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Conflict (sociology)

Related subjects: Conflict and Peace

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Conflict is a state of discord caused by the actual or perceived opposition of needs, values and interests between people.

Conflict as a concept can help explain many aspects of social life, such as social disagreement, conflicts of interests, and fight between individuals, groups, or organizations. In political terms, "conflict" can refer to wars, revolutions or other struggles, which may involve the use of force as in the term armed conflict. Without proper social arrangement or resolution, conflicts in social settings can result in stress or tensions among stakeholders.

Conflict as taught for graduate and professional work in conflict resolution commonly has the definition: "when two or more parties, with perceived incompatible goals, seek to undermine each other's goal-seeking capability".

One should not confuse the distinction between the presence and absence of conflict with the difference between competition and co-operation. In competitive situations, the two or more individuals or parties each have mutually inconsistent goals, either party tries to reach their goal it will undermine the attempts of the other to reach theirs. Therefore, competitive situations will, by their nature, cause conflict. However, conflict can also occur in cooperative situations, in which two or more individuals or parties have consistent goals, because the manner in which one party tries to reach their goal can still undermine the other individual or party.

A clash of interests, values, actions or directions often sparks a conflict. Conflicts refer to the existence of that clash. Psychologically, a conflict exists when the reduction of one motivating stimulus involves an increase in another, so that a new adjustment is demanded. The word is applicable from the instant that the clash occurs. Even when we say that there is a potential conflict we are implying that there is already a conflict of direction even though a clash may not yet have occurred.

Types and Modes of Conflict

A conceptual conflict can escalate into a verbal exchange and/or result in fighting.

Conflict can exist at a variety of levels of analysis:

  • intrapersonal conflict (though this usually just gets delegated out to psychology)
  • interpersonal conflict
  • emotional conflict
  • group conflict
  • organizational conflict
  • community conflict
  • intra-state conflict (for example: civil wars, election campaigns)
  • international conflict
  • environmental resources conflict
  • intersocietal conflict
  • intra-societal conflict
  • ideological conflict
  • diplomatic conflict
  • economic conflict
  • military conflict
  • religious-based conflict (for example: Centre For Reduction of Religious-Based Conflict).
  • workplace conflict

Conflicts in these levels may appear "nested" in conflicts residing at larger levels of analysis. For example, conflict within a work team may play out the dynamics of a broader conflict in the organization as a whole. (See Marie Dugan's article on Nested Conflict. John Paul Lederach has also written on this.) Theorists have claimed that parties can conceptualize responses to conflict according to a two-dimensional scheme; concern for one's own outcomes and concern for the outcomes of the other party. This scheme leads to the following hypotheses:

  • High concern for both one's own and the other party's outcomes leads to attempts to find mutually beneficial solutions.
  • High concern for one's own outcomes only leads to attempts to "win" the conflict.
  • High concern for the other party's outcomes only leads to allowing the other to "win" the conflict.
  • No concern for either side's outcomes leads to attempts to avoid the conflict.

In Western society, practitioners usually suggest that attempts to find mutually beneficial solutions lead to the most satisfactory outcomes, but this may not hold true for many Asian societies. Several theorists detect successive phases in the development of conflicts.

Often a group finds itself in conflict over facts, goals, methods or values. It is critical that it properly identify the type of conflict it is experiencing if it hopes to manage the conflict through to resolution. For example, a group will often treat an assumption as a fact.

The more difficult type of conflict is when values are the root cause. It is more likely that a conflict over facts, or assumptions, will be resolved than one over values. It is extremely difficult to "prove" that a value is "right" or "correct". In some instances, a group will benefit from the use of a facilitator or process consultant to help identify the specific type of conflict. Practitioners of nonviolence have developed many practices to solve social and political conflicts without resorting to violence or coercion.

Conflict can arise between several characters and there can be more than one in a story or plot line. The little plot lines usually enhance the main conflict.


  • Approach-avoidance conflict is an example of intrapersonal conflict.
  • The Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland furnishes an example of another notable historic conflict. For information on the conflict, see the Troubles, Bloody Sunday (Northern Ireland 1972), the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan Bombings and the 1998 Omagh bombing.
  • Many conflicts have a supposedly racial or ethnic basis. This would include such conflicts as the Bosnian-Croatian conflict (see Kosovo), the conflict in Rwanda.

An example of ideological conflict is the struggle over slavery between the North and South. The dispute would eventually lead to secession.

  • Class conflict forms an important topic in much Marxist thought.
  • Another type of conflict exists between governments and guerrilla groups or groups engaged in asymmetric warfare.

Causes of Conflict

Structural Factors (How the conflict is set up)

  • Specialization (The experts in fields)
  • Interdependance (A company as a whole can't operate w/o other departments)
  • Common Resources (Sharing the same secretary)
  • Goal Differences (One person wants production to rise and others want communication to rise)
  • Authority Relationships (The boss and employees beneath him/her)
  • Status Inconsistencies
  • Jurisdicational Ambiguities (Who can discipline who)

Personal Factors

  • Skills and Abilities
  • Conflict management style
  • Personalities
  • Perception
  • Values and Ethics
  • Emotions
  • Communication barriers
  • Cultural Differences

The assertion that "conflict is emotionally defined and driven," and "does not exist in the absence of emotion" is challenged by Economics, e.g. "the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses." In this context, scarcity means that available resources are insufficient to satisfy all wants and needs. The subject of conflict as a purely rational, strategic decision is specifically addressed by Game Theory, a branch of Economics.

Where applicable, there are many components to the emotions that are intertwined with conflict. There is a behavioural, physiological, cognitive component.

  • Behavioural- The way emotional experience gets expressed which can be verbal or non-verbal and intentional or un-intentional.
  • Physiological- The bodily experience of emotion. The way emotions make us feel in comparison to our identity.
  • Cognitive- The idea that we “assess or appraise” an event to reveal its relevancy to ourselves.

These three components collectively advise that “the meanings of emotional experience and expression are determined by cultural values, beliefs, and practices.”

  • Cultural values- culture tells people who are a part of it, “Which emotions ought to be expressed in particular situations” and “what emotions are to be felt.”
  • Physical- This escalation results from “anger or frustration.”
  • Verbal- This escalation results from “negative perceptions of the annoyer’s character.”

There are several principles of conflict and emotion.

  1. Conflict is emotionally defined-conflict involves emotion because something “triggers” it. The conflict is with the parties involved and how they decide to resolve it — “events that trigger conflict are events that elicit emotion.”
  2. Conflict is emotionally valenced — emotion levels during conflict can be intense or less intense. The “intensity” levels “may be indicative of the importance and meaning of the conflict issues for each” party.
  3. Conflict Invokes a moral stance — when an event occurs it can be interpreted as moral or immoral. The judging of this morality “influences one’s orientation to the conflict, relationship to the parties involved, and the conflict issues”.
  4. Conflict is identity based — Emotions and Identity are a part of conflict. When a person knows their values, beliefs, and morals they are able to determine whether the conflict is personal, relevant, and moral. “Identity related conflicts are potentially more destructive.”
  5. Conflict is relational — “conflict is relational in the sense that emotional communication conveys relational definitions that impact conflict.” “Key relational elements are power and social status.”

Emotions are acceptable in the workplace as long as they can be controlled and utilized for productive organizational outcomes.

Ways of addressing conflict

Five basic ways of addressing conflict were identified by Thomas and Kilman in 1976:

  • Avoidance – avoid or postpone conflict by ignoring it, changing the subject, etc. Avoidance can be useful as a temporary measure to buy time or as an expedient means of dealing with very minor, non-recurring conflicts. In more severe cases, conflict avoidance can involve severing a relationship or leaving a group.
  • Collaboration – work together to find a mutually beneficial solution. While the Thomas Kilman grid views collaboration as the only win-win solution to conflict, collaboration can also be time-intensive and inappropriate when there is not enough trust, respect or communication among participants for collaboration to occur.
  • Compromise – find a middle ground in which each party is partially satisfied.
  • Competition – assert one's viewpoint at the potential expense of another. It can be useful when achieving one's objectives outweighs one's concern for the relationship.
  • Accommodation – surrender one's own needs and wishes to accommodate the other party.

The Thomas Kilman Instrument can be used to assess one's dominant style for addressing conflict.

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