Michael H. Banks: A Tribute by Chris Mitchell


Few people from the “peace and conflict studies” world on this side of the Atlantic will have read many of the writings of my old friend and colleague, Michael Banks, who died in London last week on the day after his 88th birthday. Michael wrote little and published less, but that was because he was one of those perfectionists who was always amending, polishing, improving, until many of his friends – including me – were imploring him to send in the piece or the review or the manuscript. Thus, we are left with a handful of articles – beautifully written and clearly argued – and an edited volume introducing the “world society’ approach to international relations studies, originally intended as a festschrift for Michael’s retiring colleague, John Burton.

Michael Banks seated wearing glasses
Photo courtesy of Mark Hoffman.

Michael always saw his main role to be a teacher, a clarifier, a synthesizer and an interpreter, and he did this job with much success as a long term faculty member in the International Relations department at the London School of Economics, a place for which he had a deep – and to me inexplicable – affection. He was one of the most popular and effective teachers in the Department, partly because he always had time to help and guide his students, to listen to them and to take pleasure in their later successes. His strength was always in his teaching, which did not stand him in good stead in later eras dominated by counting the number of books published recently, the number of articles published in the last year, or the number of grants brought in to swell a university’s coffers.

On the other hand, there was always a practical side to Michael, oddly exemplified by his love of sailing, developed young while working for his father who skippered a yacht out of Southampton where Michael grew up. When I first knew him, he was on a two years leave of absence at University College and lived two doors down from me in an office in the UCL Law Faculty. Thus, we were both part of the remarkably creative group of social scientists – “behaviouralists” was the trendy title we appropriated - working at John Burton’s new Centre for the Analysis of Conflict and finding ways to apply the latest behavioural insights from work by scholars like Kenneth Boulding, Herb Kelman, Karl Deutsch - and Burton himself  - directly to ongoing conflicts in Cyprus, the Horn of Africa, or the Middle East. Over the late 1960s and early 1970s there emerged from the Centre the technique [or “methodology”] of “controlled communication”, an original name which eventually morphed into “problem solving workshops’ and later still to “Interactive Conflict Resolution”.

When, a decade later, I came to be teaching at GMU about practical forms of “Track Two” intervention, I realized that a textbook was needed for the course; so I badgered Michael to convert some notes about the technique we had assembled a decade earlier into a manuscript for use by my [and other] students. He somewhat reluctantly agreed to help and there ensued a long struggle between my rather slapdash “get the thing published” approach and his craving for accuracy, clarity and even elegance. Eventually, our “Handbook of Conflict Resolution” was published by Francis Pinter and served us well as a practical text for more than two decades, until it became dated and no longer available. It can, however, stand as a symbol of Michael and his overall approach; a work based on sound theories and practical experience, with lessons available for application in the real world.

It’s a good memorial to a talented teacher and academic.