Here’s another speculation: a few blogs ago I referred to the work of Richard Nisbett, The Geography of Thought, and others in considering the differences in perceptions that can be broadly and empirically identified between West and East. Nisbett’s work clearly indicates that we do not share the same cognitive or perceptual worlds, even though we may be ‘wired’ in the same ways. The point made by Nisbett is that there are not merely patterns of communication reflecting cultural differences: they are indications of diversities in patterns of cognition. This too goes to the point that Trompenaars makes, that the core of cultural life, typically the unseen, relatively inaccessible core, is that part that allows us to make sense of our worlds. As Nisbett says, the implications of these distinctions is that:
“members of different cultures differ in their ‘metaphysics’, or fundamental beliefs about the nature of the world . . . [and that] the characteristic thought processes of different groups differ greatly . . . [and that] the thought processes are of a piece with beliefs about the nature of the world.” [xvii]
The question is this:
“If people really do differ profoundly in their systems of thought – their worldviews and cognitive processes – then differences in people’s attitudes and beliefs, and even their values and preferences, might not be a matter merely of different inputs and teachings, but rather an inevitable consequence of using different tools to understand the world.” [xvii]
The consequence of all of this is that it allows us to draw some broad conclusions about likely cognitive and perceptual differences between Easterners and Westerners including:
- Attention to relationships or to objects [44-45];
- Belief in the controllability of the environment, or not [in which I’d include assumptions about the capacity – or even the ‘right’ to create rules and principles for one’s own world – as in mediation];
- Assumptions about stability or change;
- Inclination to seek a ‘Middle Way’ to deal with contradictions or to insist on the [logical] correctness of one view or another.
- Process – how the structure of mediation is designed
- To facilitate different expectations of participation; and
- To facilitate a certain structure of thought and “problem solving”; and
- Norms, principles: how mediation is designed or used to either
- Encourage parties to create their own norms (even if “in the shadow of the law”); or
- Allow parties to recognise existing and applicable social norms
Further, Nisbett breaks down these distinctions (between relatively dependent and relatively independent societies) along 4 broad lines:
- Insistence on freedom of individual action vs. a preference for collective action.
- Desire for individual distinctiveness vs. a preference for blending harmoniously with the group.
- A preference for egalitarianism and achieved status vs. acceptance of hierarchy and ascribed status.
- A belief that the rules governing proper behaviour should be universal vs. a preference for particularistic approaches that take into account the context and the nature of the relationships involved.” [61-62 – his bullet points]
What seems then to be the core of this is the difference between dependent and independent values, and the cognitive expression of those values.
Nisbett carries his analysis over into a discussion of styles of conflict and negotiation [73ff], noting
- A greater Western willingness to hold and defend opinions; and
- A lesser degree of argumentation in Asian life (and avoidance of ‘lively discussion’ that might challenge group harmony);
- Attention to ‘fairness’ in the West, in the equal application of public rules; or to ‘harmony’ and animosity reduction – especially as the desired role of any arbiter;
- The Western style of negotiation – with individual as ‘agent’ – as grounded in the belief that the individual can manipulate the environment for his own ends [citing Mushakoji Kinhide, “The cultural premises of Japanese diplomacy,” in J C f. I Exchange (ed) The Silent Power: Japan’s Identity and World Role, (Tokyo, Simul Press, 1976)] – based on a process and logic of setting out one’s objectives, developing a plan, and acting on that plan; and noting that such a plan and process do not depend on relationships, it’s results that count. [Kinhide, 45-46].
- Negotiations might then – for Western participants – be instrumental, ideally brief, practical. But the Japanese style, by contrast, assumes that the individual adjusts him/herself to the environment; relationships (and negotiations) are never one-off; relationships are preserved for the long run; either/or choices are to be avoided. (Nisbett, 76).
- Equally, ideas and issues are more likely to be compartmentalised, fragmented, ranked, for the Western negotiator; and more likely to be seen as intertwined, complex, subjective, for the Asian negotiator.
There’s one other factor I’d now add which might influence the different ways in which parties will approach dispute resolution and the moral priorities in determining outcomes: Jonathan Haidt and colleagues have been doing fascinating work on the psychology of moral judgment and particularly on the degree to which our moral intuitions guide our judgments. See: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind.html
More specifically – and here’s the culture and mediation link – he notes that there are five ‘foundational’ moral values:
- avoidance of harm, concern for care of others;
- fairness, justice, reciprocity;
- community, in-group loyalty;
- hierarchy and authority; respect;
- purity, sanctity; faith & sacramental virtues
– and he notes that self-described ‘liberals’ are likely to give weight to the first two values, and to regard the other three as not relevant to morality; and ‘conservatives’ tend to adopt a ‘five factor’ morality, incorporating all of those factors. This distinction apparently applies across cultures.
So far so good. But the questions I raise are these:
- even given the relative consistency of differences between liberals and conservatives, whether in Western or Asian nations, is it more likely that there will be a higher proportion of ‘conservatives’ in Asian societies; and
- if that’s the case, how do we adjust mediation practice – if at all – to accommodate the more complex priorities that go beyond the avoidance of harm and pursuit of fairness values, and include preferences for loyalty, authority and sacramental values;
- are the ‘conventions’ of mediation, especially those of autonomy, agency, choice, interest-based preferences, and the questions of qualifications raised in my last posting, more geared to the ‘two factor’ value set of the liberal world?
- are the ‘conservative’ societies more likely to be the high-context ones :
“Low-context cultures prefer to separate the conflict issue from the person, but high-context cultures view the problem issue and the problem person as interrelated. So while the one perspective seeks to manage the conflict from an instrumental, solution-oriented, impersonal stance, the other sees the affective, relational, personal issues as indivisible, so open conflict is best avoided at all costs. Thus the low-context cultures tend to view the world in analytic, linear, logical terms, that allow them to be hard on problems but soft on people, focused on instrumental outcomes but easy on affective issues; while high-context cultures perceive the world in synthetic, spiral logic that links the conflict event and its impact, issues, actors, content, and context.”
David W. Augsburger, Conflict Mediation Across Cultures: Pathways and Patterns, Louisville, KY; Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), p.91