Academic journal article The International Schools Journal

Resolving Conflicts in International Schools through an Understanding of Culture

Academic journal article The International Schools Journal

Resolving Conflicts in International Schools through an Understanding of Culture

Article excerpt

The role of culture

We shall begin by examining how the word is applied. In the diverse society of an international school 'culture' is commonly invoked as the basis of differences of opinion between individuals and between communities. In these cases the behaviour or perceptions of one community are felt by another community to be wrong, and the disagreement is about valuations.

Schools often measure their diversity by the number of nationalities present. It may be advertised by a display of iconic indicators of their culture such as the five 'f's (food, fashion, famous people, festivals, and flags) perhaps on an 'International Day' chosen for that purpose. These indicators are selected - diplomatically - to be moral-value neutral, like 'High Culture', those forms of artistry which are iconic in a particular society. They are not usually a source of inter-group conflict because they are valued for their distinctiveness and therefore not expected to be universal. Cultural conflicts erupt most often in international schools through divergences of opinions on everyday issues or actions between people in two different social groups, or when children or parents expect the school to provide essentials which they associate with membership of their particular society. What these cultural phenomena have in common is that they concern 'doing the right thing' and are valued (or taken for granted) within a particular social group. This echoes Goodenough's (1957) definition of culture: 'whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to [a society's] members.'

The term 'culture' has often been used in an essentialist way as an intrinsic property of a community, leaving little need or opportunity to analyse its causes, effects and mechanism. If it is an essential property we might suppose that it is unaffected by context or experience, which we will see is not actually the case. It may even be considered innate and hence beyond attempts to modify, enrich, or develop it. The related phenomenon of 'cultural identity' has been presented as a monolithic set of identifications unique to a particular taxon within an arbitrary classification, and possessed stereotypically by all members (Brubaker and Cooper, 2000). This is clearly a misconception.

Analysis of such problems has been limited by some conventional practices. Social groups are often catalogued by nationality, but in reality class, gender, skin colour, age, language, dialect, interests, can each give a basis for categorisation, as a recent book amply shows (Tanu, 2018). Any group of interacting people will in time develop its own norms and values which are esteemed and practised by members. The individual will grow up having membership of numerous often concentric groups, and the capacity to behave in fitting ways when with each group or when having them in mind. Even more fundamental than later group identifications are earlier personal values, legitimated by personal relationships, which give an individual a repertoire of cultural behaviour patterns. These idiosyncrasies contribute to the 'noise' which may conceal 'signals' of statistically significant group difference - between nations, for example, to quote the category most often used in research. The classic work on dimensions of national cultural difference by Hofstede (1991) shows that national populations make different average valuations on a range of parameters. However, these national averages cannot be taken to predict the character of individuals; no-one is deterministically 'Greek' or 'female' to the exclusion of other qualities.

Culture is often discussed in terms of its content. Lists are offered of specific norms and values in which two communities differ, as though these were the only or the most important arenas of contrast. In reality, values potentially include all the evaluations and decisions that we learn within the social groups in which we live. …

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