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Bad Apples, Bad Barrels

Mediation practice is noted for its diversity. Amongst the differences, however, are a few core principles and beliefs. One such belief is that the genesis of conflict is to be found in relationship, whether between individuals or groups, communities or states, or within families or organisations. Mediation addresses conflict by helping those involved face up to the difficult aspects of their relationship. By encouraging them to take control of their dispute, it affords them the opportunity of ordering their relationship in their own way and of shaping outcomes in a supportive environment. Yet is this focus on relationship and empowerment the correct approach in all circumstances? What if the causes of conflict are not always in the relationship, but in the environmental context in which that relationship exists? What if, as a consequence of this, empowerment of individuals through mediation is not always possible, as the individuals concerned have limited control over the issues at the core of their dispute?

One can find many references in recent conflict resolution literature to the centrality of relationships in disputes. Thus, Hocker and Wilmot note that conflict is an expressed struggle between two interdependent parties who see the other as an obstacle to achieving their goals. Lebaron argues that conflicts are indivisible from the relational context in which they arise, while Lederach observes that relationship is the problem. In the same sentence, however, he goes on to add that relationship also provides the solution to conflict, and other writers have mapped routes out of conflict from a similar perspective. Narrative mediators, such as Winslade and Monk, believe that resolution lies in the development of relationships which are incompatible with conflict. Transformative mediators, like Bush and Folger, advocate the bridging of human differences through empowerment and recognition.

These relational approaches to conflict resolution may be the most appropriate response in many cases, but it would be wrong to assume that they are suitable in all circumstances. Relational mediation focuses on the parties to the dispute, on what they have done to contribute to the dispute and on what they can do to aid its resolution. This assumes, however, that parties to the dispute have full control over the contentious issues which have given rise to the conflict. This may be a dangerous assumption to make. Sometimes it is necessary to look beyond the immediate relationship of the parties involved to find the real causes of the conflict.

The publication earlier this year of Professor Philip Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect poses interesting questions for peacemakers steeped in relational mediation. In the book, Zimbardo reviews and analyses the significant conclusions of his pioneering psychological behavioural study of American college students carried out in 1971. As part of the now infamous Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE), college students were randomly assigned the roles of prison guard or prisoners. Zimbardo and his colleagues carefully created a situation which allowed and even tacitly encouraged the prison guards to mistreat the prisoners in their charge. Having created a toxic environment, they stood back and watched as the attitudes and behaviour of their student subjects became increasingly poisonous. The experiment had to be terminated prematurely when the behaviour of the guards became too abusive. The project demonstrated that the behaviour of the students in their roles was determined not by what Zimbardo labels dispositional factors – the personality of the individuals concerned, in other words – but by situational forces.

Zimbardo’s basic thesis is that evil results not from the actions of ‘bad apples’ but rather from the existence of ‘bad barrels’. Normal, decent, upstanding citizens, he argues, can be corrupted and infected by a situational environment. His analysis does not dispute that the relationship dynamic between individuals can give rise to conflict. His point is that the situation or context of the relationship determines, in large measure, how that dynamic operates. For mediators, this must raise the question of whether situational factors play an equally significant role in interpersonal disputes. If Zimbardo is correct – and his findings have been supported by other researchers in the intervening years – then mediators who view disputes merely as the out working of dispositional factors and attempt resolution on this basis are surely doomed to failure.

British academics Mulcahy and Summerfield have addressed this in their research with an independent community mediation service in the London borough of Southwark. In that service, mediators find themselves, on a daily basis, mediating disputes which are not caused by thoughtless, criminal, or antisocial actions, but by the normal domestic activities of one or both parties. They have reached the conclusion that it is often the fundamental weaknesses in the design or construction of their properties that is the primary cause of problems between tenants. Poor noise insulation, parking facilities, and property or estate design, are all structural or situational causes of conflict. Other disputes involving people with addiction problems or mental health issues can result from inappropriate housing allocation policies, or from inadequate support packages for those with particular vulnerabilities. Nor is it only neighbour – neighbour disputes that are subject to situational influences. Mediators involved in workplace conflicts often find that disputes between colleagues have been triggered by a difficult working environment: poor organisational structures, working practices, and management systems can combine to create a situation where the prospect of interpersonal disputes between individuals is almost an inevitability. Family mediators are also used to dealing with relationships that have buckled under the stress of extreme financial worries, work pressures, or chronic illness.

In all such cases, the relationship between the parties is not necessarily the core issue. There is, instead, a contextual or systematic reason for the conflict and unless this is addressed there is little prospect of resolving the individual dispute or from preventing its reoccurrence. Mulcahy and Summerfield argue that too often the mediation process focuses unduly on the individuals and thus loses sight of the systemic reasons behind the dispute. This reluctance to consider fully the significance of situational factors is understandable. What can mediators do, after all, in such circumstances? We can begin, perhaps, by acknowledging that conflicts do not always have a relational core and therefore cannot have a resolution based solely on improving relationships. We can acknowledge, too, that empowerment is not enough when the parties do not have full control of the circumstances effecting their dispute. Mayer argues that, at this point, mediators should cease trying to be conflict resolvers and instead become conflict specialists, people who can actively assist parties to a dispute rather than simply facilitate a dialogue between them.

Mulcahy and Summerfield show what this might look like in practice. Their study demonstrates that some community mediators are prepared to set aside their position of neutrality and to act as advocates for the parties. Where they believe a dispute has been brought about by the conditions in which the parties are living, they try and get the disputants to see their problem as a shared one, rather than as a dispute between individuals. They ‘coach’ the parties to start seeing their property and their landlord as the problem, rather than their neighbour. They provide them with contact names and encourage them to lobby for a change to the conditions which have brought about the conflict. This approach may appear heretical to those mediators who regard the independence, neutrality and impartiality of the mediation process almost as an article of faith. Yet rigid adherence to these principles, one would argue, means that mediators risk being complicit in the personalisation of disputes which are often, in reality, caused by situational factors as much as by individual differences. Offering people the opportunity to resolve ‘their’ conflict places a heavy burden on those with limited control over the circumstances giving rise to the dispute. It also runs the risk of casting parties to the dispute in the role of bad apples, when, in truth, it is the barrel that needs fixing.


Bush, R. The Promise of Mediation (Jossey – Bass) & Folger, J. (1994)

Hocker, J. & Interpersonal Conflict (Brown & Benchmark) Wilmot, W. (1985)

Lebaron, M. Bridging Troubled Waters (Jossey – Bass) (2002)

Lederach, J.P. The Moral Imagination (Oxford University Press) (2005)

Mayer, B. Beyond Neutrality: Confronting the Crisis in Conflict Resolution (2004) (Jossey – Bass)

Mulcahy, L. Keeping it in the Community: Summerfield, L. Use of Mediation in Neighbour Disputes (HM Stationery (2001) Office)

Winslade, J Narrative Mediation: A New Approach to Conflict Resolution Monk, G (Jossey – Bass) (2001)

Zimbardo, P. The Lucifer Effect (Rider) (2007)


Brendan Donaghy

Brendan Donaghy has worked for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive since 1988. In 2000, he was appointed Mediation Development Officer and was seconded for 18 months to Mediation Northern Ireland, an independent mediation NGO. In the course of the secondment, he trained as a mediator and worked with Mediation Northern… MORE >

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