Of Nets, Nails, and Problems: The Folk Language of Conflict Resolution in a Central American Setting
by John Paul Lederach
Summary written by: Mariya Yevsyukova, Conflict Research Consortium
Citation: "Of Nets, Nails, and Problems: The Folk Language of Conflict Resolution in a Central American Setting." Conflict Resolution: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Kevin Avruch, Peter W. Black and Joseph A. Scimecca, eds. Greenwood Press: New York, Westport, Connecticut, London, 1991. Pp. 165-186.
This article looks at the "conflict-talk" of people in Central America, particularly in Costa Rica. It analyzes the language that they use in describing conflict and folk knowledge about ways of resolving it. This study aims at understanding how people in Central America view conflicts and deal with them. The author calls it "ethnoconflictology". It is based on his rich experience of mediating, training and living among Central Americans for several years. In particular, the article is based on the author's one year participation in a training seminar in social empowerment in the town of Puntarenas in Costa Rica.
Talk about conflict: The folk vision.
Language is not just a means of expression, it is a path leading to understanding of the ways other people construct their realities. Costa Ricans, for example, do not like to use the word "conflict" in their everyday life. They view "conflict" as an academic term, more appropriate for situations involving violent struggle. They prefer to use such words as disputes, problems, messes, and entanglements in describing disturbing situations that they encounter on an every day basis.
Conflict: The "net" of life.
For Costa Ricans, the meaning of "being in conflict" is close to that of "being entangled". The linguistic origins of such a conceptualization go back to the word red, which means fisherman's net. This a perfect example of how language reflects reality. In contrast to Western culture, where interpersonal conflict is a conflict between individuals, interpersonal conflict in Central America is a conflict within a social network of family members and friends. "Families and [personal networks] are the context in which conflicts, or the daily 'entanglements' develop, are understood, and are managed" (p. 168).
The "ins and outs" of conflict.
Through linguistic analysis the author explores how Costa Ricans deal with "entanglement". For example, the realization of one's involvement in a conflict is expressed through phrases that mean that someone was put into "a tangled net" (p. 169). The first step in dealing with conflict would be for a person to find ways of approaching or "entering" the problem and the person with whom he or she has a conflict. "Entering" the problem means finding the right way to approach the other person. This is often an indirect way -- through a common friend or trusted relative. The indirect way is often chosen to make the entrance as careful as possible, to avoid rejection by the opponent. The next step would be to enter the person, which means to talk to him or her and get an understanding of the person's inner world, his or her values and concerns. Another question that the person in conflict asks is how to get out of the conflict. One tactic would be avoidance of the person and the problem that is causing the conflict. This means that it is not possible to get into the other's person world. People get disconnected. The alternative to this would be to try to restore the relationship.
The ethnomethods: Getting from "in" to "out".
Resolving the conflict involves three processes, "the internal ethnomethods of 'getting into the problem': ubicarse (get my bearings), platicar (talk, dialogue), and arreglar (manage, arrange, and fix)" (p. 171). Ubicarse means to make sense out of the situation or frame the problem. This is usually done through a conversation (platicar) that does not directly touch the issue, but prepares for a dialogue. Dialogar implies the movement of a conflict to a different level, from personal disconnection to establishing contact with each other. Arreglar has three meanings: (1) to restore or put something back together, (2) to establish mutual understanding, (3) to recognize each other's role in the relationships or to "arrange" the relationships. Thus, "through an arrangement and an understanding, we fix the broken and undo the tangled" (p. 173). Page 174 contains a map of the process. Metido, the starting point, refers to the realization of being tangled in the net or brought into conflict. Entrale is the term for entering into the problem through people trusted by both sides. Ubicarse and platicar are the processes of framing the issues through conversation -- if not directly between two parties in conflict, then with the help of a third party. The third party takes responsibility for paving the way out of the conflict through promoting mutual understanding and arranging the future relationships between two opposing sides. A way out or salida can involve either avoidance behavior, or arreglo, conflict resolution based on mutual understanding and recognition achieved through dialogue.
Cultural paths of conflict action.
There are three main types of actions that Central Americans use in managing their conflicts. The first step is to ask for advice from others. This makes the understanding of the problem less subjective and helps put things in perspective. Asking for advice fulfills two functions: it introduces a third person into the conflict and helps to create a clearer image of the situation and the issue in conflict. The people who give the advice participate in constructing the social reality that is shared by others. The second important aspect of problem-solving in Central America is the concept of trust. You can ask for advice only from a person whom you trust. There are three levels of trust: (1) an acquaintance, a person whom you know but who is on the periphery of your network, like a friend of a friend who can provide an "entry" to the problem; (2) a friend is a person inside the network with whom you can share your "external matters" like financial problems or difficulties with bureaucracy; (3) an intimate friend is a person in front of whom you can fully open yourself and your "intimate problems" (p. 177). Thus, "confianza entre nos is problem solving based on mutuality of trust, and rare, intimate self-revelation of problems, hurts, and weaknesses. It is a form of peer therapy, of healing through a trust relationship..." (P. 178). The third step is to establish connections or patas. This word implies an action by people whose position allows them to influence the situation in which we do not have entrance, on our behalf.
Implications for intervention: Cross-cultural considerations
Page 182 contains "Continua of Assumptions Affecting Process and Intervention". It emphasizes the importance of the mediator having knowledge of the cultural norms of behavior. Depending on those norms, the mediator chooses the appropriate setting, form of communication, and the type of outcomes that would be desirable for the parties in their cultural context. Mediators also have to understand what type of actions the parties expect from them. John Paul found that the way Central Americans perceived the role of a go-between person was very different from the Western understanding of the mediator's persona, with its notion of neutrality and impartiality. Often he was viewed as a "surrogate for direct communication between two parties," he was a person of trust, a friend (p. 182). The parties pulled him into their lives. For them he was not a neutral outsider but someone from their network who is responsible for getting them out of conflict. Trust in this culture substitutes the notion of neutrality in third party intervention. Thus, the biggest part of his work was actually understanding the culture and what is expected from him.
In Central America, conflict develops within the network of family and friends. To resolve conflict means to restore those ties that hold the network together. To understand conflict implies entering into the people's world with the help of a person or "connections" trusted by both parties. The process of conflict resolution is circular; it is based on cultural expectations and traditions; it involves finding the right connections and "'locating' and 'relocating' oneself" (p. 184). The third person is someone trusted within the network. This person is expected to help in restoring the ties within the network, but not in separating and resolving the issues. The third person is responsible for quality arrangement of the future relationships, since he or she is a part of the network.