The only one who said something and stopped it was my husband and me. After we managed to stop the man, other people started joining in. But actually, the scene would probably have continued without interference. It was our first visit to the United States, and it was this strong picture that I came home with. In the end, I felt my country is different. In my society, solidarity is a part of the national sense of coherence. But now there is a strong change in this sense of solidarity here as well.

LG — The crisis accelerates the question of how can we educate ourselves regarding solidarity and togetherness? How could we educate ourselves regarding our own narratives?

SS — Be not afraid of the other, but listen to the other, and do this from a very early age on. And, of course, get a little bit dizzy. That is also good. That is what many young people here and worldwide do now: they take pills and consume alcohol and drugs to get dizzy.

RA — For a short time, we use dizziness. When we have a heartbreak, we get drunk. We want to be dizzy and get out of that all. But it can be only temporarily, just to change your perspective a bit. You cannot stay dizzy.

SS — Yes, you can take it only temporarily. Don’t see it as the resource to cope with your life and problems. (Laughs). Thank you, it was interesting to talk to you.

LG — Thank you very much for taking the time. It was a great honour and pleasure to speak to you!


[1] See: Salutogensis: Health as Movement.

[2] Erkisson M. (2017) “The Sense of Coherence in the Salutogenic Model of Health.” In The Handbook of Salutogenesis. (90-96) Springer.

[3] Mittelmark, Maurice. Sagy, S. (2017) The Handbook of Salutogenesis. Springer. This in-depth survey of salutogenesis shows the breadth and strengths of this innovative perspective on health promotion, health care, and wellness.

[4] Mana, A. Sagy, S. (2020) Brief Report: Can Political Orientation Explain Mental Health in the Time of a Global Pandemic? Voting Patterns, Personal and National Coping Resources, and Mental Health During the Coronavirus Crisis. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 39 (3):165-171. DOI: 10.1521/jscp.2020.39.3.165

[5] See: The Sense of Coherence.

[6] See: The Sense of Coherence.

— See also Salutogensis: Health as Movement.

— See also The Sense of Coherence.