Western Conflict Models in a World Context


Kevin Avruch

Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Are Western models of conflict resolution applicable to non-Western settings?

A: Well, yes and no. Are Western economic systems applicable? The answer is yes and no. They're certainly very powerful. I very much agree with John Paul Lederach's position on this. That is that the Western practitioner should not go in thinking that he or she has the model. That one has to be respectful of what Peter Black and I call ethnotheories of conflict, that is the understanding of conflict that exist in a particular culture; and ethnopraxies, that is the local indigenous ways of managing conflicts. At the same time one can bring in the experience of other cultures to local settings, including Western conflict. What ought to happen is there ought to be a cross-fertilization so that in a particular cultural setting what emerges is a fertile combination of what perhaps the third party brought in and what already exists. That fertile combination is likely to be the one that is best adapted to that setting. It is not to come in and say I have the answer, because you don't.

Also not to come in and say I know nothing and I'm willing to listen to you because if they were so successful at managing their internal conflicts through indigenous methods presumably they wouldn't be in the fix that they're in. It's a complicated question but I really am with John Paul on this. There has to be a kind of fertilization with Western models, which direct attention to cost-benefit issues, imaging the future, all of the ways that we now have, and to indigenous models that may be much more sensitive to issues of face, time, risk, or emotion than the Western models will allow. I don't think that there is one single technology of conflict resolution.

Q: Universally applicable?

A: Universally applicable.

Q: That's a hard line to walk, I guess, between fertilization and colonization of some sort.

A: That's a nice way to put it "between fertilization and colonization." Yes, it's a hard line.

Q: What about things like class and globalization? I think about Western models and then I think about going to other places in the world where it wouldn't work -- maybe some parts of Mexico. Then I think of middle class or business class folks where it's a lot more applicable - the things that we learn in ICAR, negotiation, and things like that.

A: I've been talking about culture, up till now, implicitly in the sense that we mostly understand it as sitting inside ethnic groups or national groups or religious groups or linguistic groups. In fact, culture also sits inside institutions like universities or militaries. It sits inside occupations like engineers or lawyers. When you actually get to a negotiation you're really dealing with a multi-cultural arena where you not only have people from, let's say, different nationalities sitting across the table but people from different occupations. Let me give you an example of that. The political scientist Terry Hoppman, studied the Test Ban negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. He wrote that although there was definitely an American-Stalin negotiation (something that Fred Eckley wrote about very very long before) it was also the case that very, very often the Soviet scientists and the American scientists had less trouble understanding each other, and talking to each other than did the Soviet diplomats and the American diplomats.

If you look at a contemporary, what are called humanitarian interventions, it may be that the American military person on the scene, part of a UN force, and the Pakastani Colonel on the scene will have less trouble talking to each other on issues like force protection or perimeter security of something, than will the American Colonel and someone from CARE or someone from Save the Children; even if those folks are themselves American and grew up in the same town. It is the case that culture exists because it is emergent in any coherent social unit. The social unit is usually thought of as an ethnic or national or religious unit, but can also be an institutional unit or an occupational unit. You're correct that if you're trained as an engineer, military officer, as a physician in Mexico or the U.S. or Canada then you're definitely share similar orientations towards problem solving or cost-benefit analysis, let's say. I think there will be interesting differences, too, but there will be a lot that's shared and that's one of the reasons why international business can occur to the extent that it occurs because people share basically kind of underlying capitalist concepts, neo-capitalist concepts.


In that sense something that the term "organizational culture" is a subset of what you are calling "institutional culture?"

A: Yes, or vice versa. There are experts in organizational culture who nuance those terms far more than I do, but yea.

Q: That's when culture means that set of behaviors and assumptions and thought processes.

A: That is characteristic of some social groups through time, because social groups can vary tremendously in their composition, and so forth, then so can culture in that sense every individual carries, if you will, multiple cultures.

Q: Right, and it occurs to me that the more we talk about culture the more similar it sounds like that mysterious word identity.

A: Right, right.

Q: Are they interchangeable?

A: No, but they overlap the same way that ethnicity and culture are not interchangeable, but overlap. In the same way a term that is pretty much now out of favor among most psychologists, like personality and culture are not interchangeable, but they do overlap.

Q: I think it is very common to think of having several identities, but it is not as common to think as having many cultures.

A: That is why you need theoreticians around, to complicate the world, to complexify the world.