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CRI Professor Spotlight

Dr. Mary Jane Collier

Dr. Mary Jane Collier is a CRI Core Faculty member and a Professor in the Human Communications Department. After Jan. 2006, she will join the Faculty at the University of New Mexico and can be reached at

As a communication scholar/practitioner I study how individuals, groups and organizations negotiate their relationships and their cultural identity positioning through conduct and discourse. I am particularly drawn to understand issues of hierarchy and influence, and ultimately to the development of inclusive practices to transform communicative relationships and material conditions.

A theme in my conflict work today is "Negotiating Third Spaces" in research design, assessment, conflict management, and transformation. The "third spaces" idea refers to adding a critical perspective and thinking beyond traditional, often dualistic ways, of designing studies and training models. Questions might be "What is going on for people and their lives in this context? Who benefits from this research? Who benefits from this intervention? What are negative consequences that might emerge?" Conversations with mediators and families with whom I stayed in South Africa in 1994 and 1999 taught me, for instance, that recommending an "imported" U.S. therapeutic model of conflict management which included mutual self-disclosure and "I statements" to describe emotions, might result in increasing the intensity of the conflict and decreasing trust and intimacy.

I participated in a training workshop a while ago in which the well-intentioned facilitator shared story after story about his successful mediations in his own country, and showed videotapes of his own mediations as prescriptive models. The missed opportunity for "negotiating a third space" here was that he could have invited workshop participants to share their experiences and cultural locations important to their conflicts, and with their input, adapted the "models" and scripts being offered to be more relevant.

An orientation of "negotiating third spaces" may also be applied to design and assessment to expand notions about the role of culture and identities of the parties that are involved. For example we need to move beyond talking about culture as if groups of people (black South Africans, poor women), or residents of a particular place (Kenyans, Kenyans from Meru), have the same cultural values and communication style preferences just because they are members of a group or live in a particular place.

A "third space" alternative idea is to approach cultures as locations of speaking/ acting/producing that reflect identifications and representations of groups. During research in South Africa in 1999, I found that while some focus group participants identifying as "white" middleclass, and Afrikaans speaking, voiced racist views of "blacks," others questioned their status and "advantages" of being "white." Males and females in the group disagreed about whether most females would become "traditional Afrikaner wives and mothers." They concluded that being an Afrikaner in South Africa for them was "in transition" and was defined in different ways. These examples show that being an Afrikaner for these individuals was a process of struggle, negotiation, and contradictions rather than a predictable consensus.

With regard to conflict management, "negotiating third spaces" may refer to finding a "third way," compromise, or a new and alternative position on the issue. For mediation it may mean utilizing a third party or set of community observers, adding in a new set of resources, or developing procedures and agendas that start at different points such as beginning meetings with narratives or reaffirming a commitment to the safety of the community. It may mean changing physical locations of meeting to move between and among particular geographical or residential spaces. One mediator working with schools in different cities in South African described lessons she learned about the importance of holding joint meetings in the communities where different parties live as much as possible in order to share in the roles of "host" and "visitor."

I try to remind myself to take a step back and remember that if my ultimate goal as a scholar/practitioner is to address intercultural conflicts in ways that enhance conditions of social justice, I need to begin and end with the voices of those involved and the complex context that they are experiencing.