Conflict Resolution in Intercultural Settings
By Kevin Avruch and Peter W. Black
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
"Conflict Resolution in Intercultural Settings," by Kevin Avruch and Peter W. Black, in Conflict Resolution Theory and Practice, Dennis J.D. Sandole and Hugo van der Merwe, eds., (Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1993), pp. 131-145.
Avruch and Black observe that conflict resolution scholars tend to ignore cultural differences in their attempts to develop universally applicable models of conflict resolution. To some degree this oversight may be attributed to a superficial view of culture as behavioral stereotypes, enacted by all members of a "different" ethnic group, which can be address by proper etiquette and tolerance.
In contrast, the authors view culture as a fundamental feature of human consciousness that is constitutive of human reality. "Metaphorically speaking, culture is a perception-shaping lens or (still metaphorically) a grammar for the production and structuring of meaningful action."(p. 132) Cultural knowledge can be expressed as statements and principles--roughly then as theories. Every theory of conflict (whether academic or folk) is located within some more general theory of action, which in turn rests on basic assumptions about human nature. Each of these theories may differ from culture to culture. Individuals use such theories to shape their behavior into meaningful forms, and to interpret other people's behavior. Parties from different cultures may have different understandings of what causes conflict, and of what responses are appropriate. Since conflicts are a form of human activity, we must understand the relevant cultural "grammar" if we are to grasp the meaning of conflict actions.
To be effective attempts at conflict resolution in intercultural settings must begin with cultural analysis. Culture provides "the 'lens' by which we view and bring into focus our world; the 'logic' (known as common sense) by which we order it; the 'grammar' by which it makes sense."(p. 133) One's own culture merely seems normal. One's own culture is experienced not as a way of understanding the world, but as the (normal or natural) way of understanding the world, indeed as simply the way the world is in fact. When confronted with different others, we tend to view them as abnormal or strange. Differences are immediately evaluated in terms of our own cultural logic and grammar, and usually evaluated as being wrong.
The goal of cultural analysis is to understand the system of meanings and beliefs within which a seemingly "abnormal" or "inexplicable" event is seen as normal and understandable. The basic method of cultural analysis is thick description. Thick descriptions seek to specify the location of an event (belief, practice, person, etc.) within progressively richer and more complex contexts of meaning. Cultural analysis does not so much seek the cause of an event, as it seeks to make sense of, or explain, the event. Cultural analysis sees to understand the significance of an event within its own cultural context. For this reason conflict analysts must also suspend their evaluative reflex. As a cultural analyst one is constantly shifting back and forth between cultural perspectives, "between an interpretation that makes sense in the other culture and a translation--for every translation is also an interpretation--that makes sense in your own."(p. 136)
Some intercultural conflicts are caused simply by culturally driven miscommunication and misinterpretation--situations where people literally do not speak the same language, for example. Such conflicts can be resolved by a skilled interpreter. However, Avruch and Black argue that such cases are not representative of intercultural conflicts generally. Many conflicts do turn on incompatible goals. However, culture shapes how those parties understand that incompatibility, what actions and reactions are seen as appropriate, and what possible solutions would look like. An understanding of culture is needed in order to understand why parties value their goals, and how they understand and weigh the costs of conflict.
Often the presence of a shared language simply obscures other cultural differences. For instance, Black and white Americans have significant cultural differences, despite sharing a common language. "These differences include the differential valences in both cultures between argument and confrontation; the appropriate role that emotionality should play in discussions and negotiations; how male-female interactions ought to play out; how to know when a 'fight' has really begun; whether information about a person is akin to private property; what constitutes valid 'truths' or evidence, or guilt or responsibility--in other words, matters of fundamental importance."(p. 139)
Advocates of the problem-solving approach to conflict resolution often discount culture and assume that problem solving techniques are valid and applicable regardless of cultures. "They contend that problem-solving depends on analytical techniques that--on the assumption that people everywhere reason the same way--render cultural differences ultimately trivial."(p. 140) Avruch and Black voice two concerns regarding the supposed cultural transcendence of problem-solving. First, the purportedly universal analytic techniques may be culturally specific. For example, while John Burton emphasizes the technique of 'costing' as generic, it may in fact reflect a culturally specific view of humans as fundamentally economic beings. Second, different people may in fact reason in different ways. Anthropological studies show that formal syllogistic or categorical reasoning is the same across cultures. However, patterns of propositional reasoning vary across cultures. The authors note that "all logics, even categorical ones, involve ultimately the interaction of meaning with logical structure, to define validity--or 'truth."(p. 141) While people may generally acknowledge the same logical structures, meanings differ by culture
Third parties will play different roles in a conflict depending upon their culture relative to the involved parties' cultures. The need for cultural analysis is at its greatest when all the parties come from different cultures. In cases where the conflicting parties share a culture, and the third party has a different culture, the third party is best suited to play a neutral or facilitating role. In such cases, third parties must be careful to avoid imposing their cultural views on the parties, and to avoid being exploited by the involved parties. When the involved parties have different cultures, and the third party shares one of those cultures, issues of power and neutrality are especially salient.