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More than a half century ago noted American poet T. S. Eliot eloquently expressed the complexity of the term culture, a term that is used so freely and with so little aforethought today. As Eliot learned, culture is quite difficult to define. He succeeded in describing the term, as Lord Evans (2001) noted, but a definition eluded even someone with Eliot's gift for words. But Eliot was not alone in wrestling with defining culture; experts in a variety of disciplines have yet to agree on a consensus definition and some even contest the concept of culture itself.

As this essay will demonstrate, controversy surrounding the concept of culture can be attributed, to a large degree, to the failure by those who study the topic to adopt a widely-accepted definition that adequately captures the complexity of the term. After presenting the results of a literature review on various definitions of culture and the topic of culture as a contested concept, the focus of the essay turns to the significance of culture in conflict resolution, demonstrating that culture is a critical factor in successfully resolving conflicts and, further, that a consensus definition for culture that reflects the realities of modern society would facilitate the conflict resolution process.

Culture Defined

Experts may not be able to agree on a definition for culture, but they apparently experience no difficulty in agreeing that culture is a difficult term to define (Edensor 2002; Hall 1980, cited in Park 2005). Susan Wright (1998) reports the existence of at least 164 definitions for culture. Noted sociologist and anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn (1949) defined culture eleven different ways in his book Mirror for Man, and he and his colleagues (1952) catalogued more than 160 definitions for culture into six categories – descriptive, historical, normative, psychological, generic, and incomplete. Raymond Williams writes that, in the term culture, history has bestowed “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language”, adding that culture can be used to refer to a wide range of phenomena and that the concept of culture has produced major political and philosophical disagreement (Williams 1983, cited in Chay 1990).

Kluckhohn (1954) developed one of the most often cited definitions for culture in writing that it “consists in patterned ways of thinking, feeling and reacting, acquired and transmitted mainly by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts”. Culture has also been defined as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor 1871, cited in Kluckhohn 1952); “the human-made part of the environment” (Herskovits 1955, cited in Earley and Randal 1997); “shared meaning systems” (Shweder and LeVine 1984, cited in Earley and Randal 1997); “the sum total and organization of the social heritages which have acquired a social meaning because of racial temperament and of the historical life of the group” (Park and Burgess 1921, cited in Kluckhohn 1952); “the mode of life followed by the community or the tribe [including] all standardized social procedures” (Wissler 1929, cited in Kluckhohn 1952); “the sum of men's adjustments to their life-conditions…attained only through the combined action of variation, selection, and transmission” (Sumner and Keller 1927, cited in Kluckhohn 1952); and “a product of human association” (Groves 1928, cited in Kluckhohn 1952).

In the aggregate, the various definitions just presented express the theme of shared meanings acquired then passed from generation to generation. They also describe culture at group and societal levels. Other experts describe the term from the perspective of the individual or otherwise provide for differences in cultural attributes within a group or society. Hofstede (1980, cited in Earley and Randel 1997) defines culture as “a set of mental programs that control an individual's responses in a given context”. Park (2005) describes culture as a “marker for difference” in society. And Rohner (1984, cited in Earley and Randel 1997) defines the term as “the totality of equivalent and complementary learned meanings maintained by a human population, or by identifiable segments of a population, and transmitted from one generation to the next”. The phrase “equivalent and complementary learned meanings” is critical to an understanding of Rohner's definition, according to Earley and Randel, because it provides for individual variances in interpretations of “learned meanings” within a culture.

Although these definitions represent only a small portion of those revealed from a review of the literature, they provide some insight into the range of thought on the topic of culture, especially perspectives on assessing culture at various levels – societal, group, and individual. As will be suggested, the difficulty experts have experienced in defining culture helps to explain why culture is a contested concept and why a solution to the definitional problem is important to resolving the debate about the role of culture in conflict resolution and, ultimately, to facilitating the conflict resolution process.

Culture as a Contested Concept

Fantasia and Hirsch (1995, cited in Ellis and Thompson, 1997) write, with a hint of sarcasm, that cultural theorists can take pride in their creation of a “contested terrain” in the study of culture. The literature review indicated that most experts who contest the concept of culture base their disputes on the belief that, in the modern world, there is no all-embracing culture in which everyone in a given society blindly holds precisely the same shared meanings, which is suggested by most traditional definitions of culture.

The concept of culture has long been contested (Cooper and Denner 1998; Mathews 2000). Bhabha (1993) writes that, as people have increasingly migrated to other lands in modern times, they have only taken part of their total culture with them. The culture of these migrants becomes a mixture of the cultures from their native societies and those found in the society in which they entered. Heath (1997) writes that experts no longer consider culture to be a viable concept “in a world of volatile, situated, and overlapping social identities”, contending that various disciplines have taken issue with culture as a concept for various reasons. She writes that educators protest the concept on the basis of “its transmission of connotations of objectivity, discreteness, essentialism, and ahistoricism”; sociologists challenge the concept on the grounds of “production, mass consumerism, and popular entertainment”; and experts from the human sciences contest the “totalizing universalizing perspectives” of culture, replacing these “arbitrary constructions” with “permeable membranes” that are not “predictable or deterministic”. Heath (1997) also points to the “fuzzy boundaries” of culture, arguing that specific cultures are hard to isolate and claiming that variations are becoming apparent within groups that have been traditionally viewed as possessing unique cultures. Edensor (2002) writes that popular culture is having a major cross-cultural effect on traditional cultures. Childs and Storry (1999) claim that cultures are changing so quickly that “a snapshot of current cultural practices is inevitably going to be blurred”. Mathews (2000), in noting that even anthropologists are increasingly avoiding the term culture, poses the question as to whether “in today's world of global flows and interactions” cultural “labels” are appropriate and claims that individuals personally select which elements of a given culture to apply in their behavioural decisions. Brightman (1995, cited in Mathews 2000) notes that some experts are enclosing culture in quotation marks to indicate their “ambivalence, self-consciousness or censure” about the term.

In closing, perhaps Earley and Randel (1997) offer the one of the more revealing insights into the controversy over the term culture: “We suggest that while the romance of culture as a grand concept capturing the complexity of society and life is tempting, this conceptualization is both limiting and misleading”.

The Significance of Culture in Conflict Resolution

Conflict resolution and culture are intrinsically intertwined. Rubin and colleagues (1994, cited in Björkqvist and Fry 1997) define conflict as “perceived divergence of interest, or a belief that parties' current aspirations cannot be achieved simultaneously”. Hopmann (1998) contends that, in a complex world, conflict is unavoidable. Conflict is an inevitable consequence of the interdependence inherent in human interaction (Björkqvist and Fry 1997). Processes used to resolve conflicts must be considered within a larger cultural context (Just 1991). Conflicts are cultural events in every sense of the word, according to Lederach (1991). Björkqvist and Fry (1997) write that “conflict resolution is a cultural phenomenon”. Avruch (1991) refers to conflicts and conflict resolution approaches as “cultural events”. Various studies have confirmed that conflict resolution processes are culture-specific (Avruch and Black 1991; Avurch, Black and Scimecca 1991, cited in Björkqvist and Fry 1997). Ross (1993, cited in Björkqvist and Fry 1997) originated the term culture of conflict to describe the norms and institutions that a society applies in conflicts. Beliefs, attitudes, and patterns of behaviours about conflict are internalised by people in their cultural settings and, in turn, strengthened by cultural norms and institutions. And, because conflict is a cultural phenomenon, the methods used to perceive and respond to conflict are typically transparent to those involved because these methods are based on assumptions that they do not question. (Björkqvist and Fry 1997)

Björkqvist and Fry (1997) urge caution in applying conflict resolution approaches across cultural lines. For instance, they recommend that generic manuals prescribing conflict resolution procedures to be used in all cultural settings should be avoided (Avruch 1991). People involved in conflict resolution should be flexible and sensitive to cultural differences, according to Lederach (1991, cited in Björkqvist) and Benvenisti (1986, cited in Avruch 1991). Benvenisti chastises conflict resolvers “who believe that communal conflicts are like a chessboard where one can think up the best arrangement of chess pieces and move them all at once”. Cultures vary in the mechanisms they use in resolving conflict with some applying formal mechanisms such as court systems and others using informal approaches such as gossip, teasing, and exclusion (Black 1993; Fry 1992, 1994; Hollan 1988; White 1991, cited in Björkqvist and Fry 1997).

Versi (2002) suggests that “if you know where the other person is coming from culturally”, you can develop a more effective approach to resolving conflict. Rubin (1994, cited in Björkqvist and Fry 1997), articulates four generic strategies used in conflict resolution: (1) contending, which involves a high level of concern for one's own results and a low level of concern for the other's results; (2) problem solving, which involves high levels of concern for one's own results and those of the other party; (3) yielding, which involves a low level of concern for one's own results and a high level of concern for the other's results; and (4) avoiding, which involves low levels of concern for one's own results and those of the other party. Of these, the authors argue that problem solving is the most effective strategy because it permits both contenders to win. Fortunately, the problem solving strategy is effective across a broad spectrum of cultures. In problem solving, the use of a non-partisan third-party facilitator has also been found to be effective across cultures (Black 1993, cited in Björkqvist and Fry 1997).

The Culture Definition Dilemma and Its Effects on Optimal Conflict Resolution Outcomes

The debate about culture, specifically the controversy surrounding the validity of culture as a concept, is important to the field of conflict resolution because cultural factors are so inexorably linked to conflicts and their effective resolutions. Results of the literature review of definitions for the term culture and the review of literature on culture as a contested concept suggest that definitions describing culture as a group or societal phenomenon without allowing for variance within the group or society may be at the root of the cultural concept validity dispute.

As Bhabha (1993), Childs and Storry (1999), Edensor (2002), Heath (1997), and Mathews (2000) proffer, modern societies are increasingly integrating and, as this occurs, their members are mixing their unique cultural attributes with one another thereby blurring the distinctions that once defined individual cultures. But does this mean that the concept of culture is invalid? The answer to that question lies in the definitions of culture that allow for individual variance in cultural attributes. For instance, the definition offered by Rohner (1984, cited in Earley and Randel 1997), who defines the term as “the totality of equivalent and complementary learned meanings maintained by a human population, or by identifiable segments of a population, and transmitted from one generation to the next”, provides for individual variances in interpretations of “learned meanings” within a culture. This definition seems offer the flexibility to adequately define culture within the context of modern intermingled societies, thus revalidating the concept of culture.

How, then, would a definition for culture that provides for individual variance relate to conflict resolution? Although a definition that considers everyone within a particular culture to share precisely the same cultural attributes would help to make conflict resolution a much more predictable process, such a definition does not reflect the realities of modern societies. However, knowing that members of a culture share “equivalent and complementary learned meanings”, as proposed by Rohner, permits a certain degree of predictability whilst simultaneously providing needed flexibility to accommodate individual variance. There may even be an additional benefit in this condition for practitioners in conflict resolution. Individual variance may actually serve to weaken strong cultural barriers that have, in the past, obstructed successful conflict resolution. For instance, as cultures integrate more fully, their members typically become more understanding of each other's cultural attributes. This understanding should provide an enhanced common basis for resolving conflicts and may even reduce the incidence of conflicts themselves.

Conclusion

In the modern global village, as opportunities increase for people and their cultures to interact, the need for effective conflict resolution has never been more critical or more difficult, yet experts in a variety of disciplines are engaged in seemingly endless philosophical arguments about the validity of culture as a concept, diverting their energies from what seem to be more productive endeavours such as developing new techniques for conflict resolution that could lead to a more peaceful world. Adopting a more flexible definition for culture – one that recognises individual variances and the realities of the modern world – would be a first step in achieving this worthy goal.
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