Negotiation can be seen as a dynamic social process. Perspectives emphasizing the social context and dynamics of negotiations have been largely neglected in the negotiation literature. This article addresses the question of why social relations have received such scant attention, reviews the existing literature on negotiation as a social process, and spells out some ingredients of a social contextual approach. Finally, by way of illustration, such an approach is applied to international negotiations. Whereas ideas about social dynamics emanate from a focus on individuals, international negotiations take place at a level of aggregation and representation most remote from the individual level. Yet, even at this macro level, social context matters in negotiations.
This essay raises the question whether citizens in the digital age can learn from how credibility is treated in international negotiations. Negotiators face problems both in attempting to send credible signals and in making credibility assessments of received signals. Several studies, starting with Schelling’s seminal analysis of commitments, indicate that credible signals are those that are somehow costly to the sender. Contributions to our understanding of how recipients make credibility assessments include Jervis’s distinction between signals (with no inherent credibility) and indices (believed to be untainted by deception). The most general conclusion emerging from existing research is that there is no definitive, infallible solution to the problem of credibility, insofar as deception and misperception are intrinsic to all signaling systems. Today’s unfortunate combination of limited awareness of credibility problems, on the one hand, and technological advances facilitating deception, on the other, calls for intensified education as well as multidisciplinary research.