Cultural Bias

Kevin Avruch

Professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Sometimes swimming in the water, it's hard to know that you're in the water right? A fish doesn't know that he's in the water, and a fish doesn't know that they breathe. A intervener, or some sort of third party, will have a hard time distinguishing various cultural variancts. I am wondering if there are questions that one can ask oneself to reveal the highlight cultural distinctions that will make a difference?

A: Sure. There are two kinds of cultural competencies. One kind is the competence in the area to be dealt with. That is, the old-fashioned notion that you are an area expert; you speak the language, you know the history, and so forth. It's important to have one of those folks on the team, or as your interpreter.

The other kind of cultural competence is a kind of sensitivity to the existence of cultural differences and their importance. This is what, I presume, you are asking about. The way in which you can be trained to be mindful of them is to, first of all, know in general the ways in which culture affects communication -- high context, low context, individualism, collectivism -- so that you come in with some training. Then at the micro-level, to be aware of moments in the exchange that are opaque to you that you don't understand. That may strike you as being morally, emotionally wrong. If you are having a discussion with someone and they say, "Yes, my teenage daughter stayed out late last night and I beat her," your response probably would be, "Huh?" Instead of saying "huh?" and thinking to yourself, "OK, this guy's a savage," you go, "Huh, what was that about?" He might say, "Well, you know, she really compromised the honor of our family by doing that." Well then you have this notion of honor and you have to think to yourself, "All right, I was stopped by the report of this girl's beating, now I know there's a term called honor. Let me impact that. What does that mean? How is it deployed?"

The way in which you do cultural analysis is actually pretty homely. It involves coming across stuff that as Peter Black once said, "violates your common sense." The anthropologist Michael Eggert talked about these as rich points that are pregnant with meaning and some kind of interaction. If you are a skilled third party, you're not only monitoring yourself but you're monitoring the other parties to see points at which the other party - if its an intercultural experience - is stopped by something you said or did, or by something that their antagonist said or did. A lot of the practices involve mindfulness, monitoring, self-awareness and some baseline knowledge.

Q: With a particular lens for surprises about your common sense, or things that go against your own common sense?

A: In this sense being a good cultural analyst is no different from being a good psychoanalyst in the sense that every psychoanalyst ought to have undergone an analysis of him or herself to find out what the contours of their own psyche are. In the same sense, every cultural analyst should know where they come from. Am I a Christian? Well, am I a Christian in the sense that Christians talk about Christians, and if I'm negotiating between Jews and Muslims how does that affect me? Am I a feminist? If I really am a feminist and I'm negotiating an abortion clinic issue in the city how does that affect me? Am I a liberal? Am I a conservative? All of those things are important. What is my view of the world? What are the schemes or scripts by which I play out the world? How does that affect he way I hear or see or listen for other schemes or other scripts?...

Q: Lets say for example, that there is a big increase in Hispanic gang violence in North Washington right now. That is an interesting case because there are Hispanic gangs who are here who have neither pure Hispanic culture nor pure American culture. They are sort of mixing between the two, yet there is an organizational culture of the gang. How does one begin to think about a problem like that with a cultural lens?

A: I think that one begins by the insight that you already brought to it. These are not simply American gangs, or Nicaraguan gangs, or Dominican gangs. These are gangs that come out of a mixed cultural environment where people bring different experiences to it. I think the first thing that one has to do is to understand the symbols, the dynamics of the gang, and the characteristics of the people who are recruited for it. Why it is an attractive option? What about needs on a more general level? What needs do the gangs satisfy, whether they are a functional equivalence that can be substituted? What are some of the ways to generate alternate symbols of identity, or of manhood, or of respect. Then there are the issues of unemployment in Washington D.C., or the failure of the educational system in Washington, and post-911 immigration policies about illegal immigration. There are all the issues that impact upon it that will go to creating the symbols of gang membership and the dynamics of a gang.

Q: Maybe more of a structural level? Great, well thank you.