An ideal definition of culture takes into account the different perspectives of social life. It should recognize the diversity of cultures and exclude language, ethnic or social class bias while emphasizing the high morals held by all cultures. Three concepts of culture have been historically used to define culture. In Mathew Arnold’s view, culture is aesthetic and only prevalent to specific class members within a social group. Edward Taylor’s view contradicts Arnold’s view by implying the universality of culture by all people in all social groups, which nevertheless undergo an evolutionary process from a primitive status to being civilized. In Franz Boas’ perspective, culture is diverse within different social groups or people and does not undergo the evolutionary process implied by Taylor. Culture encompasses not only the universal human attributes present in all individuals or social groups but also the unique qualities and customs specific to particular social groups.
In conflict resolution, Both Avruch LeBaron, and Pillay contend that culture plays an important role in creating good international relations between different parties. A proper understanding of local cultures can solve conflicts arising from the scarcity of resources. Both authors agree that culture makes certain goals and behaviors in a conflict appear normal and legitimate when looked at from a particularistic point of view. Both authors concur in their arguments that culture increases the possibility of conflict arising. Avruch argues that idealism and realism create uniformity instead of differences attributed to cultural diversity. LeBaron and Pillay support Avruch’s arguments by suggesting that, culture identifies who ‘we’ are and who ‘they’ are thus aggravating conflicts.
Avruch argues that conflicts and struggles arise due to scarcity of resources, social status, or power and to help solve such conflicts, understanding the cultural perceptions and beliefs that led to the conflict is important. LeBaron and Pillay on the other hand argue that conflicts come up when people realize that they are culturally different and independent of each other; not scarcity of resources as many would think. Moreover, culture is responsible for past, present and future conflicts between different cultural groups and cultural conflicts are aggravated by failure to communicate. Avruch, on the other hand, believes that any cultural conflict is not entirely due to misunderstanding or miscommunication but rather attributes cultural conflicts to “socially constructed and politically motivated ethnic difference” (29).
In conflict resolution, Avruch posits that a proper understanding of the causes of a cultural conflict and the role of culture in the conflict is useful in determining what theories or concepts to be applied. He identifies two concepts for conflict resolution, which include; the use of strategies such as negotiation or judgment from a third party as opposed to fighting and coercion of the parties involved to avoid war. However, he holds that getting to the root cause of cultural conflicts will help in conflict resolution as opposed to the strategies. LeBaron and Pillay propose that effective intercultural conflict resolution must address the material, symbolic and relational aspects of a conflict (137).
Avruch argues against the theories by Zartman, Cohen and Burton, which emphasize the importance of culture in negotiation; that culture affects negotiation. Avruch contends that culture does not matter in negotiations because of power influence (42). He proposes that a good understanding of culture will help to understand the influence that power has on negotiations. On the other hand, LeBaron and Pillay believe that an intercultural interaction through creative engagement helps in understanding the traditions, cultures and other aspects of a conflict that is important in conflict resolution.
John is a salesperson who regularly buys electronic equipment from my company but sometimes, as I later found out, he buys from my competitor who deals with the same equipment. He provides orders to my company that we then supply to the customers. Recently my company introduced a new model of the same equipment to the market and enlisted John as one of my trusted marketers. I later found out that John was advertising the new model as a product of my competitor on his website. When I asked him, he claimed that the other company had plans of releasing the same model soon and believed it is acceptable to use our model despite my disagreements on the same; consequently, I decided to cut short his advertisements since he could not heed my advice.
The interpersonal conflict exemplified above shows that the material level or the ‘what’ of the conflict includes the electronic products and equipment that I had entrusted John to market on behalf of my company. To stay ahead of my competitor’s innovation is very critical in maintaining my competitive advantage and thus John’s actions inevitably caused the conflict. Additionally, profits and increased revenue are also a material dimension of this conflict. In order to claim a large share of the market niche, intense advertisement and promotional activities help to promote sales and increase profitability, which is the major objective of my business just like any other business entity. The other material aspect of this conflict is the customers or the market; the struggle to gain market dominance between my company and the competition attracted all manner of advertising including online advertising.
The symbolic dimension of the conflict implies the meaning or identity attached to material things and they shape the way one perceives a situation. In this interpersonal conflict, my company attaches so much significance to innovations in order to stay ahead in competition circles. The new model of the electronic device was meant to be a unique product only manufactured by my company hence my frustrations upon learning that our brand product was advertised as being produced by my competitor. In order to expand our customer base, the company heavily relies on loyal and persuasive salespersons. Moreover, the company values a good relationship with the salespeople as a link with the customers and my relationship with John was created on mutual trust, which was violated when he infringed this trust by marketing my product as my competitor’s.
The relational dimension of a conflict underscores the way the conflict plays out. It also involves communication to enable parties involved to understand their interdependence on each other in the resolution of the conflict emphasizing the need for relationship building as a way to conflict resolution. In this interpersonal conflict, John’s actions led to a communication breakdown and a loss of trust in him. On considering the value of my customers to the business prosperity of the company, I decided to terminate any business dealings with him since I could trust him no more. To resolve this conflict, efforts to enhance effective interpersonal communication will help promote understanding of the value attached to the innovation. In addition, necessary steps to enhance understanding of other people’s beliefs and opinions like John’s belief that selling our brand under the name of our competitor was not wrong could make a big difference.
A conflict arose in a recent Hollywood movie production involving the Japanese actors and their US partners. The movie was acted in Japan and closely woven Japanese mats popularly known as titami mats were used (Steinberg 41). The American actors were requested to remove their shoes when stepping on the mats due to the high cultural significance attached to such actions; however, the Americans insisted on having their shoes on. This affected the relationships between the partners involved in the production leading to intercultural conflicts.
Flexibility entails “not making a premature judgment but rather finding ways to understand others better” (LeBaron 32). In this particular conflict, the Americans should have taken time to understand the cultural significance of the titami mats to the Japanese culture instead of ignoring the earnest requests from their Japanese counterparts. In addition, flexibility involves welcoming unexpected situations and in this conflict, the American actors should have welcomed the unexpected scenario pertaining to Japanese culture and changed their perceptions.
Creative engagement promotes interpersonal relationships between parties involved in a conflict. Creative engagement through storytelling, metaphors and rituals fosters good interpersonal relationships and promotes understanding of the other party’s culture better. Perhaps, the cultural significance attached to titami mats could be analogous to the same significance attached to the US flag. Therefore, creative engagement allows for developing unbiased opinions and respect for different cultures.
Momentum gives the driving force to forge forward in conflict resolution even in the face of obstacles. I would advise the American actors to express their uncertainty over the use of the titami mats and ask for guidance from their Japanese counterparts. In addition, pausing for some time in conflict resolution allows time to reflect on the cause of disagreement and easily reach an agreement.
The advisory map for conflict resolution provides a guide for conflict resolution efforts. In the conflict involving the Japanese and the Americans, the advisory maps would help to understand the origin of the conflict and work a way out of to achieve a resolution. Advisory maps also will help the production partners from different cultures to learn from each other. I would recommend educative and constructive dialogue between the two parties to achieve an amicable solution whereby both parties will learn to understand and appreciate each other’s cultures.
Avruch, Kevin. Culture and Conflict Resolution. Washington, DC: United States Institute Of Peace Press, 1998.
LeBaron, Michele, and Pillay, Venashri. Conflict across Cultures: A unique Experience Of Bridging Differences. London: Inter-Cultural Press, 2006.
LeBaron, Michele. Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approach for a Changing World. New York: John Wiley &Sons, 2003.
Steinberg, Shirley. Diversity and Multiculturalism. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Inc, 2009.