Quick Review: Culture, Conflict, and Mediation in the Asian Pacific

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I have been reading Bruce E. Barnes’ Culture, Conflict, and Mediation in the Asian Pacific and found it unbelievably helpful as one who has been working in Asian contexts for the last decade and who currently is engaged regularly with people from over a dozen Asian nations.

The book is an exploration of how culture has influenced dispute resolution practices throughout Asia. There are chapters for each main country in Asia and they include Hawaii as well for integrative reasons.  Each chapter uses some of Hofstede’s cross-cultural indexes in different areas to provide a basic framework for the discussion and then the author unpacks the history of conflict resolution practices within those nations and how they may or may not have changed due to political or national changes.

For example – I didn’t realize China had such a rich history and interesting systems of mediation built into the framework of their history and culture and it was fascinating to see how Confucianism shaped conflict practices in different ways in China, Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan.  There was so much that really helps you understand more nuances of approaches to negotiation, conflict, or how to handle disputes.

The book provides a lot of comparative analysis between nations in some ways too so you can see how Japan is different from other Asian nations or how the Philippines or Indonesia is different.  In the west, most people now understand that “saving face” is a big deal, but this was a great resource to explore how those dynamics are different in different Asian countries and what the background influences culturally and historically might be.

The biggest takeaway from this book though relates to third-party strategies to conflict. Henry Cloud posted on facebook a couple of weeks ago a quote that said, “Direct communication is the best way to go through life.”  He went on and elaborating on things related to emotional and relational health. I think there are ways that this statement is true, but the book reinforced the reality that there are many ways in which indirect conflict resolution is healthier and in fact – better.

This is a worthy conversation – but I’ve seen too many white or American leaders write off, dismiss, wear down, or shame Asian-American or Asian leaders who were trying to resolve things genuinely, but that just weren’t respected or judged because their approach was different. Some of those things are not healthy, but not as much as what an average white American might think.

There are many ways where an indirect and third-party system of dispute resolution is very much compatible with the Scriptures and it’s worth a lot of reflection and cross-cultural dialogue about these situations and practices. You may find that it may offer a helpful corrective to some assumptions about certain Biblical passages related to conflict or at least it may expand the possible range of meaning and application.

I have been working through different strategies of how to apply some of the wisdom gained in this book, especially when matched up with insights from Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures and Cross-Cultural Conflict.  At the heart – it’s about a relationship first approach to conflict which I have come to increasingly value instead of the propositional truth or logic approach to conflict resolution.

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