MANAGEMENT OF CONFLICT, CULTURE AND CHANGE
By: Sir Wilson Marotse Mulei1
What exactly is culture? Unfortunately a fixed, universal understanding does not exist; there is little consensus within, let alone, across disciplines. Often “culture” is applied so broadly, merely as “social pattern,” that it means very little. Highly specific, idiosyncratic definitions also abound where the term is used in various contexts in support of any agenda. When “culture” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary around 1430 it meant “cultivation” or “tending the soil,” based on the Latin culture. Into the 19th century “culture” was associated with the phrase “high culture,” meaning the cultivation or “refinement of mind, taste, and manners.” This generally held to the mid-20th century when its meaning shifted toward its present American Heritage English Dictionary definition: “The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.” Culture thus consists of group norms of behavior and the underlying shared values that help keep those norms in place. One of the primary characteristics of human life, over animal life, is that we assign symbolic meaning to ideas, behavior, and objects, as well as have language and speech. We say that humans have culture while animals do not. This is largely due to their inability to ascribe arbitrary symbolic meaning to their world—a chimpanzee could not designate his banana to signify honesty, for example. Culture is also adaptive in that it can and does change in response to various influences and conditions. No culture is truly static— many aspects of American culture are radically different in the wake of the Internet, the dot-com bubble, and global terrorism. And finally, culture is integrated in the sense that it permeates society and becomes part of the social machinery. Culture is the ever-present, ethereal medium in which members live and through which they act. British anthropologist Edward Tyler is widely credited with the first (1871) “modern” definition of culture: “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.” Undoubtedly this definition influenced the shift toward current dictionary definitions. Culture is an essential part of conflict and conflict resolution. Cultures are like underground rivers that run through our lives and relationships, giving us messages that shape our perceptions, attributions, judgments, and ideas of self and other. Though cultures are powerful, they are often unconscious, influencing conflict and attempts to resolve conflict in imperceptible ways. Cultures are more than language, dress, and food customs. Cultural groups may share race, ethnicity, or nationality, but they also arise from cleavages of generation, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, ability and disability, political and religious affiliation, language, and gender -- to name only a few. Two things are essential to remember about cultures: they are always changing, and they relate to the symbolic dimension of life. The symbolic dimension is the place where we are constantly making meaning and enacting our identities. Cultural messages from the groups we belong to give us information about what is meaningful or important, and who we are in the world and in relation to others -- our identities. Culture is constantly in flux -- as conditions change, cultural groups adapt in dynamic and sometimes unpredictable ways. Culture is elastic -- knowing the cultural norms of a given group does not predict the behavior of a member of that group, who may not conform to norms for individual or contextual reasons. Culture is largely below the surface, influencing identities and meaning-making, or who we believe ourselves to be and what we care about -- it is not easy to access these symbolic levels since they are...
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