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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .

Culture and Conflict Resolution
Kevin Avruch

(Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1998)
172pp. Hb.: $29.95; ISBN 1-878379-83-6. Pb.: $14.95; ISBN 1-878379-82-8.

Following on a theme from his own work at ICAR during and after John Burton's tenure there, Kevin Avruch lays out a most convincing argument for the inclusion of culture as a primary element of the study of deep rooted communal conflicts. However, unlike many others who argue that cultural elements render 'universalistic' theories of conflict resolution impossible Avruch offers some hope for scholar-practitioners rather than the usual prophecies of doom, gloom and impotence.

In his opening discussion of the nature of culture, Avruch focuses upon cognitive anthropology and the definition of culture as derived through individual experience, "learned or created by individuals themselves or passed on to them socially by contemporaries or ancestors."(5) These are best represented through the use of cognitive schemata by which individuals in different cultures organize their generic referents.(38) In refuting critics of a cultural approach to conflict resolution, Avruch neatly turns assertions of generality regarding negotiating processes and diplomacy on their heads by pointing out the cultural assumptions of both the practices and their practitioners. This is especially true in his treatment of Realist assumption that power trumps everything, including culture. Avruch contends that this is not so because every use of power, from projection to perception are always part of a culturally constituted process of decision-making.(54) The final two sections of the book deal with the uses and difficulty of cultural analyses in conflict resolution. In framing the issue, Avruch admits that an entirely emic approach to conflict resolution runs the risk of sinking into a Post-Modern mire where the non-translatability of cultural signals leaves one stranded and unable to communicate or effect change. Likewise, the entirely etic approach is what Avruch has rightly criticized from the start as too broad to be realistically applied. Instead he proposes the skilful combination of the two wherein the etic approaches provide an admittedly rough 'first-cut' before the researcher delves into the situational context.

In analyzing conflict resolution in the problem-solving context, Avruch argues that despite some assertions to the contrary all of the major figures in this field utilize culturally sensitive methods in their intervention practice. However, he argues that cultural analysis needs to be made an explicit part of the problem-solving process with the intervenor being aware of the cultural schemata of the different parties and-as a part of the process-assisting them to gain insights into each other's schemas while providing a clear understanding of their own (98).

The last may provide the strongest argument not only for the inclusion of cultural analysis in conflict resolution processes, but for a reasonable way of incorporating both etic and emic examinations into conflict resolution theory and practice. Overall Avruch makes a good argument for culture's inclusion as an integral part of the field.

Landon E. Hancock,
George Mason University

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