The Heller School for Social Policy and Management

What Is Coexistence?

During much of the 20th century the term coexistence was used in international relations and political-science disciplines when referring to peaceful but limited relations between states. The term was most commonly used in the context of the Cold War and U.S.-Soviet relations. This definition of coexistence is nowadays problematic in its focus on the negatives of non-aggression and noninterference, as well as in its state-centric approach. In these respects it lacks ambition and vision both in terms of the potential for relationships between states, and the potential for relationships among groups within states, where in fact most current violent conflicts take place. A redefined definition became essential as the need to positively manage inter-group relations and the growing diversity within states became a key challenge faced by state leaders and communities across the globe.  Diversity within states in the 21st century is now more the rule than the exception, and most states are facing significant difficulties in responding to conflicts among the cultural, religious, linguistic, ethnic, and political groups within their societies.

A new and expanded definition of coexistence, and one that responded to this new reality, began to emerge towards the end of the 20th century. According to Coexistence International, "coexistence" describes societies in which diversity is embraced for its positive potential, equality is actively pursued, interdependence between different groups is recognized, and the use of weapons to address conflicts is increasingly obsolete. As we examine pre-conflict, conflict, and post-conflict situations around the globe it is clear that for relationships between different ethnic, religious, or social groups to be positive and sustainable we need to move beyond the notion of mere tolerance, to a definition of coexistence that incorporates equality, diversity, and interdependence. Coexistence is evidenced in relationships across differences that are built on mutual trust, respect, and recognition, and is widely understood as related to social inclusion and integration. The term coexistence has a particular focus on inter-group relations. Other language that seeks to describe a similar vision includes social cohesion, social inclusion, and social integration.

Coexistence work also covers the range of initiatives necessary to ensure that communities and societies can live more equitably and peacefully together, including conflict prevention and management, post-conflict and conflict transformation work, conflict-sensitivity, peacebuilding, reconciliation, and multicultural and pluralism work. Coexistence practice and policy activities can find their institutional homes within governments and governmental institutions, IGOs, NGOs, community-based organizations and foundations, business, work, cultural, social, and religious institutions. Many types of activities or strategies can fall under the rubric of “coexistence work,” including: mediation or reconciliation of conflicts, equity and diversity work, people-to-people programs, advocacy around issues of immigration, ethnic, or cultural rights, coexistence-related research, and development of coexistence-sensitive policies at local, national, regional, or international levels.

Associate Professor Ted Johnson teaching a lecture
Professor Ted Johnson

Man in the Middle: Professor Ted Johnson’s course teaches future mediators to navigate difficult conversations that drive positive outcomes for all parties

The following is an adapted excerpt; read the full story here.

“Remember that each worldview is valid to the one who holds it,” cautions Johnson. This sentiment is all the more pressing in today’s bitterly divided political climate. As the name of the program underlines, living in coexistence with others who are different and who hold diverse beliefs is one key goal of the COEX program. For Johnson, it starts with a mindset. 

"Coexistence is a matter of personal orientation. I’ve always seen myself as a collaborator. I’ve had experiences that have caused me to believe that coexistence is actually a lifestyle,” says Johnson.  

“As mediator, your role is to facilitate understanding,” hey says. “You want to reach a point where people are willing to share with you the things that are important to them.” Everyone starts a negotiation with a position. The trick is to get underneath the positions, find core interests and identify where commonality may lie.