Summary of "Cultural Aspects of Disputing"

Summary of

Cultural Aspects of Disputing

By Sally Engle Merry

This Article Summary written by: Mariya Yevsyukova, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: Merry, Sally Engle. "Cultural Aspects of Disputing." PCR Occasional Papers Series: 1987-2. Program on Conflict Resolution. Manoa: University of Hawaii, 1987. Pp. 1-20.

Conflict resolution techniques used in the United States reflect the cultural norms of this society. In this paper, Sally Engle Merry analyzes the following components of the cultural framework of interpersonal conflict resolution: "conceptions of disputing and the dispute resolution process, conceptions of the self, and conceptions of the legitimacy of third party intervenors" (p. 2). She compares the American framework with that of Asian-Pacific societies. Culture reveals itself through explicit rules of behavior and implicit meanings. It frames one's perceptions of self and others.

Concepts of Disputing and Dispute Resolution

The metaphor for American mediation is the contract. The main goal of the process is to satisfy parties' interests and reach win-win agreement. Even agreements between parents and teenagers are written in a contractual form which sets up rules for their interaction. The goal of the mediator is to identify the issues of the conflict on which an agreement can be reached. The parties have a goal of protecting their interests. Emotional issues are usually referred to the counselor.

The traditional Hawaiian way of resolving conflict, "Ho'oponopono," has a metaphor of disentangling relationships. The goal of the process is to restore relationships damaged by the conflict. If successful, it results in a "reciprocal-forgiveness exchange" (p. 5). The process evolves around parties' feelings and emotions.

Correspondingly, compromise is also perceived very differently in those two cultures. For North Americans compromise involves a perception of losing something, of giving in (p. 5), while in Ho'oponopono tradition it means reaching for each other, restoring the net of broken interpersonal ties.

In urban areas of Japan, mediation is used for the purpose of pursuing personal interests, and is institutionalized. Thus, a conclusion can be made about the urban-rural differences of the cultural framework of dispute resolution: while in rural settings the mediation metaphor is disentangling, in urban it is the contract. The author believes that a better way to characterize these two models is to look at them in the context of "easy exit" versus "no-exit societies." In "easy exit" cultures, people do not have as many incentives to work on restoring the relationships and compromising their feelings, since they often can abandon those relationships without much cost for themselves. In "no-exit" cultures people are more interdependent upon each other; the cost of leaving the relationships is much higher.

The process of mediation in these two types of cultures is also different. In the US, the time for mediation is prescheduled and is devoted to just mediation without possibility of more general conversation. According to Lederach, in Central American cultures the time is used more freely; so parties can discuss different topics, even unrelated to issues of mediation. It allows them to establish better mutual understanding without "rapid self-disclosure," toward which Northern American model pressures the parties.

Conceptions of the Self

American society looks at the self as an autonomous individual. The individual has rights which the state protects. Traditional societies define self in terms of his or her relations to others, and often puts group interests above the individual ones.

The Legitimacy of Third Party Intervention

In traditional societies, the legitimacy of the mediator rests on his social status within the group, knowledge of traditions and personal characteristics. For example, in one of the tribes of the Solomon Islands, elders fulfill the role of gwaunga'i or counselors, whose duties include mediation. American mediators derive their authority from "competence, knowledge, and procedural expertise" (p. 18). Their power is in their "impersonality, formal equality of treatment, reference to knowledge and expertise, and obedience to an impersonal order rather than a particular individual" (p. 19). Thus, while American mediators exercise legal-rational authority, their colleagues in "small-scale societies" are dependent on traditional, and less on charismatic and religious authority.

In the USA mediation, in spite of its early claim to "replace the legitimate authority of the law with the legitimate authority of the community," became a part of legal bureaucratic structure with similar sources of legitimacy (p. 19).


Cultural frameworks and social structures are interrelated and influence each other's development. Often governments attempt to institutionalize traditional establishments or use traditional approaches to introduce new social structures. The Indonesian government's efforts to introduce collective rural labor and an informal justice system using the language of indigenous institutions and traditional values, as well as the American movement to informalize interpersonal dispute resolution through creating neighborhood justice centers, are examples.