Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.5

Glen Fisher: The Mindsets Factor in Ethnic Conflict: A Cross-cultural Agenda.

Intercultural Press, Inc. 1998. 114 pages.

Reviewed by Neil Funk-Unrau

If there is one point that comes through strong and clear in Glen Fisher's latest book, it is that culturally-based perceptions have to be addressed in any response to ethnic conflict situations. Fisher argues that the mindsets, or cultural lenses, with which the disputing parties (and the potential interveners) view the world are crucial factors for understanding and responding to their conflict.

The centrality of culture is almost self-evident merely by the means in which a conflict is defined as "ethnic". For Fisher, "ethnic conflict" refers to conflicts which move out of the realm of interaction between sovereign states and focus more on the interaction of culturally-defined substate units. From this perspective, conflict between such units is a normal consequence of the different perceptions, mindsets and value systems held by them. Differences of perception are crucial here; rational and "reasonable" responses to ethnic conflict will not go far because each party to the conflict is programmed with its own mindset and its own perceptions of what a rational response would be.

Fisher then identifies five ethnic-specific, mindset-related questions and devotes an all-too-brief chapter to the implications of each of these "problem areas" for diagnosing and responding to the factors of any specific ethnic conflict. First, what are the key ingredients going into these mindsets that come into conflict? A full response to this question requires an understanding of how a specific conflict is perceived by the ethnic parties caught within it.

Second, who is included within the ethnic group in conflict and what are the specific factors that define inclusion/exclusion for the group? This question opens up the whole topic of ethnic identity and the range of factors such as language, religion and sense of common history that impact on that identity.

Third, how rigidly set are the mindsets pertinent to the conflict? The intransigence of the conflict is analyzed in terms of idea patterns and perceptions strongly imbedded within the cultural group and thus extremely resistant to change.

After having focused attention on the mindsets of the disputing groups, the identity factors of these groups and the intransigence of the conflict between them, Fisher then poses the fourth question. Do the solutions proposed for conflict resolution themselves raise cross-cultural considerations? Here, he begins to examine the perceived legitimacy of potential postconflict arrangements. In Fisher's view, such legitimacy is dependent on the expansion of the worldview and sense of identity of the disputing ethnic group so as to include a mindset and identity inclusive of the former enemy.

In other words, the management and eventual resolution of the ethnic conflict is dependent on the generation of a multiethnic state identity and the creation of a multicultural mindset. However, this leads to a dilemma which Fisher notes but does not explore sufficiently. Can one expect political culture to change and ethnic identity to expand fast enough to defuse ethnic conflict? This question requires much more extensive study of historical and contemporary ethnic conflict situations than Fisher is able to provide.

The fifth question is the most crucial for Fisher's primary audience. What is the role of the international community in addressing ethnic conflict and how is this role legitimized? Here Fisher extends further his theme of encouraging the creation of an expanded worldview and an expanded identity. The role of the international community gains legitimacy as an ethnic grouping begins to move beyond itself and to identify as members of that international community.

In his conclusion, Fisher belatedly acknowledges the need for more real conflict applications. He attempts to encourage the analysis of specific ethnic conflicts by providing a checklist of twelve key concerns related to the culturally-based patterns of thinking and mindsets driving such conflicts. This checklist can also provide some useful and practical points of inquiry for researchers examining the cultural dynamics of any specific ethnic conflict situation.

Peacekeepers, negotiators and other international intervenors, for whom the concept of culture as central to ethnicity and to ethnic conflict is still a relatively new idea, will find this slim volume a useful primer on the topic. Other readers may prefer to seek out some more extensive treatment of the issues and questions briefly noted by Fisher.

However, by providing a useful outline of basic concepts and questions, the book certainly can be a good introduction to the tangled web of culture and conflict, and a valuable starting point for further analysis and reflection.

Neil Funk-Unrau has an M.A. in Peace Studies from the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and am presently working on a doctorate in Social Science from Syracuse University, focusing on the theme of cross-cultural intervention into an Aboriginal conflict.

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