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At a conference on negotiation (and mediation) pedagogy held in Beijing this past April, I was struck by one key irony in the questions we were asking ourselves. The ongoing project, on re-thinking negotiation pedagogy, has been an important one, in redirecting our thinking about the practice and teaching of negotiation in a globalised world, and especially as we work across borders, or work in international commerce, or take training programmes to other countries. The objective continues to be to develop what is called, in this project, Negotiation 2.0 pedagogy. The programme started in Rome, moved two years later for the second conference to Istanbul, and then this year to Beijing.

And this is where the irony of the inquiry struck me. The question we’re asking ourselves is, at least in part, what changes and adaptations do we need to make to our models of ‘conventional’ negotiation when we work in non-Western contexts. The starting assumption – which makes sense – is that the bulk of negotiation pedagogy and theory is Western in origin and orientation. But here are two starting questions:

  1. For those who have been around this field – especially mediation rather than negotiation – for long enough, you’ll recall that much of the inspiration for the development of non-judicial forms of dispute resolution came from comparative and ethnographic studies of non-industrial societies. Without producing a string of citations at this stage, we know that, in addition to the inspiration that came from community-based activism (Alinsky and others) and from critiques of legalism in the early days of Critical Legal Studies, considerable impetus came from looking at mediation in China (pre- and Post-Mao); Liberia (the people’s courts); the Kpelle moots of the Tiv, Barotse and Nuer of Africa; the panchayats of India; and from work of legal anthropologists like Nader, Roberts, Diamond, Benedict and so on. Here’s the first version of the irony: having drawn on that inspiration and having, in the last nearly 40 years, developed a practice of mediation that has shifted from being marginal and “alternative” to mainstream and closely embedded in many legal systems, we’re now in the business (often literally) of re-exporting mediation back to the countries and regions from which we borrowed it in the first place.
  2. The second issue is possibly less an irony than a conceptual problem: if we are looking at what happens to “our” models of mediation when we take the practice and pedagogy into, say, China, there’s not just the matter of bringing mediation back to a place where it is already 5000 years old, but rather the conceptual issue – albeit unconscious – of taking the Western models as the “norm” and asking how these might need adaptation. This has resonances with the ideological challenges of early Fem-Crit and Race-Crit theory, pointing out the implicit assumption that the “male” and the “white” was the norm to which might be added any refining touches from the hitherto marginalised communities.
So, this is a preliminary observation about the ironies of re-exporting mediation to, and even reinventing it in, the regions where it has a long and enduring history. One of the other facets of this irony is that the “new” versions of mediation are often seen as appealing – perhaps strategically, so that those in non-Western nations have a better idea of how Westerners will negotiate; but also because of the success of branding, not least if there’s the name of a major University attached to the “product”.
I hear anecdotally from colleagues also who have been asked to provide mediation services or training in a country in, say, South East Asia, that they need to spend some time exploring and explaining what is meant by “mediation” – and once they describe the core elements of the process (especially the role of the trusted intermediary) it all becomes clear . . . only it’s not always known as “mediation”.
The point of this? Initially, I’m concerned that we don’t assume that “mediation” is a unique product that can be exported but with necessary modifications for a new market – along the lines of shifting the steering wheel, or ensuring that the brand name of the product doesn’t create unexpected offence or hilarity. This then involves the recognition that the “standard” model is one of a line-up of options. Further implications will follow.
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