This entry is really a question: what happens to cultural norms and practices in societies in transition? I don’t refer here to those societies facing post-conflict challenges of political and institutional transition: that is the serious concern of transitional justice. Rather, I’m interested in the status and self-description of societies which sit on the cusp between one normative world and the next. The most obvious candidate for this inquiry seems to me to be Singapore, because that’s where I’m based at the moment and it’s where the question arises in practice and conversations.
The examples that give rise to this question include:
- the students’ and media’s familiar insistence on the primacy of collective values, the care for the community, respect for elders etc AND the parallel recognition of the importance of competitive success, individual attainment of the standards required to climb the meritocratic ladder (and the failure of young ones to give up seats in the bus and train to the frail and the elderly, notwithstanding poster campaigns!);
- the recognition of this as a society that would conventionally sit in the camp where status is ascribed rather than acquired – yet there is the clear parallel existence of the importance of hierarchy AND and educational attainment;
- on that same point, ascribed status would seem to place emphasis on seniority, wisdom, experience – which remains the case in the ‘traditional’ aspects of these “cusp” worlds – but at the same time the world of status demonstrated through acquisition may have equal importance, not least if that status can be demonstrated through luxury branded goods (the Mont Blanc pen; the expensive car etc).
This question arises less as a matter of wondering about Singapore in particular and more as a question that relates to a large part of this Asian region where the blend of tradition and modernity and the transition between the two create powerful currents. Vietnam may well provide and even more useful example in this respect. The point is that the dimensions of cultural difference that we’re largely familiar with offered by Hofstede, Hall, Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner and others are important tools for thinking about the variables in cultural norms and perceptions. ButI’m not sure what we can say of the societies that espouse and claim to live by one set of norms but increasingly live by and celebrate a different set of norms.
If I link this notionally to the theme of mediation that this blog is meant to be about, the question becomes problematic at least in these ways:
- is the preference likely to be for a mediator who is accepted/respected by virtue of his (occasionally her) social standing and seniority or qualifications;
- to what degree can the mediator expect the parties to be willing to express dissent in front of others;
- what are the assumptions one can make (or need to test) about participant “agency” – i.e. willingness to act independently, autonomously;
- what will be the norms of formality and informality (recalling that it’s conventionally better to err in the direction of formality and shift from that level if appropriate);
- what will be the normative orientation of the parties – i.e. collectivist or individualist?
One way of thinking about this is to shift from the cultural to the organisational models – and especially to the work of Argyris and Schön. This work, now over 30 years old [Argyris, C. and Schön, D. (1974) Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass] points to the role of “theories in action” and the mental maps people operate with. And what’s important in the distinction they draw is that people (and we can probably extrapolate this to talk of shared and publicly espoused norms) will have the theories of action they espouse (hence, for example, theories and values of respect, collectivism, family values etc), and the theories of action that are theories-in-use. I’m reminded of a comment – I think by the anthropologist Turner – in relation to the ethnographic observation and analysis of ritual, that it was more important to note what people/participants said at the time of engaging in ritual activities than what they said about those activities.
So the speculation – and it’s one that doesn’t apply uniquely to transitional societies – is that there will continue to be an insistence on the importance and priority of conventional values, especially if these are the values that underpin the legitimacy of social and political structures, while there will be an increasing visibility of countervailing norms in practice. The challenge for the mediator is that another dimension of mediation is added – not only is there the substantive mediation; there is also the [subterranean] normative mediation, in mediating between the espoused and demonstrated norms. And, as Argyris and Schön say of the organisational environment, each of us constructs an image of the world we believe we live in, even as we act as though we operate in a different one. To the extent that writers like Trompenaars suggest that culture is the set of norms and practices that allow us to make sense of the world, the ‘making sense’ also has to mediate between different cultural narratives going on in the one person (or society) at the same time.
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