Culture and Conflict Resolution (Book Review)

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Kevin Avruch presents us with the idea that culture is a dynamic characteristic in humans, having been informed by past experiences and by our history, past and present of social interactions. Essentially, it is the way we think and act. He espouses that it is only through seeing culture in this way that it can be a useful tool in the analysis of conflict and its resolution. He argues against the shortcomings of the traditional definitions of culture that label or objectify groups of people for the benefit of scientific and academic study, or for the benefit of accelerating a conflict. Culture is viewed as a way to understand the context of conflict. Avruch’s goal is to educate practitioners and scholars as to a deeper and clearer understanding of the part culture plays in conflict resolution.

In part two of the essay, Avruch defines the causes of conflict to be either a struggle over resources, status, or power, which leads to fighting; or struggles over perception and beliefs which may employ negotiation. He posits that how we understand the root of the struggle and the importance of culture in the context of that struggle, will determine what resolution theories or practices we employ. He defines conflict, as “any strategy that brings a socially visible or public episode of conflict (a dispute) to an end” (p.25) and identifies two concepts of conflict resolution. The first uses strategies for resolution which include; one party walking away, negotiating, third party judgment, and fighting which may include killing the other party to eliminate the problem. The second strategy is using coercion and war. Neither of these strategies, he says should be considered conflict resolution, which should get to the root of the problem and not just treat a conflict episode.

Further, Avruch discusses the now-dated realist paradigm of international relations theory in which all states are undifferentiated, acting to maximize their power, where politics are defined by power, thereby making culture invisible. As a counterpoint, to realism, Avruch describes idealism as stressing values and ideologies that he says seem more concerned with culture, and is defined by cooperation. Both are inadequate concepts because they stress either power or cooperation across the board, creating sameness instead of differences, which is what culture, is all about. Because both schools of thought may operate on the assumption that conflict is caused by the existence of cultural differences, culture becomes the culprit in conflict. Avruch explains that any cultural conflict has to do with misunderstanding or a “failure to communicate” (p.29), is easily fixed and as he says is rarely the cause of conflict; he favors “socially constructed and politically motivated ethnic difference” (p.29) as the culprit in international struggles.

In contrast to realism, Avruch supports the cognitivist theory of international relations which argues for socially constructed politics and conflict, and he points out several constructionist theories that have as their position the idea that “the fundamental structures of international politics are social rather than strictly material and that these structures shape actors’ identities and interests, rather than just their behavior” (p.35). He puts forth Robert Jervis’ cognitivist argument that international politics is not governed by the cost- benefit logic of the state but by fuzzy logic used to set the rules of behavior. This takes us away from thinking in a linear way and into a logic for “dealing with uncertainties” (p.36) that is continually served up to us. People basically create what is real for them through use of symbols, which includes language. Avruch touches on the use of metaphor and its place in culture. He claims that metaphor is part of the general thought process including reasoning and memory and is an important part of culture and cognition (p.37). He reasons it is important in the field of international relations to understand cultural symbols, as one idea can mean different things to different cultures. In the case of using negotiation as a tool, it is most important when communicating across cultures that all parties interpret messages the same way. The importance of culture in negotiations has been recognized as a result of understanding that communication involves human cognition or culture, and the process is influenced by the culture of practitioners.

Avruch spends much time in discussing and dismissing the arguments against the importance of culture in negotiation made by Zartman, Cohen and Burton. Zartman’s theories state that there are only a few ways to negotiate and that culture only affects negotiation through style and language, that there is a diplomatic culture and all its members act the same way, and that culture does not matter in negotiation because it is always trumped by power (p.42). Avruch’s bottom line concerning power is that understanding culture will help to understand how power is used. These discussions challenge many accepted notions of how culture affects negotiation. They serve to make one pause and think about the broader issues presented by consideration of culture in conflict resolution and how challenging these accepted notions might have changed history, or if utilized, might change the course of future negotiations.

Avruch, in part three of the essay, discusses at length, the advantages and disadvantages of the emic, etic approaches and their use in combination to understanding cultural differences in negotiation practice. He also cautions not to ignore the context of the conflict. The emic approach to understanding culture focuses on studying the culture in an “actor-centered” (p.57) or from inside approach. It is an attempt to understand the culture the way its members understand it. This approach has its advantages for the conflict resolution practitioner, in the ability to understand and speak to the problem like a native. It’s disadvantage lies in the fact that some might use these understandings of the culture to revert to labeling and categorizing cultural groups in the way that Avruch finds inadequate. The etic approach uses a set of pre-determined universal characteristics on which all cultures can be compared from the outside. For instance, he explains the difference between high-context and low-context communication styles as an etic model that should be considered in conflict resolution. The advantage of the etic approach is that it allows comparison of cultures and a vocabulary for talking about the variations found across cultures. This approach also reduces the diversity of culture into a manageable number of elements. The disadvantages to the etic approach is that it reduces diversity to a degree that can no longer measure the finer points of culture and then, set in stone, reinforce the very limited concepts of the ideas of culture Avruch has spent so much time setting aside as inadequate. For an example, “Egypt is high context, Israel low context” (p.69) is a categorization to be made if only an etic approach is used.

Avruch discusses what individualism means across cultures and makes the point that it is the “actors” that construct the varieties of definitions used for this word. It is in the objective view of the etic approach that Avruch cautions us about missing out on the richness of these definitions by not recognizing context that only the local culture can give us. He continues by suggesting that a combination of these two approaches to the study of the relationship of culture to conflict analysis and resolution might be appropriate. He makes a simple argument that in order to understand an etic dimension, one must have the emic understanding of the culture.

Part four of the essay focuses on how culture has been used and also ignored in different conflict resolution techniques. Avruch discusses the work of John Burton and John Paul Lederach in order to represent two opposing positions in regards to the importance that culture plays in conflict. Burton proposes that culture is unimportant in conflict because all humans have the same needs that are non-negotiable and unalterable and will pursue satisfying these needs regardless of the cost. His workshop focuses on problem solving, which depends on analytical techniques. He argues that all people reason the same way, so there is no need to muddy the waters over cultural differences.

In contrast, Lederach, who uses storytelling in problem solving and conflict resolution scenarios, believes that culture provides the logic by which people reason. After much discussion of reason and culture, Avruch comes to a point where he backtracks to Burton and concedes that humans do reason very much in the same ways, “associatively, and in linked, prioritized, valorized and networked schemas about the world” (p.94). However, he adds that the schemas we reason about are cultural and they are linked, “prioritized, valorized, networked by- and distributed among-individuals across many different sorts of social groups and institutions” (p.94). Avruch claims that ignoring cultural differences will create failure, which is the basic premise of this essay.

Avruch, Kevin. (1998) Culture and Conflict Resolution. Washington, DC: United States Institute Of Peace Press.


Bonita Para

Bonita Para is a certified mediator, trainer and educator. She is a Master's degree candidate in the Department of Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution at Nova Southeastern University. Bonita is the owner of Southeast Mediation in Richland, Washington and specializes in family/divorce, workplace and organizational dispute resolution. She holds membership… MORE >

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