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How Much Do We Know About Real Negotiations? Problems in Constructing Case Studies

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Much of our theorizing, and indeed much of our "wisdom," about negotiation is based on what we claim to know about real, highly publicized negotiations. Examples from those historically prominent negotiations are cited and re-cited. This essay raises questions about the reliability of the accounts we use from those negotiations. Though documents produced during the negotiation are often useful for scholars, what we know about the actual process of the negotiation – as distinguished from the outcome – depends mainly on what the participants are willing to tell us. The scholar's remedy for this problem is a deep skepticism about any individual account, in depth interviews (where available) of participants, a comparison of various versions, and the use of an explicitly articulated "plausibility test" in sorting out conflicting views. This essay suggests that negotiation scholarship may have depended too readily on individual recollections and thus given us a distorted "data base" from which to generalize. The essay delves deeply into one negotiation (Israeli-Palestinian negotiation at Taba, January 2001) to illustrate how the comparative approach yields quite different results than does a reading of any one memoir, and then describes more briefly how some of the field's favorite examples may not, on close inspection, illustrate what we previously thought they did.


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