Summary of "Ideology, Orientation to Conflict, and Mediation Discourse"

Summary of

Ideology, Orientation to Conflict, and Mediation Discourse

By Joseph Folger and Robert Baruch Bush

This Article Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Joseph Folger and Robert Baruch Bush, "Ideology, Orientation to Conflict, and Mediation Discourse,"in New Directions in Mediation, eds. Joseph Folger and Tricia Jones (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications,1994), pp. 3-25.

Folger and Bush begin by describing a current criticism of mediation. They attempt to "show how the discourse that occurs within and about mediation is linked to broad ideological orientations about the nature of the social world, its structures and processes."[p. 6] The authors then demonstrate that opening critique of mediation may be met by appealing to an alternative, newly emerging social ideology.

Critique of Mediation

It is generally accepted that "disputes and third parties do not remain unchanged during the course of intervention."[p. 3] Recognition of this fact has led to concerns that mediation is fundamentally flawed. Mediators will inevitably influence disputes. Some critics argue that"because of its lack of formality and structure, mediation cannot adequately regulate third-party interventions and even tends to encourage abuse."[p. 5] Such critics argue that, at best, mediation should be guided by more formal procedures and structures, in order to protect the disputants from being subject to the mediator's preferences and prejudices. At worst mediation should be recognized as irredeemably flawed.

Folger and Bush argue that this critique is based on a deeper ideology. Generally speaking, ideologies are "organizing frameworks that people use to view, interpret and judge their surrounding world."[p. 7] An ideology of conflict will "carry implicit notions of what conflict is, as well as expectations about what moves or responses are possible or required in specific contexts, what role third parties play, and what outcomes are desirable."[p. 8] Conflict ideologies are elements of broader social ideologies. The authors argue that the above criticisms of mediation stem from a problem-solving orientation to conflict, and that this problem-solving orientation is itself rooted in a broader individualist social ideology.

Problem Solving and Individualist Ideology

The problem-solving conflict ideology defines conflict in terms of problems which need satisfaction. These problems are understood in terms of unmet and incompatible needs. The goal of conflict intervention is to find a solution which satisfies all the parties' needs. From this it follows that the appropriate response to conflict is collaborative problem solving.

The authors describe three ways in which this problem solving conflict ideology is acted out in the usual practice of mediation. First,"mediators tend to search for and define problems that need to be solved or addressed." This ideology encourages mediators to take a detached, large-scale view of the dispute at hand, and to frame that dispute in terms of incompatible interests. Second, mediators tend to focus their skills and strategies on creating or discovering mutually acceptable settlements. Third, mediators tend to ignore or evade issues which cannot be treated as problems to be resolved. For example, they tend to ignore relational issues, issues of trust and self-esteem, and issues of past interactions.

Folger and Bush argue that the problem-solving orientation to conflict is appealing because it is rooted in, and is consistent with, an even more basic and widely shared view of society. This is the individualist ideology which currently dominates mainstream U.S. culture. This individualist ideology "views the human world as made up of radically separate individual beings, of equal worth but with different desires(i.e. perceived needs), whose nature it is to seek satisfaction of those individual needs and desires."[p. 13] In this view, the highest human goodis the satisfaction of individual's needs and desires.

Transformation and Relational Ideology

In contrast to the problem-solving approach, transformational conflict ideology views conflict as presenting opportunities for human growth and transformation. From a transformational perspective, the goals of conflict intervention are to promote empowerment of the self and recognition of others. From this it follows that the appropriate response to conflict is transformation of the participants.

The authors describe three ways in which this transformational conflict ideology is acted out in practice. First, transformative mediators tend to focus on the details of the ongoing conflict interaction, seeking opportunities for fostering empowerment and recognition within the minute-to-minute process of the parties' interaction. Second, transformative mediators avoid directing the course of the interaction toward settlement. They seek to clarify issues and concerns and to enhance the parties' choices, rather than to reshape issues in order achieve one conclusive settlement. Third, they encourage each of the parties to take the other's perspective into account.

The authors locate this transformational conflict ideology within a broader, recently-emerging relational ideology. This ideology sees the human world as made up of individuals who are also interconnected and unified through their uniquely human capacity for recognition and relation. In this view, the highest human good is the progressive recognition of our common humanity. In the authors' view, "in developing conscious awareness of others' common humanity, instead of regarding others as things to be used for one's own ends, the individual moves from a lower to a higher state of being."[p. 20]


The authors agree in part with some of the critics of contemporary mediation; mediators can and sometimes do exercise excessive influence. They differ from the critics on how exactly mediator influence may be problematic. The critics, operating within a problem-solving orientation, are concerned about uses of mediator influence which produce unfair settlements. The authors, operating from within a transformational orientation, are concerned with uses of mediator influence which disempower parties.

The authors reject absolutely the critics' claim that mediation is irredeemably flawed. When mediation is practiced under a transformational ideology, the goal of empowerment provides an intrinsic restraint on the mediator's use of power.

In the end, the authors see two reasons to prefer the transformational approach and its accompanying relational social ideology. Adopting such an ideology allows us to respond to the critics and defend mediation. Adopting such an ideology also allows us to recognize morefully the potential of mediation to transform individuals and society.

Folger and Bush acknowledge that at present talk of transformation may seem unrealistic and utopian. However, they observe that the notion of win-win solutions was also once seen as unrealistic and utopian. They express hope that the transformational approach will come to seem more practical as theorists describe it further and develop more accessible terminology.