Cultural and Worldview Frames

By
Michelle LeBaron

August 2003
 

To understand intractable conflicts, it is essential to understand that there are different levels operating in conflict. Different authors have described these levels in a number of ways. Chris Moore, in The Mediation Process,[1] refers to substantive, psychological, and procedural levels of conflict. By this, he means that people are concerned with the issues that need to be resolved (the 'what' of the conflict); the psychological aspects of the conflict (including power, status, emotions, and other relational parts of the conflictual interaction); and the procedural parts of the conflict (how it is addressed and with what assistance). Stone, Patton, and Heen in Difficult Conversations suggest that three conversations are needed in any conflict: the what conversation, the feeling conversation, and the identity conversation.[2] Schirch, in her 1999 dissertation, suggests that there are three levels to conflict: material/analytical, social/relational, and symbolic/perceptual.[3] In Bridging Troubled Waters,[4] I identify three levels of conflict: material, communicative, and symbolic, emphasizing that each level relates to the others.

What these approaches have in common is an acknowledgement that conflict is about more than appears on the surface. It is involved with identity and meaning -- who we see ourselves to be, and how we make and find meaning in our interactions with others, ideas, and the world. Intractable conflict usually involves some threat -- perceived or real -- to our identity or cherished meanings, or both. It may also be about material goods or resources, and it may be exacerbated by ineffective communication. But because intractable conflict is bound up with meanings and identities, it cannot be resolved by improving communication or finding better ways to deal with resources alone.

Identity and meaning are part of every human life in all world cultures. Meaning is generated from our sense of identity and from the information we receive. Our cultures give us messages about desirable identities (who we are, who we seek to be, and how we related to others) and sources of meaning (what matters and why). Since our cultures give us different ideas about identity and meaning, our way of pursuing our goals and working out differences can create or escalate conflict.

Our cultures exist within larger structures called 'worldviews'. In her new book In Search of Human Nature,[5] Mary Clark defines worldviews as "beliefs and assumptions by which an individual makes sense of experiences that are hidden deep within the language and traditions of the surrounding society."[6] These worldviews are the shared values and assumptions on which rest the customs, norms, and institutions of any particular society. Clark tells us that these worldviews are tacitly communicated by "origin myths, narrative stories, linguistic metaphors, and cautionary tales", and that they "set the ground rules for shared cultural meaning."[7]

What is the significance of worldviews and different value structures for those interested in conflict and conflict resolution? Here are some of the reasons they are important:

  • If we make fundamentally different meaning of the world, then all of our attempts to improve communication or expand the pie of our material resources will fail because we may not be addressing our deeper differences that continue to fuel conflicts.
  • When worldviews are not in our awareness nor acknowledged, stronger parties in conflict may advertently or inadvertently try to impose their worldviews on others. Far more profound than trying to impose a particular solution to a conflict or a way of communicating, the imposition of a worldview can be destructive to a whole way of life. For example, when Europeans first came to North America , they labeled First Nations and Native American ways of life as 'backward' and 'primitive'. With this evaluative ranking, they justified imposing new ways of life on the indigenous peoples in North America . The painful and destructive legacy of this perspective continues today.
  • Since worldviews contain and shape cultures (shared starting points and currencies or values), working effectively across cultures requires some understanding of the soil from which cultures come -- the seedbed called worldviews.
  • Worldviews can be resources for understanding and analyzing conflicts when fundamental differences divide groups of people. By looking at the stories, rituals, myths, and metaphors used by a group, we can learn efficiently and deeply about group members' identities (who they see themselves to be) and meanings (what matters to them and how they make meaning). When we do this with each side to a conflict, places of connection and divergence may become clearer, leading to a better understanding of the conflict in context.
  • Worldviews, with their embedded meanings, can be the seedbed from which new shared meanings emerge. These shared meanings may arise as people co-create new stories, design new rituals, and find inclusive metaphors to contain their meanings.

The balance of this essay will illustrate the above points, in turn.

If we make fundamentally different meaning of the world, then all of our attempts to improve communication or expand the pie of our material resources will fail because we may not be addressing our deeper differences that continue to fuel conflicts:

In intractable conflicts, the usual problem-solving approaches do not work. Intractable conflicts tend to have complex issues, histories of problematic communication, and worldview differences that are largely unacknowledged. Here is an example from a problem-solving process to create a set of understandings about a sensitive wilderness area. The process brought representatives of local business, local communities, government, scientists, recreation outfitters and guides, and conservation groups together with a facilitator. They worked to develop over a hundred consensus recommendations about the area. On the surface, the process was a success.

Yet, significant levels of disagreement still existed in the community. While this was to be expected, there was no way to surface or discuss some of these differences because they related not only to different views about what should or should not be done in the valley, but to different worldviews -- different ways of seeing the valley and people's relationships to it. Analysis of the problem-solving process showed that participants had worked according to a dominant understanding of the valley, reflected in the metaphors that were frequently used. Scientists, government representatives, recreation outfitters and guides, and local business leaders all referred to the valley as a precious resource to be shared, preserved and used. Sometimes the metaphors of farming or ranching were implied, as representatives spoke of managing, returning areas to wilderness, and protecting wildlife corridors. At other times, the metaphor of banking and trusts was invoked as participants spoke of investing in the future of the valley, discharging a trust as stewards of capital that should not be spent, but grown and protected.

As diverse as these metaphors are, they have some things in common. To some extent, they contemplate use and active management. Resources are to be exploited and preserved for future profit. Implicit in this metaphor is the assumption of human status, wisdom and entitlement to regulate the natural ecosystem. Farms or ranches exist to produce products to market, and require careful attention and cultivation. If the product in this case is tourism, it has to be marketed just as soybeans or rice are sold on world markets. Banks and trusts manage investments, seek high yields, and divide balance sheets into various accounts and commodities. So, the economic effects of any decisions on local business and residents were important considerations at the table.

What was missing from these metaphors? The metaphor of the conservationist of the trees in the valley as the 'hair of mother earth' was unspoken. It was unspoken because the discussions during the problem-solving process fit a particular, dominant worldview, and excluded the one favored by a member of the group who had a minority perspective. In this process, attempts to expand the pie of options or improve communication through getting people to paraphrase, restate, or listen actively did not reach the deeper level of difference -- the worldview level.

When worldviews are not in our awareness nor acknowledged, stronger parties in conflict may advertently or inadvertently try to impose their worldviews on others. Far more profound than trying to impose a particular solution to a conflict or a way of communicating, the imposition of a worldview can be destructive to a whole way of life:

In the example given above, the dominant worldview related to the "normality" of developing and using the wilderness area. With this assumption widely shared in the group, an alternative assumption that would lead to either limited access or no use did not find credence. It was not just a question of the person holding the divergent worldview needing to be more assertive in the problem-solving process. Rather, it was a question of what was considered 'reasonable' and 'rational' within the process. The process as it was constructed did not make room for radically different perspectives. From this, we can see that conflict resolution processes themselves are influenced by worldviews. When these worldviews are not articulated or recognized, they can act to implicitly screen out differing worldviews to the detriment of those who want to arrive at durable outcomes that reflect a wide range of views.

To test this example, consider your response to someone who puts forward an idea that seems outrageous or outside the bounds of what is reasonable or possible. Such suggestions most likely arise out of a different worldview from that shared by most people in the room. Aren't those who offer such challenges to the dominant worldview most often dismissed, made subjects of humor or puzzled head shaking, and seldom invited to elaborate? If those present suspended their disbelief and inquired further, they might find some important nuggets in the "far-out" suggestion that could be helpful, even important, in their final decision-making.

Since worldviews contain and shape cultures (a series of shared starting points and currencies or values), working effectively across cultures requires some understanding of the soil from which cultures come -- the seedbed called worldviews:

Worldviews shape, or help determine, values. Values change across cultures, since they have to do with what we consider most important, and the ways we see our relationships, the world, and ourselves. Some of the values that vary across cultures include:

  • Power -- social status, prestige, control over others and resources
  • Achievement -- success through competence according to social standards
  • Hedonism -- pleasure of sensuous gratification for self
  • Stimulation -- excitement, novelty, change in life
  • Self-direction -- independent thought and action - choice, creativity, exploring goals
  • Universalism -- understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of people and nature
  • Benevolence -- preservation and enhancement of the welfare of members of in-groups
  • Tradition -- respect, commitment, and acceptance of ideas from a person's culture and religion
  • Conformity -- restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others
  • Security -- safety, harmony, and stability of society, relationships, and self.[8]

In any given conflict, a combination of these values will play out. Because people relate to these values differently when they hold different worldviews, misunderstandings and negative judgments about "the other side" may follow. As people become aware of the existence of different worldviews, they may stop expecting "the other" to make sense of the way they perceive the world, and realize instead that "the other" makes sense of the problem from their own worldview. In other words, the other side's "outrageous or nonsensical ideas actually become reasonable and sensible when seen from their point of view.

An example of the value of recognizing the existence of divergent worldviews comes from the dialogues between advocates on either side of the abortion conflict in Canada and the United States. Though, to my knowledge, no systemic study has been conducted investigating value and worldview differences between pro-life and pro-choice advocates, my evaluation of dialogue processes reveals some interesting observations. (While there is no uniform position agreed by all pro-life or pro-choice advocates, I will generalize here for the purposes of illustration.).

Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates value benevolence, universalism, and security, but their worldviews lead to them to value these things differently. Pro-life advocates, for example, may see all life as sacred from the moment of conception, and suggest that no human being should second-guess God or the Universe in its life-creating and life-ending capacity. Their idea of benevolence thus extends to the unborn fetus as well as to the other people involved in an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy. Pro-choice advocates are no less benevolent, but are apt to focus their efforts to improve and enhance welfare on those already born. Their worldview may place more credence in science, or involve a different notion of when human life begins (for example, at the point the fetus is viable outside the womb or at the point of quickening when a woman first discerns life within).

Part of the reason that the abortion debate has become so heated and volatile is that it is bound up with social and legal rules. Both sides would like their views to be universal, at least within the countries of Canada or the United States. Many pro-life advocates argue against public funding for, or provision of, abortion services. Many pro-choice advocates argue for public funding and universal availability of these services. As these two directions for universal application of norms, standards, and public services have clashed, the intractable conflict between the two sides has escalated. The value of security also plays out in the pro-life, pro-choice conflict. Pro-life advocates are concerned about the security of unborn children and the families into which they are born. Pro-choice advocates focus on the security of those involved with unwanted and unplanned pregnancies. While both are concerned with security, they differ in some important ways on what security means.

Dialogues convened by the Network for Life and Choice helped pro-life and pro-choice advocates become aware of their differing worldviews, and made the process of uncovering shared aspects of values possible.

Worldviews can be resources for understanding and analyzing conflicts when fundamental differences divide groups of people. By looking at the stories, rituals, myths, and metaphors used by a group, we can learn efficiently and deeply about group members' identities (who they see themselves to be) and meanings (what matters to them and how they make meaning). When we do this with each party to a conflict, places of connection and divergence may become clearer, leading to a better understanding of the conflict in context:

How did pro-choice and pro-life advocates come to see each other's worldviews, thus building a base of respect for each other that was broad enough to support dialogue and discover shared values? In the dialogues conducted by The Network for Life and Choice, facilitators asked participants to do two things that helped reveal their worldviews. They were asked to share personal stories of how they came to their views and to tell each other about their heroes and heroines. In doing so, they revealed things about their identity, what they found meaningful, their ideas about the nature of life, relationships, and "right living." Listening to these stories, the dialogue participants found it harder to sustain negative images of the other, recognizing instead commonalities that had previously been closed to them. From this base of empathy, they were able to explore shared values with more ease, while not losing sight of the aspects of values they did not share. Similarly, sharing heroes helped participants glimpse what was precious to others, and revealed aspects of values they shared.[9]

Worldviews, with their embedded meanings, can be the seedbed from which new shared meanings emerge. These shared meanings may arise as people co-create new stories, design new rituals, and find inclusive metaphors to contain their meanings:

Through dialogue, advocates from pro-life and pro-choice perspectives came to see that they shared some values. Both sides agreed about some aspects of security, for example that action to alleviate female and child poverty is desirable and necessary. Similarly, both pro-life and pro-choice advocates agreed on benevolence in the form of adoption services for those who desire them, and on ways to limit behavior outside clinics that might hurt or intimidate. They also agreed that some things should be universal: dignity and respect for all, for example, including the right to advocate for a point of view without fear of violence or reprisal.

One of the ways that they came to see these shared aspects of values was through the dialogic process of creating new stories and new identities. Participants in ongoing pro-choice/pro-life dialogue groups reported no diminishment of their ardor as advocates, but they did report that they assumed additional identities as participants in common ground. These new identities led them to humanize each other even as they pursued their social and legal agendas about the issue of abortion and ways of dealing with unwanted, unplanned pregnancies.

Summary

Worldviews are those systems or structures within which our values, beliefs, and assumptions lie. They influence how we see ourselves and others (identities) and how we make meaning of our lives and relationships. Since resolving conflict necessarily involves some kind of change, it is essential to understand the operation of worldviews. When people are asked to change their identity or things they find meaningful, they will resist, sometimes even when the alternative is death. Worldviews keep our lives coherent, giving them a sense of meaning, purpose, and connection. Conflict resolution processes need to help people look into each other's worldviews without trying to change them. As illustrated by the abortion dialogue example, it is possible to uncover shared values, or shared aspects of values, without fundamentally changing worldviews. Developing approaches to uncover shared values is an important area for future development in conflict analysis and resolution.


[1] Moore, Christopher. The Mediation Process. (2nd Ed.) San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1996.

[2] Stone, Douglas F., Patton, Bruce, and Heen, Sheila. Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. New York: Penguin Press, 2000.

[3] See Schirch, Lisa. Ritual Peacebuilding: Creating Contexts Conducive to Transformation. Fairfax, Virginia, 1999. Unpublished dissertation, p. 14. Schirch's work is informed by the work of John F. Cragan and Donald C. Shields in their book. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 1995, p. 20.

[4] LeBaron, Michelle. Bridging Troubled Waters: Conflict Resolution from the Heart. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2002.

[5] Clark, Mary. In Search of Human Nature. London: Routledge, 2002.

[6] Ibid., p. 5.

[7] Ibid.

[8] These definitions and categories from Carbaugh, Donal. Intercultural Theory. http://eco.ittralee.ie/personal/theories-III.php Accessed October, 2002.

[9] LeBaron, Michelle and Nike Carstarphen. Negotiating Intractable Conflict: The Common Ground Dialogue Process and Abortion. Negotiation Journal, Vol. 13, No. 4, October 1997, 341âÂ?Â?361.

 

Use the following to cite this article:
LeBaron, Michelle. "Cultural and Worldview Frames." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/cultural-frames>.


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