Saturday, March 11, 2006

“We”, “They”, Culture and Conflict

Author: Gaga Nizharadze

The “We” and “They” pronouns are contained in every existing language. “We” basically refers to the group of people “I” identifies itself with. This could be family, relatives, friends, colleagues, a political party, social stratum, nation, etc. Let us call all of them “We” groups. “They”, consequently, are the groups with whom “I” does not identify itself. These could be labeled “Outer” groups. “We “versus “They” represents one of the major classifiers of social reality.
Relationship between “We” and “Outer” groups could be very different, ranging from benevolent and neutral to hostile. In certain cases an individual might value an outer group higher than the group he or she belongs to and try hard to get an access to it (“Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” by Moliere could serve as an example here). But normally a person gives higher evaluation to “We” group or groups and performs a corresponding behavior in relation to them. The existence of “We” and “Outer” groups could explain the application of different ethical criteria to those who are considered “We” and to the people belonging to “They”. The conversation of a Negro with an English traveler probably gives the most striking example of such a philosophy. When asked by the Englishman what was good and what was bad the Negro gave the following answer: “It’s good when our tribe attacks its neighboring tribe and seizes its women and cows. It’s bad when the neighboring tribe attacks us and seizes our women and cows”. It is easily understandable that such a thinking style, even revealed in a less extreme form, often causes inter-group conflicts.
Duality of the ethical standard applied to “We” and “They” is observed throughout the world, but the peculiarities of this or that culture contribute to inter-group relationships.
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Individualism versus Collectivism is one of the major variables of the psychology of culture. In the individualist cultures a person is basically driven by his family members’ interests (spouse, children). He is usually a member of a relatively large number of outer groups (like different clubs, associations, etc), but such a membership is mostly voluntary and group impact on the person is relatively weak. The Anglo-Saxon and the North European cultures belong to the most individualist societies.
In the collectivist societies an individual is basically motivated by the interests of the groups he belongs to. For this he gets group help and protection. Besides, the person belongs to fewer “We” groups, but the ties within the groups are stronger than those in the “We” groups of the individualist culture. Most cultures in the world can be considered collectivist.
As compared to individualists collectivists treat “Outer” groups in a better way (at least in terms of hospitality), but, at the same time, they better realize that are dealing with strangers. On the other hand, individualists show more trust in strangers when involved in business relations. For instance, a Georgian (the collectivism level is quite high in Georgia) tries do get help from his acquaintances (a doctor or a provider of some service), whereas a Dutch believes that any doctor, whoever he is, will properly serve any client. This clearly shows that the dual ethical standard applied to “We” and strangers is more characteristic of the collectivist society.
Individualists’ reaction to a negative treatment of “We” groups will be the same irrespective of the source of such a treatment. Collectivists and especially representatives of the oriental cultures are quite insensitive to the insult aimed at the “We” group if it comes from a high status person.
Conflict theories identify five behavioral styles in relation to conflict situation – competition (struggle for one’s own interests, only), compromise (both parties make a concession), accommodation (the group gives up its interests to maintain a good relationship), cooperation (taking care of one’s own and the other party’s interests) and avoidance (giving up both one’s own interests and the relationship). The findings show that the individualist and collectivist cultures give preference to different styles. Individualists find their own interests more important and for this reason often get involved in competition, cooperation and compromise, whereas collectivists give preference to avoidance and accommodation. However, it is also true that the latter group is often involved in competition (and sometimes even a severe competition) with the “Outer” groups.
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Inter-group conflict is often based on the so-called ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is a belief system according to which the “We” group (basically nation) is in the center of the universe and all the rest is located depending on it. Chauvinism, an extreme case of ethnocentrism, was given a crushing definition by an intelligent French person:”The most disgusting about chauvinism is not so much the hatred of other nations as the love for what is considered one’s own”.
Ethnocentrism is based on four “axioms”:
1. What happens in our culture is “natural” and “right”. What happens in other cultures is “unnatural” and”wrong”.
2. Our traditions, habits and norms are universally valuable.
3. Our traditions, norms and values are “right”.
4. It is natural to like your group members, help them, cooperate with them, be proud of your group and at the same time distrust “outer” groups and even be hostile to them.
Ethnocentrism is more or less characteristic of every ethnic group. Two types of ethnocentrism, positive and negative, have been identified. The former is patriotism – love for one’s own nation and the feeling of pride related to it. The latter includes nationalism and chauvinism - hatred of other nations and belief in one’s own superiority. As a rule, nationalism is accompanied by the authoritarian regime, conservatism, thinking stereotypes and aggressiveness.
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Culture has a very strong impact on all the spheres of social realty, including interpersonal and inter-group conflicts. The trends and effects described in the present article do not exhaust the topic. Our bulletin will continue the discussion of these issues.

1 comment:

Rappo said...

Hi Levan,

I found your weblog with the search-machine technorati. Tnak you for the Link and this excellent text.

Have a good time!

Regards from Leipzig.