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Multidisciplinarity in Mediation: The Dilemma

Few people enter the field of Mediation without having some other professional background and experience. As a matter of fact, the average mediator could starve to death trying to make a living on mediation alone. Because mediation is being used more often to resolve workplace conflicts and claims of discrimination and other civil rights violations, individuals in a variety of professional supervisory positions are being called upon to obtain mediation training and recognition. In addition, increasing numbers of professions and businesses are beginning to develop their own internal mediation programs and Standards of Practice. For example, the NASW Board of Directors approved the Standards of Practice for Social Work Mediators as early as June 30, 1991.

We are living in an entirely new world that is becoming strongly influenced by the interdisciplinary worldview. There are a number of joint initiatives and governmental studies that demonstrate the value of collaboration and multidisciplinarity. In addition, the evolution of organization models is moving towards hybrid disciplines such as Social Psychology and Biochemistry. Examples of models such as General systems, Sociobiology, and Structuralism take into account a broader context, which leads to more innovative and lasting improvements within the disciplines. The uses of Cross-disciplinary approaches are becoming commonplace among various human service professionals who deal with: Aging, Child Abuse, Cities and Communities, Criminal Justice, Environment, Sexuality, etc. The list is growing daily.

Inclusive rather than exclusionary thinking involves the integration and synthesis of alternative viewpoints. The multidisciplinarian uses a synthesized conceptual framework that draws together a number of discipline-specific theories and methodologies to address common problems. At the same time, the multidisciplinarian must be aware of the basic assumptions and the legitimate differences between the different disciplines.

A positive result of the recognition of multidisciplinarity across disciplines is that it can lead to new practical approaches to mediation. In addition, it can raise the stature of Mediation through positive collaboration.

The many advantages of multidisciplinarity are:

  • Multidisciplinarity fosters higher levels of explanatory power.
  • Solutions to complex problems require the integration of multiple perspectives.
  • Multiple methodologies leads to increased levels of validity
  • Multiple disciplinary perspectives leads to better identification of the negative consequences of narrowly based policies and interventions.
  • Multiple professions will be represented in the field and no one profession will dominate the development of credentialing or the Standards of Practice.

Three crucial questions need to be asked:

1. How will the profession of Mediation differentiate and define itself among the growing number of professions that are developing mediation or conflict resolution programs with industry-specific standards?

2. How much integration and synthesis of education and mediation experience will be allowed across disciplines?

3. How much structural flexibility (training, credentialing, standards of practice, ethical guidelines etc.) will be tolerated?

Educational and training preparation for mediation is not enough. Mediation training must be backed up by actual mediation experience. But, old organizational approaches to Mediation credentialing or professional recognition are still based on a hierarchical model. The old model places a higher priority on quantitative rather than qualitative experience. The assumption is that the number of mediations one performs in any given period of time is a valid indicator of professional dedication and excellence. Some ADR organizations still base standards of professional recognition on the number of actual agreements reached by individual mediators.

It goes without saying that there’s no substitution for mediation experience, but the type and number of mediations will vary greatly among the various professions. The rigid certification requirements of most professions, however, have made it difficult for multidisciplinarians to become fully engaged in pursuing the vertical requirements of each profession. Individuals who are engaged in a primary profession, but who are also trained Mediators, will not be able to achieve the artificial numerical limits placed by Mediation membership organizations that are attempting to upgrade their professional standards.

The argument that Mediation must stand-alone as a profession in order to achieve and maintain recognized legitimacy is no longer valid in this increasingly holistic age. If professional recognition is made too difficult to achieve for those who practice mediation along with their primary profession, those professionals will increasingly turn to their own professional organizations with demands for the creation of internal certification programs. The end result could be that Mediation membership organizations will wither and die on the vine of disuse because of an elitist but overly generalist approach that fails to open itself to cross-disciplinary collaboration and acceptance.

If we desire innovative and comprehensive approaches to the field of Mediation, then we must accept much greater structural flexibility than our current system of recognition allows. We must recognize that professional preparation programs almost always borrow from many disciplines. We need to develop a combination of quantitative, qualitative, and intuitive approaches to questions of cross-professional recognition in the filed of Mediation. We need to remind ourselves that Mediation is all about the promotion of mutual respect among the proponents of divergent viewpoints. Mediation is singularly posed, above all the professions, to model the promotion of cross-disciplinary acceptance.


Barbara Sowell

Barbara W. Sowell is a Licensed Master Social Worker and trained Mediator. She earned a Master degree in Theology (M.T.S.) from Brite Divinty School (TCU) in 1999. Barbara is a trained mediator and social worker with over fifteen years of professional experience. Her rich multidisciplinary background gives her a unique… MORE >

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