"Conflict in an ever-present process in human relations" (Loomis and Loomis, 1965)
When turning-the-other-cheek fails, many people are at a loss in dealing with conflict. The consensus strategy (a strategy based upon agreement by the total group), employed by many organizations, leaves community leaders ill-prepared to deal with those persons or organizations who refuse to concede without a struggle.
Conflict situations appear with frequency in daily, public, and private life. These conflicts may be on a small or large scale; they may occur within and among groups, communities, or nations; and, they may be triggered by ethnic, racial, religious, or economic differences, or arise from differences in values, beliefs, and attitudes regarding issues. Local communities are constantly faced with issues such as funding for education, siting of waste facilities and zoning that have the potential of leading to community conflict. Workers in community organizations are (or should be) aware of issues and value differences that may cause conflict within or among groups. Unmanaged conflict is a threat to the survival of the group and, at the least, tends to make the group less effective.
What causes conflict to emerge in communities and community groups? How can one minimize, deal with, "manage", or resolve community and group conflict? How is conflict used by groups as a strategy to bring about desired changes? This paper will address these questions and provide a means for individuals who work in voluntary development groups to understand and deal with conflict within and among community groups.
The potential for conflict exists whenever and wherever people have contact. As people are organized into groups to seek a common goal, the probability of conflict greatly increases. Since only the most serious conflicts make headlines, conflict has a negative connotation for many people. All conflicts are not the same. We face conflicts on all levels (Barker et al. 1987). We have disagreements with family, friends, and co-workers. "Conflicts are rarely resolved easily. Most conflicts are managed as individuals work out differences...." (Barker et al. 1987).
Individuals may dislike certain people with whom they come into frequent contact, but may tolerate their behavior on a day-to-day basis until a situation arises where strong feelings are at issue. Such situations almost inevitably turn up, sooner or later, within any long term community project or program. Conflict can occur within groups (intra-group conflict) or among groups (inter-group conflict).
Three basic types of conflict will be discussed here: task conflict, interpersonal conflict, and procedural conflict. Group members may disagree about facts or opinions from authorities. The interpretation of evidence may be questioned. Disagreement about the substance of the discussion is called "task conflict." Task conflict can be productive by improving the quality of decisions and critical thinking processes.
Another potential area for conflict is the interpersonal relationships within the organization. The term interpersonal conflict is used to indicate the disagreement that most people call a "personality clash." This "clash" may take the form of antagonistic remarks that relate to the personal characteristics of a group member or disregard any organizational goals to antagonize a particular group member. Conflict of this type is expressed through more subtle nonverbal behaviors. There may be icy stares or, at the other extreme, an avoidance of eye contact. Interpersonal conflict may be inevitable and must be managed for optimal group maintenance.
"Procedural conflict" exists when group members disagree about the procedures to be followed in accomplishing the group goal. New procedures may be formulated and a new agenda suggested. Even the group goal may be modified. Procedural conflict, like task conflict, may be productive (Barker et al. 1987).
According to Dahrendorf, at least four conditions are necessary if a conflict situation can be said to exist: ( I ) There must be sets of individuals exhibiting some level of organization. These could be voluntary groups, religious groups, families, communities, nations, or some other collections of individuals. (2) There must be some level of interaction among group members. Without contact (and communication) there can be no conflict. The contact may merely be propaganda about another people, culture, or group; it need not be personal. (3) There must be different levels of positions to be occupied by group members - a hierarchy of relationships. All individuals cannot occupy the same positions at the same time. (4) There must exist a scarcity of needed or desired resources and a general dissatisfaction among members about how these resources are being distributed. When there is dissatisfaction, conflict can erupt (French 1969, Barker et al., 1987).
Because small group communication acts as a system, no single variable operates in isolation. A change in one variable may produce changes in others. Because the system is continuously changing, a small group could possibly experience more than one type of conflict simultaneously (Knutson and Kowitz 1977).
Although competition is often confused with conflict, there are important differences between the two concepts. U.S. society is based on a tradition of competition in jobs and leisure activities as well as in stress competition. Most competition however, contains the seed for potential conflict.
Conflict and competition have a common root because in each case individuals or groups are usually striving toward incompatible goals. The major difference exists in the form of interference that blocks attainment of the goal.
In competition between groups working toward the same goal, the competitors have "rules" (formal and informal guidelines) that limit what they can do to each other in attempting to reach their goal. Athletic events are examples of organized competition with extensive rules setting forth boundaries of behavior.
Mack (1969) illustrates the difference between competition and conflict by discussing a foot race: as long as the participants are running without interfering with each other, competition exists. If one runner "pokes his foot between the other fellow's legs," the nature of the interaction has changed and conflict exists (so long as the action is defined by both involved parties as interference and not as an acceptable act under the rules).
Robinson and Clifford (1974) presents the following illustration to clarify the distinction between competition and conflict:
If two children decide to set up a lemonade stand on a hot summer day, for instance, competition will exist as long as each party attempts to 'corner the market' with socially acceptable behavior. 'Advertisement campaigns' might be used to praise the superiority of each party's product. 'Price wars' may be used to get the trade. When one party feels threatened by the competition, he may resort to several other tactics.
If one competitor goes to the other and suggests forming a cooperative, eliminating high-priced advertising and agreeing on a common price, consensus or cooperation may occur. Conflict occurs if one party reacts by making innuendoes about the other's product, perhaps by suggesting that his lemonade may be harmful, or if he organizes a boycott against his opponent. If one party puts salt in his opponent's sugar supply, destroys his opponent's ice, or turns over his opponent's tables, violence occurs.
Competition is often used as technique to stimulate community groups to action. In Extension, for example, the traditional means of working with groups is on a cooperative basis. Involvement in conflict is generally avoided, and Extension is careful not to "take sides" on issues that could produce community group conflict. However, competition is widely used by this educational agency to motivate different individuals, groups, or communities to strive for the same goal. Incentives, such as awards for beautification and other community achievements, are examples of how competition can be used as an effective motivating tool.
Robinson (1972) identifies the dimensions of conflict as: ( I ) threats or disputes over territory, whether the boundaries of the territory are physical, social, or work boundaries; and (2) threats to values, goals, and policies, as well as threats to behavior.
With regard to territory, threats to physical boundaries often involve property disputes or controversy over water resources usage by different groups.
Social territories are involved in establishing access to certain resources. Such organizations as a county club, neo-nazis, or religious orders set limits regarding who can join the group. The boundaries are limited by dues structure, religious affiliation, or value structure. However, fewer groups are legally able to limit social territories based on gender, race, and social class.
Other examples of social boundaries involve the concepts of social distance and norms. The Amish illustrate both concepts. They maintain social distance by dressing differently than others in U.S. society as well as by adhering to different rules of behavior. Because the Amish are seen as having little direct effect on the larger society, conflict is usually minimal. Bussing of school children to achieve integration, however, is an issue involving social boundaries where the potential for conflict is great. (In this case, it should be pointed out, such social boundaries do exist, whether or not they are considered "right" or justifiable.)
Threats to work boundaries may arise over job descriptions. Incompatible or unclear lines of work responsibilities can lead to conflict within organizations. Disputes over work territory may also come about in situations where overlapping services and agencies exist. Jurisdictional disputes over emergency medical service, school districts, law enforcement (local police, county sheriffs, state highway patrol), and political units (townships/cities/county) have potential for conflict.
Groups tend to "protect" their territories and maintain their boundaries by excluding others, rewarding and/or pushing group members for the degree to which they adhere to group norms and defend the territory in question, and by holding ethnocentric beliefs.
Groups may also "tend to believe that their way of thinking and doing things is not only the best but the only right way. This belief that the ways of one's own group are superior to all others, sociologists call ethnocentrism" (Mack 1969). Mack contends that ethnocentrism is an important source of and a contributing factor to the continuity of conflict. In an urbanizing and industrializing world, groups may no longer be as physically and socially isolated as they once were.
Conflict can involve threats to values. Such issues as the environmental concerns, abortion, international trade agreements, and the content of public education may threaten individuals and groups with different value orientations.
Conflict may arise over goals. For example, county residents may differ on how much of the county's budget should be allocated to social services or road repairs. Most conflict is the result of incompatibility of goals. However, there are also conflicts that stem from differences about the means to attain goals. In one community, for example, there was general agreement to establish a community park. Some felt it should be paid for by existing revenue. Others believed a new tax source should be secured. As a result, conflict erupted.
Conflict may concern policies, such as adherence to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines.
Conflict can also involve threats to behavior: "When values, policies and goals are changed, when territories are redefined, one must develop new behavior skills" (Robinson 1972). One recent behavioral change example involves the emerging role of women in all facets of our society.
"Not all conflict is bad and not all cooperation is good," according to Robinson (1972). People tend to view conflict as a negative force operating against successful completion of group or community goals. Conflict can be harmful to groups but may also serve some potentially positive functions, depending upon the types of groups within and among which it occurs. Not every type of conflict may benefit groups, and conflict may not serve such functions for all groups (Coser and Rosenberg, 1964). Conflict could be productive and could have positive effects on groups. Three of these positive effects are: improving the quality of decisions, stimulating involvement in the discussion, and building group cohesion.
The integrative and disintegrative effects of conflict are examined in the following paragraphs. Much of the material is summarized from Robinson & Clifford (1974), Coser (1964) and Schaller (in Cox, 1974) and Barker et al. (1987).
Defining and sharpening issues is one of the positive functions of conflict among community groups. As sides form on an issue, arguments and positions are clarified, and people can more easily distinguish between two different points of view.
Conflict can improve the quality of decisions. Suppose your group is discussing the issue of "student enrollment at your school." You and another member disagree about the number of students attending your college. What would you do Would you continue affirming your position or would you walk to the telephone and call the registrar's office to request the enrollment information contained in its records? Most group members will look for more information to resolve task conflict. Expression or conflicting news generates need for additional information that is imperative to the decision-making process.
Conflict among groups may increase unity and cohesion within each group as members unite in a common purpose. As Mack (1969) suggests, conflict may define, maintain, and strengthen group boundaries, contributing to the group's distinctiveness and increasing group solidarity and cohesion. He adds, "Conflict promotes the formation of groups.... Conflict also destroys groups, both in the sense of realignments resulting from shifts in the distribution of power...and in the ultimate sense of the extermination of an unsuccessful party to conflict."
Internal social conflicts which concern goals, values or interests that do not contradict the basic assumptions upon which the relationship is founded tend to be positively functional for the social structure. Such conflicts tend to make possible the readjustment of norms and power relations within groups in accordance with the felt needs of its individual members or sub-groups.
Internal conflicts in which the contending parties no longer share the basic values upon which the legitimacy of the social system rests threaten to disrupt the structure.
One of the most obvious "side effects" of task and procedural conflict is excitement, although some of the feelings generated by conflict may be negative, they are evidence of involvement. That is, a group member may be angry but at least he or she is involved in the group discussion. Thus, a good argument may be an effective antidote to apathy. Individual involvement helps groups become more cohesive.
Conflict may lead to alliances with other groups, creating bonds between loosely structured groups or bringing together different individuals and groups in a community as they unite to fight a common threat. Issues, such as types of books used in public schools, have recently brought diverse individuals and groups together in various communities.
Obviously, building group unity through interpersonal conflict is difficult at times. Suppose, for example, that you become extremely angry during an already heated discussion and call another group member "a turkey." If individual and group trust exists and members do not take remarks as personal rejection, the group can grow through the confrontation. Group members learn that together they can confront even personality clashes and as a group work to solve them. In the words of Fisher ( 1980), "The group that fights together stays together." The conflict should be managed, however, before it becomes verbal assault and irreparable damage to individual egos occurs (Barker et al. 1987).
Conflict often helps gain recognition for the groups) involved. However, conflict may increase bitterness, alienation, and divisiveness within or among groups and may have long-lasting effects upon future cooperation among individuals and groups holding opposite views. Coleman (1957) cites that "the residuum of past controversy", or the cleavages that exist in a community as a result of past conflicts, have an effect on present and future conflicts.
Conflict within a group can allow dissatisfied members to voice their complaints. And, the group may restructure itself to deal with internal dissension and dissatisfaction. However, conflict within a group often leads to internal tension and disruption. Member's attention may be diverted from the goals of the group to focus on the conflict.
The structure of the group and its degree of tolerance of conflict will affect the results of intra-group dissatisfaction and dissension. Groups that have developed close bonds and whose members feel a great involvement and sense of belonging tend to "play down" or suppress conflict and hostile feelings which may be seen as a threat to the unity of the group. Because of this tendency, feelings of hostility within a group can accumulate and intensify over time. If conflict eventually erupts it may be quite intense. This reaction may occur for two reasons (Coser and Rosenberg 1964):
First, because the conflict does not merely aim at resolving the immediate issue which led to its outbreak all accumulated grievances which were denied expression previously are apt to emerge at this occasion. Second, because the total personality involvement of the group members makes for mobilization of all sentiments in the conduct of the struggle...and therefore may threaten the very root of the relationship. Cosner concludes that "the closer the group, the more intense the conflict. "
In groups of individuals who participate only marginally, without involving their total personality, conflict is less likely to be disruptive or destructive. Such groups tend to experience fewer conflicts which guard against the breakdown of consensus. Hostilities do not tend to accumulate when tensions are resolved because "such a conflict is likely to remain focused primarily on the condition which led to its outbreak and not to revive blocked hostility; in this way the conflict is limited to 'the facts of the case' " (Coser and Rosenberg 1964). Coser (1964) concludes that the number of conflicts experienced by a group is negatively related to the intensity of those conflicts:
However, conflict can also disrupt normal channels of co-operation among various segments of the community. Conflict may result in social change, although "change often occurs without conflict, and conflict does not always produce change" (Schaller, in Cox, 1974). Conflict may produce harmful side-effects in addition to the intended change. When teachers strike for higher wages, in a simplified example, students miss several weeks of school work - no matter what the outcome of the strike. A successful bid for wage increases or the death of the teacher's union might be seen as a desirable change by various groups, yet the negative side effect remains in either case.
Conflict may become violent and in extreme cases, lead to destruction and bloodshed. Conflict does not necessarily imply or lead to violence; "conflict becomes violence when the process turns to overt hostility and involves destructive behavior" (Robinson and Clifford 1974). Conflict may also lead to violence "when a group is forced to change because its rights and privileges have been threatened or usurped" (Robinson 1972).
Clark (1968) states that two conditions help control community conflict and keep it from turning violent: the degree to which people are similar (for example, age, ethnic background, religion, length of residence, organizational ties); and, the degree to which community members have internalized community values, norms, and traditions, resulting from participation in voluntary organizations and involvement in community life.
In summarizing the effects of conflict, it can be said that they are many and varied, as well as unpredictable. In general, conflict may:
As we have seen, conflict has several positive aspects. However, conflict also is potentially destructive in groups when it consumes individual members' energies. However, conflict can interfere with group process and create so much interpersonal hostility that group members may become unwilling or unable to work with one another.
The potential for conflict depends on the degree to which needed resources must be shared, the amount of dependence among individuals and groups, and differences over goals. The "process leading to conflict is dynamic, because of the constantly changing nature of goals" (Schmidt and Kochan 1972). Several specific factors have been related to the occurrence of conflict. Type of event or issue, type of local government, community type, and size will be discussed here.
Coleman (1957) discusses three components in the development of an event or issue into community conflict:
(1) The event must touch upon an important aspect of the community members' lives - education of their children, their means of livelihood, religion, taxes, or something similar.
(2) The event must affect the lives of different community members differently. A tax proposal, for example, affects property-owners one way and nonproperty owners another.
(3) Finally, the event must be one which community members feel that action can be taken - not one which leaves the community helpless.
Examples of conflict-producing events that fit these descriptions are water quantity, political control of the community, industrialization-related events, books in public school libraries, and other school controversies, including religion in schools and bussing. Coleman (1957) notes that one important difference in the origin of community conflicts is the source: whether they arise internally or are a consequence of external influence. He states that "the prospect for the future is toward an increase in the proportion of externally caused community controversies," since the local community is "less often the focus of important social decisions than it once was."
Coleman (1957) discusses a second difference among the events which produce conflict, the "area of life they affect." The area of life affected might be economic (location of a factory in town, taxes); power or authority (zoning, jurisdictional disputes); cultural values or beliefs (education, fluoridation, religion); and attitudes toward particular persons or groups in the community (a predisposition to react to issues on the basis of who is for or against them).
In discussing the "conditions for controversy," Coleman (1957) cites differences in economic structure (i.e., industrial towns, agricultural towns, etc.); changes in time ("short-term changes in the social climate", such as the violent anti-Communism of the early 1950s); existing cleavages ("the residual of past controversy"); and shifts in population and values (such as rural communities facing an influx of new residents with different values, attitudes and interests, which in turn affect schools, churches, political structure, and taxes). In the future, it seems likely that growth-related issues, such as land use planning, will increase the potential for community conflict.
Schilit (1974) states that "as we move toward revenue sharing conflict in communities will undoubtedly increase." Schilit suggests that as decisions are made over revenue distribution at the local level, there will be increased tension among groups for their "fair" share of resources.
Coleman notes that when issues emerge as conflict they move from the specific to the general. This broadening brings forth new issues as well as new leaders.
Gilbert (in Clark 1968) studied power and decision-making in 166 American communities. On the relationship between local government type and conflict, he found that communities with a significantly lower level of conflict were those that had conciliatory values, which facilitated the managing of conflict if it developed. The communities also tended to be more homogeneous in population composition and therefore had fewer internal differences, decreasing the potential for conflict.
Regardless of economic base or homogeneity, all communities have the potential for conflict. Level and intensity of conflict has no limitations in any community.
On the relationship between population size and conflict, Gilbert (Clark 1968) states:
Although population size is an important factor in conflict - very large cities tend to be those with the most unmanageable conflicts - sheer numbers are not the "cause." Large cities have disproportionately large numbers of persons who are poor and uneducated. These cities are also "over-diversified " economically in that they are national or regional centers of finance, manufacturing, communications, and the like. This differentiation verging on fragmentation seems to contribute to conflict.
Industrialization and social change in communities affects the potential for conflict. "Industrialization has made possible the rapid interchange of persons and ideas not only within large societies but between societies.... (This) increases, if only mathematically, the possibility of interpersonal and intergroup friction, both within and between societies" (Mack 1969). As we move toward a "mass society" the possibilities for conflict are increased.
As Parker (1974) notes, "Change, actual or attempted, also results in conflict within a group. There are tendencies to resist change and a fear of the 'unknown' or what might result from changes." Some resist change, of course, for more concrete reasons - because their evaluation of the proposed change concluded that it is no improvement.
Conflict, as a strategy, is an attempt to coerce power after understanding and reason fail. There are individuals and groups who use conflict as a strategy to achieve their goals and change existing conditions. They may instigate conflict to gain recognition and call attention to their message. They usually want people higher in the power structure to address their problem. In effectively approaching in such situations, it is necessary to understand how conflict can be used as a strategy in social change. One of the necessary "tools" in conflict management is an awareness and understanding of the strategies that agitators use in generating conflict (Robinson and Clifford 1974).
Saul Alinsky was one of the major advocates of using conflict to achieve group goals. His basic strategy was to organize community and neighborhood groups to "establish a creative tension within the establishment" (Robinson and Clifford 1974). Whether the tension was creative or not, tension was frequently "created".
Those who utilize the conflict approach may use disruptive tactics to call attention to their position. These tactics may range from non-violent protests - boycotts and sit-ins - to violence.
Community development professionals appear to be divided on the use of conflict. Steuart (1974), speaking to professionals in the community development field, states: "Conflict itself...of some kind or degree is a major determinant of change and far from moving to avoid or immediately dissolve it, it may often be entirely appropriate even to stimulate it." Many reject conflict because they feel that decisions reached through community consensus and cooperation is the best method to achieve social change. Conflict, it is argued, may stimulate participation in the decision making process but provide only a temporary stimulus and prevent the development of a permanent foundation for participation. Many individuals who find conflict distasteful may be repelled (Schaller, in Cox, 1974).
Schaller (in Cox, 1974) states that although benefits often accrue when conflict is properly used, there are risks involved in using conflict in community organizations. Nonviolent conflict may turn violent, and conflict may produce unexpected results. Conflict may also result in the identification of the wrong "enemy." As Robinson and Clifford (1974) notes, "Alinsky demonstrated that his approach would bring change. Sometimes his methods generated great unrest and created much stress within communities. At other times, significant advances and social change occurred."
While many community development workers may not promote the use of conflict to bring about change, it is necessary to understand how it may be used by groups in order to deal with conflict situations more effectively when they arise.
This final section will discuss approaches to conflict resolution in line with the aim of the discussion - to aid the reader in developing effective skills for coping with conflict.
Robinson and Clifford (1974) advocates "managing conflict toward constructive action since a conflict can seldom be completely resolved." When conflict arises, we need to be able to manage it so that it becomes a positive force, rather than a negative force threatening to disrupt the group or community. As Parker (1974) notes:
Conflict not managed will bring about delays, disinterest, lack of action and, in extreme cases, a complete breakdown of the group. Unmanaged conflict may result in withdrawal of individuals and an unwillingness on their part to participate in other groups or assist with various group action programs.
Boulding (1962) discusses several methods of ending conflicts: (1) avoidance; (2) conquest; and (3) procedural resolution of some kind, including reconciliation and/or compromise and/or award. As stated previously, avoidance of conflict often leads to intensified hostility and may later cause greater problems for the group. Therefore, one of the first steps in conflict management is to recognize that a conflict situation exists. Don't ignore it and count on it disappearing by itself. As Boulding (1962) notes:
"The biggest problem in developing the institutions of conflict control is that of catching conflicts young. Conflict situations are frequently allowed to develop to almost unmanageable proportions before anything is done about them, by which time it is often too late to resolve them by peaceable and procedural means."
Avoidance in a particular situation might conceivably be the best answer, but this step should be made only after conflict is explicitly recognized and alternative ways to manage it are examined.
Conquest or the elimination of all other points of view is an approach seldom applicable to community development programs. It is mentioned here only as a recognized approach.
Boulding's third method of ending conflict - procedural resolution by reconciliation and/or compromise - is generally the method most appropriate in community development programs. There are several means to reach a compromise. Various practitioners and academies theorize as to the best means available. In reality, the means for conflict resolution by reconciliation is dependent on the situation. No one type can apply to all situations.
There are always risks involved when dealing with hostilities or conflict. Research indicates that accepting these risks will result, when the conflict is managed (even in varying degrees), in stronger, more cohesive groups. Ignoring or openly fighting the opposition can greatly weaken group structure and group action (Parker 1974).
Compromise involves adjustments and modifications with regard to the territories, values, goals, and/or policies of the involved parties. For example, a possible strategy for reducing conflict over how to reach an agreed-upon goal might be to redefine the situation in terms of new means toward the acceptable goals - a new bond issue rather than depleting existing funds. Territories may also be redefined and made less exclusive in order to diminish conflict.
An outline of suggestions for use in managing conflict within and among community groups is presented below:
"Techniques used in labor disputes offer potential in community problem-solving." (Schilit 1974)
Some useful principles based on negotiations between labor and management, and in business affairs may be applied in conflict management in community groups. As Nierenberg (1968) states, "Whenever people exchange ideas with the intention of changing relationships, whenever they confer for agreement, they are negotiating." He adds, "The satisfaction of needs is the goal common to all negotiations," and that "the satisfaction of needs is the goal common to all negotiations.... Negotiation is a cooperative enterprise; common interests must be sought; negotiation is a behavioral process, not a game; in a good negotiation, everybody wins something."
The importance of discovering common interests, or "points of common agreement," is stressed by Nierenberg (1968):
Always he on the alert to convert divergent interests into channels of
common desires. In exploring these channels, both parties to the
negotiation may be stimulated by the idea of sharing common goals.
These goals are reached by finding mutual interests and needs by
emphasizing the matters that can be agreed upon, and by not dwelling
on points of difference.
Sometimes, individuals or groups do not feel it is to their collective interest to resolve a conflict. The price is too high. Resolution involves compromise or capitulation. If a party is unwilling to compromise or to capitulate, then the conflict is likely to continue.
Many social analysts believe that the middle class in Western industrial nations has embraced an anti-conflict, anti-violence value orientation. This has resulted in rule by consensus and conflict avoidance. Some or most community leaders find conflict both embarrassing and distasteful. This attitude is especially useful to those who use a conflict strategy - that is, they exploit peace at any price. But, it may not always be in communities' interest to compromise or capitulate on these terms. Learning to live with conflict may be a real community service. As close knit groups have demonstrated for centuries, communities can live with conflict when they collectively determine it is necessary.
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