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Keystone Conference: No, We Are Not A Field and Here is Why the Question Matters

This paper was developed by Peter Adler for presentation at the “Consolidating Our Wisdom” Conference at Keystone, Colorado October 8-11, 2006.

“People are what they do.”
– James Lee Burke

This is a rare gathering of very experienced mediators so today is not the day to pick nits and split hairs over small things. Knowing full well that there are many different and nuanced meanings we could give to them, let’s assume the words “field” and “discipline” are synonyms for profession. Let’s also assume the Wikipedia definition which reads as follows:

A profession is an occupation that requires extensive training and the study and mastery of specialized knowledge, and usually
has a professional association, ethical code and process of certification
or licensing. Examples are accounting, law, teaching, architecture, nursing, pharmacy, medicine, finance, the military, the clergy and engineering.

I would also add a few other characteristics of professions: grounded diagnostic models, agreed upon intervention procedures that have been tested and verified, and some level of public oversight or serious self-regulation.

All that as a preface, I’ll start with the second question first which matters this way: if we really are a profession, then let’s stop dithering about it and get on with the hard political organizing needed to stake it out and lay full claim to it. If we are a profession, let’s make very specific recommendations from this conference to that effect and set in motion an agenda for pursuing it. This means finalizing agreed upon principles and practices, creating licensing and regulatory regimes to prevent any further encroachment of our work by other professions, and even poaching back that which has been nibbled away by others.

On the other hand, if we are not a field but part of some kind of multifaceted social movement, then let’s not waste more time on professionalization issues and get on with strategically changing a few more parts of our societies for the better.

This will be unpopular at this gathering but I lean towards the second. I think mediation and its allied processes are modest, interesting, and helpful social innovations but they are not the be-all and end-all that the most mediator-centric among us would have them be. As innovative methods and techniques they probably mirror deeper impulses regarding our visions of how democracy and civil societies should function. Certainly they have diffused and adapted into different corners of our societies and have influenced and altered parts of our legal system for the better. But, at the end of the day, they are just methods and techniques used by diverse people in diverse ways and for diverse purposes. And taken together they don’t add up to a coherent, collective, and common enterprise that warrants professionalization.

The shared values and techniques that seemingly link us together seem more like surface yearnings than a real commonality. They also stretch thin when we try to seriously connect our efforts across different areas of expertise. It’s a bit like an interfaith conversation between Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Mormons, Episcopalians, Buddhists, and Hindus. They all share an inspired belief in something universal and profound but the conversations don’t sustain very far except when they talk about the conventional techniques they all must engage in for tithing, offerings, managing church properties, and negotiating contracts with church boards of trustees. These are not unimportant “guild” issues but they aren’t the core that holds a larger profession together over the long run.

As mediators and facilitators, we have evolved, not into a profession, but into something like a set of partially developed trades. We are like plumbers, framers, electricians, and dry-wallers who might work side by side and who all might have some larger shared interest in the fate of the construction industry but who, in the end, have their own apprenticeships, their own certifications and public regulations, and their own unions. Watch our fellow mediators at meetings and you see some of this. Watch who people huddle with, talk to, listen to, network with, who they seem to respect as peers, and who they treat as colleagues, comrades, and kindred spirits.

Mediators, like, airline pilots, stock brokers, meeting planners, corporate compliance officers, hotel managers, disaster specialists, and X-Ray technicians, hang with their own kind. In our little world, community mediators come together because they share a certain philosophy of locale-based embeddedness, voluntarism, and loyalty to “place.” So too with the victim offender mediators, the special education mediators, the higher education mediators, the peer mediators, the workplace mediators, the environmental mediators, and the court mediators all of whom have their own close circles which rarely include mediators from other trades. Family mediators gravitate towards family court judges, social workers, and psychologists for their intellectual nourishment, their business contacts, their marketing, and their accountabilities. Environmental mediators like to talk with water experts, urban planners, and officials from the Department of Interior. The same holds true with each affinity group. This doesn’t mean that mediators in different areas don’t have things to learn from each other. It just means our professional identities are linked more to substantive application areas and less to procedural commonalities.

Trades, no less than professions, are interesting things. They evolve, mature, persist or die in relation to changing intellectual, technological, economic, or social circumstances. They bind people together who share like-minded ends or means, who claim a special intellectual and practice domain that is different from other domains, and who ultimately define, regulate, and defend the boundaries of their work. The hard truth is we are not a field because we are not really like minded and what we actually do, when you unpack it, is both universal and specialized. In our work, we are as different from each other as astronomers and astrologers and cosmologists and cosmetologists. We share certain general principles and values and some innovative methods and techniques but we apply them towards very different ends and in different ways.

Techniques by themselves also do not create or constitute professions. Nor do the standards for applying techniques. In 1853 two European doctors, Charles Gabriel Pravaz and Alexander Wood, working independently developed the modern syringe through which fluids can be extracted and medicines delivered. It was an astoundingly important and profession-changing innovation but it didn’t become a profession by itself. We don’t have “syringators” and “hypodermicologists.” Instead, the tool has been adapted for many different uses. The manufacture and use of syringes is regulated and follows standards but the larger professions to which these techniques apply – medicine, research, nursing, etc. –- are not built around injection techniques.

So, taken together and aggregated, what are we in? I believe we are small social, legal, and political innovation that has found its way into the mainstream in a few important areas and not others. The movement brings together a set of ideas and techniques that spring from different origins: labor relations, psychology, social work, communications, systems theory, military science, neuro-biology, and more. As a movement, it has certain roughly shared values with branches extending into many different fields, disciplines, domains, and professions. But the real taproots of our work are not the elaborate and varied convening choreographies we call “mediation” and “facilitation” but a set of more fundamental and dynamic ideas about communication, negotiation, and problem-taming. These are not domains that can be captured by any one group. They are foundational to disciplines as diverse as carpentry, aerodynamic engineering, and social work.

In our work these past few decades we have evolved a bit of focused theory and some specialized diagnostic techniques but none of those are unique to us. We have also shied away from broader certificates, licensure, and regulation except for purposes of particular organizational rosters. We have yet to be seriously incorporated into private and public agendas beyond the world of litigation and have a confusing array of unfederated skill-based organizations. Having a cogent body of theory, a set of serious diagnostic models, certifications or public regulation, and some kind of federated body are the hallmarks of professions. We don’t have those yet. It may happen in a few specialized areas of mediation that are highly legalized or institutionalized, but I suspect we never will have some overarching profession that links us all together.

The great danger at this gathering is that we will continue, mistakenly, to “reify” mediation and pretend it is something we all understand to be the same thing. As a graduate student I remember hearing that word “reify” from my professors and being puzzled by it. It sounded like an important word, something I should know about. Turns out it is an intellectual confusion, a logic trap. To reify something is to treat an abstraction as if it is something concrete. It is like talking about “health” or “beauty” or “culture” or “sustainability” or “justice” and assuming that these things are tangible, empirical, observable, and comparable in some common way we all agree on. All of these are big ideas, inspired ideas, ideas worth debating, studying, and pursuing, but these are also the wellsprings of inspiration for many different professions, fields, trades, and domains.

When we reify mediation we assume that it is something common, concrete, and similar to all of us. When we probe beneath the surface of our work, however, we see that it really isn’t. As our good friend Howard Bellman loves to say, just who is the “we” we all keep talking about?


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >

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