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Conflict Mediation Across Cultures: Pathways and Patterns (Book Review)

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David Augsburger’s book, Conflict Mediation Across Cultures, is not only a scholarly work in regards to conflict resolution, but also a wonderful collection of folk tales and proverbs that reflect the content of each chapter. This is not a book on how to mediate cross-cultural disputes, but one that addresses different cultural conflict patterns and models of conflict resolution. The book presents a way to understand how our own and other cultures’ responses to conflict are formed through our cultural myths, history and values.

Augsburger (1992) presents four basic propositions in regards to thinking about cross-cultural conflict: our patterns of either-or, win-lose forms of resolution block us from exploring alternative solutions; people in conflict are the least able and equipped to settle their own disputes and that the traditional ways of settlement like threats and litigation must be broadened into more creative ways of settlement like mediation and negotiation; conflict across cultures highlights the problem of our accepted theories of conflict and the way humans interact, goes against our conventional wisdom in regards to our accepted forms of social contracts and regardless of how sophisticated some may be about how to resolve conflicts, there exists in traditional and more primitive cultures time tested ways of resolving conflict that fly in the face of what more learned or sophisticated societies may think is the correct way; and finally, that a universal way of achieving conflict resolution would be inappropriate for the reason that there exists in every culture a way to resolve problems that works for them based on their values and history.

Augsburger states that the purpose of this study is to desensitize us from our conceptions of common sense in regards to conflict. In doing this we can open ourselves to understand other cultures’ conflict processes and be sensitized to these processes in order to learn from them and understand the limitations to our thinking about conflict resolution (p. 8). His main points stem from the differences between traditional and Western pathways and patterns of conflict and resolution.

Augsburger argues that conflict is a universal and distinct experience in every cultural group, as well as for the individual, sometimes constructive and sometimes destructive. Each culture will have a pattern of behaviors, a set of values and a set of laws to deal with conflict and as Augsburger has shown us, they will vary greatly from culture to culture as their separate realities dictate. This would be true for individuals also, as every person is related to many cultural subgroups, each having their own history and sets of rules and values (p. 24).

Augsburger introduces the ideas and tendencies associated with constructive and destructive conflict. In this discussion, he relates cooperation, a both-and, or neither-nor process (p. 51), as the social process involved in constructive conflict, and competition, an either-or process (p.50), as the social process involved in destructive conflict. Each approach involves either a spiral or cycle of behaviors that fulfills the conflict participant’s needs and values.

In a discussion of face work, which he says is the primary experience of parties in conflict (p. 73), Augsburger examines the roles that the processes of face, harmony, honor and dignity play in both Western and traditional culture conflicts. In regards to loss of face, more traditional collectivistic cultures will view this as a loss of self-esteem, worth, pride and social standing for all disputants. In the West or modern cultures, which are individualistic in their social construction, the loss of face is associated with alienation of the conflict participants, loss of self-esteem, self-regard, competence and pride only for one party in the conflict. There seems to be no regard in these matters for the other disputants involved (p. 84).

Augsburger introduces the idea that conflict is a triangular process in which third parties are drawn in to form coalitions of two against one or a conflict between two people that brings in a third to help settle the conflict (p. 148). When a dyad in conflict calls in a third party there is a chance that it can lead to destruction of the relationships if the third party destabilizes the situation by forming a coalition. Calling in a third party is the most used form of conflict resolution in the third-world (p. 152) and is a testament to the fact that a third party, who is wise, can maintain neutrality, and understand his effect on the future relationship of the dyad, is a valued member of society (p. 154-155).

In the chapter on gender differences and conflict styles, Augsburger first discusses some theory on gender power and then introduces an interesting discussion of women’s liberation from male oriented and dominated structures of conflict in which women have been subjected to the “historic, systemic and social structure of injustice” (p.181). The major themes that have emerged from the movement are: a new consciousness resisting male domination and discrimination that favors men; an accountability on the part of men for accepting privileges or imposing injustice, violence or exploitation on women; refusal to be intimidated or cover up abuse or sexual harassment and unequal justice related to sexual violations; equal opportunity for all; to continue to make progress and create change in regards to the above issues; to continue to triumph; and to continue to be in a state of solidarity with all women in creating awareness of women’s rights (p. 181-182). Augsburger concludes that although many theorists have varying opinions about women in conflict, the women’s movement has created a wide variety of conflict behavior “from nonviolent social change to participation in armed resistance and revolution” (p. 185).

“The peace-maker gets two-thirds of the blows” (p. 187), is the quote used to introduce the importance of and place of mediation in traditional and Western societies today. It is noted that the more westernized and less collectivistic that societies become, the fewer alternatives to litigation exist. The mediator or neutral third party is the person who can calm the storm through assisting the parties in conflict. They play many roles in this process as they knock down the barriers that are keeping the disputants from coming together for negotiation.

Within the discussion of conflict cycles, pathways and patterns, Augsburger explains the cyclical view of conflict as one in which conflict erupts in a normal and ongoing way, which may be creative or destructive, as a response to social change and evolvement. He presents a model of conflict, which is meant to serve a community in conflict by strengthening it. He further explains that each culture’s conflict cycle is determined by its myths and patterns that have been established through historical precedents (p. 239) or knowing what has worked in the past and using it over and over again. Augsburger also presents another model which identifies the patterns of conflict which are managed positively with a satisfactory outcome, and the patterns of conflict that are designed to negatively suppress the conflict with no resolution and an outcome that imposes controls over the community to ensure suppression of the issues (p. 245-246). Both models ensure a type of concord.

Finally, Augsburger ends his study with a discussion of reconciliation and forgiveness and the pathway to them through a variety of responses to wrongdoing. Every culture has a set of values that determines how they respond to wrongdoing, but for the purpose of this paper, we only review those responses connected to Western culture which range from one side of the scale as “gracious denial” (p.270) that anything is wrong to avoidance and alienation of the wrongdoer on the other end of the scale. In individualized societies these defense mechanisms ensure that relationships will be emotionally damaged or severed in some way, but will allow the parties in dispute to maintain the individualism that they prize so much.

Augsberger, David W. (1992) Conflict Mediation Across Cultures Pathways and Patterns. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press.


Bonita Para

Bonita Para is a certified mediator, trainer and educator. She is a Master's degree candidate in the Department of Conflict Analysis and Dispute Resolution at Nova Southeastern University. Bonita is the owner of Southeast Mediation in Richland, Washington and specializes in family/divorce, workplace and organizational dispute resolution. She holds membership… MORE >

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