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Research and effectiveness of interreligious dialogue and ecumenism interventions: Systematic map and synthesis

What do we want to know?

There have been many attempts over time to enable intergroup, and interreligious dialogue and ecumenism (IRDE) to prevent or resolve conflict worldwide yet despite many writings on this topic, little is known about the aims, methods, and impacts of such interventions.  

The purpose of this current systematic review is to rectify this gap in our knowledge. The aim is to better understand what research exists on IRDE interventions and to identify if there is evidence about whether they are effective or not and, if so, for which interventions and for which outcomes.

Who wants to know?

This study will be useful to a range of communities. It can be used to develop our understanding of the research on interventions for interfaith dialogue. It can also inform the development of:

  • programmes aimed at improving international dialogue and ecumenism as the outcome;
  • programmes in which improving international dialogue and ecumenism is the mechanism of an intervention.

What did we find?

Effectiveness of types of interventions and their mechanisms

  • Knowing the ‘other’, or coexistence type of interventions, are less effective overall than changing hearts and minds ‘confrontational’ models or mediation interventions. This was found for long term latent conflict communities, but not in communities that have experienced more recent violent conflict. However, numbers are small and there are limits to the confidence in making strong recommendations of any one type of intervention over another.
  • Confrontational models that are defined as recognising and addressing imbalances of power between groups were effective where actual violence had taken place (Rwanda), or where the conflict was ongoing (Israel and Palestine). This was shown by factors such as lived experience of conflict and violence and disparities of power between the groups moderating effects on outcomes. This challenges the conditions for successful intergroup contact based on contact theory (Allport 1954) by ensuring equality of parties, and minimising differences between the groups.

 Factors impacting on effectiveness

  • Mechanisms of changing perspectives and knowledge can impact on outcomes in positive and negative ways.
  • Historical narratives form part of individual and community identity and are not easily rewritten or abandoned. Interventions will struggle to rewrite the past, or change minds of perceived historical fact or their own experience. 
  • People can change their outward facing behaviour, but not necessarily their views in the short term. Aiming for behavioural change outcomes, rather than attitudes and beliefs would likely be “more useful in the long-term” (Scacco 2018). Social outcomes can take longer to take effect than was measured in the studies. Simply knowing the ‘other’ was not enough to bring about changes of behaviour.

What are the implications?

Despite an extensive search for this review, very few studies that met the inclusion criteria were found on the websites of organisations that are involved in interreligious and intergroup dialogue This is not to be taken as an indicator of the level of activity of IRDE at any point in time, but instead that such programmes have not been formally evaluated with reports published in the academic literature or made publicly available on their organisation websites.
There is a growing awareness of the importance of designing programmes for evaluation to ensure that there is evidence of them being effective and not harmful. Designing programmes suitable for evaluations increases accountability to donors, funders and other stakeholders, the involvement of participants in the design of the research and interventions that affect them, as well as sharing best practice of effective interventions with other programme designers.

How did we get these results?

Interventions for defined Abrahamic religious groups have not often designed studies to be rigorously or formally evaluated for effectiveness with an experimental design. A synthesis across the eight experimental studies in the review were too homogeneous to properly synthesise. Instead, the findings of the individual experimental studies were summarised in a narrative synthesis.

This summary was prepared by the EPPI Centre.

This report should be cited as:
Vigurs C, D’Souza P, Hoo H, Gough D (2021) Research and effectiveness of interreligious dialogue and ecumenism interventions: Systematic evidence gap map and synthesis. London: EPPI Centre, UCL Social Research Institute, University College London.

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