Culture and Conflict
By Paul Kimmel
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Kimmel, Paul. "Culture and Conflict." Morton Deutsch and Peter T. Coleman, eds., The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000 pp. 453-474.
"Culture" refers to shared sets of meanings, norms, expectations, perceptions, roles, categories, interpretations, and modes of communication. Culture shapes one's view of reality, and it is shared culture that allows people to assume that they share the same reality. Interactions between people of different cultures can be fraught with difficulty and misunderstanding, particularly when the participants fail to recognize that they effectively occupy different realities. In order to relate to each other effectively, culturally diverse actors must develop a shared microculture.
Kimmel begins by explaining some of the basic concepts used in the study of intercultural communication. Subjective culture refers to the norms, perceptions, expectations and so on, of an individual; it refers to their (usually unconscious) mindset. A person's subjective culture serves as an interpretive screen by which she makes sense of the outside world. People acquire their subjective culture through socialization, and that mindset comes to seem the natural, normal, and correct way to view the world. What are actually particular cultural norms are though of as simply common sense. Other ways of interpreting the outside world, when they are even recognized to exist, are dismissed as wrong or inferior. Individuals come to identify with the larger common culture that gave rise to their mindset. They develop a cultural identity.
Since one's own mindset seems normal and natural, most people find it difficult to accept that others could have very different mindsets. Most people assume that others think in broadly the same ways that they do. When another person's behavior does not fit our notions of "normal" behavior, we generally assume that that person is misbehaving, unreasonable or even bad. Attribution error refers to the tendency to attribute "inappropriate" behavior to negative character traits, rather than to situational or cultural differences. These supposed negative character traits usually reflect our own cultural stereotypes.
Methods of reasoning, evaluating and deciding differ across cultures. Some cultures favor intuitive reasoning based on principle and precedent, while others rely on observation and experience-based conceptual reasoning. They differ in tolerance of uncertainty and in what they consider to be valid information.
Cultures also differ in their style of communications. High-context cultures rely on the context to convey most of the information, with relatively little information conveyed by the actual message. Low-context cultures convey most of the information within the message, with very little significance given to the context. Low-context listeners often miss the full content of high-context communication, while high-context listeners may read in more content than a low-context speaker intended.
With training people can learn to communicate effectively across cultural differences. Levels of cultural awareness range from cultural chauvinism and ethnocentrism, through tolerance and attempts to minimize difference, to understanding that there are fundamental, yet explainable, differences between cultures. Trainees need to learn how to learn about cultural differences. To do this they "must be taught less-culture-specific skills by someone who understands [their] culture and the other culture(s) in question."(p. 463) Intercultural role playing exercises can help people recognize their own cultural assumptions, increase their level of cultural awareness, and learn how to learn about cultural differences. The goal is to enable people to understand other cultures, shift their own cultural mindset, and create microcultures to sustain effective communication.
Kimmel examines the implications of cultural difference for conflict management. Problem solving benefits from having a wide array of perspectives available. Intercultural training helps negotiators understand each other's different perspectives. Microcultures benefit from including elements from various cultural types. Low-context, conceptual communication is best for conveying information, while high-context communication is more appropriate for relationship building.
Discussions between people who can shift their cultural mindset s take the form of constructive controversies, in which the parties seek to clearly present their own values and assumptions, and to understand them in relation to the other party's interests. Constructive controversy between members of different cultures requires intercultural exploration, and promotes peace building. Peace building demands modesty and graciousness, and follows the Platinum Rule: "Do unto others as they would do for themselves if they could."(p. 469)
Kimmel cautions against inappropriate reliance on theoretical models of essential human needs. "The greatest danger in being oblivious to the impact of one's own culture when building a theory to explain human behavior lies in promoting one's own cultural beliefs to the status of formalized 'scientific knowledge'."(p. 471) Different cultures understand their needs in very different ways. Kimmel argues that most international conflicts are grounded in different views of the nature of social reality, that is, in different cultures' different understandings of their needs and the world around them.