Kevin Avruch

Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Topics: conflict resolution strategies, culture, conflict analysis and resolution

Interviewed by Julian Portilla — 2003

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Q: Can you give me an overview of your work?

A: I was trained as a cultural anthropologist and when I was in graduate school between 1972, when I entered, and 1978, when I got my degree, I was technically on an NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) -- on a group that no longer exists at NIMH

) -- I was on an NIMH

training grant to study conflict. Although, I think that was just the grant's

name since just about any place an anthropologist worked would probably qualify under that

. That's interesting, because then years later in my career I actually became a serious student of conflict and conflict resolution

. Trained as an anthropologist, I was always attuned

to two things. One is the power of culture, the importance of culture, and cultural

differences. Secondly,

the importance of paying attention to particularities, and a kind of visceral mistrust

for overarching grand

theories that tried to explain away things before things really had a chance to be explained. So it's a different training than some of my colleagues in sociology and political science get where there's a real attraction to these grand theories.

When I came to George Mason in 1980, the most interesting thing going on here was the group of Interdisciplinary Faculty that was getting together to form what would become ICAR, and what would help institutionalize conflict resolution in post-graduate education. Obviously, there had been the JCR started in 1957. It certainly seemed it was a kind of field, but until a field gets institutionalized in an academy, and it turns out folks like you with degrees its not really a field. I joined that discussion group along with my friend and colleague, Peter Black, also in anthropology here at Mason. The issues that began to interest us were what attention to cultural issues and to the lessons of particularistic investigations could bring to the kind of grand theorizing that people like John Burton was doing with basic human needs. I would say we looked at it from a bird's eye view.

The overall perspective of my work is that it brings a cultural orientation to the analysis of conflict, conflict resolution, attention to the particularities of the understanding of conflict in different social settings, to the technologies, the techniques and processes, for conflict resolution and conflict management in different settings. Like most people trained in anthropology and ethnography, I'm usually down there in the metaphorical rice paddy

. I'm in the village, I'm in the neighborhood, and I'm looking at how folks interact that way. I really don't do international political economy, except so far as it affects people in the village.

Q: What are you talking about exactly when you say culture?

A: That's one of those words that comes with 155 different definitions. It also comes, as I've begun to write about lately, with a whole lot of political baggage that comes to us from the 19th century. Leaving that aside -- and we can't leave that aside for very long, partly because

parties to conflicts use culture as well, the way a social scientist understands culture is that it is that it is learned and shared ways of behaving appropriately in social settings. It's things that people learn by virtue of belonging to a social group. These things are encoded in cognitive structures, schemas

, paralinguistic structures like metaphors, and language. Then they're also publicly encoded in symbols and values.

Culture is learned; it's shared, more or less. The degree of sharing that is always an empirical issue is a social setting, and it's passed down from generation to generation, which gives it some kind of traditional force. But it is also created. It is also emergent

because it represents people in ways in which people face the dilemmas, such as the problematics in everyday social life, including conflicts and disputes. What it is not, is it is not

encoded in the human genome. It's socially created.

The ability to acquire a culture is probably genetic in the same way that the ability to acquire a language is genetic. The culture that one acquires is very much a matter of contingency, and an accident in the same way that the languages

is that one learns is a matter of contingency or accident, personal or historical.

Q: What about political baggage? That sounds something like "the white man's burden" type of baggage...

A: The term comes to us from the 19th century with several different meanings. One meaning is the sense of high culture -- classical music, art, Shakespeare and so forth -- the kind of Matthew Arnold notion of culture as something that the educated few have, and that is certainly not how anthropologists use the term.

The other meaning of it that came to us from the 19th century is from the German romantic tradition. Culture really became a stand-in for race. It became a thing that different people possessed, a spirit that set them apart from other people. That meaning of culture is one that is still widely used by ethnic and nationalistic politicians who want to use culture as a kind of bulwark against others. Part of the problem with looking at cultural issues is it is a "technical" term in the social sciences that has been appropriated by the players themselves.

One has to disentangle those meanings.

In fact the last thing I published in Conflict Resolution Quarterly is called "Type One and Type Two Errors in Culturally Sensitive Conflict Resolution and Practice," in which I tried to disentangle those senses of culture to aid a third party in diagnosing the cultural aspects of a dispute.

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: I imagine that doesn't happen in too many other places than academics?

A: Right. That's why I published the article in the Conflict Resolution Quarterly, which is a journal that's aimed at practitioners in particular, and I didn't publish it in Theory and Society or some other place. Lots of insights that come through in the academic setting hopefully come through to practitioners, but that's an integrative process because lots of advances and insights that practitioners have from academicians should feed theory too.

Part of the problem is that practitioners almost never write. If they write they write for a trade market where if you hit it big you don't have paragraphs, you have bullets. Academicians write in such a way that practitioners can't really read them. This is a distinction that is important and it comes from me, a theorist, but it comes from me in the context of teaching an icon, talking to students and other folks who are practitioners about the problems they face when they go intervene in an inter-ethnic dispute. It also so happens that the interlockers are speaking in terms of cultural differences when in fact what the practitioner sees are mainly political differences that are put in culturalist terms. So when I began to think about all the different ways in which culture can be used I thought, "Let's see if we can logically pull our way through these ways and disaggregate them." Being trained as a social scientist I naturally thought of Type One and Type Two error, which are only metaphorically connected to the statistical uses of that term.

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.

Q: Sometimes swimming in the water, it's hard to know that you're in the water right? A fish doesn't know that he's in the water, and a fish doesn't know that they breathe. A intervener, or some sort of third party, will have a hard time distinguishing various cultural variancts. I am wondering if there are questions that one can ask oneself to reveal the highlight cultural distinctions that will make a difference?

A: Sure. There are two kinds of cultural competencies. One kind is the competence in the area to be dealt with. That is, the old-fashioned notion that you are an area expert; you speak the language, you know the history, and so forth. It's important to have one of those folks on the team, or as your interpreter.

The other kind of cultural competence is a kind of sensitivity to the existence of cultural differences and their importance. This is what, I presume, you are asking about. The way in which you can be trained to be mindful of them is to, first of all, know in general the ways in which culture affects communication -- high context, low context, individualism, collectivism -- so that you come in with some training. Then at the micro-level, to be aware of moments in the exchange that are opaque to you that you don't understand. That may strike you as being morally, emotionally wrong. If you are having a discussion with someone and they say, "Yes, my teenage daughter stayed out late last night and I beat her," your response probably would be, "Huh?" Instead of saying "huh?" and thinking to yourself, "OK, this guy's a savage," you go, "Huh, what was that about?" He might say, "Well, you know, she really compromised the honor of our family by doing that." Well then you have this notion of honor and you have to think to yourself, "All right, I was stopped by the report of this girl's beating, now I know there's a term called honor. Let me impact that. What does that mean? How is it deployed?"

The way in which you do cultural analysis is actually pretty homely. It involves coming across stuff that as Peter Black once said, "violates your common sense." The anthropologist Michael Eggert talked about these as rich points that are pregnant with meaning and some kind of interaction. If you are a skilled third party, you're not only monitoring yourself but you're monitoring the other parties to see points at which the other party - if its an intercultural experience - is stopped by something you said or did, or by something that their antagonist said or did. A lot of the practices involve mindfulness, monitoring, self-awareness and some baseline knowledge.

Q: With a particular lens for surprises about your common sense, or things that go against your own common sense?

A: In this sense being a good cultural analyst is no different from being a good psychoanalyst in the sense that every psychoanalyst ought to have undergone an analysis of him or herself to find out what the contours of their own psyche are. In the same sense, every cultural analyst should know where they come from. Am I a Christian? Well, am I a Christian in the sense that Christians talk about Christians, and if I'm negotiating between Jews and Muslims how does that affect me? Am I a feminist? If I really am a feminist and I'm negotiating an abortion clinic issue in the city how does that affect me? Am I a liberal? Am I a conservative? All of those things are important. What is my view of the world? What are the schemes or scripts by which I play out the world? How does that affect he way I hear or see or listen for other schemes or other scripts?

Well, let me say one thing about culture. I've been talking here about culture at almost the micro-level of interactions between parties; indeed, for a good deal of conflict resolution on the ground that's how it plays out.

There's a whole other tradition in talking about cultural resistance that is probably best exemplified these days by Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilization." I'm mistrustful in that way, because, as you know, Peter and I have written a lot. We don't see cultural differences per se as tremendously important. Differences can be politicized, but then it becomes a matter of ethnicity or nationalism or ethno-nationalism or whatever, not necessarily cultural differences. We do see culture as being - I use this line a lot in my writings - "The lenses through which the causes of conflict are refracted." There are some classic examples of that if you look at Catholic and Protestant working class culture in Northern Ireland; there are tremendous similarities. All of those differences often get boiled down to the differences between Catholics and Protestants and that's a vast over implication. Those differences can become flags; they can become emblems. If you look in Sarajevo in the 1970s, you would not see tremendous cultural differences among the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims.

Q: To couch conflict in cultural terms is a way maybe either to disguise the real political motivations behind certain kinds of actions? It's the Slovadon Milosevich syndrome where he uses these events that happened 400, 500, 1,000 years ago to incite nationalism. Maybe its some sort of political mobilization to get out of economic depression that's captured in cultural terms because it's easier to identify? Why is it so easy to impede in cultural differences when they are that different?

A: Well, because cultural differences are always visible and they are learned early on and they can represent important social differences like where we worship and church. The answer to your question is, yes, cultural differences are used to disguise things, but you have to be careful about the word "disguise" because that makes it seem entirely intentional. The larger issue here is power is almost always disguised. There are times when it's not when someone is hitting you with a baton on the top of you head, but in our social lives power differences are almost always disguised and they're disguised in various kinds of symbolic forms. Religion is one of them. Gender, as it is symbolized, is one of them, and cultural differences become one. So in that sense culture serves in the interest of power disguises.

Q: When you say disguise do you mean in the intentional sense?

A: In both senses. Not necessarily in terms of individual actors' intentions, but in terms of larger types of disguises like legitimacy.

Q: Does it help to try to remove the arguments causing conflict based on culture. I mean you said the word "disaggregate" earlier in talking about Type Two stuff, and is that what we're getting at? Is that what we're trying to get to when we're disaggregating the cultural distinctions trying to get to the power differences, political differences, things like that?

A: I would say that is our job as critical theorists. We're trying to unmask, we're trying to deconstruct. In that sense we're trying to do what George Orwell did in his essay "Politics and the English language." We're trying to move through all of the rhetorics and all of the ideology to get at what the real differences are. Having said that, no deconstructionist ever stopped the lynching that I know of. We have to be careful about what the limits of what our theoretical program are politically. That to me is where the theorists and the practitioners ought to be meeting. The point at which the practitioners, who are often the ones who are working at the political ground level a little bit higher up than the policy level, can't discourse with the theorists is where ideas meet action.

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.

Q: Well that is all the questions I have, do you think there are other things that people need to know in general about culture and conflict, about practice and thinking?

A: I think the one thing that people really need to know is that culture really does matter, cultural differences matter. Culture is never everything and it is never the entire cause of the conflict. I mean except in the very special sense in the failure to communicate, like if you are speaking Spanish to me and I am speaking English to you and we don't understand each other, and we reduce culture to language. We can then say that the cause of our misunderstanding is culture. There are a lot of misunderstandings that occur when both of us speaks English, speaks Spanish, or one of us is a skilled interpreter. Culture is very rarely the root causes of conflict, but it is always the lenses through which the causes of conflict are reflected.

Q: So in the old onion metaphor, culture would be one of the layers that you would have to peel back to get to the inside.

A: I am a little mistrustful of that metaphor, as I am with the tip of the iceberg metaphor. I much prefer lens to onion. Think about it, if I take off these eyeglasses, I don't see the world more clearly because I have removed the lens that allows me to see the world. What I see is things less clearly. Onion implies a layer you can get over, and I don't think that you can get over culture but I think that you can get through it


Ok, it occured to me because the discussion about if not ulterior, then more core motives or causes of the conflict, are likely to be power or political rather than culture, in that sense peeling away the cultural element, or the excuse of culture for conflict.

A: You could think of it that way except that very often the way in which power will be expressed will be so affected by culturally understandings about authority, dominance, and legitimacy that its hard even to see power nakedly as some pure variable.

Q: You wouldn't understand it unless you were able to see through that lens or at least know what the lens looks like. Suppose I couldn't entirely see through someone else's cultural lens.

A: No, you can't, but even knowing that the lens is there can take you a ways.

Q: I do have one more question. You mentioned basic human needs at the outset., so do you dispute the nature of such grand theories like even basic human needs?

A: In fact what I disputed mostly was John Burton's logic and the way that he deployed those terms. Depending on how you define basic human needs, they exist, respiration, nutrition, and reproduction, for example. Of course there are basic human needs but when you get beyond that, like the need for identity, that looks different in quote individualistic and collectivist cultures. When you talk about a need for security as a basic human need then I think you are loading a lot of cultural assumptions into that. I think that basic human needs are as good a eristic as any to start from. I think that in terms of resolving intractable conflicts when you try to operationalize those terms they become much more complex and much more fuzzy. Very often what happens is you think you are designing something to address basic human needs like security when in fact you are not.

Q: It doesn't get interpreted that way?

A: It doesn't get interpreted that way.

Q: Lets say for example, that there is a big increase in Hispanic gang violence in North Washington right now. That is an interesting case because there are Hispanic gangs who are here who have neither pure Hispanic culture nor pure American culture. They are sort of mixing between the two, yet there is an organizational culture of the gang. How does one begin to think about a problem like that with a cultural lens?

A: I think that one begins by the insight that you already brought to it. These are not simply American gangs, or Nicaraguan gangs, or Dominican gangs. These are gangs that come out of a mixed cultural environment where people bring different experiences to it. I think the first thing that one has to do is to understand the symbols, the dynamics of the gang, and the characteristics of the people who are recruited for it. Why it is an attractive option? What about needs on a more general level? What needs do the gangs satisfy, whether they are a functional equivalence that can be substituted? What are some of the ways to generate alternate symbols of identity, or of manhood, or of respect. Then there are the issues of unemployment in Washington D.C., or the failure of the educational system in Washington, and post-911 immigration policies about illegal immigration. There are all the issues that impact upon it that will go to creating the symbols of gang membership and the dynamics of a gang.

Q: Maybe more of a structural level? Great, well thank you.