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Political Apologies across Cultures

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - APOLOGY (Political Apologies across Cultures)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-02-28

In the past decades, there has been a considerable rise in the number of apologies offered by states for injustices and human rights violations. Among transitional justice scholars, there is significant debate about how useful such apologies are. Whereas some have applauded these gestures as an important step in peacemaking processes, others have argued that they may not fit in all cultures and may even be a risky tool for peacemaking. Unfortunately, theorizing and research in the field of transitional justice is still in its infancy and has not systematically addressed questions of cross-cultural variability yet. So, at present, we do not know whether political apologies are a universally viable way to restore justice and harmony.

My project addresses this challenge. Using an innovative, interdisciplinary, and multi-method approach with in-depth interviews, (experimental) surveys, and content analyses of apologies, I analyze whether there are universals in how political apologies are valued, expressed, and interpreted or whether this varies as a function of cross-cultural differences in key values (collectivism and individualism) and norms (face and honor). Based on these findings, I build a theoretical framework that will fundamentally advance our understanding of the potential value and role of apologies in transitional justice processes.

This project breaks new ground because it is the first to take the difficult step to collect cross-cultural data to examine whether key assumptions regarding political apologies hold across cultures. It is also the first in this area to use a multi-method approach, which makes it possible to take into account the complex reality of political apologies. Combining insights from transitional justice, cross-cultural psychology and anthropology, this project places theorizing on transitional justice on a much firmer footing and paves the way to more cross-culturally valid models to restore justice and promote reconciliation.
By now, we have conducted more than 240 in-depth interviews and collected more than 1300 surveys to examine how people in different cultural contexts (Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Poland, The Netherlands, US) think about some of the key assumptions underlying political apologies (e.g. that collectives can be held responsible for past wrong-doings). As a follow-up on these studies, we are now conducting experimental studies in which we examine people’s views on how countries should deal with human rights violations, and whether they consider apologies as an appropriate or valuable gesture in this regard. We have also made an inventory of political apologies that have been offered for human rights violations. We have been able to identify more than 300 apologies for human rights violations made by state representatives since WWII and we are now analyzing these apologies in terms of their content, form, and the context in which they have been offered. We have also used this database as a starting point for a new set of studies, in which we examine both in-depth and on a large-scale how political apologies have been expressed and received across different cultures.
At present there is no agreement on what political apologies mean, how valid, appropriate and meaningful they are, and whether they are universally perceived as a viable way to restore justice or promote reconciliation in the aftermath of injustices and human rights violations. The cross-cultural data that are generated by this project allow us to verify whether key assumptions regarding the value, meaning, and effectiveness of political apologies actually hold in different cultures. As such, they will provide an important basis for further theorizing on the potential value and role of political apologies in redressing past wrongs and promoting reconciliation. They may also contribute to a more nuanced and contextualized perspective, and raise awareness of how and when cultural values and norms may impact people’s reactions to political apologies. Such a nuanced approach is likely to be more appropriate than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach in which a universal template for transitional justice is imposed. By collecting and sharing data on how people across different cultures think about and respond to political apologies, this project provides a clearer idea about the role that political apologies can play in redressing past wrongs and promoting reconciliation and such findings are valuable for all those working in the field of transitional justice.