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The Commensurability Challenge

cultural differencesThe below is from Radical Conflict: Essays on Violence, Intractability, and Communication. Edited by Andrew Smith. Lexington Books, 2016.

The assumption that two groups are incommensurable, and locked in their culturally particular language, has some undesirable side effects such as cultural essentialism and parochialism. Moreover there is a tendency to focus on the past and the traditional which can lead increasingly to dualist dichotomies. The Israeli-Palestinian dualist narratives are classic examples of the consequences of moving toward incommensurability and differentiation. Neither side can escape the past and both are poor when it comes to establishing conditions for change. Because each side refuses to get beyond its own boundaries, and remains encapsulated in their particular cultural logic that is incommensurable with the other, they reproduce the exact conditions they are trying to avoid. Solving problems and moving toward some acceptable integrated consensus (becoming more commensurable) will only accrue with more generality rather than specificity.

Wang makes the argument that a cultural group confined by particularity is in fact in a position to achieve more universality through the workings of the particular. This is especially pertinent to my arguments because from this perspective the particular is not a matter of the opposite of universal but plays an active and vital role in constructing commensurability. The particulars, for example, of Palestinian and Israeli culture should be the stimuli for communication about more broadly shared commonalities. A simple clash of opinions and historical statements will never close up this divide. But a more organic approach, with greater interaction between paired concepts, including an open system mentality that continuously monitors the environment for information, can produce an understanding of history that is mutually constituted. As with the fled-expelled dichotomy, a new common ground as possible

The most basic challenge for incommensurability is to bridge differences and find ways to do it such that one paradigm can be translated into the language of another demonstrating that differences are not irreconcilable. It is important to underscore that commensurability is more concerned with similarity and equivalents rather than commonality. A particular culture might find commonalities with another culture quite difficult yet have enough similarities to facilitate communication. As Wang states, “no two human beings or cultures and societies are ‘the same’ at any moment, in any way.” This is true because all humans communicate and this communicative function re-conceptualizes their individuality into something more interdependent and other-oriented. Any constructivist perspective on communication, which challenges the Enlightenment notion of individual autonomy, by definition implies that attitudes, beliefs, and values are a consequence of interaction and thereby malleable enough to move from isolated incommensurate realities toward commonality.

A position that holds incommensurability as equivalent to incomparable or incommunicable is indefensible. It is certainly possible to immerse oneself in the language and culture of another and learn to translate that culture into something more broadly communicable. Ricoeur has made the argument that despite the challenges, confusions, and barriers to learning another culture and language it is possible to be multilingual and multicultural. It is possible, for example, for one day in the future Israelis and Palestinians to find new interpretive links and resonate with the culture of the other. No two cultures are completely different especially when each culture has been the recipient of deep hermeneutic interpretation that reveals hidden similarities and differences. Dialogue, when it is functioning properly, should move the two conflicting cultures toward improved historical background and cultural contexts that offer deeper clarification and understanding. Cultures present arguments differently and express worldviews on the basis of opaque cultural influences and traditions, but can still sometimes find commonalities. Everyday knowledge, shared experiences, and similar linguistic expressions are the tools for understanding incommensurability and then become the basis of new language worlds that unfold as commensurability is revealed.

The commensurability-incommensurability argument is an important theoretical and philosophical position because it speaks to a key conundrum in cultural conflict. The issue of each side in a cultural conflict having roots in its local soil but reaching out to connect to others has implications for research directions as well as managing difficult conflicts. This matter of roots in local soil and connections with broader networks is a fundamental characteristic of the type of political conflicts discussed here. Moreover, the theoretical power of the micro-macro link, which explores the reciprocal relationship between macro structural categories in society (e.g. race, gender, class etc.) and the micro interactions of individuals (real-time talk), remains ripe for research attention. If communication and dialogue are as effective as academicians and professionals would have us believe, then examination of these issues must continue until we reach a point of theoretical coherence.

The Twisted Logic of Cultural Differences

Israeli-Palestinian face-off

One of the most pressing and distressing cultural and communication problems is how you talk to the “other.” Group and cultural polarization is no longer an interesting insight posed by an academic or intellectual. No, it is common knowledge and easy enough to see even for the most disengaged citizen. It is the problem of perceived incommensurability when the belief that two cultures – especially cultures in conflict – are irreconcilably different. These differences cause distortions in the communication process resulting from the cognitive and political consequences of intergroup contact and the absence of bridging discourse that closes or shrinks cultural gaps. These distortions are apparent in discourses and interactions between the two groups that sustain violence. Although this results in damages and injustices to both sides there are ways to mitigate effects and work to transform the conflict into morally acceptable democratic argument.

The term incommensurability was introduced to refer to scientific values that were so different that they lacked any common unit by which they could be measured. Aristotelian versus Newtonian mechanics is an example. But over time incommensurability became associated with other ideas including concepts related to the humanities and social sciences. Cultures have been termed incommensurable and cultural incommensurability has been associated with diversity and other social agendas. Strong diversity advocates cherish incommensurability as a sign of cultural uniqueness and claim that all group and cultural differences lack some common units by which they can be compared. So, the difference between Palestinians and Israelis, for example, is equivalent to the differences between Aristotelian and Newtonian mechanics. There is no bridging language.

Thomas Kuhn explained that incommensurability referred to “irreconcilable differences” because two or more paradigms involve different sets of problems, definitions, and standards. It is possible to “interpret” the two incommensurable paradigms in a language other than the paradigm, which is what conflict resolution specialists do, but this will always be limited.

Cultures and groups polarize because they engage in a process of increasing differentiation. They develop negative identities such that part of the definition of group or cultural membership involves the rejection of the other. This produces extremes: being Israeli is defined as not being Palestinian, or being a Republican is defined as not being a Democrat.

Increasing differentiation explains how the discourse of difficult conflicts can devolve into contradiction, paradox, and double binds. The natural consequences of differentiation is to gravitate around binaries including binaries of ethnicity (Arab-Jewish), gender (male-female) religion (sacred-secular), history (war of independence-nakba), cultural narratives (victimization-displacement), politics (Republican-Democrat), and so on. Even when groups engage in communicative contact the result can be communication that dissolves into debates, arguments, and blame. These then harden into fixed positions and the sort of interest-based thinking that is not able to deal with identity-based conflicts. The doubly bound messages of conflict groups continue to stimulate the process of differentiation; that is, these groups reify incommensurability through the differentiation described above which results in a type of deformed communication where individuals are trapped by the accusations of the other. Each side of the conflict interprets the other as being responsible for its own oppression and the act of denying such a claim is understood as simply providing additional evidence of the claim in the first place. Thus, you have the twisted logic of group differences.

Attempts to win arguments such as “who started it” or what historical event is responsible for the current situation are typically futile and mostly damage the possibilities for dialogue. These binaries and double binds are so exhausting that the communication resources of both sides are depleted and continuing conflict differences becomes the accepted reality.


Cultural Logics and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

honor culturesA cultural logic is a constellation of beliefs, behaviors, practices, discursive routines, and communication patterns that are organized in a particular way. This results in a logical consistency and coherence for a group of people who classify themselves as a culture. The logic of one culture may be different than the logic of another, and these different logics make for gaps of indeterminacy. The more distinct the logics of two or more cultures the more alien the other culture seems to be. Cultural logics use scripts, behaviors, and communication practices to coalesce around the theme. So, for example, some authors have identified logics that result in cultures characterized as honor cultures, or dignity cultures, or face cultures. An honor culture values people who respect themselves and are respected by society. Shame is a powerful emotion that calls for retribution and interaction and exchanges in honor cultures have strong reciprocity norms which are potentially competitive and escalating. And increasing differentiation is the consequence of violating reciprocity norms. Insults are particularly pointed in honor cultures because they are challenges to the strength and individuality of the other person. Another cultural logic results in a dignity culture. A dignity culture is committed to the conviction that individuals possess intrinsic value. Each individual is considered to be of intrinsic worth and this worth is not dependent on other people and cannot be taken away from them. A person will behave according to their internal standards

There is a cultural logic that characterizes the Israeli and Palestinian historical narratives. Every aspect of the historical narrative of both sides is catapulted toward polarization on the basis of a cultural logic driven by differentiation, separation, and negative identity which means that each side’s identity includes the negation of the other. From the delegitimization of Judaism and Zionism to the difference between expulsion and the right of return, schismogensis has been the governing logic of response to historical and social issues. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is considered a prototype of a cultural logic driven by between-group differences and variation. Every comparison typically made between the two groups is the complementary extreme of the other. This is the result of group selection devices that reinforce within-group norms and prevent outside groups from influencing the culture of the other. There are three operational processes here (see Henrich, 2004) that have guaranteed escalating differentiation and continue to do so. These processes are first within culture pressures toward conformity. Palestinians and Israeli Jews, primarily through the military and educational systems, both press normative conformity that contributes to the coherence and stable transmission of norms within the culture. This contributes to incommensurability and makes it difficult to bridge cultures. And, secondly, there are various forms of nonconformist threats that must be confronted. Israel’s definition of itself as a security state justifies punishing within-group deviance as well as sharpening distinctions between groups and legitimizing extreme responses to existential threats. And third, persistent intergroup conflict over resources – both natural and symbolic – sets the two groups in competition with one another and exacerbates between-group social, political, economic, and nationalistic distinctions.

These difficult conflicts continue to suffer from cultural logics that perpetuate the problem. For example, the Israelis and Palestinians continue to experience power imbalance which means that a dominant group (e.g., Israeli Jews) compete with the outgroup for definitions of morality, violence, and peace with one group maintaining more military, educational, and economic resources. Again, power asymmetries cause groups to differentiate and continue the cycle of producing incommensurability. Identity conflicts are a second characteristic of these difficult conflicts and they are not resolved easily or by negotiating about tangible resources. These identity issues are particularly intense and problematic because they are more abstract and psychological in nature and based in human needs. Identity conflicts are especially complex when the sides develop negative identities; that is, when the positive identity of one side such as a Palestinian is by definition the opposite of the other side then resolving these conflicts can only happen through deconstruction of this opposition and the construction of new identities. Third, the differences between the conflicting parties represent high levels of disagreement and polarization. This is typically the result of a lack of productive contact between the two sides which results in stereotypes and misinformation that exacerbates the perception of polarized opinions. Intense emotional issues are another quality of these conflicts. Palestinians, for example, feel humiliated by the West and Israelis in particular. The sides feel victimized, disrespected, and report humiliations that cannot be reconciled very easily. Finally, these ethnopolitical conflicts result in persistent trauma and even intergenerational trauma. Exposure to violence and regular tensions including images of horror and atrocities have traumatic effects on children and spawn long-term psychological problems.


Henrich, J. (2004). Cultural group selection, coevolutionary processes and large-scale cooperation. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization. 53, 3–35.

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