ODR, the Internet and Contemporary Diversity

This Cyberweek activity seeks to bring together the two threads of substance and process. The substantive, contemporary issue is this: in recent months, a number of political leaders have suggested that multiculturalism is dead, and is either a failed social experiment or no longer necessary as a matter of policy. At the same time, we don't have to look too far to see ongoing evidence of the daily realities of pluralism in many nations: the fact of cultural, linguistic and religious diversity certainly can't be wished away by announcing the death of multiculturalism.


At the same time, we find that the various tools of Internet-based communication, especially those of social media and networking, are vehicles for the transmission of ideas, beliefs, values and prejudices that reinforce the need for clear public discourse on diversity and pluralism.


The aim of this forum in Cyberweek is to ask this specific question: in what ways, and with what constraints (if any), can the resources of the Internet be used to negotiate the issues of contemporary diversity? This is a question about THREE linked issues:


1. the present reality of diversity and difference;


2. the imperatives and challenges of informed and civil dialogue; and


3. the specific application of the tools of social media to those purposes.


Moderated by:


Ian Macduff is Practice Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Dispute Resolution in the School of Law, Singapore Management University, where he teaches courses in negotiation, conflict resolution, and ethics. Until June of 2008 he was the Director of the NZ Centre for Conflict Resolution, Faculty of Law, Victoria University of Wellington. For 30 years, he has been an independent mediator and trainer in a number of fields, including

  • Resource management (including indigenous rights)
  • Commercial
  • Family
  • Community and neighbourhood
  • Medical disciplinary
  • Publishing and intellectual property
  • Organisational and employment


He has been consultant and trainer for the World Health Organisation for a capacity building programme in Sri Lanka from 1999 to 2001 and again in 2004. He is co-editor of Ethnic Conflict and Secessionism in South and South East Asia (Sage, 2003); co-author of Dispute Resolution in New Zealand (OUP 1999), and of Guidelines for Family Mediation (Butterworths, 1995). He was Visiting Professor in the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore, from January to April 2004; and had a one-year joint appointment in Law and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS, for 2005. He has been Visiting Professor at the International Training Programme in Conflict Management of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, Pisa on several occasions. He also undertook one of the earliest online [email] mediations, in the early 1990s, before the field of online dispute resolution had been invented.


Prior to moving to Singapore, Ian was an Associate Member of the Arbitrators’ and Mediators’ Institute of New Zealand and was listed on the specialist mediators panel. He is a foundation member of the Asia-Pacific Mediation Forum; a member of the Independent Standards Commission of the International Mediation Institute (The Hague); and a member of the IMI’s Task Force on Intercultural Mediation accreditation. He is also a Fellow of the National Institute for Technology and Dispute Resolution (US).



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Greetings and welcome to what I hope will be a stimulating conversation. What I hope to elicit from you, the participants, is not so much a discussion of the policy, promise or problems of multiculturalism; but rather a conversation about process. As people interested in mediation, dispute resolution and the online world, I hope we'll have a conversation about ways in which this medium can contribute to the wider political dialogue. Two parallels I draw, at this stage, are first with the well-known body of experience in confidence building through dialogue; and second, with the growing practice (especially in France) of social mediation, or médiation social - which you'll readily find through a keyword search. There is a third parallel, I guess, and that is with the work of colleagues like Sanjana Hattotuwa and the ICT4Peace folks, in developing and applying the tools of ICT for conflict mitigation.

So . . .  how can ODR contribute to the dialogue on multiculturalism?

I look forward to the conversation

Ian Macduff (in Singapore)


Can I just ask, isn't the argument that multiculturalism is dead very political and not really based on sociological facts? How can it really be evaluated or compared to facts if what it is doing is creating a subjective platform in a specific political environment? Maybe the statement should be judged as a piece of the puzzle of the multicultural global environment instead of as an argument against it.

Ian & Diliana,


Great topic and questions.  One first question of mine is still trying to find out if everyone's definition of ODR and uses is the same?


Based on Ian's question, and your response Diliana, I think a great way ODR can work is by preparing mediators through training and on-going reflections through engaging others from different cultures.  Ian- with the work you have done around the world, think about if a training was online based to prepare mediators and negotiators to engage others from different cultures all over the world.


For example, IMI (disclaimer: I am a certified mediator with them) has mediators from all over the world.  Imagine if they set up a training session where you engaged in role plays with other mediators from all over the world from your computer via a program like Skype or ooVoo.  You could have a Kiwi, American and Chinese person all taking turns playing the role of party and mediator to see how well they can mediate cases involving people of different cultures.


This reminds me of the recent research study where Canadian and Chinese negotiators acted very differently nonverbally to the same scripts.  Many people cannot travel to all these countries to get this 'hands on" experience.  Looking at ODR as including training, this can be be very beneficial.



Hi Ian. One of the projects that I find promising is the Soliya project that is using a video platform with youth from conflicting cultural groups. I think they have presented at prior Cyberweeks, so you may be quite familiar with their work. They participated in a research and literature review project that produced a report entitled Media and Intergroup Relations: Research on Media and Social Change that seems to be appropriate for this thread for folks who want to dig some into the research. The focus was on broadcast media, not specifically social media as I understand it. You can read about the project here (with direct links to the English or Arabic versions as pdfs).


Here's a video that shows how they are using technology to try to build cross-cultural bridges.


Ian, I'm curious to learn more about how "Social Mediation" in France and the EU is defined and practiced. Is it similar to facilitative problem-solving mediation done in community mediation centers in the U.S. or does it refer to a broader use of the term like "computer mediated communication"? My limited understanding is that it has something to do with integrating immigrant groups into mainstream culture, yes?

Dear Diliana, Jeff & Bill

This is a great start to the conversation! I'm not going to try to reply to all of the comments that are made here as I think there are rich resources and wise heads out there who can do that. 


However - on your point, Diliana, I agree that multiculturalism is not dead but rather it seems to be the case that making such announcements suits policy ends, not least in Germany when, last year a very provocative book announced the damage that multiculturalism and - especially- immigration were claimed to be causing to German society. It appeals to political rather than substantive ends. And in any event, demographically it simply doesn't make sense to declare that multiculturalism is at an end.


The film clip you sent, Bill, is fascinating and shows just what might be done in using the new media, not least as bandwidth develops. But of course this leaves out those who not only don't have bandwidth - they don't have viable computers. Hence the interesting work being done on the potential of mobile phones, given too than many developing nations are simply bypassing the phase of fixed line telephony & going straight to mobile.


As for social mediation - this tends to be used more in a conflict mitigation/prevention role in local communities and cities, in the education and social services sector, to pickup on what's referred to here in Singapore as the "faint signals" of "fault lines" between and within communities. It has a role largely, but not exclusively related to integration of migrant communities - but the larger ambition, I think, has to do with maintaining the social fabric, though not is a "dominant culture" sense.


It also aims to address issues of social cohesion and flash points of violence in general, and the role of social agencies in managing and mitigating the risk. 


All the best




Just a quick comment - one of the problems with mediating (or engaging in a range of third party work) online with multiple cultures is that we tend to have been trained in one approach, or a related range of approaches, that may work well in some situations with some cultures, and not work at all with others.  Perhaps ODR technology makes it easier for me to practice where I ought not be practicing.



The fact that the flexibility of ODR, and by its very nature the access that it provides to us all is an interesting thought in relation to being able to practice perhaps in areas where one is not quite able to. Not that we are unable to, but more so that we ought not practice when we are intermingling and delving into cultures where we could potentially do more harm than good through a lack of cultural understanding and misunderstanding. Taking into account the cultural aspect of dispute resolution in general changes the entire dynamic when put into relation of an international framework. Being a western trained dispute resolution practitioner certainly has its advantages, but many disadvantages in that we are not always aware of or see on the surface.    



Daniel Rainey said:

Just a quick comment - one of the problems with mediating (or engaging in a range of third party work) online with multiple cultures is that we tend to have been trained in one approach, or a related range of approaches, that may work well in some situations with some cultures, and not work at all with others.  Perhaps ODR technology makes it easier for me to practice where I ought not be practicing.


Hi Dan & Aspen


That's an interesting and general provocation: "Perhaps ODR technology makes it easier for me to practice where I ought not be practicing." It probably applies to all of us in all cases; but do the Internet/ODR make this more of an issue?


I wonder if the question is both a generic one - i.e. exercising caution where we're close to the edge of our experience and understanding - and an invitation to engage in the kind of cosmopolitan dialogue that conversations across cultural differences requires. Here's where I wonder if there's something to be learned from political theorists, ranging from Habermas to Appiah, recognizing that difference is a starting point - not the end - of the conversation, and that it requires conversation about that difference; that is, it becomes an express part of the conversation.



Interesting some of the overlaps between this discussion and the cross-cultural forum I'm hosting with Crystal.

I'd suggest that humans are unable to overcome discrimination and bias, and all the work trying to erase it through sensitivity training will never be fully successful.  Yes, by exposing people to education and first hand experience with diversity they can learn to control their bias, even if they can never fully erase it.  But diversity isn't going anywhere.  Technology in enabling more people to interact with others outside of their immediate in-groups, so we're going to be wrestling with the challenges of multiculturalism whether we like it or not.

I think that online interaction offers revolutionary options for overcoming bias, however.  Not by erasing it from our brains (it's too burned in there) but by enabling us to interact with others without knowing anything about the aspects of them that might raise our biases.  On eBay you can transact with someone on the other side of the world without knowing if they are a man or a woman, old or young, light skinned or dark skinned.  As they say, "on the internet, no one knows you're a dog."  http://www.unc.edu/depts/jomc/academics/dri/idog.html


This has revolutionary implications for tackling bias.  We don't erase it from humanity, we just block individuals from seeing information that might trigger it.

I think the emergence of this "online culture" may end up being the ultimate form of multiculturalism.  A pan-regional set of norms for interacting over ICT.  So we will all become skilled at hopping between cultures, and through that skill, be able to avoid the pitfalls of multiculturalism that have urged some to declare it dead.


Hi Colin - I had seen your conversation site and noted the likely overlap. We need to forge some kind of link between the conversations!

Here's a bit of thinking out loud and I have no idea of the direction: is it possible, following your thoughts about the new culture that may emerge on the Internet, that there are at least two elements::

  1. one is, as you say, that we don't know who we're dealing with, the Internet is effectively devoid of geographical links and location (and any that exist could be misleading); but also
  2. the other countervailing possibility is that we may need to be more conscious, more careful, more deliberate about our negotiated connections precisely for that reason.



Diversity is something that cannot be escaped.  There forever will be differences amongst cultures and groups.  The use of social media and technology in communicating differences, or in dispute resolution can be positive and negative.

Considering the positives, social media and the internet creates an international forum and flow of ideas.  Individuals may have access to viewpoints that they have never experienced before and therefore, gives them a new outlook or alleviates some bias.  Also, in certain dispute resolution contexts, focusing primarily on facts and information, rather than face to face human contact (with all the cultural and social barriers that are associated with that), may be aid in the flow the resolution.

However, there are also negatives to the use of social media and technology in communicating differences or in dispute resolution.  I agree with Aspen in that in some resolutions of conflict culture plays a substantial role. In certain disputes cultural differences can be at the heart and the dispute will not be resolved by ignoring these differences through the use of technology. With that, there is something to be said for nonverbal communication which would be missing in internet dispute resolution and which may be helpful to additional understanding.


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