Conflict Resolution and Anthropology: Why more scholarship on violence than on peace?
Is it because the academe rewards critique rather than advocacy? Conflict resolution studies, Mark Davidheiser and Inga E Treitler write in Anthropology News September, are “not widely acknowledged within our discipline” and are “rarely published in mainstream anthropological journals".
Is it because these studies are often written to be intelligible to a broad audience, they wonder:
Addressing an interdisciplinary readership makes it impractical to philosophize on the finer points of specialized topics like agency and employ the latest anthropological jargon. A prominent case in point is the bestselling Getting to Yes, coauthored by anthropologist William Ury. Getting To Yes did not foreground anthropological themes, and while it has been read by many public health practitioners and management professionals, it has received scant attention within anthropology.
One may justifiably wonder why anthropology has not engaged conflict resolution in a more sustained manner. As Leslie Sponsel and Thomas Gregor emphasize in The Anthropology of Peace and Nonviolence, there has been much more scholarship on violence than on peace. The fact that their book has long been out of print only underlines their point.
In his historical overview of anthropology and Conflict Resolution, Kevin Avruch writes that most of anthropologists’s early involvement was dedicated to the problem of getting the field to take the idea of culture seriously. They faced two main hurdles. First, the political scientists and international relations folk took power to be the only “variable” that counted. Second, the psychologists assumed that given the biogenetic unity of the human brain, we must all think and reason in the same way, and so, say, decision-making (as in negotiation) must look the same everywhere.
Günther Schlee stresses that an important finding of anthropological research is related to causes of conflicts:
Ethnicity is not the cause of so-called ethnic conflicts. The corresponding thesis about religion is that religion is not the cause of religious conflicts. We continue to talk about ethnic or religious conflicts, because there is much about such conflicts that is indeed ethnic or religious—just not their causes. Frequently, ethnic or religious polarization only starts to emerge in the course of a conflict, and that is certainly the wrong time to be looking for a cause.
As Mark Davidheiser and Inga E Treitler writes, there are anthropologists who argue that conflict resolution can be seen as an ideology that subverts access to “justice”. One of them is Laura Nader.
In her article in Anthropology News, she writes:
Conflict, adversarialness, dissent, confrontativeness are tools used in asymmetrical situations to right a real or perceived wrong—the collision of force with opposing force. In the absence of such opposing force there is acquiescence, subordination, passivity, apathy—features associated with Brave New World or 1984 societies.
Looking back on our study of consumer justice makes me realize that conflict, confrontativeness, adversarial law would have produced much more benefit for our society than the harmony and reconciliation industry, in terms of improved products, citizen participation (rather than apathy), and an investment in our judicial system appropriate to a country that espouses democratic rule.
The search for justice is both fundamental and universal in human culture and society. Thus, as long as there is power asymmetry one can expect conflict.
>> read the whole text “What’s Good About Conflict?” (link updated)
Leslie E. Sponsel is one of several anthropologists who contribute to the website Peaceful Societies. Alternatives to Violence and War