Societies have evolved a variety of structures for settling disputes

Settling disputes is a major part of politics and social control, which are vital for the harmonious function of any society. Different societies achieve this in different ways. In western state society formal offices are held and people given authority to judge and implement punishment or resolution. At the other end of the spectrum are the egalitarian societies, where authority is non-existent, no-one has any power to make anybody do anything, and inequality is very actively discouraged.

There are a vast array of structures that come between the two extremes for example those that have a mixture of formal offices and informal methods. This essay examines first the structured court system of western state society, and then the less structured but still formal method of dispute settlement used by the Zapotec people of the Ralu’a village (or pueblo) in South America. This comparison shows that even though there are formal institutions in place in both societies, which may initially seem a poor comparison, however the objective with which they are used varies greatly and they are used to very different effect.

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The essay concludes that although we may initially think the more personalised approach of the Zapotec may have a more favourable outcome regarding social cohesion, it has to be recognised that such methods may not be practical or necessary in our western state society. First to consider is our own Western system for settling disputes. Western state society has a regulatory court system in which there are an extensive number of laws and sanctions that are formally codified (Peoples & Bailey, 2003).

Our formalised system of regulation courts allows the use of physical coercion and the use of sanctions should people deviate from the norms that are ascribed to society. Different courts deal with differing types of disputes. The ability to settle a dispute is left almost exclusively to authority, and authority is central to the system’s success. We have many appointed offices of people in authority to the general public, for example judges, police officers, which have power to manipulate and coerce others legitimately.

The extensive set of depersonalised laws prevents the settling of disputes in ways that violate the legal principle of the culture, such as violence. Even verbal arguments in public may be considered breach of the peace, an offence for which people can be arrested and reprimanded. Disputes are turned into a very formal depersonalised matter, with the onus on discovering fault, placing blame and punishment; provocation for an act may be somewhat taken into account, but at the end of the day if you were provoked into doing wrong you still did wrong, and are still punished.

Western state society court systems also serve as a preventative measure by making acts that could result in dispute illegal. For example, a person’s property is protected through procedural laws regarding theft; laws against violence deter physical fights; people can even be fined for noise offences. Thus the system has a preventative element by not allowing things that aggravate or are even an expression of a dispute.

Disputes can also be avoided through the use of restraining orders decreeing that a person may not go within a certain distance of anyone else; anything considered as breaching the peace or any law is a punishable offence regardless of the consequences. It is the consequences of individuals actions, not social disharmony, that motivates individuals toward a peaceful society. There is a great emphasis on power, control and authority. Breaking a law, however trivial, are still punished simply because they are forbidden.

Recent emphasis on a ‘zero tolerance’ strategy, a strategy where any act that potentially threatens authority, control and peace in society is punished. Punishment is not solely aimed at providing compensation, but importance is placed on punishment and reprimanding those in breach of the law, the idea of justice is paramount. Laws are in general absolute and universal; there is little room for movement in light of factors leading up to an act. Consider the murder convictions- there is a murder classified on a number of levels according to intent, intention and so on.

Even the extenuating circumstances are formally codified. This is perhaps because of the size and anonymous nature of society- the idea of controlling a vast number and variety of people is more important than harmony and future relationships; a dispute does not have the same potential impact as in a small close knit society for societal relations. The only way to maintain harmony is via numerous substantive and procedural laws, and having total control over dispute settlements. How effective is the Western system?

Through such extensive substantive and procedural laws we accept we are not in control of situations. There is an authority that can sort out disputes without things escalating too dangerously, and responsibility is removed from both disputants. However, I would consider it very rare if one person were to pass another person in the street that they had sued and they’re to be any chance of a friendly exchange. The onus on placing blame means that one party is exonerated and the other incriminated, which can breed resentment.

There is a clear cut line between right and wrong defined and decreed in the written procedural laws. Punishment for crimes are universal and there is clear legal principle that individuals are expected to adhere to. Deviance is punished regardless of its impact on society, instilling a code of conduct and the power of authority, which can work as a preventative measure. Punishments such as incarceration and fines may instil bitterness and a desire for revenge.

The dispute is not really settled; more that blame has been officially placed and the plaintiff compensated. In comparison are the Zapotec Indians of Ralu’a village in South America studied by Laura Nader (Spradley & McCurdey, 2003). The Zapotec have a number of levels for settling disputes. They have a mediation court system, but a number of more informal methods that are encouraged before court is reached. There are a number of implicit procedural laws, but settlements are usually made on a case-by -case basis with no formalised codifying.

Their basic legal principle is “to make the balance”. Our western legal systems focus primarily on placing blame, finding fault, and a relevant punishment for going against the culture’s legal principle. The Zapotec are more concerned with maintaining the balance, finding a peaceful resolution, and the future relationships involved. Their aim is not to punish potential threats to the control of the state government but to maintain a harmonious, cohesive community.

If someone has wronged another the aim of the Zapotec system is to provide a solution that suits all, so people do have to pay fines and there are consequences for actions, but they work to find a balance between justice and resentment. There are formalised institutions, of which there are a number of levels, for which disputes in Ralu’a can be settled, depending on the extent of the dispute and its seriousness. The first port of call is to take the dispute to the town hall, or municipio, to go before a group of principales and the presidente.

The principales are a group of 13 nominated men that form an advisory group. Each year 3 men are nominated for the position of village chairman, the presidente. Although the system is technically a formal system, informality is maintained through the positions in the municipio being democratically decided and member being nominated. This way individual’s taking their case to the municipio are more likely to respect the final settlement as those who are mediating are respected individuals, chosen by the community.

The Zapotec have an interesting way of reining in the most problematic individuals by way of making them members of the town police, the head of which is the sindico, who is also responsible for running the communal work program of the pueblo. The policia consists of 12 members under two lieutenants and one chief of police. The chief of police is generally the roughest most disruptive man. This is the opposite of how western society works- responsibility, authority and influence is removed from troublemakers. Together, the sindico and presidente are able to settle the majority of disputes.

The next level in the chain is the alcalde that presides over the justice of the peace, and settles the more serious disputes. The final port of call is the district court, which is seen as a last resort. Taking a dispute the municipio is more of a last resort as social pressure attaches shame and dishonour to those who resort to such measures. This social pressure encourages people in the community to sort out their own disputes before they reach a level requiring such intervention. Such an example is of a dispute regarding washing stones at a well.

One female had chosen a washing stone next to her friend which was not her usual washing stone, when the owner arrived they angrily asked the woman to move, even though there were other free washing stones available. Tension increased and insults exchanged; eventually the whole village became involved taking sides, and other similar disputes arose. Water began to dry up at this well, and villagers believed this was a consequence of the women’s dispute, and action had to be taken. A meeting of the Well Association was called in order to find a solution.

The next time the women went to the well all the washing stones had been removed and replaced with concrete basins specifically allocated to no-one, and their use strictly based on a first-come-first-served basis. This way of settling the dispute was aimed at restoring the balance, at maintaining cohesion and harmony. The facts of the case were irrelevant, as was who was right or wrong and where the blame lay. However, the dispute was settled in a way that there would be no resentment between the women, and their relationships could be restored.

The solution also provided a preventative measure to prevent such a dispute reoccurring. It will be interesting to compare the resolution of such a dispute in Zapotec society and western society. In Western state society it is likely that the second of the women who felt her washing stone had been taken unfairly would have employed a solicitor and lodged charges against the other women for stealing her washing stone. Assuming the case reached court lawyers would be employed to describe the facts to a judge, each side aiming to place blame on the other side.

The judge would consult the various laws in order to decree who was at fault, or if any laws were broken. Blame would be ascribed and the dispute would be resolved by fines and punishments, however whether steps would be taken to prevent such a dispute re-occurring is debateable. Of course, such a dispute is unlikely to happen in western society due to the cultural differences. It is somewhat nai??ve to suggest that the Zapotec’s ways of settling disputes are more effective than our own, as we have to consider the vast differences in our societies.

Cohesion is not nearly as vital to everyday life here as it is in smaller communities- disputes are resolved in a very individual way, which is impractical for larger populations- we could not consider intricately every detail of why someone may have hit someone else- we have to have definite boundaries. Hitting is thought of as wrong and not desirable for a peaceful community, thus the fact it is against the law simply prohibits violence regardless of the reason. This is a simple black and white law, and has consequences of which everyone is aware. The depersonalised system is consistent with the impersonal nature of our society.

To conclude there are clear differences in the way each society tackles dispute settlement. There is the authoritative Western system that seeks prevention through a vast number of procedural and substantive laws with the primary aim of ensuring ‘justice’ and punishment. Then there is the more informal system of the Zapotec Indians, who regard restoring the balance and future relationships as more important than placing the blame. I cannot see either system working in the other’s community due to the vast cultural differences, and differences in population size, however they seem to prove effective for each individual society.

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