The Mindsets Factor in Ethnic Conflict: A Cross-Cultural Agenda
By Glen Fisher
Summary written by Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Glen Fisher. The Mindsets Factor in Ethnic Conflict: A Cross-Cultural Agenda. Yarmouth, ME: Intercultural Press, 1998, 114 pp.
The Mindsets Factor in Ethnic Conflict: A Cross-Cultural Agenda is concerned with the psycho-cultural dimension of ethnic conflict, and seeks a way to analytically approach this insidious and consistently under-treated aspect of ethnic conflict. Fisher aims to illuminate "the role that mindsets play in ethnic conflicts and the importance of the cross-cultural task often posed in understanding them" (ix-x). This book was written in light of the fact that many ethnic conflicts were ongoing in the world at the time, and that many of those intervening are "outsiders" that have to hurdle cultural barriers to even begin helping the situation. The work is therefore oriented toward "practitioners [outsiders] who must manage conflict situations on the spot" (xi). The Mindsets Factor in Ethnic Conflict: A Cross-Cultural Agenda is orchestrated to help "outsider" peacemakers identify aspects of culture and perception (cross-cultural analysis) that may lead back to the root of the confrontation and thus potential resolution strategies.
In the Introduction, "Diagnosing Ethnic Conflict: Taking Culture and Perception Into Account", Fisher states that the analysis or diagnosis of ethnic conflict alone, is an extremely difficult task. The term and phenomenon of "ethnic" presents the key challenge to international relations analysts dealing with the implications of these conflicts for the rest of the world. Ethnic, "implies the injection of exclusive cultural orientations and group identities into the diagnosis-cultural characteristics and a group experience that most likely will be alien in some degree to those who have to manage things from a perspective outside the conflict itself" (3). Fisher notes that the most difficult aspect of this challenge is to understand someone else's ethnicity deeply enough, and to avoid superficial short cuts. The author also provides a five-point analytical agenda that includes a series of basic questions to use as starting points for analysis. These questions include: 1) "What are the key ingredients that go into the 'fixed mental attitudes' that come into conflict?" 2) "In terms of a given conflict, who is to be included as part of an ethnic group?" 3) "How rigidly 'set' are the mindsets that are pertinent to a conflict?" 4) "Do the solutions that are proposed for conflict resolution themselves raise cross-cultural considerations?" 5) "What outlooks pertain to the role that the international community -- or its representatives -- is expected to play?" (11-15).
The chapters of The Mindsets Factor are laid out in terms of "Problem Areas" with each chapter addressing a different task that cross-cultural peacemakers must cope with. The first question that should be addressed is, "what does ethnic culture have to do with this conflict". However, Fisher warns readers to carefully examine what it is about a given culture that forms those people's particular point of view. Meticulousness is essential, as oftentimes these concerns are only superficially addressed and third parties never get to why conflicts are occurring. The key concept introduced in Chapter One is "ethos", or the relationship between culture and personality, along with the notion that ethos is intimately connected to how people perceive conflict.
The second "problem area" addressed in this work is entitled, "Sorting Out Ethnic Identities and Calculating Their Strength". With this chapter, Fisher shifts his focus to consider ethnicity in terms of what people are to be included in certain ethnic groups and "by what rules of loyalty" (37). The principle offered here is that the voracity with which individuals and groups identify with an ethnicity will be reflected in the intensity with which people engage in conflict, thus revealing how much their involvement is related to their ethnicity. The majority of this chapter provides general theories on the factors that affect the strength of group identity such as language, ethics and religion, history, and the culture's own provisions for preserving identity.
Chapter Three discusses the issue of intransigence in ethnic conflict, or refusal to compromise. Such obstacles present serious challenges to mediators and negotiators as the reasons behind intransigence are often tied to mindsets, which are tied closely to people's identities and are extremely difficult to alter. Fisher notes that the trick for dealing with these obstacles "is to anticipate intransigence, understand its sources and dynamics for the ethnic group in question, judge its firmness or malleability, and adapt one's strategy accordingly" (56).
Chapter Four considers the tension between conflict remedies developed by outsiders and how people on the inside of a conflict will respond to their implementation. Mindsets will affect the success of conflict management strategies designed and implemented by those thinking within the framework of the international community. Fisher explains some of the assumptions that are projected by broader-thinking, Western-style peacemakers. The scope and/or scale of people's "social universe" is of key importance in these cases, as the concerns of ethnic groups are often far more narrow and focused then the broad, encompassing concerns of people in the international peacemaking community.
The final "problem area" identified in The Mindsets Factor is that of "Legitimizing the International Community's Role in Addressing Ethnic Conflict". In addition to the aforementioned aspects, Fisher believes that mindsets also play a significant role "in the ways of thinking by which the international community and its representatives feel called upon to intervene in managing ethnic conflicts in the first place, and in turn, the ways of thinking by which ethnic groups react to such intervention" (89). Fisher notes that the most critical factor influencing the acceptance of international aid organizations involved in resolving ethnic conflicts is that the social universe of many of the involved groups is expanding. He thinks that as more groups recognize their connectedness to the international community, international organizations will become more accepted by local peoples.
In the conclusion of The Mindsets Factor, Fisher outlines a list of questions to guide the analysis of specific ethnic conflict cases. These are: 1) "How does the way that past events are perceived set the stage for confrontation?" 2) "How do issues and problems in contention play on and trigger the sense of ethnic identity?" 3) "What outlooks and positions on issues exist that simply will not be subject to negotiation?" 4) "What do people actually want and expect from government?" 5) "What is the prevailing culture of public service and public administration?" 6) "How have people come to think about their economy?" 7) "In cross-cultural perspective, how are leaders and leadership defined?" 8) "How is conflict itself perceived?" 9) "What differing perspectives and styles are brought into the negotiation and bargaining process?" 10) "What reactions can be expected to the use of force and coercion, especially that used by outside peacekeepers?" 11) "Is there a cultural dimension to the way that humanitarian activity is perceived?" 12) "How do psychocultural factors affect prospects for the economic and political development projects that often go along with conflict management efforts?" (99-103). This final chapter provides a practical wrap-up to this highly theoretical work, actually getting at how to go about investigating "the mindsets factor" in ethnic conflict. Overall, the book provides a good introduction to the complexities inherent in ethnic conflicts and the important role that cultural beliefs and behavior patterns play in conflict dynamics. However, readers seeking an in-depth analysis of these topics will want to use this volume as a starting point -- not an endpoint -- to their investigation.