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Challenging Neutrality, Examining Privilege And Encouraging Practitioner Self-Reflexivity: A Social Justice Approach To ADR

Unpacking the Mainstream Mediation Model

Objectivity, impartiality and the role of “neutral” third-party are deeply valued foundational components of Western mainstream mediation. As such, mainstream conflict resolution practices and methodologies (including mediation) are espoused as being culturally neutral. However, these foundational assumptions at the core of the mediation process carry implicit cultural meaning and are shaped by specific culturally bound systems and epistemologies. Leah Wing describes these values as based within a Western ideology of positivism. She argues that a “commitment to the Western values of positivism and its attending concept of neutrality are at the core of the hegemonic paradigm permeating mediation literature and practice in the United States.” [1]

In the dominant approaches to mediation, mediators and facilitators are valued and selected for their ability to separate themselves from the conflict and for their expertise in the tool of mediation, not for their expertise in the particular conflict at hand. Contrastingly, many indigenous conflict resolution models emphasize relationships over technique, involving family and community members in the collective transformation of conflict (Walker 2004) . [2] Both approaches illustrate important cultural underpinnings, of dominant Western societies (individualistic, linear and time-bound), and of many Indigenous communities (communal, inter-connected and cyclical). These approaches are inherently shaped by culturally bounded assumptions regarding the role of a mediator.

Conflict resolution scholars and practitioners have recently called into question the foundational elements of Western conflict resolution approaches, particularly the myth of objectivity and neutrality (Wing 2008, Roy 2008). Studies have also shown that the mainstream mediation model routinely reproduces privilege both structurally within institutions and interpersonally between disputing parties. In her article, “Whither Neutrality?” Wing asks some important questions about the core values and assumptions within the Western notion of neutrality: “Whose interests are being served in mediation and other Alternative Dispute Resolution practices based on the concept of neutrality? When differing experiences of violence and of access to power, decision making, and respect impact the lives of the participants, who is better served when power inequities are attended to by neutrality?” These are important questions to ask of the field in critically examining the underlying assumptions of our methodologies, and of ourselves as ADR practitioners.

A Social Justice Approach

Issues of cultural identity (both the identity of the disputants and also the mediator) are key components of the Social Justice Mediation model (developed by Leah Wing and Deepika Marya). In accordance with the above-mentioned values of neutrality and equity, mainstream mediation models encourage mediators not to bring the disputants’ diverse dimensions of identity into the mediation room (and certainly not the mediators’!). The Social Justice Mediation model however, emphasizes the important role our identities play in conflict. Our cultural lens (as influenced by race, class, gender, sexual orientation etc.) influences the dynamic of the conflict—whether overtly or indirectly. Thus Social Justice Mediation encourages mediators to address the social dimensions of identity head-on. As Leah Wing states, “since conflict occurs within a larger social context in which aspects of identity and oppression are present, these factors ought to be fundamental to our considerations of mediation intervention techniques and processes.” [3] By viewing the mediation process with a social justice perspective, the implicit power dynamics perpetuated by the society in which we live are actively addressed and thus a more honest dialogue can take place between disputants.

Additionally, in an effort to unpack and deconstruct power privilege, mediators are encouraged to look critically at their own assumptions and biases that they bring to the mediation table as third-party participants to the conflict. I find the Social Justice Mediation model a valuable and innovative approach to addressing power and privilege inequity in the ADR field. Having taken Leah Wing and Deepika Marya’s 5-day training through the Social Justice Mediation Institute, I believe this approach effectively addresses many of the challenges of presumed neutrality and equips ADR practitioners with a valuable lens from which to view their work.

Practitioner Self-Reflexivity

In my own work as a U.S. American conflict resolution practitioner of color, engaging in critical self-awareness about my own assumptions and privilege is a vital process in becoming a more effective practitioner, particularly in cross-cultural and international settings. John Paul Lederach writes about the need to reexamine our epistemological assumptions as practitioners in his book, Preparing for Peace. He argues, “trainers should do their homework in becoming aware and recognizing the cultural assumptions implicit in their model.” [4] He goes on to say that beyond viewing cultural competency and diversity as a skill practitioners must acquire to add to their tool box of skills, we need to critically explore at a much deeper level, the assumptions inherent within our epistemologies and shift our fundamental methods and practices. As ADR practitioners, it is vital to engage in a critical self-reflection about our own cultural biases and assumptions, which manifest both consciously and unconsciously into the core of our work. What are our unexamined biases and assumptions about race, gender, ability, national origin religion etc? In his article, Conflict Resolution, Cultural Differences, and the Culture of Racism, Howard Gadlin challenges the cherished belief of maintaining a purely neutral role and encourages a “critical self-consciousness” of mediators. [5] Being mindful of our biases and examining the role of privilege and power associated with our cultural background, better prepares us to enter cross-cultural conflict situations as ADR practitioners. An examination of our cultural identities as well as the diversity of our cultural experiences as related to privilege offers a new lens from which to view the conflict resolution process.

End Notes

1 Wing, Leah. “Whither Neutrality” in Re-Centering: Culture and Knowledge in Conflict Resolution Practice. Ed. Trujillo, Mary Adams, S.Y. Bowland, Linda James Myers, Phillip M. Richards and Beth Roy. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2008. 93-107. (95)

2 Walker, Polly O. “Decolonizing Conflict Resolution: Addressing the Ontological Violence of Westernization.” American Indian Quarterly. Berkeley: Summer 2004. Vol. 28, Iss. 3 / 4.

3 Wing, Leah. Social Justice and Mediation. University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 2002: 18.

4 Lederah, John Paul. Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation Across Cultures. Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995. (121)

5 Gadlin, Howard. Conflict Resolution, Cultural Differences, and the Culture of Racism. Negotiation Journal 1994: 34


Elli Nagai-Rothe

Elli Nagai-Rothe served on the board of directors for the Association for Dispute Resolution of Northern California from 2007 – 2010. During this time, she also served as the Diversity and Equity Point Person and helped to establish and co-chair the Diversity and Equity Committee. Elli received her M.A. degree… MORE >

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