Errors Committed in the Context of Cultural Conflict Resolution

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 ???).

A: What I call a Type One error is to underestimate culture's impacts in a particular conflict or dispute, which is what I've spent most of my career thus far worrying about. What are the costs of that? There are also Type Two errors, which consist of overestimating culture's impacts on a dispute. Partly that overestimation comes about because the parties themselves may frame it in culturalist terms when it's really not cultural at all. It may be ethnic, it may be nationalist, but the amount of cultural difference can be very, very small. It takes a very little bit of cultural difference to create a whole lot of political conflict or to create a whole lot of ethnic difference. Those are the kinds of issues that we're looking at.

Q: What does a Type Two error look like?

A: Let me give you an example. A Type Two error can occur in the human rights debate when certain people will criticize a universal human rights regime for being Western, for being ethnocentric, and for being hegemonic. It's not that it isn't the case that certain human rights protection comes out of Western, democratic thought. That may be true, but it's also the case that capitalism came out of Western thought, too. A lot of the countries that criticize Western, universal human rights are perfectly happy to try and adapt some version of capitalism or at some point in their history some version of Marxist-Leninism. You have to disentangle a political usage of culture from a genuine usage of culture. A Type Two error would occur if someone allowed a debate about human rights to stop at the point at which someone stood up and said, "You're being post-colonial and hegemonic." That to me would be a Type Two error if you said, "Gee, you're right. I surrender. Go on and do what you want to your political prisoners."

Q: So that also goes back to the particularities? The sweeping generalization like that doesn't really apply?

A: You have to understand the particularities well enough to be able to disaggregate what are truly culturally different approaches to human rights, which in fact probably exist, to what are rhetorical political usages of culture.


Q: So, talk a little bit about the Type One kind, the more common kind of error. Can you give me a few examples of that?

A: There are lots of examples. The way in which Type One errors occur in the case of underestimating culture's impact usually occurs in terms of lack of communication. That means that it usually occurs in situations of negotiation, bargaining, or in a third-party sense of mediation because culture will affect communicational styles. Most of the work that has gone into what I call Type One errors has to do with talking about the ways in which there are different communicational styles or narrative styles that are impacted by culture, and there's a large literature on that mostly out of the negotiation field. Ed Hall's high context/low context is probably the best known of that from social psychologists, like Harry Travis, who get individualism and collectivism. These are orientations towards the world and towards society that vary from culture to culture. These are deeper contextual differences, individualism and collectivism, but where they output, if you will, in a conflict resolution setting like negotiation and mediation, is where individualists and collectivists will have different communicational styles. The classical one being face.

Collectivists can be very guardful of face and tend to be high context where the information is not simply in the utterance and message, but is in all the paralinguistic things. Low context folks, individualists will not be so concerned with face. They'll be more task-oriented. Most of the information in the utterance will be carried in the message, and so forth. There are different orientations towards time. There are different orientations towards risk. If you have risk-averse meaning, risk non-averse, or low context meaning high context then you'll have clashing styles of communication. Where even if there are tremendous potential zones of agreement, even if you can do the Classic "Getting to Yes," or interest base there'll be bargaining and so forth. There'll be enough noise in the system because of the different cultural styles that you can't reach the point where you can actually negotiate interest. The classic Type One errors occur at the level of communicational impedances that will affect conflict resolution processes.

Q: How do you identify the differences and then how do you deal with them?

A: You identify them first by generalizing them, so I'm moving away from the particularities. You generalize them by saying, "OK. I know this particular negotiation involves Americans and Asians. I know with all other things being equal, Americans are going to be individualistic and low context, and Asians are going to be collectivist and high context." That's just your starting point. You bring that in as an observer or as a party and you see the extent to which, in this particular negotiation, with these particular interlockers some of the moments that I call "communicational opacity," that's an opaqueness where things aren't happening, some of them can be explained by these differences which you hypothetically come to expect. You keep alert.

One of the ways to find it is through a quality that's important for practitioners called mindfulness, awareness. What you're mindful of in particular here is the possibility of variance in cultural issues. Then what do you do about them? Knowing about them is not all that you need to make something work, but it goes a long, long way. If you're aware of them as a third party then you know that there are face issues, and that you have to protect the party whose concerns are with face. You may have to educate the low context party about face issues separately in a caucus or something like that. Again, education, protection, awareness are things that you, as a third party, would be aware of. In a sense, what I'm saying is you have to be a cultural analyst in addition to being a conflict analyst. These are things that will help the communicational flow. These are not silver-bullet-solutions to the problem, necessarily. Ironically, of course, one of the things that can happen if you really remove most impedances in negotiation, and you get clear communication, is that a conflict may appear more intractable after efficient communication than it did before. We owe our parties that.

Q: Because the differences are real? It is not a communicational...?

A: Because the differences are ... Well, culture is real, too. The divergent interests are in fact wide enough that clarifying them may make the problem seem more intractable. At least then you're dealing with divergent interests and you're not dealing at all with para-stuff, all the meta stuff around it.