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European Journal of Applied Linguistics

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Editor-in-Chief: Bührig, Kristin / ten Thije, Jan D.

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Does conflict mediation research keep track with cultural theory?

A theory-based qualitative content analysis on concepts of culture in conflict management research

Dominic BuschORCID iD: http://orcid.org/0000-0002-6184-0236
Published Online: 2016-07-07 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/eujal-2015-0037


This article provides a theory-based qualitative content analysis and a diachronic perspective on how conflict management research with a particular consideration of conflict mediation as an informal management tool has conceived the influence of culture on its field of practice. Results show that authors tend to choose notions of culture for their analysis that confirm their previous assumptions on the setting. Consequently, the pre-existing notions of intercultural mediation are rarely questioned or analyzed with a focus on their limitations. It may be followed that articles over time have been designed in a more and more multifaceted way considering how they conceive culture. Regardless of the method applied, there is a strong preference for mediators’ actions versus reserved and cultural relativist attitudes that may stem from intercultural research. This growing action orientation can be seen in stark contrast to the simultaneous increase in sensitivity for the relativity of cultures. Here, it may be interpreted, that mediation research choses those approaches that design cultural conflicts as manageable cases. Theory on conflict mediation thus hides a blind spot ignoring and denying the potential case of a conflict that cannot be addressed properly.


Der Beitrag enthält eine qualitative Metastudie und einen diachronen Blick darauf, wie wissenschaftliche Arbeiten zur Konfliktbearbeitung unter besonderer Berücksichtigung von Konfliktmediation als einem vergleichsweise informellen Instrument den Einfluss und die Rolle von Kultur und Interkulturalität auf das Praxisfeld konzipieren. Die Ergebnisse zeigen, dass Autoren dazu tendieren, ihren Studien diejenigen Kulturverständnisse zugrunde zu legen, die bereits vorab ihre Vorannahmen über die Beschaffenheit interkultureller Konfliktbearbeitung und Mediation bestätigen. Entsprechend werden bestehende Verständnisse interkultureller Mediation konsolidiert und nicht grundsätzlich hinterfragt, respektive auf ihre Grenzen hin untersucht. Im Zeitverlauf haben Studien zur interkulturellen Konfliktbearbeitung zunehmend die vielfältige Facettenhaftigkeit möglicher Einflüsse von Kultur auf die Konfliktbearbeitung berücksichtigt. Ungeachtet dessen ist eine Präferenz für handlungsorientierte Ansätze gegenüber kulturrelativistischen Bedenken aus der Forschung zur interkulturellen Kommunikation erkennbar. Diese zunehmende Handlungsorientierung steht im Gegensatz zu dem gleichzeitig zunehmenden Bewusstsein für kulturelle Differenz in der Literatur. Forschungsarbeiten zur interkulturellen Mediation tendieren hier zu einer strategischen Präferenz für Kulturverständnisse, aus deren Sicht interkulturelle Konflikte als grundsätzlich handhabbare Fälle erscheinen.


La presente contribución contiene un análisis de contenido cualitativo y una visión diacrónica de cómo conciben los trabajos científicos sobre la resolución de conflictos (con especial atención a la mediación de conflictos) la influencia y el papel de la cultura y de la interculturalidad en el campo práctico. Los resultados demuestran que en sus estudios los autores tienden a basarse en aquellas concepciones de la cultura que confirman ya de antemano sus presupuestos sobre la naturaleza de la resolución intercultural de los conflictos y de la mediación social. De esta manera, se consolidan las concepciones ya existentes de la mediación intercultural en un principio sin ser analizadas ni examinadas en cuanto a sus límites. Con el paso del tiempo, han ido en aumento los estudios sobre la resolución de conflictos en los que se toma en consideración la gran diversidad de posibles influjos de la cultura en el tratamiento de conflictos. No obstante, se percibe una preferencia por los enfoques orientados a la acción frente a las dudas “relativistas culturales” en relación a la comunicación intercultural surgidas a raíz de la investigación. Esta creciente orientación a la acción contrasta al mismo tiempo con la creciente consciencia sobre las diferencias culturales en literatura. Otras investigaciones sobre la mediación intercultural tienden hacia una preferencia de tipo estratégico a favor de la comprensión cultural, desde cuya perspectiva los conflictos interculturales parecen manejables.

Keywords: qualitative content analysis; conflict management; culture; ethnocentrism; intercultural mediation

Schlüsselwörter: qualitative Inhaltsanalyse; Konfliktbearbeitung; Kultur; Ethnozentrismus; interkulturelle Mediation

Palabras clave: meta-estudio; resolución de conflictos; cultura; etnocentrismo; mediación intercultural

1 Introduction

Conflict mediation in this article is seen as a conversation-based tool for the constructive management of interpersonal disputes. A structural characteristic to mediation conversations can be seen in the fact that a third person – normally in face-to-face interaction – chairs the dispute resolution process between two or more (normally single person) conflict parties. Since the tool having been developed from the U.S. based movement on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is generally considered as a more flexible alternative to court-based conflict management, it frequently has been regarded as particularly suited for the management of disputes in intercultural settings over the past three decades. This article will term a scenario as intercultural if either the researcher or at least one of the participants to a mediation assume that the participants have different cultural backgrounds or that the conflict itself may result from cultural differences. Although some authors from time to time warn their readers of too straightforwardly applying tools from Western (cultural) backgrounds onto Non-Western contexts (e.g. Honeyman & Cheldelin 2002. 365), the impact of theorizing culture on the practice field of conflict mediation seems to be highly underestimated, still. The growing palette of different cultural models produces very different and divergent estimations on how culture may influence conflict management processes. The variety of models results in a very wide bandwidth of evaluations of individuals’ scopes of action: How far are people limited or constrained by cultural determinations, prescriptions or sanctions? And conversely, how far are individuals able to redesign, ignore, modify, upgrade or downplay the role and the impact of culture on a given situation? Although there is a debate in conflict mediation research on the impact of culture onto the field of practice, a systematics clearly focusing on this highly influential interplay is still outstanding.

This article provides a first exploratory study on conceptions of cultural influences on conflict mediation practice. As a preliminary first step to initiate further in-depth research, this article introduces theory-based qualitative content analysis as an empirically based research method to evaluate categories that are pre-existing from theory when found in empirical data (here: in intercultural communication and conflict management research literature). To this aim, the article will first elaborate on the problem of academic notions of culture and their relevance for social interaction, considering mediation interaction in particular. This article will then work on the question of how the emergence and the appearance of culture and cultural influences in social interaction can be identified by analysis. Existing approaches will be put into a systematics that will help evaluating the action relevance of the notions of culture. This systematics on culture will then be complemented by a scheme of different conceptions of cross-cultural and intercultural mediation that can be found in literature.

While both adjectives ‘cross-cultural’ and ‘intercultural’ can be found as attributions to conflict mediation., clear and distinctive definitions of these terms can hardly be found in the sample. The article at hand will thus accept the two terms as givens from the sample, and it will use the notion of intercultural mediation in its own formulations, exclusively. With regard to the different usage of cross-cultural and intercultural mediation within the sample, it may be tempting to even include these adjectives as indicators in this study’s coding scheme, but since authors from the sample do hardly elaborate on these terms, their mere mention seems too vague as to take them as indicators.

2 Previous evaluations of culture’s quantitative and qualitative influence on social interaction

Mediation research so far has produced quite a few systematic models giving insights into different concepts of seeing culture’s influence on mediation. As early as in 1998, Väyrynen (1998. 62) complained that the interrelations between definitions of culture from theory and conflict management practice in intercultural settings have too much been neglected. A few years later, Marsella (2005. 652) still sees a need for a more systematic consideration of the diversity of cultural theories on conflict resolution research and practice. Even later again, Seibt (2011. 231–236) sums up that conflict research to date has not developed any research methods that helped to systematically consider influences of culture on conflict. And quite recently, Seibt and Garsdal approach the challenge on a superordinate level discussing the question of how global dialogue can be made possible, thus considering not only the micro-level interpersonal perspective of conflict mediation but also any wider level of social discourse. Although some factual conflicts may be “irreconcilable” (Seibt & Garsdal 2015. XXII), the authors argue for the culture-universalist assumption that at least a global dialogue (on these conflicts) will always be possible (and necessary). Denying this option from a culture-relativist position instead seems to be nothing but “cynical” (Seibt & Garsdal 2015. IX). Still, even at that date, the authors warn that efforts of giving more precise definitions on core concepts, e.g. on what intercultural conflict is supposed to be at all, are still neglected and avoided (Seibt & Garsdal 2015. IX).

From a researcher’s perspective, Druckman (2015) points at the fact that a study’s methodological approach to empirical data will highly affect its outcomes as well as the interpretation of these outcomes. Druckman as an example mentions the categories of quantitative vs. qualitative approaches, positivist vs. constructivist assumptions, as well as etic vs. emic research perspectives (Druckman 2015. 143–144). Some earlier authors provide partial insights into some qualitative aspects of the (underestimated) theory-outcome mechanism in conflict management research: Avruch (2003. 355) emphasizes on the relevance of the existence of essentialist vs. constructivist notions of culture for mediation practice: Are there real cultural differences causing a conflict escalation, or do conflict parties make use of culturalist arguments just to underline their positions?

Goldberg (2009. 406–407) clarifies that authors locate the impact of culture at different positions within a mediation process: Many mediation practitioners like for example Lederach (1995) see cultural influences rooted in the theoretical mediation models. Anthropologists like Avruch (1998) instead focus on culture’s influence on actual mediation practice. Besides from this, LeBaron, McCandless, and Garon (1998) assume that cultures affect forms and manifestations of conflict as such. The latter authors in their literature review on culture and mediation take a diachronic perspective tracing developments in intercultural mediation research since LeBaron Duryea’s (1992) first review. Accordingly, mediation research has continuously adopted new tendencies from cultural theory. Earlier studies on the topic had taken the existence of different cultures for granted, (LeBaron, McCandless & Garon 1998. 1), whereas later on, LeBaron et al. notify a constructivist turn in intercultural mediation research that before had emerged in general cultural research, already. Accordingly, fields of application for cultural research like for example conflict mediation find themselves at a crossroads between culture-relativist vs. universalist interpretations of given conflict settings.

To approach the question of the suitability of a given form of mediation in a given cross-cultural setting, researchers and mediators will need to apply models and concepts of culture that focus on the real relevance of culture for action in a given situation. In other words, general knowledge on potential effects of culture on social interaction will not help answering the question of whether this effect really emerges in a given single situation. Many of the above mentioned models do not critically consider this question of actual effects of culture and instead, they offer pre-fabricated models. To avoid this dilemma, models on culture in conflict mediation will need to reveal the interactants’ own evaluations of cultural influences on their setting.

3 A systematics of research perspectives on culture considering its relevance for interaction

Busch (2012. 17) has presented a selection of criteria that all produce immediate answers to the question of how far and in what (qualitative) ways culture determines individuals’ scopes to choose their actions from. Although the resulting “synoptic model of theoretical concepts of the influence of culture on social interaction” (Busch 2012, 17) has not yet been empirically tested, its systematic description of the quantitative and qualitative influence of culture on social interaction – as it is assumed by different theories – makes the model a helpful basis for a first exploration of the challenges for the applied field of intercultural conflict mediation.

In a first dimension, Busch’s model conforms to Väyrynen’s and Avruch’s previous claims distinguishing between essentialist (Busch 2012 writes: primordialist) and constructivist notions of culture. Empirical manifestations of this category in social life have recently been reported by Schraml (2014) who had traced back the distinction to Anderson (1991 [1983])’s notion of imagined communities. A second dimension distinguishes between approaches conceiving cultures as sets of specific knowledge vs. approaches taking culture as a set of values. Seeing cultures as knowledge supports concepts that take cultures as deeply internalized worldviews (Goldberg 2009) that can hardly be considered or changed by individuals in a given situation. Seeing cultures as values instead suggests that individuals will base their actual decisions for action on moral (value-based) evaluations taking the given situation under consideration. A third dimension distinguishes between etic vs. emic research perspectives: Authors taking an etic approach to culture will describe cultures according to given categories that themselves do not originate from one given culture but instead support cross-cultural comparison. As a result, these pre-fabricated approaches are less open to precise and individual analyses of given situations. Authors taking an emic approach instead will try to describe one single cultural setting using a culture’s own and internal terminology and at the same time allowing for a more precise and situation-focused picture. The etic/emic dimension takes a similar approach as Lederach’s (1995) distinction between prescriptive and elicitive concepts of conflict mediation. However, while Lederach applies his scheme to the genesis of mediation practice, the etic/emic distinction relates to researchers’ observational perspectives to the world.

4 A systematics of conceptions of intercultural mediation in current research

The model presented in the previous chapter has focused on the role of culture within mediation, taking the basic principles of mediation as more or less untouched. In this chapter, that model will be complemented by another one questioning the concept of mediation in intercultural settings at its center. This complementary perspective needs to be discussed to finally be able to delimit the (theory-based) research construct of intercultural mediation: Actually, at first place it will have to be asked what phenomena are considered as intercultural mediation, and only then, these phenomena can be checked on what role culture is supposed to play in these settings.

A very detailed and precise model on what variations of intercultural mediation may look like has been presented by Herrmann, Hollett and Gale (2006) although its numerous categories seem to be assembled in a deliberate way. Emphasizing more precisely on different ways of relating mediation to culture, LeBaron, McCandless and Garon (1998. 8) present four categories distinguishing between works on “1) dispute resolution procedures addressing racial conflict; 2) ethnic differences in conflict and conflict resolution, and the appropriateness of various approaches for managing ethnic conflict; 3) approaches for fostering cultural sensitivity and for building culturally sensitive approaches to training and education; and 4) examinations of mediation’s potential and policies according to who is served and how” (LeBaron, McCandless & Garon 1998. 8).

While these categories primarily center on different outcomes that a mediation may produce in intercultural settings, Heinemann and Zurth (2013) present an alternative systematics relating different forms directly to different conceptions of culture. The authors provide six definitions of what the term intercultural mediation may mean:

  • 1.

    “Intercultural mediation” means that participants to a mediation originate from different (national) cultures.

  • 2.

    “Intercultural mediation” means that a mediator originates from another culture than do his clients.

  • 3.

    “Intercultural mediation” deals with conflicts arising from cultural differences.

  • 4.

    “Intercultural mediation” embraces any ways of triadic conflict management beyond jurisdiction that do not recur to the Western model of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

  • 5.

    “Intercultural mediation” includes any attempts of applying forms of ADR to intercultural settings.

  • 6.

    “Intercultural mediation“ means that forms of ADR are applied to Non-Western cultural contexts.

Busch’s model on different theory-based concepts of culture affecting mediation as well as Heinemann and Zurth’s list of forms that all may be considered as intercultural mediation will be taken as a template for the planned empirical analysis of scientific studies on mediation and culture in this article.

5 Hypotheses

H1: An increase in theory of individual’s expected scope of action in intercultural situations: Since cultural theory has more and more turned towards constructivist approaches and to conceding individuals a wider scope of opportunities to actively and deliberately engage in processes of intercultural understanding, it is expected that this tendency will have been adopted in intercultural conflict mediation research, as well. Even more, the overall proportion of approaches promoting a constructivist cultures-as-values view from an emic perspective may be expected to be growing.

H2: A wider variety of cultural models applied to conflict mediation research: Generally, the advancement of cultural theory leads to an increase in the number of cultural models available for application to conflict mediation research. Given this growth, it may be expected that the number of different cultural models that can be found in research on intercultural conflict mediation will be increasing as well, and that there will be an even distribution of these models.

H3: A more precise description of the limitations of intercultural conflict mediation: Advances in cultural theory may result in an increase of complexity when conceiving the interplay between culture and mediation. As a consequence, it may thus be concluded that doing intercultural conflict mediation is a challenge that will need to be understood as being more and more complex, too. Considering this challenge, it also may be expected that concepts of intercultural conflict mediation will increasingly focus on the limitations of given approaches in practice.

6 Empirical research design

6.1 Towards a coding strategy

The empirical validity of the mentioned theory-based categories needs some critical discussion, and previous research on this behalf is rather scarce. However, this study in its center does not primarily focus on this validity but it wants to examine relations between fields of practice and their forms of using these theories. Still, this chapter will start with developing an empirical method, and it will then relate to some of the limitations resulting from this theory-based approach.

The point of departure for the study at hand may be described as follows: What is needed is an evaluation of academic publications according to the given research questions and hypotheses. To this aim, categories from prior theorizing and research have been identified as helpful. In other words, categories relevant to the research question are existing prior to the study at hand, and they may be applied to the sample in a deductive way. Still, the given categories will hardly emerge from a positivist reading of the data. Instead, assigning the data to the categories will require a coding process based on the researcher’s interpretation of the data. Furthermore, coding cannot be done on the basis of single words or phrases but instead will have to be done on the basis of interpreting longer passages of text, of taking several different passages of text within a study into account and comparing them, as well as even on the basis of interpreting an article’s overall composition, structure, and tone.

These initial requirements resulting from the research question and the nature of the sample create a precise research setting for the particular needs for which theory-based qualitative content analysis has been developed as a coding tool. To start with, according to Schreier (2014. 170), most studies using content analysis traditionally rely on quantitative tools. Opening up research perspectives beyond the mere positivist quantitative approach, Schreier reports that within the field of content analysis, over several decades, some conscience has emerged for the fact that not all aspects of meaning will openly appear and display in a given text, and that the quantitative frequency of an item occurring in the data does not automatically give an adequate picture of its importance and relevance for the research question. Instead, some research questions will require authors to interpret “the characteristics of language as communication with attention to the content or contextual meaning of the text [...]” (Hsieh & Shannon 2005. 1278). While today, Schreier (2014. 171) nominates Kracauer (1952) as a central founder of qualitative content analysis, the method until today excels in its aim at reducing data complexity and producing limited sets of categories – in contrast to other interpretive tools, e.g. Glaser and Strauss’ (1967) grounded theory paradigm.

Here again, applied fields like for example studies on health communication show the highest interest in theory-based approaches to analysis (e.g. Hsieh & Shannon 2005; Elo & Kyngäs 2007; Francis et al. 2010; Farquharson, Johnston & Brugge 2011). While some authors, like e.g. Francis et al. (2010) are speaking of a theory-based approach, others, like e.g. Hsieh and Shannon (2005) term it a directed analysis or a deductive approach (Elo & Kyngäs 2007). Compared to traditional, inductive quantitative analyses, theory-based approaches are able to highlight aspects in the data that would not be noticed by their quantitative emergence but that are still highly relevant to the research question (Francis et al. 2010). However, theory-based approaches may hide some challenges, as well: They may cause a strong interpreter bias in that interpreters may feel invited to predominantly see indicators in the data that will either strongly confirm or speak against their existing categories and coding schemes. As a consequence, the relevance of the pre-existing theories to the data sample may be over-emphasized and instead, more relevant categories as well as contextual aspects run the risk of being neglected (Hsieh & Shannon 2005. 1283). Directed approaches may even happen to challenge the validity of their pre-defined theories, and thus, deductive approaches may also be suitable for testing the validity of inductive results (Elo & Kyngäs 2007. 111).

6.2 Previous research on coding the given theory

6.2.1 Previous codings of the essentialist-constructivist dimension

Gunduz and Hursen (2015) present a theory-based content analysis of written academic research on classroom teaching. The authors distinguish between essentialist and constructivist notions of learning underlying the research articles, but they do not disclose their coding techniques and they do not give any examples, neither. While research on the essentialist-constructivist distinction in written research texts is scarce, a few more studies can be found on essentialist vs. constructivist orientations of the worldviews of individuals. Here, many studies do not equally focus on all aspects of essentialism vs. constructivism as a bipolar dimension. Instead, many of them concentrate on the assumption that individuals’ essentialist notions impede intercultural understanding and that they may stimulate (culture-motivated) conflicts, instead (No et al. 2008; Gregory et al. 2010; Schraml 2014; Dervin & Machart 2015; Goode & Stroup 2015).

Gregory et al. (2010) present a qualitative theory-based enquiry on essentialist vs. constructivist understandings of culture among nursing students. The researchers had the students write narratives on their experience of the character and the role of culture. For the code of an “essentialist paradigm”, the authors identified the indicators of “determinism (culture is a static, definitive blueprint for human behavior), relativism (critical judgement of another’s culture is morally impossible), othering (culture is situated outside the ‘normal’ standpoint, i.e. White, middle class, Canadian)” and “reductionism (individuals are merely manifestations of culture)”. The following indicators were identified for the code “constructivist paradigm”: “influence (culture is shaping, but not deterministic), dynamism (culture is constantly changing and evolving), relationship-building (cultural understanding is achieved through human interaction)” (Gregory et al. 2015. 5). Beyond this, the authors do not document the complete or full coding process of their study. Instead, they give example quotations of their test persons on each indicator. The indicator of determinism for example was seen in utterances like “culture defines me” or “my culture is unique; it defines who I am” (Gregory et al. 2010. 6). In contrast, the constructivist indicator of relationship-building was seen for example in the statement: “Being empathetic towards another individual’s culture and understanding the biases of one’s own culture can allow interactions between people of different cultures” (Gregory et al. 2010. 13).

Schraml (2014) contests the assumption that essentialist and constructivist viewpoints as characterizations of individuals’ worldviews can best be conceived as two opposite poles of a linear scale. Furthermore, she complains that instead of elaborating the constructivist category, many constructivist works on culture do not go beyond proving essentialist approaches as wrong (Schraml 2014. 618).

6.2.2 Previous codings of the dimensions of cultures as knowledge vs. cultures as values

As mentioned above, the distinction between theory-based concepts of cultures as knowledge vs. cultures as values has hardly been an issue of contrastive discussion let alone empirical identification, yet. Applied studies in intercultural research today very often claim that cultures consist of both aspects of knowledge and aspects of values in the beginning, but then, these aspects are no longer distinguished or even equally considered when it comes to empirical analysis. The roots of the distinction had been identified in cultural-anthropological theorizing. Since the discipline here relies on empirical methods from ethnography, studies from the field generally do not strive for a more structured coding process.

6.2.3 Previous codings of the etic-emic dimension

Although neither carrying out an empirical study nor giving any examples, Brislin (1976) presents a guideline on how to identify etic vs. emic perspectives in research. In etic studies, items are used in a way that suggests that relations or comparabilities between two or more cultures are expected. In this case, Brislin writes that “interpretable statistical relationships [are] expected” (Brislin 1976. 220). This quote may indicate one of the core challenges of the discussion questioning the points at which emic categories end and etic categories will begin. In contrast to etic perspectives, authors following an emic perspective will argue in a way as that there are no relations expected between data from different cultures.

6.3 Exemplary documentation of the coding process

The previous discussion of the categories in theory has revealed multiple concerns about their internal validity. Categories arranged in linear polarities like the essentialist-constructivist dimension, the distinction between notions of culture as knowledge vs. cultures as values as well as etic vs. emic perspectives imply a strong internal heterogeneity of different manifestations and, consequently, of degree, too.

Correspondingly, it must be expected that a very detailed empirical content analysis will result in heterogeneities of indicators that will seriously question the legitimation of the superordinate theory-based categories. A too rigorous coding process may thus cause a dissolution of the initial categories. This hazard may be one reason for the fact that – as it has been shown above – only few studies have used the categories at hand as a basis for empirical analyses, yet. Similarly, a complete coding of the whole sample will again nourish the false assumption that the given categories can be evaluated by counting items in a positivist manner. Coding the sample and at the same time preserving the theory-based categories instead will require an overall interpretation of each single article as a whole.

The following lines will list some examples of indicators for each code that has been included into the analysis. Since the theory-based approach conceives all codes involved as the poles of linear dimensions, the identification of one code at the same time automatically implies the non-existence of indicators for the opposite code of a category. However, here the sample reveals many ambiguous cases: Very often, indicators for both codes of a bipolar category can be found in one and the same article. In this case, the researcher faces the challenge of interpreting an article’s overall tone and picture.

6.3.1 Category of essentialist vs. constructivist notions of culture

Exemplary indicators for the code of essentialist notions of culture:

  • authors give information on the context of their study referring to a region, its institutions and its history as facts,

  • authors describe aspects of a culture under analysis using formulations in indicative mode without considering their own interpretive roles and perspectives,

  • authors explain aspects of social behavior, especially conflict management, by relating to cultural habits.

Exemplary indicators for the code of constructivist notions of culture:

  • authors relate research results by quoting or referring to the answers given by research participants,

  • if essentialist descriptions of culture are presented, they are reported as the constructions of individual research participants

  • authors relate to change processes in cultural and social manifestations,

  • authors relate to strategic uses of conflict styles beyond cultural traditions,

  • authors focus on processes of construction of individuals’ worldviews,

  • authors report on aspects of how a group under analysis is seen from the perspective of other cultural/social groups.

6.3.2 Category of concepts of cultures as knowledge vs. cultures as values

Exemplary indicators for the code of cultures as knowledge:

  • authors report on their own or on interviewees’ notions of what is special about a given culture,

  • authors focus on their own or on interviewee’s attitudes and impressions,

  • authors relate to rituals, scripts, indigenous knowledge, traditional practices,

  • authors discuss different approaches to applying conflict management techniques to a given cultural setting, e.g. prescriptive vs. elicitive approaches,

Exemplary indicators for the code of cultures as values:

  • authors report on rules on the basis of which (cultural) practices in a research setting are carried out,

  • authors report on people’s evaluations of what should be done and what should not be done in a given research context,

  • authors relate to the influence of power and power imbalances on social settings as well as on conflict management practices.

6.3.3 Category of etic vs. emic research perspectives

Exemplary indicators for the code of etic research perspectives:

  • authors declare their field of research as non-Western,

  • authors compare their observations on conflict management to corresponding practices of conflict management or mediation in the Western world, esp. in the U.S.,

  • authors discuss the idea of transferring one (culture/context-based) conflict management technique to another culture/context.

Exemplary indicators for the code of emic research perspectives:

  • authors do not relate to other cultural settings of conflict management,

  • authors take up the terminologies used by a social or cultural group under analysis for their scientific description,

  • authors warn that comparing non-Western settings to Western forms of conflict mediation will prevent any detailed insights into a local setting that would be necessary to fully understand it.

6.4 Sample

According to Patton (2015), sampling of theory-based studies will necessarily be based on purposeful selections since the dimensions of a potential full population cannot be known, and a random sampling thus would not be helpful neither. As a consequence, it must be acknowledged that a chosen sample will to some degree tend to primarily confirm the initial theory (Patton 2015. 289).

The study in this article concentrates on contributions to the journal Conflict Resolution Quarterly (CRQ), since a first informal research had shown that this journal assembles a large part of the literature on international and intercultural conflict management and mediation in particular. The study at hand does not aim at covering as many relevant studies as possible but at analyzing a representative sample and thus, a concentration on works from one central journal seems useful. CRQ had been founded as Mediation Quarterly in 1983, and it has been published under its current name as Conflict Resolution Quarterly since late 2001. In February 2015, the journal’s full text online archive hosted by Wiley publishers held a total collection of 658 articles on the whole from Mediation Quarterly from 1983 to 2001, and 404 articles from CRQ from 2001 to 2015. Taking a first and tentative approach, this archive has been searched in full text for articles carrying both the terms “mediation” and “culture” for the period from 1996 to 2015 resulting in a sample of 201 articles. Comparing the scope of this sample to the full archive indicates as a first impression that mediation as well as culture do play a central role throughout the journal. However, this sample still seemed too large as to be put under qualitative analysis. Moreover, the mere co-occurrence of the terms of culture and mediation does not cater for an article to at least fit into one of the six categories by Heinemann and Zurth (2013). For better confining the sample to contributions that may produce insights into answers to this article’s research question, another full text search has been carried out on co-occurrences of the terms “intercultural” and “mediation” resulting in 37 hits.

To this sample, a small number of even older articles from CRQ has been added. These articles result from a less systematic search, so that the issues older than 1996 could not have been fully covered. A search on the combined phrase “intercultural mediation” has produced three hits of which although none has been relevant to the issue in its content. Another search on the combined phrase “cross-cultural mediation” has produced one hit that has not been included in the sample, neither (Baraldi & Iervese 2010).

A closer look at this sample shows that many articles actually do not focus on the interplay of culture and mediation but that they deal with these terms without connecting them or without centering their discussion on them. Other articles do fulfill the search criteria but mention the search items in their references only. Even more, the terms “mediation”, “to mediate” and “mediating” very often are used in a very general way that does no longer touch conflict mediation as an identifiable procedure. For example, Sochat (2003) relates to the (mediating) role of television on young people in Macedonia. Articles meeting the criteria above have not been included in the study.

The final sample for the study totals 72 articles.1 It also includes all articles from the two colloquy issues of CRQ on the topic edited by Seibt (2011) and Raines (2013). Additionally, to cover approaches to conflict from the side of intercultural research, contributions to a special issue from the International Journal of Intercultural Relations (IJIR) (Cushner 2005) have been considered.

7 Analysis and interpretation of the results

The sample has been coded according to the presented categories by means of completing an Excel spreadsheet (as has been done by Holt and DeVore 2005. 175). Presenting the results of the coding process, this section will immediately attempt to relate the results from different coding categories to each other. After that, some interpretive assumptions will be added attempting to shed some more light on potential answers to the initial research questions. At the beginning of this article, it has been assumed that different cultural theories will produce different outcomes to empirical studies on interaction in intercultural settings. Interpretations in this chapter will thus try to at least sketch on potential additional outcomes to a study if alternative notions of culture had been applied. However, it has to be kept in mind here, that these interpretations cannot be more than mere assumptions helping to open up future research perspectives. Real tests of effects of alternative notions of culture to a given study otherwise would require full repetitions of each single study under modified settings.

7.1 Proportions of emic vs. etic perspectives and essentialist vs. constructivist approaches

Emic vs. etic perspectives as well as essentialist vs. constructivist approaches are highly unequally distributed in the sample:

  • 33 articles show an etic-essentialist approach,

  • 8 articles show an emic-essentialist approach,

  • 11 articles show an etic-constructivist approach,

  • 10 articles show an emic-constructivist approach.

Four articles have been omitted from this categorization because they equally combine etic and emic perspectives. Another three articles have been omitted because although they cover international settings, they do not explicitly relate to culture. Thus, there is a strong preference for etic-essentialist approaches whilst all other categories more or less being equally represented.

7.2 Conceptions of intercultural mediation

This section picks up the systematics of six different types on conceiving the relationship of culture and mediation in practice that has been introduced above. The samples of articles from each of these categories will be analyzed separately in this section. These depictions do not focus on the actual numbers of articles from the four different approaches to culture dropping into the six categories of intercultural mediation. Instead, the analysis at hand wants to highlight the proportions of articles from the four approaches to culture falling into the six categories of mediation.

Chart 1 illustrates the proportions of articles using different definitions of intercultural mediation within the groupings of articles according to their underlying notion of culture. Sums of above 100% result from the fact that articles may cover more than one out of the six definitions of intercultural mediation at the same time. As an example, reading the outer left section of the lowermost bar in the diagram will produce the following information: 33 articles out of the full sample of 72 articles rely on etic-essentialist notions of culture. Two out of these 33 etic-essentialist articles (i.e. 6%) conceive the notion of intercultural mediation according to category no. 1: “Intercultural mediation” means that participants to a mediation originate from different (national) cultures.

The following sections will discuss and interpret the different proportions of notions of intercultural mediation within the different notions of culture found in the sample.

Proportion of articles using different definitions of intercultural mediation within the groupings of articles according to their underlying notion of culture. Sums of above 100% result from the fact that single articles may cover more than one out of the six definitions of intercultural mediation at the same time.
Chart 1

Proportion of articles using different definitions of intercultural mediation within the groupings of articles according to their underlying notion of culture. Sums of above 100% result from the fact that single articles may cover more than one out of the six definitions of intercultural mediation at the same time.

7.2.1 “Intercultural mediation” means that participants to a mediation originate from different (national) cultures.

As it has been illustrated in the example, Chart 1 shows that only 6% of those articles from the etic-essentialist category (2 out of 33 articles) conceive intercultural mediation as a mediation in which participants originate from different (national) cultures. Similar results can be found for the emic-constructivist category. In contrast, a relatively high proportion of articles from the etic-constructivist and from the emic-essentialist category support this understanding of intercultural mediation.

The following assumptions may be reasons for the fact that authors seeing intercultural mediation as a meet-up of people from different cultures prefer etic-constructivist and emic-essentialist notions of culture as a basis for their interpretations: If we assume that these authors are convinced of the adequacy of their understanding of intercultural mediation, they can take this concept for granted without doing any more research on that. Instead, they can open up their research perspectives beyond these trusted assumptions. Doing so, they can concentrate on the nature and the quality of culture’s impact on the situation. To these aims, emic-essentialist approaches can help seeing cultural aspects in greater detail. Etic-constructivist approaches may address given characteristics of cultures and focus on aspects of change and process. In other words: Authors combining understandings of intercultural mediation as meet-ups of people from different cultures with etic-constructivist and emic-essentialist notions of culture will gain some more insights, but they will also leave their basic assumptions (on intercultural mediation) unquestioned. From this point of view, it can be assumed that authors tend to choose their understanding of culture depending on what they conceive as intercultural mediation. Still, neglecting the two other categories of notions of culture may hide some missed opportunities: Etic-essentialist approaches here may shed some more light on the question if cultural patterns in a given situation really differ in a way that may lead to (intercultural) conflict. Additionally, and in contrast to this, emic-constructivist approaches may help questioning the (assumed) role and influence of culture on a given situation in general.

7.2.2 “Intercultural mediation” means that a mediator originates from another culture than do his clients.

Furthermore, Chart 1 shows that a moderate proportion from the etic-essentialist and from the emic-constructivist approaches see intercultural mediation as cases in which the mediator has a different cultural background from his clients. In contrast, there is no single study from the emic-essentialist perspective considering this concept. This distribution may be explained by the insight that this notion of intercultural mediation does not consider the quality of actual cultural differences as an open or relevant question. Starting from this point of view, the authors either turn to an etic-essentialist stance assuming to know about the character of cultural difference. Alternatively, they adopt a constructivist notion of culture leaving culture’s qualities open to the interactants.

Here too, the neglect of single categories may hide some missed opportunities: For example, emic-essentialist approaches here may better highlight the precise nature of cultural influences onto the mediation process. It may also open the question of whether culture plays a role in the given context at all.

7.2.3 “Intercultural mediation” deals with conflicts arising from cultural differences

Chart 1 indicates that almost only approaches basing on an emic-essentialist understanding of culture assume that conflicts themselves may arise from cultural differences: Here again, the concept of intercultural mediation pre-assumes that cultural influences do exist. On this basis, studies in this category focus on a precise description of interrelations between culture and conflict. Choosing an emic approach to culture here may help underline assumed incommensurabilities between (essentialist) cultures. The neglect of alternative understandings of culture again may include some missed opportunities: For example, a consideration of constructivist notions of culture may shed some more light onto the fact that culture’s influence on a given situation is subject to the interactants’ interpretation. In practice, it may thus open up more possibilities for active and responsible conflict management.

7.2.4 “Intercultural mediation” embraces any ways of triadic conflict management beyond jurisdiction that do not recur to the Western model of ADR

According to Chart 1, most articles coded with this category on mediation are based on the two essentialist categories on culture. This distribution may be explained by the fact this approach to mediation starts from the assumption that cultural differences do exist. Many of the studies in this field are interested in describing Non-Western forms of triadic conflict management to learn and to acquire potential new tools and options to be applied to Western mediation practice. Thus, these studies need not only to describe these foreign approaches but they will also need to relate them to Western forms of conflict mediation. However, studies promoting this notion of intercultural mediation frequently ignore constructivist approaches to culture that may confirm that cultural difference is produced in given contexts. A constructivist understanding may strongly question the assumed transferability of Non-Western approaches to Western contexts.

7.2.5 “Intercultural mediation” includes any attempts of applying forms of ADR to intercultural settings

Especially those studies using an essentialist approach to culture consider the export of ADR to other cultures as a relevant project. Here again, the underlying concept of intercultural mediation includes some pre-determined requirements on understandings of culture. Again, the given definition of mediation departs from an essentialist approach to culture. On this basis, studies in this field have a strong interest in describing culture’s influences.

In contrast to this, constructivist approaches are neglected here, although they may shed some light onto the question of whether particular cultural contexts can at all be foreseen. Constructivist approaches may thus put the applicability of mediation into a perspective. On the other hand, they may also open up additional ways of managing the construction of cultural differences and their impact on interaction.

7.2.6 “Intercultural mediation” means that forms of ADR are applied to Non-Western cultural contexts

This notion of intercultural mediation attracts the highest number of authors amongst the six notions under analysis in general. All understandings of culture are considered here, although etic-constructivist approaches slightly tend to be neglected. This neglect of etic-constructivist approaches to this understanding of culture may come as a surprise since it may best be suited to explore the limitations of this category of intercultural mediation more precisely. As a consequence, interventions by means of Western forms of ADR are designated as an unquestionable option.

This last example strikingly illustrates the relationship between notions of culture applied to research and concepts of intercultural mediation: As a general rule, it may be concluded that authors tend to choose those notions of culture for their analysis that confirm the assumptions that have already been made by their understandings of intercultural mediation prior to analysis. As a consequence, this tendency leads to another tendency confirming the pre-existing notions of intercultural mediation instead of seriously questioning them or shedding light onto their limitations.

7.3 Time series analyses

7.3.1 Essentialist/constructivist and etic/emic notions of culture over time

Chart 2 illustrates the appearance of articles on culture and mediation over time distinguishing between the four mentioned approaches to culture.

Appearance of essentialist/constructivist and etic/emic notions of culture over time.
Chart 2

Appearance of essentialist/constructivist and etic/emic notions of culture over time.

There is an overall increase for articles from all four categories of notions of culture. However, at least to some degree, this effect is boosted by the fact that a number of articles fits into more than one category, and thus, these articles have been counted more than once, here. This effect may ignite the following interpretation: It may be concluded that articles increasingly acknowledge the multiplicity of concepts of culture over time. Even more, the number of articles considering more than one concept of culture at a time is increasing, too.

While there is a steady increase in etic-essentialist articles, there is an even stronger increase in the fields of constructivist approaches since almost for the full first decade, constructivist contributions had been non-existent.

7.3.2 Cultures as knowledge vs cultures as values over time

Chart 3 illustrates the quantitative appearance of articles regarding culture as a form of knowledge vs culture as a set of values over time per year.

The understanding of cultures as knowledge vs. culture as values over time.
Chart 3

The understanding of cultures as knowledge vs. culture as values over time.

Again, this chart too shows that both approaches are on the increase. At any time, there is a larger proportion of articles seeing cultures as values than articles seeing cultures as knowledge. This preference for cultures as values may enlarge mediators’ options: Values can be negotiated whereas in-depth knowledge into a culture cannot. Here, it may be interpreted, that mediation research choses those approaches that design cultural conflicts as manageable cases.

7.4 Evaluation of the hypotheses

H1: The results confirm that studies approaching culture from an emic and a more constructivist perspective as well as studies conceiving cultures as values have increased in number over time. For the past 20 years in fact, this means that a certain focus on culture’s relevance for people’s actual action has emerged. However, this increase is paralleled by a quantitative increase of studies using all other approaches, too. From this perspective, it can be said that a certain consciousness for the dilemma has emerged. However, this consciousness has been accompanied by a continuation of the more traditional approaches, too.

H2: Since emic and constructivist studies do not seem to emerge in research on intercultural conflict mediation in the 1990s, it may be confirmed that the number and the variety of cultural models applied to mediation research has increased. However, there is no even quantitative distribution of these different cultural models. Instead, emic and constructivist cultural models remain underrepresented and neglected over the whole sample period. Even at the end of the sample period, etic-essentialist notions of culture clearly dominate the research field.

H3: As a consequence, an increasing number of emic-constructivist – and hereby: culture-relativist – approaches has not led to a stronger questioning of the overall applicability of mediation across cultures. Instead, the increase of various approaches to culture in theory has led to the perception of having a wider variety of tools available in practice. Instead of questioning the potential of the respective tools applied in total, the debate results in the conclusion that today, conflict managers have more and better tools to meet potential challenges.

8 Conclusion

This article has presented a theory-based qualitative content analysis on concepts relating culture and conflict in research on conflict mediation with a particular focus on articles to the Journal Conflict Resolution Quarterly from the past 20 years. This study primarily has revealed two parallel tendencies: Firstly, there is a growing awareness for the need for cautiously observing culture’s actual influences on a given and singular situation. This awareness does not belittle or constrain but even confirm the perceived central role of culture in mediation. As a consequence, more sophisticated models are developed to precisely identify the role of culture.

Secondly, in spite of these caveats, authors from both mediation research and practice continue to stick to the feasibility of mediation across cultures as a matter of course. This is primarily reached by authors strategically choosing those cultural models for their research settings that support their own previous assumptions on what practitioners in these given situations should do. Parallel to this, potential limitations of mediation across culture are more or less tabooed. In the field of political (or large group) conflict resolution, there is still an ongoing debate on the acceptability of (Western style) peacekeeping interventions, e.g. by means of mediation, on Non-Western contexts as long as impartiality is warranted (for a critical stance cf. Duffield 1997. 98) vs. mediation upon parties’ consent vs. refraining from intervention (as strongly criticized e.g. by Woodhouse 2000. 16) – a debate that can be traced back to the continuing challenge between culture-relativist and universalist evaluations of contexts in intercultural communication research (ten Thije 2016. 584). The field of interpersonal mediation (that has been the focus of the study at hand) however seems to largely ignore this debate by promoting changing notions of mediation superseding critical perspectives by diverse blind spots on a case-by-case basis.

It goes without saying that humans should feel the responsibility to ensure peaceful and constructive coexistence at any place and any time. Academic research in contrast depends on its abilities to check and to delineate challenges and limitations to a given concept. Thematizing limitations of intercultural mediation in theory does not automatically impose limitations for action in practice. Instead, identifying the limitations of given concepts may be a pre-condition for a search for tailor-made and new concepts facing the challenges found. Considering the results of this study, researchers as well as practitioners on intercultural mediation may widen their awareness of the fact that deciding for one out of a variety of cultural models may significantly determine their evaluations of given situations in intercultural conflict mediation practice. More precisely, researchers and practitioners may be wary of preferring cultural models that primarily ensure the feasibility of their practice approaches. To find a secure way avoiding these pitfalls and biases, researchers and practitioners may consider applying more than one cultural model to their research and practice cases. Following a multi-perspective approach (similar to Druckman’s [2015] recommendation of relying on a multi-method approach) as early as when deciding for a basic (cultural) theory may prevent theory biases.

Still, the study at hand yields some limitations: It builds upon a relatively small sample, and the theory-based foundation of its coding process to some degree pre-determines its results. As a consequence, future research may be done basing on larger samples of research. These future samples may also cover approaches from the field of intercultural communication research (the discipline frequently focusing on problematic person-to-person interaction) as well as approaches from political science (considering a macro-level of inter-societal conflict and its management). Furthermore, the deductive design of the content analysis may be complemented by an inductive approach focusing on how researchers and practitioners themselves interpret a given practice situation. Finally, the blind spot of generally taking culture’s influence (of whatever kind) on conflict mediation for granted may be investigated more thoroughly.


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    Special thanks also go to Susan Raines who has highlighted a large selection of relevant texts from CRQ to the author via e-mail on November 5, 2011. 

About the article

Published Online: 2016-07-07

Published in Print: 2016-09-01

Citation Information: European Journal of Applied Linguistics, Volume 4, Issue 2, Pages 181–206, ISSN (Online) 2192-953X, ISSN (Print) 2192-9521, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/eujal-2015-0037.

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