Storied conflict talk

Storied conflict talk: Narrative construction in mediation. By Katherine A. Stewart and Madeline M. Maxwell. (Studies in narrative 12.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010. Pp. 144. ISBN 9789027226525. $128 (Hb).

Reviewed by Sharon Utakis, Bronx Community College, CUNY

Katherine A. Stewart and Madeline M. Maxwell examine how participants in mediation co-construct dispute narratives. They argue that while their data support the idea that the bilateral adversarial narrative model is widespread, it is not the only pattern. They discuss alternative narrative patterns.

In the first chapter, the authors give an overview of the research and its purpose. They express that the study of interaction in the narrative construction of conflict talk is of value ‘to scholars of conflict talk and narrative, conflict management practitioners, and anyone who has been involved in a dispute’ (8).

Ch. 2, ‘Review of the literature’, focuses on ‘narrative as emergent within the interactive environment’ (11), ranging across a variety of models of narrative. In addition, the chapter touches on discursive mechanisms, positioning and identity, and the role of mediation and mediators.

Ch. 3, ‘Data and method’, briefly describes the methodology of the study. Five videotaped cases were selected from a corpus at a university conflict resolution center. Unfortunately, these are given somewhat flippant alliterative case names, such as ‘Dissertation Discord’ and ‘Ballroom Blunder’. The method of analysis focuses on conversation categories and attempts both micro- and macro-analytical approaches.

The features of adversarial narratives are further detailed in Ch. 4, ‘Communicative construction of adversarial narratives’. These narratives are identified as increasingly entrenched and positional, consisting of defenses of one’s own position and attacks on the other person’s position (concerning justice/injustice and responsibility/accountability). The authors review the literature on the adversarial narrative pattern, and then go through the five cases in detail, making extensive use of quotations from the narratives. In each case, they explicitly discuss why each case fits or does not fit the typical pattern of adversarial narratives, concluding that only three of the five cases are model examples of the pattern.

In Ch. 5, ‘Co-construction of alternative dispute narratives’, the authors focus on the two cases that do not fit the typical adversarial narrative pattern. In both cases, they conclude that these are examples of a unilateral adversarial narrative pattern, in which one party presents an adversarial narrative but the other attempts to co-create a new narrative to ‘bridge conflicts, preserve or restore relationships, and craft collaborative solutions’ (58). In this chapter, the authors also discuss the function of the mediators, who in some cases play the role of audience or introduce narrative themes not present in the narratives of the disputants.

Ch. 6 briefly summarizes the findings of the research, discusses future research directions, and mentions implications for mediation practice. The section on implications is frustratingly thin; although the authors argue in their introduction that the study of the narrative construction of conflict talk is of value to conflict management practitioners, they hesitate to draw any conclusions about what is effective or ineffective conflict management.

On the whole, however, the book convincingly argues that researchers should take another look at narratives in conflict and examine alternatives to the dominant model more closely.