Prescriptive and Elicitive Approaches to Conflict Resolution: Examples from Papua New Guinea
by Douglas W. Young
Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: "Prescriptive and Elicitive Approaches to Conflict Resolution: Examples from Papua New Guinea," Douglas W. Young, Negotiation Journal 14:3 (1998): p. 211-220.
Young describes his experience with both approaches, and noting successes and criticisms. Young contrasts these approaches, explaining, "prescriptive approaches generally assume universal models of conflict resolution which are then applied or adapted in particular cultural situations. Elicitive approaches, on the other hand, recognize the existence of distinctive cultural understandings of conflict and its resolution, which are then clarified, elucidated, and enhanced through reflection and dialogue."(p. 211)
The island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea has endured more than a decade of violent secessionist conflict. In 1995 a regional NGO established a grassroots conflict resolution training program in Bougainville. More than a thousand people, including military and resistance personnel. Young identifies the program's approach as generally prescriptive. Courses have focuses on people skills, community planning, general conflict resolution, and conflict resolution training. Training manuals contain themes typical of western conflict resolution models, including transactional analysis, stroking theory, listening skills, assertiveness, negotiation, and mediation. The training materials do allow student criticism, and are sensitive to the specific types of conflict participants were facing.
Participants speak highly of the program. Trainers feel they have been very successful in teaching human relations skills. Program participants have successfully mediated a numbers of disputes, including land disputes and murders. (So many murders have been committed that it is impossible to prosecute them all.) On the other hand, chiefs and elders have criticized the program for empowering youths, women, and alternative leaders, thus undermining the traditional authority of the elders. Others have complained that the program offers a shallow panacea; the program is peripheral to social life and skills alone are not sufficient to bring about resolution and reconciliation. The program has also battled suspicions from every side that it is biased toward some other side.
In the Papua New Guinea Highlands, the Enga people have traditionally used violence to settle their disputes. Most Enga now recognize that tribal violence is hindering development initiatives in education and health. "However, for those fighting in any particular dispute, the fight is seen as a solution to a particular problem, not a problem in itself."(p. 215)
The author was recruited by the local Catholic Church to develop a training program to offer alternatives to violence in dispute resolution. Young adopted an elicitive approach. The first step was to empower existing leaders by increasing their awareness of their existing nonviolent approaches to managing conflicts. Indigenous approaches included developing cross-cutting ties through intermarriage, traditional exchange payments, face-saving reframing, and costing. The next step was to offer other conflict resolution approaches to the Engan for their consideration. Third, trainers encouraged the Engan leaders to consider changes they might make in their existing methods. Young sees such changes as part of an ongoing process of cultural development.
Participants in the elicitive training tended to share their understanding in prescriptive ways. They also asked for more guidelines. Young attributes the desire to "a growing (though undeserved) loss of confidence in traditional methods of conflict resolution; the 'internalization' of the oppressor, which causes victims of colonization to regard their own knowledge as worthless when compared with that of the colonizer; and 'cargo' thinking, which leads many people to believe that the outside trainer has secret knowledge obtained from some foreign university and is strangely reluctant to share that knowledge with us."(p. 218)
Both programs were reasonably successful. Young takes this to indicate the importance of flexibility in training for conflict resolution.