Religion, society, conflict, and anthropology for mediation

While sociologists of religion generally trace their line of thought back to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, anthropologists claim a more distant tradition: from Herodotus’ ancient investigations among the barbarian peoples to Father Jean-François Lafitau’s observations on the customs of the American savages compared to the customs of the first times (1712), via the famous Valladolid controversy (1550) on the natural religion of the “sons of Adam” or the various accounts of encounters with naked men (Hans Staden, 1557; Jean de Léry, 1578).

Modern Cultural anthropology

Modern cultural anthropology is the heir to this “sociological revolution of the gaze“, as Roger Caillois said, in which the close suddenly becomes strange in contact with the distant: Montaigne narrates how the three “naturals” transplanted to Rouen in 1562 are astonished that imposing men-at-arms kneel devoutly before a tiny child-king, leaves us with a paradigmatic account of it.

Observation, description, and reflection on decentration form the basis of a knowledge of cultural otherness whose disciplinary formation is closely associated with the knowledge of the religious phenomenon at the same time as with the Western colonization of the world. The march of civilization is punctuated by conflicts that concern both moral (personal) and socio-political (collective) aspects, and the evolving form of religion often constitutes a place between these two categories of aspects.

Rather than diluting this training in the contemporary thoughts that accompany it (Hegel, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, Freud, Jung), Lionel Obadia confines himself to an academic path marked by four moments: evolutionism which distinguishes on a temporal continuum of primitive religions from civilizing religions (anthropological theories of the end of the 19th century), functionalism which defines the social functions of religious sentiment (ethnological surveys of the inter-war period), the structuralism that tends to dissolve the religious instance in human symbolism (mythological analysis), the epistemic eclecticism that recaptures the belief in acts within interwoven cultures – an interdisciplinary and hermeneutic forum that the author does not define exactly in this way but within which he will put forward the proposals proper to the anthropological tradition.

Religion is a universal cultural phenomenon and a central subject of study in anthropology. However, there is a glaring lack of consensus on its definition and its origin in introductory textbooks and anthropology dictionaries. However, hypotheses and models exploring this issue have been available in psychobiology for some twenty years. We ought to determine whether the definition and explanations of religion proposed by anthropology are compatible, in whole or in part, with data and models from psychobiology. A synthesis of psychobiological hypotheses is first presented; it serves as a point of comparison analytical with anthropological theories of religion.

Two of these theories, those of Edward Burnett Tylor ([1874] 1889) and Clifford Geertz ([1966] 2010), are of great interest for their universal elements (explicit and implicit) and their theoretical principles. These two authors are known for their major influence based on theoretical foundations. Tylor’s theory supports the hypothesis that certain anthropological conceptions and explanations of religion are consistent with psychobiological explanations.

Conflicts recounted in myths

From the mid-19th century, the study of myths became an academic discipline. The myth was considered an object of reflection, even as it withdrew from the social sphere since our world became rather demythologized: mythical culture took refuge in literature or in art, which became a kind of conservatory. Myths no longer have a religious impact on our secularized societies.

In recent decades, however, research by historians of religion, anthropologists, and ethnologists has focused on the permanence of mythical thought in modern societies. Consequently, myths have been seen in their necessity, as systems of representations that are constitutive of any culture, and which respond to a fundamental structure of the imagination.

Myths, therefore, have a universal anthropological value: they cannot disappear but are modified by defining the foundations of a given culture. The question is to see how literature participates in these modifications, and what relevance it can find for itself, for its own invention, when it resorts to myth.

Secular conflicts between sedentary and nomadic people, between hunters and farmers, bear a religious mark, simply because before secularization, there was simply no difference between the supernatural and the natural order. The study of myths and conflicts in traditional societies sheds light on their links.

Two categories of myths are highlighted: myths of the creation of the world, linked to the origins of peoples, and eschatological myths, linked to the destinies of these same peoples. The studies of the myths of the creation of the world and of sacrifices, as well as the rites that constantly remind us of them, make it possible to see the enterprise of controlling violence within social groups. Studies of eschatological myths show the mental projection of the group into the future, and hence the role of its god at the end of the world.

The appearance of the third party in mediation

Any antagonism, any conflict exacerbates the positions of the exchange partners, and communities against communities, making it more difficult for the exchange partners to reach an agreement. The third-party can be singular (the arbitrator), group (juror), or even a collective culture or history (couple’s relationship, etc.). The third-party enters into an ethical perspective.

As soon as the perspective of the third party disappears, some accidents – “inhumanities” – appear. A figure of the third party in mediation catches our attention, that of the third party-mediator. In contrast to a third referee capable of sanctioning, standing at an equal distance from the two protagonists and outside of the conflict (such as the president of a court or the referee of a football match), the third party mediator shall have no authority guaranteed by law. When both protagonists ask him to be a mediator, it is enough for one of them to suspect that he is no longer impartial for him to no longer be able to play his role.

Of course, not every negotiation is necessarily preceded by conflict. We see it as a process perpetual nested in a system of concrete action. Perpetual into the extent that the negotiation manifests a search for signs of recognition by others. Insofar as negotiation is specific to any social relationship, it is constituted by social relations that mediate the relationship. Negotiation is then posed in these terms: Two individuals and a limited framework with the object of negotiation itself. And the continuity of a negotiated relationship raises questions about the limits of the framework in which it takes place. Negotiation is self-protective, what is negotiated is the possibility of continuing to negotiate: From the renunciation of consensus, between gift and counter-gift, the search for compromise without compromise.

The palaver tree: traditional mediation

In Africa, in particular, traditional social mechanisms provide undervalued indigenous resources for conflict management. As a result of the Rwandan experience of Gacaca, a “modernized” version of an indigenous form of dispute resolution that was developed and applied in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, the international community is increasingly interested in the potential role of traditional mechanisms in reconciliation and transitional justice strategies. More recently, in Uganda, a country that has been torn apart by violence for the past two decades, the debate over the respective roles of traditional mechanisms in reconciliation and transitional justice has become increasingly important. The International Criminal Court (ICC) and the traditional reconciliation practices of Acholi show that traditional mechanisms are gaining importance among the policies envisaged in order to reach a peaceful settlement.

In Africa, the oral tradition occupies a prominent place in social communication systems: the art of convincing (Amoa 2003: 47-49): “linguistic elegance, a prelude to the quest for collective truth through the good use of civilized speech“. This type of exchange, “a celebration of language juggling” (Amoa 2003: 47-49), led by a rhetorician, a true master of the spoken word, is known under various names but represents the same reality: the palaver tree, the art of palaver, the African palaver or the palaver.

In fact, the Ancients used to meet in assemblies under a tree, usually a baobab tree, in the heart of the village for concertations, exchanges, and discussions, sometimes animated, exposing complaints and applications. These meetings take place during rest days or market days and were preceded by announcements to the sound of talking drums; each sound calling for a meaning, which only the insiders knew how to decipher. It is therefore in the shade of this great protective tree that many conflicts linked to the social and political life of the village are still resolved today. The decisions taken make it possible to write and transmit the history of the men and women of the village.

From this point of view, the palaver tree calls for a place of social involvement and plural expression, where everyone has the right to speech, thus promoting the blossoming power of the verb. The constant face-to-face contact between the protagonists creates a natural language of closeness and intimacy, uniting the protagonists and the audience to nature (Lohisse 1998:15). It is indeed through incantations linked to the verb that the Ancestors of the visible and invisible world are solicited. Sacredness stems from a traditional African society made up of duality in which a communication link is atavistically installed, and between the physical and the metaphysical.

A whole socio-cultural and mystical environment surrounds the palaver tree, giving it an ancestral legitimacy. This approach to the proverbial wisdom Africa has taken on new dimensions in urban cities today. By extension, some family councils, associative meetings or cultural events taking place in appropriate meeting rooms, cultural events in cafes, or even public spaces are set up to hold jousting games, and oratories and take pride in the African palaver. To the point of making emulators in the behavior of African executives or intellectuals in human resources management.

The African palaver, let’s repeat, whatever its connotation, remains a mode of conflict resolution outside of legal-judicial procedures that is similar to the concept of conciliation in that it consists in using the concept of a third party in the course of proceedings and to hear the parties in the presence of with a view to making proposals to them for the resolution of the dispute. The official and administrative form of conciliation, including such as an administrative, ex gratia, or hierarchical appeal, a method of amicable settlement of disputes by a third party (personality or college) having only advisory powers and based on law or The African model is far from the African model (Delaunay 1993: 697). Indeed, the conciliation advocated by the African model is one that refers not to modern law but to customary law, culture, etc. (Delaunay 1993: 697) of the terroir.

Reciprocity in conflict

For classical German sociology and its sociology of action, a keyword is social activity. And what characterizes this social relationship is the notion of reciprocity, in other words, the reciprocal behavior of several individuals. This reciprocity can take many forms, from affection to friendship, to competition, the struggle to the point of hostility: the conflict that Georg Simmel envisages as soon as 1908 as an essential agent of socialization. Until then, the conflict had only negative aspects. Therefore, the German author demonstrates that this unifying element is necessary for any company or more precisely, the conflict is necessary down to the very dynamic of the social form, to highlight the positive meanings of conflict as an identity affirmation, as a regulator in the reciprocal actions (insofar as it is itself a reciprocal action), and finally as an equilibrium factor, comprising at least indirectly the recognition of the other.

In other words, for a child to grow into an adult, he needs that confrontational opposition. Therefore, conflict is a normal phenomenon in a society where not everything can be regulated. And hiding the conflict blocks the possibility of its negotiation and therefore of its resolution. And that contrary to the collapse of the third party in the dynamics of the conflict, compromise, synonymous with the suspension of the conflicting route, is generated by the return of a third party to the conflict zone, thus allowing the regulation of conflicting oppositions.

In other words, a mediator capable of identifying the cause of the conflict is a direct actor in a true sociological process as understood by Georg Simmel. This mediator is a structuring element of social life, allowing the creation or modification of a parallel community of interests. One can see how important it is to formalize the exchange and to make the values and interests an objective character. The keys to conflict resolution are then focused on two essential questions: Which figure of the third? And for what kind of negotiation?

Belonging to the group and to the belief of the group

What is targeted through symbols of belonging to the group and to the group alone is the rejection of what is most often summarized under the term “globalization”, experienced as threatening. We set out on a systematic search for that which differentiates: ways of dressing (among Jews, Muslims, sometimes among certain groups of Protestants), cooking, ostentatious observance, and finally the school (Hebrew, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic) when it is based on a project of identity and which is opposed to another conception: that of a school or a university made up of sharing and critical distance in relation to the various particularizing assertions.

Here we find ourselves in the presence of a movement of exacerbation of the differences which can exist between ethnic, national, or religious groups: the separation of the Jew from the goy, and among Jews, of the Ashkenazi from the Sephardic, of the Muslim from the infidels, of the born-again Christian from the others. In short, it is a question of making a distinction from the rest of humanity. Such a conception always refers to the notion of purity which would be epistemologically, axiologically, and politically prior to the enemy: the cosmopolitan, the wanderer, the nomad, the mestizo.

The term “religion” comes either from the Latin verb religare (to bind,) or the Latin name religio (integrity, scruple in fulfilling one’s duties, or of the homework). In the first case, it would refer to a phenomenon that unites people with each other (its horizontal, social and cultural dimension,) and to a higher authority (this is its vertical dimension: subjective and mystical). Any reduction of religion to one of these two dimensions (social bond and moral attitude, or personal faith) would constitute an amputation: religion must be considered in its own right globality. The second etymological hypothesis refers to an attitude of reverence, fearful reverence. It concerns the attitude strictly human, without considering the supernatural or divine object of the worship. It is clear here how the adoption of a definition induces the modalities of reflection.

We will therefore adopt the following definition: Religion is a system of beliefs and practices that, in a manner connects men with each other and with a non-sensitive instance, and gives meaning to subjective existence. This definition has the advantage of taking into account the systemic nature of the religion emphasizing its twofold dimension, emotional and social; of using terms that have relatively little connotation (“practices” rather than “rites”, “non-sensitive instance” rather than “divinity” or “God”); and finally, to integrate the last criterion: the semiological function of religion.

In order to better understand religious fact from its various angles, and in order to broaden and fuel the debate, it is necessary to adopt several approaches: metaphysical, ethical, theological, sociological, psychological, and anthropological. One ambiguity has yet to be resolved: What is the difference between religion and philosophy?

Acculturation, another source of social conflict

It is to American cultural anthropology that we owe the conceptual formulation of “acculturation.” The set of phenomena that result from direct and continuous contact with groups of individuals from different cultures and that lead to changes in the original patterns of perception and behavior of one or both groups. Acculturation is the assimilation of a foreign culture, and the adoption of its values and behaviors. The etymology indicates that there is a gain in the process, the prefix being an ad, as in addition, and not the private ab, as in abjure. The word was created by American anthropologists and has been over the cultural change of the British or the “interpenetration of civilizations” proposed by the French. It refers to both the learning of new values and contacts between two civilizations, which does not occur smoothly, even when the one who assimilates the others, immigrants or natives, seems more advanced and attractive. Indeed, we are talking mainly about acculturation when a group or ethnicity assimilates into a civilization considered superior, which comes most often from the loss of the original culture (deculturation) or of its transformation (transculturation), of regrets, tensions, even conflicts within the affected communities.


Acculturation is often perceived as the effect of domination suffered as a result of conquest, annexation, and the unequal game then imposed by cultural imperialism. These phenomena are true at all times, firstly between dominated and dominant groups cohabiting in the same geographical area. The classic notion of acculturation refers first of all to these geographically neighboring human groups. With the advent of the mass media, acculturation can occur now with virtually no direct contact between the various interacting cultures. Thus, Western countries, and the United States and Japan, exert a profound cultural influence far beyond their borders. Thus, this type of acculturation, becoming more widespread, is tending towards the advent of a globalized culture.

Acculturation rarely takes place in one way. In the acculturation process, there is, certainly, receptivity to culture but there is also a process of selecting, combining, reinforcing, or rejecting the cultural traits. In this cultural exchange, it is necessary to not minimize the role of individuals.

Acculturation is not a one-way street, emigrants are also involved in the development of the national culture. But, in the case of migration that European countries have experienced since the Second World War, the contribution of the two parties is unequal. Migrants, indeed, are not objects manipulated by the system, they are the actors of a dynamic the migration project is also a project for access to modernity. But the cultural and political relations that they established with the installation company are not egalitarian; they are confronted with an entity historical, political, and cultural already constituted.

Conclusion: Socio-anthropological mediation is probably the answer to conflict today

In response to the social and economic problems of the urban periphery, the urban policy made early use of social mediation, transforming its purpose through successive legislation. From a remedy against delinquency and the feeling of insecurity, social mediation has become an institutional mechanism designed to solve problems beyond its initial scope, and even today, a means of social control and regulation of “suburbs in crisis.

The riots of October 2005, November 2007, and July 2010 that occurred in a few precarious social housing neighborhoods on the outskirts of urban agglomerations in France, once again brought the issue of sensitive suburbs to the forefront of the political and media scene. These riots are undoubtedly the most visible element of what social scientists call the urban crisis. This crisis is characterized by social disorganization phenomena (degradation of public and private property, incivilities, delinquency, neighborhood conflicts, acts of racism, etc.), by segregation logics (marginalization of others who are different, marked withdrawal into secure territories, etc.) and by social and territorial inequalities (higher rates of unemployment, social benefits and poverty in sensitive urban areas than in the rest of urban agglomerations, less access to healthcare or higher education in low-income housing districts than in city centers, etc.).

While the riots are a reminder of the extent to which the urban crisis is still present, the fact remains that, for nearly forty years, the public authorities have been striving to provide remedies to this crisis, of which the impoverished and stigmatized housing estates on the outskirts of cities represent the epicenter. Grouped together within what is now generically called urban policy, these remedies range from technical operations (renovation of the built environment, improvement of the urban environment, demolition of buildings, etc.) to economic means (installation of additional facilities, creation of new activities, etc.), through social interventions (development of mediation and socio-cultural activities, fight against delinquent practices, health promotion, etc.) and professional integration actions (creation of local jobs, creation of tax-free zones, etc.)

Social mediation has the city as its main framework, and it was precisely the city policy that supported the first experiments in this field. Already in the 1980s, the local delinquency prevention councils (CCPD) put forward various initiatives to deal with minor conflicts in everyday life and to rebuild social ties in disadvantaged neighborhoods. These initiatives were based first and foremost on a citizen-based, community-based, and often voluntary approach, similar to that of women liaisons. Coming from the population of “sensitive” neighborhoods, the women relayers assume the role of interpreters, mediators, or regulators of intercultural tensions. They act as a link between administrations and individuals who are “lost” by language, culture, and various difficulties.

Other actions are then carried out in areas open to the public, particularly within urban transport companies. At the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, RATP, SNCF, and the transport companies in the Lille and Lyon conurbations put in place responses to problems of insecurity by hiring young staff to ease tensions and manage conflicts on trains, trams, and buses. These are, among others, what has been called “chatting jobs”, embodied in particular by the “big brothers.”

“Big brothers”, for example, are, as their name indicates, boys who are supposed to represent authority figures. These young boys, in their twenties, would replace fathers who have lost their authority and would have more influence over teenagers. They should have a natural authority due to age, geographical connivance, and cultural proximity. The idea is to bring out exemplary figures, paid for their role as peacemakers, with the idea that other social mechanisms no longer seem to be very effective in containing disorder in disadvantaged suburbs.

You can follow Professor Mohamed CHTATOU on Twitter: @Ayurinu

About the Author
Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of “MENA region area studies” at Université Internationale de Rabat -UIR- and of “Education” at Université Mohammed V in Rabat, as well. Besides, he is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, American, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islamism and religious terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism. During 2015 he worked as Program Director with the USAID/CHEMONICS educational project entitled: “Reading for Success: A Small Scale Experimentation” in cooperation with the Moroccan Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). He recently taught cultural studies to Semester abroad students with AMIDEAST, IES and CIEE study abroad programs in Morocco insuring such courses as: “Introduction to Moroccan Culture,” “Contemporary North African History,” “Arab Spring,” “Amazigh Culture,” “Moroccan Jewish Legacy,” “Community-Based Learning” (internship with civil society organizations). He is, also, currently teaching “Communication Skills” and “Translation and Interpreting” to master students at The Institute for Leadership and Communication Studies –ILCS- in Rabat, Morocco and supervising several Fulbright students in areas of religion and culture in Morocco. He has taught in the past some courses in universities in the USA, Spain, France, Italy, England and Greece.
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