Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Culture and conflict

How do cultural differences affect conflict escalation and the effectiveness of conflict interventions?

Eric van Dijk

This research is part of the NWO Conflict and Security program.

Due to globalization, migration and technological developments such as the internet and social media, we increasingly interact with people who have different norms, values and cultural belief systems. Facing people with different values or cultural belief systems—and failure to understand the other’s perspective or reasoning—can raise tension and conflicts between individuals or groups that easily escalate and are hard to resolve. Our project specifically addresses these kinds of conflicts by examining how they differ from conflicts over material resources with the aim to find ways to prevent or resolve intercultural tensions and value conflicts.

In this project, we build on a recently developed cultural framework which distinguishes between honor, dignity and face cultures. Our main focus lies on differences between honor and dignity cultures because they represent the majority and the largest ethnic minority groups in Dutch society. Previous research in this project has shown that conflicts tend to develop very differently for people from these two cultural background. In dignity cultures conflicts tend to develop gradually over time and escalate when both parties operate in an increasingly competitive way. In honor cultures however, people are consistently more obliging and conflict-avoiding in the initial stages of a conflict, as they aim to prevent overt confrontations. Once the conflict becomes overt, people from an honor culture feel compelled to fiercely protect their reputation and may become aggressive in response to threats to their honor.

The discovery of these cultural differences indicate that traditional Dutch approaches to conflict resolution “let’s talk about it”— might not be as effective for people from honor cultures, because it makes the conflict overt. Also, the two distinct phases in conflict management (early conflict avoidance and late conflict escalation, divided by a breaking point at which escalation starts) may require that two very different approaches to deal with a conflict involving people from honor cultures. First, we need specific interventions aimed at preventing a conflict from escalating and reaching the breaking point. Second, we need interventions to diminish and resolve a conflict once it has escalated into an open confrontation. In our current research, we examine practical interventions aimed at managing these two different phases effectively, taking into consideration concerns associated with the protection and maintenance of honor.

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