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What degree for a future mediator?
June 25, 2009 1:55 AM   Subscribe

Choosing a bachelor's degree program if I want to be a mediator: social science or sociology (or something else?)

I have an associate's degree in human services management (kind of fell into that and liked some of it). I am about to start at a new university for my bachelor's and I am trying to decide my major. I feel like I'm just blindly choosing no matter how much I read, because I am not currently working and not yet able to work due to disability. But I would like to work someday as a mediator.

Currently I am looking at a major in social science (which would include courses in psychology (social, organizational, etc.), economics, research and statistics, US and European history, some sociology courses, that sort of thing. Or I could major in sociology without all of the history or economics and a lot more sociology. I could also major in sociology and minor in psychology.

The one thing I DON'T want to do is go to law school for a number of reasons. If I go to grad school I am probably going for a conflict-oriented master's.

From the reading I have done on becoming a mediator most come at it with a law background obviously. There are also some conflict and peace studies degree programs but I cannot attend any due to various circumstances unless and until I go for my master's. So without going for either a law degree or something specific in the field, I don't know which to choose that could supply me with useful knowledge. I know I will have to get mediation training and experience but that is somewhat of a separate issue for me (I think). Right now I can't work or volunteer, I can only do school, but I want to make it productive.
posted by Danila to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Mediated agreements usually have some kind of legal implications, they aren't just "gentlemen's agreements", so I'd be surprised if you found work as a mediator without some kind of formal legal training (possibly legal units within another degree).

If you're happy to just do low-grade conflict resolution work as a minor part of an employment role, then you probably need to lean more towards including behavioural science units of some kind in your degree. It's also something for which you need to have an aptitude.

Honestly, given the limitations you're placing on what you're willing to study at this point, you're probably better to focus your attention towards formal counselling qualifications of some kind. At least it gives you some credibility for finding employment in some kind of mediation role without requiring you to study law.

Basically, you need something which says that you are qualified to help people in conflict reach workable, sustainable agreements - bearing in mind that you need to be able to back up the validity of your advice in court if necessary (because court is the next step if the mediated agreement doesn't work and you do have a duty of care to those who take your advice).
posted by Lolie at 2:40 AM on June 25, 2009


The reason most literature approaches mediation from a legal perspective is because a) mediators practically always require legal expertise and b) without a legal problem of some kind, mediators are not required.

As a law school student, you should know that there are streams of courses that prepare students specifically for a career as a mediator. But I understand that for a variety of reasons law school is not an option, so honestly, I think you should reconsider your choice of mediation.
posted by Grimble at 3:59 AM on June 25, 2009


I have begun to answer my own question (should not have asked so impulsively!). After looking at various mediator and mediation websites, I am finding mediators with backgrounds in:

Business administration

Social work

Counseling

Religious studies

Communications

And yes, lawyers who started doing mediation after lengthy careers in law.

The most important thing for mediation is training and experience (which can be obtained through volunteering). I'm not looking for my bachelor's degree to be all about mediation. I'm just trying to make sure I can get the most use possible. For example, the school I am attending includes a degree in communications and there is a conflict resolution class (and I will see about taking that as an elective). I just want to know what makes the most sense:

Sociology, Social Science, minoring in Sociology or psychology while doing something else. Social work or counseling are also starting to make a lot of sense to me right now. Criminal justice, not so much?

Reasons I have currently ruled out law school:

1. I have never had any interest in law school and if you don't have interest in it I think it would be very hard to do. That is definitely the impression I pick up every time I read a law school related AskMe.

2. If I pursue graduate education, I'm set on a degree in conflict resolution or peacebuilding. These graduate programs usually include a few relevant law courses. Why would I get a law degree when I could get a degree in the field of interest? The mediation I am most interested in is working with communities (like victim-offender mediation), families, conflict coaching (helping individuals resolve their own intrapersonal conflicts), or working with NGOs. I already know what I would do if I got a master's, so I don't need to even consider law school. It's making the bachelor's relevant that I am wondering about right now.

3. Due to my disability, my resources are limited and I don't think law school would be appropriate under these circumstances.
posted by Danila at 4:17 AM on June 25, 2009


I think you're going to want to start by gettin a better idea of what exactly it is that you want to do. "Mediation" describes an incredibly broad range of activities from things as informal as marital counseling and HR management to as formal as international commercial dispute resolution. In the legal profession, "mediation" is used as a term of art to describe a particular form of alternative dispute resolution (the other being arbitration), and the responses above indicate awareness of that fact.

Where mediation is used as an alternative to litigation, having a law degree is all but a requirement, as knowledge of the merits of the various parties legal claims is an essential aspect of understanding the parties respective positions. In that sense, victim-offender mediation might be very difficult without a law degree, because wherever there has been an actionable tort, litigation is always a possibility. But things like family and personal counseling need not have the same legal overtones, as the issues that arise there, while significant, are generally not legal issues, at least not primarily.

With that in mind, it's going to be up to you to narrow down exactly the field in which you're interested, because I'm really not getting any clear picture there. But you should understand that with the exception of law, "mediation" doesn't strike me as something you can just decide to go do. Mediation generally constitutes one aspect of a wider professional vocation. You could do mediation as one aspect of a counseling practice, for instance, or be one of your responsibilities in an HR position. Even many legal mediators view mediation as simply one part of their practice, one tool on their belt to best serve their clients. But the only people who are called in to mediate between parties with whom they have no pre-existing relationship are lawyers. Pretty much everyone else who does mediation is involved with the parties in some way beforehand, directly or indirectly, e.g. clergy in a religious community, social workers and their clients, psychologists and their clients, etc. These non-lawyer "mediators" don't generally view mediation as a discrete part of their job; they don't go into "mediation mode" or view dispute resolution as some distinct activity. It's just working with people. They probably wouldn't even describe themselves primarily as "mediators;" they'd describe themselves as members of the clergy, counselors, or psychologists. In a sense, "mediation" is something many people do every day.

But you seem pretty dogmatically opposed to the idea of law school, which strikes me as a bad place to start. Your last statement in your followup strikes me as ill-conceived. Unless your disability is mental, and there are allowances made for that, I don't understand why your resources would be any more limited than, say, mine. You borrow your way through law school. That's just how it's done. And as far as the disability goes, I went to law school with a blind guy; he and his service dog were regular fixtures in the building. You're effectively ruling out the most obvious and direct way of getting into something like mediation, and I can't for the life of me see why.

Finally, the idea that you're going to be able to walk straight into a job with a bachelors degree is problematic. Most jobs which actually make use of the subject matter of your degree, rather than just requiring a degree of some kind, will be highly interested in if not actually limited to graduate degrees. With that in mind, thinking about your bachelors as a way of making yourself relevant to graduate admissions committees is probably the way to go here.

Also, "intrapersonal conflicts" wouldn't be a good application for mediation, as that involves talking to yourself. "Interpersonal" conflicts is probably what you're looking for.
posted by valkyryn at 5:02 AM on June 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Why would I get a law degree when I could get a degree in the field of interest?

Because no one will hire you.
posted by Grimble at 5:21 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


valkyryn's answer is very good.

To me, if you are flatly ruling out law school then my only assumption is that you want to mediate something OTHER than legal disputes or disputes likely to become legal disputes. For example, you don't want to mediate: contract negotiations, divorce/separation/custody/property distribution problems, wage negotiations, and so forth.

The problem is (and perhaps this is MY failing), I cannot think of any example of a "mediator" being used in a non-legal dispute. That is to say, when I think of examples of an independent unbiased third party assisting two or more individuals in resolving a contentious dispute, that unbiased party is described as a "mediator" in a legal dispute but using other descriptors in non-legal sense. If the person has a religious background, they are perhaps a pastor. If a psychological background, frequently a counselor.

So perhaps you can enlighten us as to the specific types of disputes you hope to assist parties in resolving?

For me, if you truly intend to be a "mediator" in the legal sense, there is no choice but to go to law school. It is like saying "Look guys, I really want to be a doctor, but med school is NOT an option. Should I pursue a political science degree or a psychology major with comparative literature minor?". I work in the alternative dispute resolution field, and I know my clients typically choose mediators not only that have law degrees, but who also are retired judges, or have advanced law degrees, or a number of years of practice under their belt that qualifies them to mediate legal disputes.
posted by bunnycup at 5:39 AM on June 25, 2009


(P.S.)

Yes, I saw this:

The mediation I am most interested in is working with communities (like victim-offender mediation), families, conflict coaching (helping individuals resolve their own intrapersonal conflicts), or working with NGOs.

But that doesn't help me. If you just want to help these people deal with problems, i.e. help a family who is fighting a lot stop doing that, to me that is not "mediation," it's "counseling". Again, possibly MY failing in understanding. Also, intrapersonal conflicts to me reads "psychologist". If you are acting as a psychologist, you will need to be licensed, will you not? And you might consider looking into what kind of education the licensing board will require. And I don't know what you mean by "working with NGOs". If you want to work with an NGO to resolve its legal disputes through mediation, you need a law degree. What kind of NGO disputes do you want to resolve, exactly?
posted by bunnycup at 5:43 AM on June 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


After looking at various mediator and mediation websites, I am finding mediators with backgrounds in:

Why don't you send them emails and ask them what you should do?
posted by anniecat at 6:46 AM on June 25, 2009


If I pursue graduate education, I'm set on a degree in conflict resolution or peacebuilding. These graduate programs usually include a few relevant law courses. Why would I get a law degree when I could get a degree in the field of interest?

My impression is that a lot of these master's programs in "peacebuilding" and "conflict resolution" are ways for a university to get guillible kids who are idealistic to apply and spend an enormous amount of money, while promising it will increase their marketability to NGOs. I think the graduates of these programs find themselves in a problem after getting an expensive master's degree and end up going to law school when nothing else works out. I know one woman who did a bachelor's in conflict resolution and she ended up getting a PhD in Education.
posted by anniecat at 6:50 AM on June 25, 2009


Most sociology majors have to go on for further education, even if they want to do research. A psych/social work degree is a little more flexible, but not much at the undegrad level.
posted by ShadePlant at 7:08 AM on June 25, 2009


Most sociology majors have to go on for further education, even if they want to do research.

I think you have this a little backwards. Most sociology majors don't go up for further education unless they want to do research or join a profession requiring specific professional school training, like law.

But for the OP, you need to be asking this of a mediator doing the kind of mediation you're interested in. Track one down and see if they'll talk to you for half an hour in exchange for a cup of coffee and a lot of gratitude. The other angle for finding such a person is to work through the professional associations for the fields you're interested in and find out if they have any members doing mediation. The American Sociological Association, Psychological Association, etc. will all have member directories that list employers, job titles, and email addresses for their members. These are expensive to buy, but you might see if you can get one at a reference library, from your department, or call the association and ask if they can help you (this might be too much to ask, but you can try. The worse they can say is no.).
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:57 AM on June 25, 2009


I have contacted mediators with similar questions and/or requests for further contact. Since there are all kinds of people who use AskMeta, I also decided to ask here about my side question regarding my bachelor's degree. I know that there is little I can do in the job market with only a bachelor's degree, and especially one of the ones I am interested in. My question is focused on which degree program makes more sense for knowledge and preliminary preparation.

When I say that mediators do not have to have a law background, perhaps it helps to offer examples. I am strongly interested in community mediation, and my goal is to train and volunteer with the Good Shepherd Mediation Program. These are the qualifications of their trainers for the elderly mediation training class:

One has a religion masters (probably with a counseling background I'd guess) and is a certified mediator. The other is a licensed clinical social worker and a certified mediator. Do you see what I'm saying? They are mediators, they practice mediation for a living along with training mediators. They did not go to law school.

With that in mind, thinking about your bachelors as a way of making yourself relevant to graduate admissions committees is probably the way to go here.

That's certainly one primary option (the other being go through mediation training, get certified, and do volunteer mediation work with community mediation organizations to gain experience or just permanently as I may never hold a full-time job in the field which is fine with me). I can modify my question to the following:

What bachelor's degree program would make the most sense in preparation for a graduate degree program in conflict resolution?

I will also contact the graduate schools I may attend and ask them the same question. Again, right now I am looking at psychology, sociology, social science with a concentration in one of those, etc.

But that doesn't help me. If you just want to help these people deal with problems, i.e. help a family who is fighting a lot stop doing that, to me that is not "mediation," it's "counseling". Again, possibly MY failing in understanding. Also, intrapersonal conflicts to me reads "psychologist".

Victim-offender mediation, from a restorative justice perspective (not ADR), is mediation between the victims of crimes and the offenders (often juveniles). So a major in criminal justice or sociology or social work with a deviancy/criminal justice/counseling focus might make sense there.

Conflict coaching is used with one party. It's coaching (think life coaching) with a focus on helping individuals resolve specific conflict, conflict avoidance, and self-development with a focus on conflict management.

But for the OP, you need to be asking this of a mediator doing the kind of mediation you're interested in.

Yes, thank you, this is probably the best answer. I didn't know if there were any mediators here, which is why I was just checking.
posted by Danila at 8:49 AM on June 25, 2009


i got my ba in social science, with a minor in socieology. i found that the social science emphasis was considerably more broad in nature, and often the subjects (hello geography) were really just about applying socieology to other areas.

after reading your comments about what you want to do, i would also strongly encourage you to look into the area of interpersonal communications. i found that skills and theories learned there greatly aided me when i was a counselor.
posted by lester at 11:37 AM on June 25, 2009


Something else you don't seem to be getting is the fact that even the kind of non-legal, community mediation you're talking about isn't done by people just out of college, or even just out of graduate school. It's done by community leaders, people with years, even decades of experience and reputation. NAFCM seems to provide training for experienced professionals who are in positions where they find themselves in need of conflict resolution tools because of their responsibilities, not young people who want to do conflict resolution. One of my law professors who earned his law degree in the late 1960s only got into arbitration in the early 1990s. Granted, he's doing major international commercial disputes, not family law or small business contracts, but it took just that long for him to develop a reputation sufficient for parties to trust him to arbitrate.

But I think on a more fundamental level you may be putting the cart before the horse. First you need to decide what kind of conflicts you want to resolve. Once you've got that figured, definitely look into adding mediation as a useful tool. But that's really all it is: a tool. It isn't an end in itself. Sometimes mediation is the best option. Sometimes arbitration is. Sometimes it's old-fashioned litigation, including divorce and the criminal justice system.

Again, lawyers are some of the only people who devote a significant chunk of their professional lives to conflict resolution per se. Most other people, even those who do wind up doing a lot of conflict resolution, tend to primarily view themselves as doing something else. Conflict resolution may make up an important part of what they do, but they'd really prefer not to deal with conflict at all, if they can help it. Some of the only people who deliberately set out to get involved with conflicts are lawyers, marital counselors, and soldiers.

So my advice then would be to figure out what field you want to work in, and then go about getting some mediation training. Focusing on one technique abstracted out of its natural context isn't going to get you much of anywhere.
posted by valkyryn at 2:14 PM on June 25, 2009


Thanks for the answers, especially thank you lester for the info on social science degrees and looking into interpersonal communications. After talking to the head of the mediation program I would like to work with, I have found some solid foundation going forward.
posted by Danila at 5:54 PM on June 25, 2009


After doing more research and contacting the program director of the graduate program that interests me (and she has a background in anthropology), she suggested the following undergrad programs:

sociology, law/justice, psychology, anthropology, and human resources management

So I have decided to go with sociology which is a lifelong interest anyway. Hope this information can prove useful to someone else.
posted by Danila at 12:25 PM on July 1, 2009


Better late than never. There is also the option of looking to a program in the Conflict Resolution field. It is a more broad field than basic mediation, but it will allow you to be a proficiant mediator with a knoweledge base to do truly transformative work. The first accredited MS and PhD program in teh US with a BS available in conflict resolution is ICAR . Another program to look in to is Eastern Mennonite University which has a capable program with a little bit of a religious edge to it's philosophy. There are many others in and out of country that you should explore to find one that has teh focus that you specificly want among the faculty and foci. I hope this gives you somthing else to look to
posted by elationfoundation at 7:53 PM on July 15, 2009


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