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4.1 socio-drama

Guideline for land problems / COMMUNICATING: 4.1 Socio-drama 

Interventions and evidence explained

Most plausible interventions explained

“Land conflicts, like any other type of conflict, often end up moving in vicious circles. Conflict parties stick to their positions and unconsciously force one another to adopt increasingly extreme positions. People normally tend to project negative characteristics onto one another until the opposite party finally incorporates them. Reality becomes more and more disguised and distorted, and the other conflict party ends up being blamed for all the negative aspects of life (e.g. squatters often make the state responsible for all their problems, while the state considers squatters to be a handicap to any development whatsoever). In such situations, it becomes necessary that both conflicting parties change their perception of the other to pave the way for an equitable dialogue” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 92). This can be achieved by a range of different interventions. 

During the orientation process of the available literature, we identified the following interventions as most plausible for taking one another seriously as human beings (respecting) in ownership and use of land disputes:

  • Setting ground rules
  • Socio-drama/role-playing

Setting ground rules

Role playing or socio drama

Role-playing is a creative way of gaining insight into the deeper roots of land conflict. When done in a non-professional, improvisational setting and applied to a social problem or conflict, role-playing can also be called a socio-drama.

A socio-drama “aims to work out interpersonal relations and the feelings and needs on which they are based. The roles are more like representative characters of a given society than private persons. The idea is that every society disposes of a particular set of roles out of which each person represents a certain combination…roles which the actor also incorporates in his/her sub-consciousness and which will be addressed and sorted during the improvisation” (Moreno 1989, Jüngst/Meder 1991) (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 65).

“The basic requirements [of a socio-drama] are a stage (e.g. a room or free space), actors, spectators and a facilitator who directs the play, questions scenes, intervenes in the play, adds new roles and analyses what is happening” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 65). “A socio-drama done by all conflict parties together or separately by each conflict party” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 92).

A socio-drama aimed at understanding a land conflict and building respect between the parties involved typically proceeds as follows.

  • “First, the director [facilitator] explains the initial situation and the roles involved in the conflict” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 65).
  • Then actors are chosen to play the [parties involved]. They have to choose a place and position on the stage that corresponds or illustrates the situation at the outset. Their physical positions, their gestures and their viewing direction already characterise – often subconsciously – their inner positions” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 65).
  • “In their roles, the actors talk and react to each other. They can move and act freely. The most important thing is to react spontaneously and by intuition, without reflecting on the consequences, as this shows best the inner position of the characters” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 66). 
  • The director can stop the actors “and ask questions about feelings whenever (s)he thinks it is useful to gain a deeper understanding of the conflict situation” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 70). “The more spontaneously the actors answer and speak about their feelings, the more authentic their words normally are” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 66). 
  • “The reactions revealed during the play and the fantasies that develop and are expressed should all be considered part of the collective knowledge of that society and its specific forms of relations and ways of interacting” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 66).
  • “After presenting the socio-drama and before the discussion, the director asks each participant how it felt to play his/her part. At the end, all group members reflect on the positions, interests, needs, desires and fears of those involved in the conflict and summarize them (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 70).

The socio-drama should ideally be documented in the form of “sociograms or conflict maps capturing all key situations and turning points” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 66). “A ‘storyboarding’ visualisation [facilitates] joint analysis of the play after the performance, to ensure that everybody realises what was happening and to check whether all participants (actors, spectators, director and documenting person) experienced the situation in the same way. In case of disagreement, individual scenes can be played again with other actors. Experience, however, shows that there is high consistency in how people experience the play” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 65).

Selected interventions for comparison (defined as a PICO question)

For parties to an ownership or use of land dispute looking to build mutual respect, is setting ground rules or role-playing (socio-drama) more effective for well-being?

Search strategy

The databases used are: HeinOnline, Westlaw, Wiley Online Library, JSTOR, Taylor & Francis, and ResearchGate.

For this PICO question, keywords used in the search strategy are: respect land disputes; socio-drama conflict; socio-drama land; socio-drama dispute resolution; role playing land; ground rules land disputes

Assessment and grading of evidence

The main sources of evidence used for this particular subject are:

Quality of evidence and research gap

According to our research method, we grade the evidence comparing setting ground rules and role-playing (socio-drama) as very low. Although all sources of evidence relied upon related specifically to land problems and resolution processes, only a small number of them related to role-playing and socio-drama as a mechanism of respectful communication. Therefore, further research on the effectiveness of socio-drama in the context of land problems is needed.

Comparing the two interventions

Desirable outcomes of the interventions

Setting ground rules
Role-playing (socio-drama)
Setting ground rules helps create and maintain a respectful environment in which the parties can communicate. Working out ground rules with the parties helps mediators “open paths of communication” and “creat[e] and maintain a setting where agreements can be reached” (Engel & Korf, 2005, p. 126). Asking communities to set ground rules in preparation for a community land protection process, for example, “will ensure that all community land protection meetings are participatory, respectful, and well-run” (Namati, 2017, p. 59).
“Socio-drama allows the participants to experience and to act out typical needs, fears, desires, frustrations and expectations. It can therefore contribute a lot of additional insight to land conflicts” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 66).
Setting ground rules facilitates trust-building and agreement between the parties. “Ground rules help create predictability and structure for the process at a time when trust between the parties may still be low….In cases where goodwill exists among the parties, joint development of ground rules can also be a good opportunity to reach early agreement about important issues” (CAO, 2019, p. 9).
When parties to an ownership or use of land dispute are involved in the role-playing, a socio-drama helps build respect for the feelings, needs and interests of the other. “Socio-drama can equally be used to analyse a land conflict or – if practised together with the involved stakeholders (letting them act out the opponent’s part, or letting them watch the play acted out by others who are not involved in the real conflict) – to solve the conflict by increasing the awareness of the other party’s feelings and needs and to rectify their perception of the other party’s positions and interests” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 66).
According to NRC mediators experienced in resolving land disputes in Liberia, setting ground rules helps to address power imbalances relating to gender or ethnicity. “The establishment of ground rules is an important part of setting the tone for the session and ensuring that the tone of discussion does not become adversarial or aggressive, especially when one party is “weaker” than the other in terms of social position or general power relations. They indicated that ground rules were particularly relevant if one party was a woman or a “stranger” (i.e. someone not from the local ethnic majority group, which often applies to Mandingos) and there was therefore a possibility that the other party would not treat them fairly or respectfully. In such situations they would also emphasise to the parties that all Liberians have the legal right to live and own property anywhere in the country, regardless of gender or ethnicity; indeed, it is not uncommon for the parties themselves to own land elsewhere” (Norton, 2011, p. 21).
Socio-drama makes it possible to personify and foster respect for non-human elements of the conflict in addition to the parties themselves. “One extremely useful feature of the socio-drama is that things such as land or forest or culture can also be acted out and express thoughts and feelings reflecting the way they are being treated” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 66).
Socio-drama can help parties to move beyond their respective positions and identify the underlying causes of a land or use of ownership dispute, such as feelings of disrespect, mistreatment and indignity. For example, a “a turning point [a] the socio-drama on [a] Ethiopian state forest/land use conflict was the scene in which, after the king had left the stage, the forest sadly explained that he no longer had an owner, that now he belonged to everyone (state land resulting in a de facto open access situation). He expressed feeling afraid and insecure. He even asked the long-established population to take care of him – without receiving an answer. While the play continued, the forest suddenly claimed that he felt mistreated and left the scene. The interesting point is that the conflict continued. Beekeepers blamed the Ministry of Finance for not respecting their traditional rights and culture. Pastoralists accused the District Natural Resources Conservation Office of offending their dignity by not respecting their tradition(al rights). Beekeepers and coffee producers called each other old-fashioned, respectively ignorant towards their culture. Thus, the conflict over land and forest use quickly became a conflict between traditional and modern culture that also touched upon aspects of respect and dignity. This conflict has much deeper roots than the current superficial one over forest use would suggest. The problem is that the cultural issues are part of the forest conflict and that this conflict will only be resolved if an answer to the socio-cultural conflict is found as well. Socio-dramas are immensely useful for revealing additional conflict issues” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 67).
Socio-drama can encourage self-reflection and self-evaluation by helping parties to see themselves from the other’s perspective. “With theatre serving as a mirror image, we may scrutinize our own cultural behaviors by watching them in performances. Barbara Myerhoff thus explains that cultural performances are ‘reflective in the sense of showing ourselves to ourselves. They are also capable of being reflexive, arousing consciousness of ourselves as we see ourselves. As heroes in our own dramas, we are made self-aware, conscious of our consciousness’ (Myerhoff, 1992, p. 234). Through performance imitation, we can see ourselves from afar, in the third person, allowing us to evaluate ourselves” (Nurieli & Tran, 2019, p. 8). “For example, role reversal performances can be used to help disputants see each other’s perspective. Husband and wife could, for instance, be asked to re-enact a dispute with the husband playing the wife and vice versa” Nurieli & Tran, 2019, p. 13).
In addition to supporting more respectful relationships between the parties, socio-drama can contribute to community solidarity and understanding by “counteracting the decisive elements of the conflict” (Nurieli & Tran, 2019, p. 10). “According to performance theorists and anthropologists, a society’s public performances are mirror images of that society’s values and ideologies. Performances, in all cultures, are stylized re-enactments of the social reality of the culture or group of individuals that they represent. By viewing a performance, an observer can successfully discern many underlying assumptions, manners, and behavioral norms. According to Victor Turner (1982), a leading theater anthropologist, the function of these rituals is to promote and preserve group solidarity. Ritual bonds all members of society together, through common recognition of re-enacted behavior. Indeed, public performances and rituals are filled with symbols and signs that all members of the community understand” (Nurieli & Tran, 2019, p. 8). “Dramatic performance can also be applied formally and publicly to [increase awareness of alternative perspectives]. There is a long tradition of theatrical performances used to alter the public’s perceptions about a conflict or dispute” (Nurieli & Tran, 2019, p. 13).
“Dramatic performance may provide opportunities to explore approaches to conflict and mechanisms for conflict transformation in closed conflict cultural groups. As noted by Turner and Scehchner, fictive dramatic presentations mirror real life situations, and may be used to display publicly what would otherwise be concealed. Dramatic performance depersonalizes conflict, enabling individuals who would be uncomfortable discussing conflict to explain and observe dispute and its potential or actual resolution(s) more securely from a third-person perspective.” In other words, “dramatic performance provides informants with sufficient emotional distance that taboo topics may be discussed openly” (Nurieli & Tran, 2019, p. 10).
Socio-drama can also facilitate the search for solutions by allowing the parties involved (or outsiders) to act them out. “A socio-drama can also be used to act out different solutions of a land conflict. This can be done by outsiders to the conflict or by the conflict parties. Alternatively, outsiders could first play different scenarios and evaluate them identifying the most suitable one. The conflict parties could then act out this one – either together or separately within their groups (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 67).
Socio-drama can help disputants arrive as solutions that are culturally appropriate and more sustainable than solutions imposed by an external facilitator. “Rather than prescribing solutions based on their personal experiences and training, conflict transformation practitioners can use information obtained from dramatic performances to design resolutions that will maintain the existing socio-cultural norms for conflict transformation. By maintaining rather than challenging these norms, the resolution will be more readily accepted and integrated into the community’s social framework. Externally imposed ‘resolutions’ that ignore traditional and local social processes are less likely to have a lasting impact on the disputants” (Nurieli & Tran, 2019, p. 14).

Undesirable outcomes of the intervention

Setting ground rules
Role-playing (socio-drama)
Overly restrictive ground rules may exacerbate conflict between the parties rather than building trust and respect between them. “Front-loading the process with overly rigid ground rules can risk making them a point of conflict before the necessary trust has been built – trust that will be required for the parties to reach later agreement on more difficult and important issues. For example, it may not make sense to include details about potential future elements, such as joint fact-finding exercises that may not end up being necessary. As a consensus instrument, ground rules are not set in stone and can be amended by mutual consent of the parties. Therefore, it is advisable for the parties to also agree on a process for changing ground rules should it be necessary later” (CAO, 2019, p. 10).
“Socio-drama, in particular when realized together with the conflict parties, needs professional guidance” (Wehrmann, 2017, p. 67). Parties to an ownership or use of land dispute may not always have access to a suitable facilitator/director for the socio-drama, making it a potentially less practical mechanism for facilitating respectful communication between the parties than ground rules.
A mediator who comes from a different culture from the parties involved may struggle to accurately interpret their communication and enforce ground rules once they have been set, and therefore fail to facilitate respectful communication between the parties. “[Rising emotions] too are signalled by non-verbal communication, and mediators should note whether they are helping or getting in the way of negotiations, and should control them when necessary. This is especially challenging when the mediator comes from another cultural background, or simply does not understand local relationships (Engel & Korf, 2005, p. 126)

Balance of Outcomes

Taken together, the available research suggests that both ground rules and roleplaying (socio-drama) can help increase respect between parties to an ownership or use of land dispute, albeit in different ways. Setting ground rules creates and maintains an environment in which respectful communication can take place, and makes it easier for parties to build trust and ultimately come to an agreement. It also helps to address power imbalances between the parties.

Socio-drama helps parties respect and understand the feelings, needs, and interests of the other by bringing them to the surface through role-playing. It also helps parties to see themselves from the other’s perspective, which can encourage self-reflection and self-evaluation of their verbal and non-verbal communication. Socio-drama is uniquely beneficial for addressing land issues in that it makes it possible to represent the land itself, and allows for exploration of underlying or taboo topics in closed conflict cultures that are not accustomed to discussing them openly.

Both ground rules and role-playing (socio-drama) have drawbacks as well. Ground rules may become a point of tension is they are overly restrictive and insufficiently accommodating of the parties’ needs and priorities. Ground rules may also be less effective if the mediator responsible for enforcing them does not share the parties’ cultural background and cannot pick up on subtleties in their communication. Socio-drama on the other hand requires the guidance of a specialised facilitator that may not be readily available in all communities.

While the negative outcomes of setting ground rules and role-playing (socio-drama) are comparable, the positive outcomes associated with role-playing (socio-drama) clearly outweigh those of ground rules in certain closed conflict cultural contexts. Therefore, while both ground rules and role-playing (socio-drama) are recommended, socio-drama is preferred for addressing ownership and use of land disputes that arise in closed conflict cultures.


Taking into account the balance of outcomes, the unique benefits of dramatic performance for land owners and users, and the quality and consistency of the evidence, we make the following recommendation: For parties to a ownership or use of land dispute looking to build mutual respect, both setting ground rules and role-playing (socio-drama) are conducive to well-being.

Table of Contents

4. Recommendations on COMMUNICATING
4.1 Socio-drama