Former CRS Mediator, New York and Washington, D.C. Offices; Associate Professor at the Institute for 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: What should you consider when dealing with other cultures, when you are intervening in new places where the cultures are different from your own?
A: Kevin Avruch talks about understanding the common sense logic of a culture. You're not going to understand all cultures. It's impossible in our field. There are thousands of different cultures. You're not going to know the nuances of thousands of different cultures. But I would argue, that every culture has a logical common sense about itself. If you can understand that common sense logic in that culture, then that is a different story. I'm not satisfied that the debate is settled between human nature and culture. The Avruch/Burton debate: does culture trump basic human needs? Kevin's argument is that it is okay to know that parties in deep rooted conflicts are motivated by certain basic human needs, whatever that may be: identity, security, and so on. Recognition. If you don't understand the cultural manifestations of that then you're going to be in trouble. Okay, fine, Kevin, but I'm dealing with the southern Sudanese tribe - how am I going to learn this so I can do this? I think I come back to a Burtonian perspective, that, okay, everybody has these human needs. I don't care who you are, if you're a human being you've got them.
Now, not culture, in terms of the manifestations in a particular nuance sense, but what's the common sense the group has about itself? If you can get to that, what motivates people, from the bases, than I think you can operate and function from there. I think you can get that by simply - and I think you can't do it all in an assessment, that's not going to give you the tools - but you can get some of it by simply talking to people, and being with people, understanding and talking about lots of different things.
For instance, I spent some time before getting deeply involved in a situation, if I can get somebody to translate the papers for me, the newspapers, periodicals, the television programs that people watch in those cultures. It gives me a sense of what the common sense logic of that culture is. This is how they reason in that particular culture. What can I take from that? I may not know literally, because I don't know what's going to happen. When people value these kinds of things in these sorts of ways, I'm going to see if I can use that. I'll look for that manifestation or an opportunity to use that knowledge and information in the situation we'll be involved in.
Also, there's a part of that that says that there are more things that we think of models. In fact, I'm writing an article now that's a response to Carrie Menkel-Meadows's article that she wrote for the Missouri Journal of Dispute Resolution, a couple of months ago. Actually that'll be published in the journal that's coming out in the fall. Carrie's argument is that there is no unifying field theory for conflict resolution that you can't take essentially Western models and Western techniques and make them work in international settings and different cultures. While I think there is a certain amount of truth to that, I'm getting tired of hearing about the kind of berating of the so-called western model. What are people really saying when they say "western model?" They're talking about the U.S. They're not talking about Canada, they're not talking about Germany, they are not talking about anything but America, and those Americans who are sort of colonizing the world with their western models of conflict resolution. Well, this is a bit of the baby with the bath water in that.
???, Larissa Fast and myself are working in Rwanda. We're doing, planning the workshops with the leadership groups we're working with there in Rwanda. We're debating whether or not we should do a training piece on interest based negotiation skills. Oh, this can't work because this is a different culture, and ??? is concerned, he's an African, this won't work. We think they need it, we think this is an important tool for them to have, and we agonize for days over this. It really didn't get settled until one o'clock in the morning on the day we were supposed to do the training, we decided to it, and they got it. And we said, "Well, how did this happen?" It's a whole different culture, Hutus and Tutsis. Because their leadership people heading up NGO organizations, they're in a post-modern environment, they're all educated people, they're middle class culture - France - they're local culture. So this is really quite interesting. So there was a revelation there
A: So there was a common sense logicthere that they were involved in running and heading up organizations that had to collaborate with each other on the distribution of scarce resources. They had to also know as leadership people how they might need to negotiate with the government. So negotiations are negotiations. There is a common sense logic there. Now, could we have done this on one of the back villages of Rwanda? No, it wouldn't have worked; But it worked with this particular group.
Q: So the idea of culture isn't such a wide blanket as it may have first seemed when we were talking about it. There are class differences within cultures that may be more Western looking than we assume. That's a really interesting example.