Last morning we had an extremely interesting session with Dr.Iyer on Culture, Empathy, and Resilience, where we talked about their implications on conflict. We first talked about the nature of culture and illustrated it as an iceberg where customs and behavior stand at the visible tip and the values and our deeper understandings of the world remain underwater. Then we discussed the nature of empathy, as a crucial tool in understanding and intervening in conflict, as well as resilience, which is essential to post-conflict reconstruction.
I was particularly moved by a statement that Professor Avruch had made on the root of conflict, stating that conflict rides on culture, because conflicts are never about culture. It reminded me of cultural materialism, a research strategy proposed by Marvin Harris that prioritizes material, behavioral and etic processes in the explanation of the evolution of human socio-cultural systems. This research method treats human behavior and culture as an object of scientific inquiry and finds the roots of cultural traditions in material conditions. Professor Harris famously explained the Indian ‘sacred cow’ taboo by breaking it down to the fact that the cow is the factory that produces the ox, which, in turn, is the Indian peasant’s tractor, thresher and family car combined, thus extraordinarily useful. This deconstruction of culture brings me back to Professor Avruch’s point about conflict never being about culture itself, and reinforces my deep disagreement with both of these overlapping perspectives.
I don’t feel that it’s possible to detach culture from the root of conflict, as it’s so deeply ingrained in how people view and think of the world. There is a terminological distinction to be made on culture as only the expression of behavior in the form of traditions and customs (visible part of the iceberg) and culture as both, that as well as the deeper norms, values, and ways of thinking (invisible part of the iceberg), yet just as crucial in our understanding of conflict. Whereas it’s neat to see culture as exclusively visible, there is a whole world of cognitive patterns driving the behavior of individuals, which cannot be separated from the behavior itself.Following the definition that culture is how we make meaning of the world, and that conflict is primarily a clash of world views, I feel that it is safe to assume that conflict is very much about how we make meaning of the world, i.e. culture. Whereas it’s impossible to trace the root of sacred beliefs such as the Indian cow, it’s important to be mindful of the incremental meaning associated with it from communities over centuries. Culture is not an animal to be dissected in a lab, because the whole of collective meaning is so much more than the sum of its peaces. This is why I believe that it is outright reductionist to claim that there is a fundamentally material explanation for what drives individuals’ behavior, or that conflict is not caused by the forces driving individuals’ behavior, beliefs, and values.