Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Strategic Maneuvering in Dispute Mediation

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Strategic Maneuvering in Dispute Mediation

Article excerpt

The article examines transcripts from dispute mediation to explore mediators' strategic maneuvering for keeping disputants on task--that is, on creating a plan regarding custody and visitation arrangements for their children. The concept of strategic maneuvering (van Eemeren 2010; van Eemeren and Houtlosser 2001) was developed for principals in a dispute but not so much for third parties who are responsible for the quality of interaction, for example, mediators. During mediation sessions, the goal of achieving a reasonable settlement goes hand in hand with participants' attempts to get what they want, so parties are involved in strategic interaction to balance both aims. In contrast to disputants whose gains are related to their personal interests, mediators' interests, in a way, are the ones of the conciliation court on behalf of which they act. Mediators' strategic maneuvering orients to achieving the institutional goal. The article explores mediators' institutional practices to keep disputants on task and to constrain what becomes arguable.

Institutional practices, in this context, are interactional features of mediation talk. Institutional talk differs from ordinary conversation in many aspects (e.g. lexical choice, turn design, and sequence organization (Drew and Heritage 1992)), which can influence how disagreement is managed. For example, in mediation talk, disputants often direct their utterances to the mediator rather than the other disputant, which helps to mitigate disagreement between them (Garcia 1991). Thus, mediation talk, although it varies among centers and practitioners, carries some expectations about what is an adequate contribution to interaction, and what is a violation. While strategic maneuvering can be associated with an individual choice of strategies interactants use (e.g. Muraru 2012), it is possible to identify some common practices mediators employ as institutional agents. This study, in particular, focuses on moves mediators make and their framing, (1) topics they treat as institutionally (in)appropriate, identities they advance, and how these features of interaction contribute to constructing argumentative activity.

The study takes a communicative view of argumentation that emphasizes the importance of discourse in understanding argumentation concepts, which was advanced by a conversational argument approach and pragma-dialectics (Jacobs and Jackson 1981; van Eemeren et al. 1996). This view integrates pragmatics with its focus on language use in the context and treats argumentation as a dialogic process and a collaborative activity.

The study examines custody mediation and claims that mediators' strategic maneuvering in this type of mediation has its own specificity. Mediators use a variety of interactional resources to manage disagreement but institutional and interactional constraints of mediation talk limit their communicative work. The study also suggests that the concept of strategic maneuvering can be further developed by including identities as another type of interactional resources employed to shape argumentative activity.

In the following sections, I explain the concept of strategic maneuvering, discuss research on mediators' communication work, describe the data and method, analyze mediators' strategic maneuvering, and discuss findings.

Strategic maneuvering

Strategic maneuvering is one of the key concepts developed in the framework of pragmadialectics (van Eemeren 2010; van Eemeren and Houtlosser 2001). (2) This concept arose because participants of argumentative activity not only pursue the goal of discussion, which is the resolution of difference of opinion, but also try to achieve their own goals. In strategic maneuvering, interactants use rhetorical moves to lead discussion in the direction that is advantageous to them for reaching their aim. Strategic maneuvering manifests itself

in making an expedient choice from the options constituting the topical potential--the set of relevant alternatives--associated with a particular discussion stage, in selecting a responsive adaptation to audience demand--the listeners' or readership's expectations and preferences--, and in exploiting appropriate presentational devices--the phrasing of moves in the light of their discursive and stylistic effectiveness, (van Eemeren and Houtlosser 2001, 152)

Although pragma-dialecticians emphasize that interactants' primary goal is resolving difference of opinion and not just reaching their own ends, and that they are expected to follow the rules of critical discussion while trying to achieve that (van Eemeren and Houtlosser 2001), the concept of strategic maneuvering suggests that interactants shape discussion using resources available in this very interaction. …

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