The Role of Social Conflict

Term Paper, 2003

15 Pages, Grade: 90%

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1 About Shadows and Vorlons - The Introduction

2 What is it all about? - The Nature of Conflict
2.1 Towards a definition
2.2 The characteristics of conflict
2.3 The basis and dynamic of conflict
2.4 The sources of conflict

3 What’s wrong with it? – The Dysfunctional View on Conflict

4 Is there something good? – The Functional View on conflict

5 At the end of the day... - The Conclusion

6 Who said what ? The References

1 About Shadows and Vorlons - The Introduction

The universe in the year 2261 consists of various races, each of which is in its own way very unique. The most visible ones are the Humans (of course), the Minbari, the Centauri and the Narn. These are called "younger" races because they are considerably younger than the two most important "older" races - the Shadows and the Vorlons. The Shadows’ policy follows a simple assumption: the more younger races face struggle and destruction the more they are pushed in their technical and personal development. Consequently, they like to cause war and incite genocide every 10.000 years, weeding out the weak and defenceless among the younger races to promote rapid evolution; they think it is the main way that the (remaining) younger races will learn to “be better”. And the Shadows are willingly to help them on their very own way in a manor of speaking. If the Shadows represent chaos and warfare, the Vorlons are lords of order and peace. They are the ancient adversaries to the Shadows. Their behaviour bases on the value of friendship, cooperation, logic and advice. Consistent peaceful relationships over centuries and a way of “soft pushing” are the most appropriate means to help these youngsters of the universe to develop. In fact, both of the elder ones do not seek military victory, but philosophical dominance.

Babylon 5 is one of the most remarkable Science-fiction TV- shows in the late 90’s. It evolves around the space station of the same name. The whole series, like many others in TV as well, is about this fundamental fight between two major views on the topic: is conflict either positive or negative in its purest nature? The creators of Babylon 5 simply bring it down to the more primary question about good and bad - and give their audience the answer straight with them: the Shadows symbolise all evil in the universe, spreading chaos, fear, violence and death. The Vorlons on the other hand, being no less strange, are friendly, helpful, offer support and advancement. There are no better then them.

But is the answer really that simple? Is conflict always something bad, something to avoid, something to hide away? Coser (1967) states: "All social life is conflict, because it is change." But when people are asked for their spontaneous associations related to conflict, the answer seems indeedly to be clear. Images of trouble, unpleasure, violence, suffer, hurt and warfare draw an unquestionable picture what conflict seems to be mostly about. It will be shown in what follows, that the truth goes beyond that.

This assignment tries to reconstruct the discussion between the functional view, following mainly Talcott Parsons, and the dysfunctional view, regarded to Luis Coser, according to the basic nature of social conflict.

2 What is it all about? - The Nature of Conflict

2.1 Towards a definition

“No single general theory of conflict and war exists that is acceptable to social scientists in their respective disciplines” Dougherty and Pfaltzgraf (1990) state. This seems to be true facing the range of definition available. Pruitt & Rubin (1986) suggest the following: "Conflict means perceived divergence of interests, or a belief that the parties' current aspirations cannot be achieved simultaneously." Deutsch (1973) just puts it in a simple way: "A conflict exists whenever incompatible activities occur." No matter what definition someone follows, it must be clearly understood that ", social conflicts are all around us" and that "they are inherent in human relations" (Kriesberg, 1982). Therefor, it is not a question if a conflict situation is given or not (because that is a fact almost all the time) but if we feel like that. This difference leads towards a distinction between potential and emergence conflicts (Kriesberg, 1982). The first type refers to all situations, which fit to the definition of social conflict mentioned above. The relevant point is, as long as the involved parties do not see any difference in their objectives this conflict is only potential, latent. Nevertheless, the situation underlies a dispute and persists regardless of the partisan's awareness of it! Emergency occurs when at least one of the adversaries becomes believing there are incompatible goals. All depends on the conscious.

But what leads a latent conflict to an emerged? According to Kriesberg (1982) the following factors have to be given: the competitors must see themselves as collective entities and, therefor, separate from others; at least one group must be aggrieved with their position relative to their antagonists; they must believe in a solution which is forcing the other group to act or be different.

It is a common pitfall to lump the term conflict and competition together. "Both are forms of struggle. Competition, however, is continuous and impersonal; conflict is intermittent and personal." (Park & Burgess, 1924) Competition is defined by seek for the same ends desired by the adversaries, something that they not possess yet. Conflict is necessarily conscious and often about maintaining the living standards.

2.2 The characteristics of conflict

In the same extend the definitions differ from each other the characteristics do. It depends highly on the point of view, what is supposed be relevant.

Mitchell (1981), for example, suggests three factors that define the composition of a conflict : (1) the underlying conflict situation, (2) conflict attitudes, and (3) conflict behaviour. In a relative new attempt Byrne and Carter's (1996, 2000) The Social Cube of ethno-political conflict escalation illustrates that six social forces—demographics, economics, history, politics, psycho-culture, and religion—interactively and simultaneously combine to produce multiple relationships and patterns of inter-group behaviour through time and context.

Kriesberg (1982) offers 4 elements of a conflict. Given the variables consciousness and emergency, there are three possible combinations regarding to (1) issues of contention. First, a conflict can be realistic. That means all people involved are common about the justification and occurrence of a current conflict. Second, a conflict can be unrealistic, what is meant by an obviously existing struggle, which is not being felt like that by the participants. Finally, the situation can be built up by false conscious. Like many neighbourhood disputes, these types lack of underlying basis, are fought without realistic objectives to be reached, "it is simply expressive or accidentally". Furthermore, (2) the party characteristics, (3) the relations between the struggling parties, and (4) the means used to conduct the conflict are another variables defining a conflict. The first of them depends on the degree of organisation, including the boundary clarity, as well as the pure size of the group involved and the length of the dispute. The second mentioned is always a question of power, the costs to maintain this coercion, and the difference in the extent. The last variable depends mostly on the degree of regulation and institutionalisation within a struggling group (for further information and more clarity see Kriesberg, 1982, page 3-16).

2.3 The basis and dynamic of conflict

To distinguish the various bases of social conflict it is helpful to use the so-called Conflict Cube (taken from Bradshaw, 2003). It is graphically shown there that all kinds of struggle are based on whether:

- Past relationships on the one side
- Structural situations (social, political, economic) on the second
- Value differences (religious, political, ideological)

Clashes of interests (based on limited supply of scarce resources)

Unfulfilled needs (when basic human needs are denied or people feel relative deprived)

Misinformation (by misperception and/or miscalculation) on the third side.

Mostly, conflicts are made of a number of factors, what makes it even more difficult to solve them accurately.

It is very common among scholars, that every conflict follows, more or less, a certain time pattern, called Dynamic (Bradshaw, 2003). This time path is made like the following. The first phase is The Beginning. This is, according to Kriesberg (s.a.), when the parties involved get aware of the struggle situation; therefor, the conflict shifts from latent to emerge. In the second phase, the term Escalation refers to the increasing impact the dispute has on the participants and the increasing amount of energy spent to keep the action going on. Often times, more, former outstanding parties get involved by being offended or "invited" otherwise through tactics used by one of the strugglers. A conflict turns into Stalemate when the parties are not able to increase their investments any more, the situation reaches a plateau. The last phase of Termination, or Settlement refers to the decreasing process going on in this stage. It usually leads to an End.

It must be noted that other models with other emphasises exist. So, for example, Kriesberg (1982, Figure 1.5) established his own dynamic model. The circle form of this model allows to go from the last phase of an old dispute to the first one of a new struggle directly.

2.4 The sources of conflict

A huge number of theories exist to the question what the underlying processes probably are. Psychologists, sociologists, and political scientists have all their very own, often highly sophisticated models why social conflict occurs. Only a few shall be mentioned here in some extend to keep the focus on the origin topic (taken from Dougherty & Pfaltzgraf, 1990).

Some call it Aggression Instinct (K. Lorenz), others Death Instinct (Freud's destroying antagonist to the creating Sexual Instinct) – no matter, the idea is always the same: Aggression is a kind of rudimentary left-over of evolution that strives to come in action from time to time, triggered by specific cues. It is important to acknowledge that this personal trait is not learned but an inborn mechanism for ensuring the survival of human kind.

Others, like Skinner or Watson (behaviourists) suggest aggression to be learned through lifetime, reinforced by classical and operational conditioning (the build up of stimulus-response-associations).

Very popular for a long time was the Dollard-Doob-Hypothesis, better known as Frustration-Aggression-Theory. The assumption is impressive simple: If someone feels frustration it leads inevitably to aggression. Frustration is usually initiated by an interference with goal-directed behaviour. The advantage of this sympathetic theory lies in its ability to explain complicated processes like the class struggles described by K. Marx. The big danger of the theory is (like it is the same case with K. Lorenz) to take aggression as a simple stimulus-response-phenomenon.

The following psychological, to Dollard–Doob similar, model is The Basic Human Needs Theory, based on the well-known human need hierarchy of Maslow. The fundamental idea is, that the most basic physical needs (food, water, sleep etc.) are non-negotiable. If someone lacks fulfilling one of them, he or she will get aggressive. In spite of its popularity, Maslow's theory was never proved. Scholars nowadays distinguish only between primary and secondary needs (Davies, 1988), or between substantive and instrumental needs. In conclusion, there is still no agreement among those scientists, what needs are when after how long time of starvation non-negotiable.

The last model roots in the constructivism view on how humans perceive their environment (this modern cognitive approach is highly based on Mead's Symbolic Interactionism, 1931). Given the statement, that everyone constructs his/her own world in mind; total correspondence will be never reached. Therefor, Misunderstanding and Miscalculation, reinforced by poor communication and group processes, are very common.

The last model mentioned here sees conflict as a result of competing sovereignties. This so called Power Politics follows the attitude: states strive by nature to expand their own power. As a result, it is impossible to trust bilateral treaties and agreements because a kind of superior controlling mechanism, standing above nations, is missed. That is why Hobbes argues, that states of nature are states of war of everyone against everyone else. The problem of these scholars is their own self-fulfilling prophecy: When everyone prepares for war and waits for it breaking out, it will on any time.

In the following abstracts it is tried to examine the both major views on the question whether conflict is in its very nature functional or dysfunctional.

3 What’s wrong with it? - The Dysfunctional View on Conflict

To understand, why conflict shall be something bad, dysfunctional, for a society, it is important to understand the theory behind this point of view. It was in 1937, when Talcott Parsons' book The Structure of Social Action had the biggest impact in American sociology so far. Parsons, in his first years at the Harvard University, wove together a number of ideas from Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Mead, and others (Persell, 1990) to establish much more than a simple approach to understand social conflict: The Structural-Functional Sociology. The heart of this view lies in the assumption that every part of a society contributes to the functioning of the whole, thereby creating a balanced structure, so called equilibrium. The term Equilibrium is defined according to Coser, 1967, as "a function of the extent to which group members habitually conform to each other's expectations"; ergo synchronised behaviour. Parsons sets great store on the fact, that Equilibrium is not equated with static self-maintenance necessarily but can be a Moving Equilibrium as well. This means an ordered process of change following certain patterns of change rather than random variability (Parsons, 1961). As soon as actors in a system gain satisfaction, they develop a vested interest to preserve that system and build up an equilibrating mechanism (also for a detailed definition of System and Society, see Dougherty & Pfaltzgraf, 1990). The whole theory follows four explicit postulates:

1. Every society is a relatively persisting configuration of elements
2. That are well integrated in that system
3. Every Element in a system contributes its function
4. Every society rests on the consensus of its members

Consequently, social conflict must be dysfunctional because it disturbs or hinders the integration, adjustment, or stability of the system. A change of one part of this entire system creates an imbalance, which leads to changes in other parts or perhaps of the whole system itself (Persell, 1990). If such a disturbance happens, its parts will adjust in a way that produces a new stability (Thio, 1992). At the end of the day society strives for that equilibrium all the time, because the anticipated outcomes of the actions of all group members are predictable and this, therefor, helps to what Mead (1934) calls Strive for Mastery.

In the focus of the dysfunctional approach stands usually the price to be paid for disturbing the equilibrium of the system. As it will be seen later on in the next abstract, conflict is being said to strengthen the cohesiveness of a nation in times of warfare (James, in Dougherty & Pfaltzgraf, 1990). Like every medal, this one has its other side.

Kluckhohn (1960) argues: "If a nation's intragroup aggressions become so serious that there is danger of disruption, war, by displacing aggression against another group is an adjustive response to preserve national cohesion". Given the assumptions of the Power Politics- scholars, there is no mechanism to prevent the world of misuse this phenomenon by any state. What is more, an external foe, getting turmoil as a sign of weakness, is more likely to try to exploit the situation by initiating war (Blainey, 1973), like often seen in the post-colonial history of Africa. Tanter (1969) even sees a mathematical positive correlation between a foreign war that continues without apparent success and the incidence of domestic turmoil. Finally, the whole situation can turn around against the nation initiating war. Though, the price will be even much higher than expected.

Scientists like S. Freud, A. Bandura or J. Dollard described in length the phenomenon of aggression displacement, when aggressive actions are directed to similar but other targets than the source of the conflict, caused by the inhibiting effect of the fear of punishment. Because, no problem is solved by such behaviour, it re-occurs periodical. Given that fact, it seems to be obvious that this effect is something pure dysfunctional.

Coser (1967) examines that violence can be a form of expressing vested interests (see next abstract). Moderate leaderships tend to give up more in bargaining with those groups than it would be appropriate given the number of group-members and extend of their suffer. As a result, violence seems to pay. To avoid this effect, leaders try to not react on expressions like these. In theory, this attempt must fail at the end of the day. In addition, criminal behaviour is seen as primary being self-regarded. Thus, it does not express necessarily a vested interest.

On basis of every social community is the so-called Trust in Advance (Cohen, 1966). That means the most social actions are made on the fundament of trust. For example, we belief that transactions of money and goods in daily life will work out properly. If not, we would must make a contract every time we by a loaf of bread. Deviant behaviour, on the same side, has a tremendous impact on the confidence among the members of a society, that all of them play by the rules.

4 Is there something good? - The Functional View on Conflict

Lewis A. Coser had been one of the first and most influential scientists who asked the circumstances under which social conflict may contribute to the maintenance, adjustment or adaptation of social relationships and social structures. To put it in another way, when is social conflict something good, functional? Coser based his point of view on the four "anti-axioms" of Dahrendorf (1958), according to the axioms postulated by Parsons:

1. Every society is subjected all the time to change
2. Every society experiences all the time social conflict
3. Every element in a society contributes to its change
4. Every society rests on constraint of some of its members by others.

It is obvious, whereas Parsons justifies the status quo of a society Coser portrays society as always changing and, therefor, forced to cope with it (Thio, 1992). This change is caused by the fact that societies are "open systems", where new cultural traits diffuse into, within influential inventions are made and developments took place.

The underlying idea follows the basic assumptions of the Constructivism: Every individual builds up its own picture of the environment around and the person itself. Thus, all these pictures differ, and therefor all attitudes, values and needs. Uncommon interests lead to competition with each other among the interdependent members of a society. Dewey (1950) once summarised effectively: "Change is alteration and this means diversity; diversity means division, and division means two sides and their conflict." As a result, conflict is normal, all around us all the time. Horton (1966) concluded: "Coercion, conflict, and change do seem, on balance, more basic societal attributes than consensus and equilibrium." and is necessary to the maintenance of normal responsiveness to the environment (Hebb, 1949). Because if not, we become "unfitted by being fit in an unfit fitness" (Burke, 1936). Furthermore, Coser stresses the very human characteristic of inflation, the decreasing value the longer someone receives the same amount for the same contributions he or she made. As a result, he asks if equilibrium in society is really something worth striving for?

But what are the consequences? First of all, conflicts prevent an ossification of a social system. Faced with struggle, it forces people to cope, to come out of sheep-like passivity by innovate and create, by observe, reflect and memorise (Dewey, 1930). To prove that, Coser (1967) compares the "frozen" middle ages, with its concreted feudal system of dependence, and the vital Renaissance when it made sense to compete for wealth, power and status. In addition, he shows the struggle between unions and employers in modern economies to be very functional for workers and company. As Sufrin (in McAlister Coleman, 1943) points out, union pressure effects "goading management into technical improvement and increased capital investment".

Even violence and deviant behaviour are mainly functional in Coser's eyes (1967). To be able to say this, he distinguishes between intention (of the delinquent) and consequences (for the society). Violence as an intention functions, on one hand, as an "equaliser" mainly for people with "vested interests", who face a system that lacks ways to express them, by giving those people the opportunity to do so. But sometimes, the effect turns against them, when minorities use an inappropriate level of violence, what makes them even more outstanding. On the other hand it is a way to gain self-regard and self-enhancement for people in lowest socio-economical positions. These people build up their self-esteem on the relative position among the group-members, which often depends on violent behaviour.

Violence as a consequence functions in first place as danger signal for the entire society. In fact, it is so loud, that men and women in power and authority cannot fail in perceiving it. This is a result of the axiom that people "will resort to violence only under extremely frustrating, ego damaging, and anxiety-producing conditions" (Coser, 1967). The only problem is: mostly the sensitive lack power and the powerful lack sensitivity. In addition, the pure number of violent members of a group can help to estimate the true number behind them and, thus, to evaluate the extent of vest of their interests.

There is, at least, one more highly functional result of deviant behaviour within the society: it causes the reaffirmation and readjustment of moral boundaries; definitions of what is normal, and therefor accepted, are made again from time to time. As a result, for example, the attitude according to homosexuality changed during the 1980’s. It is not anymore seen as an illness-like sexual preference.

At the ultimate level, what is about warfare? Can there be something functional facing the tremendous costs? Of course it can! William James stated once: "War is the gory nurse, that trained societies to cohesiveness in ancient times." The strengthened feeling of patriotism among the citizens of a nation in war is the most highlighted effect in Coser's view, next to a "push-up"- effect in fields of technology, science and economy. E. Benoit (1977) found out, one effect of the common defence alliance NATO, which was built up to secure western Europe militarily, was the slow down of the European economy.

5 At the end of the day... - The Conclusion

Comparing dysfunctional and functional view on conflict, it must be acknowledged, that Parsons offers an entire, sophisticated and, at least, highly logical theory about Sociology in general and conflict in special. Coser, in comparison, lacks inner compelling nature and theoretical foundation when he dismantles Parsons' suggestions. It is, more or less, a stringing together of ideas and assumptions, partly even not thought through. On the other hand, Parsons did not try to incorporate Coser's critiques. A shame, given the 4th axiom of the Structural-Functional Sociology that states: "Every society rests on the consensus of its members", that could be used as a starting point. Because, struggle is caused by non-consensual attitudes among group-members there is an open door to integrate functions of conflict.

It would be wrong to insinuate that Parsons was not conscious about change dynamics within societies. One of the 4 prerequisited functional conditions is "Adaptation to the environment and changes in the environment" (see Dougherty & Pfaltzgraf, 1990). Maintaining of Equilibrium does not mean being at a standstill necessarily. The question should be rather: Why did Parsons not made more out of this approach and emphasises the status quo instead of?

The main critique in this assignment shall be made on a general mistake made by Coser. He often turns the side effect into the main issue when, for example, he suggests that deviant groups strengthen the value system of a society and enhance the cohesiveness of them (Coser, 1967). The critical point is, Coser implies this behaviour against the rules is primary beneficial for a society and therefor desirable. That does not work out! In general, violence has to be defeated to maintain a social life on the basis of merit, ability and trust. The only alternative is the law of the strongest. At the end, this ongoing defeat binds energy and costs money that cannot be used elsewhere. Finally, there is no choice for deviant behaviour of some group-members to be made, like Coser seems to imply.

What about warfare? Coser evades a proper definition and discussion of costs when he examines about the contributions of war. Parsons on the other hand ignores the instrumental use of warfare like it happened many times in history because of causes exhaustive described by Coser. At the end of the day, people go always consciously in an armed struggle. Wells (1967) even insinuates that people have a weakness for warfare when he states: "After all, if people didn't like to fight, there are no good reasons why they should do so much of it." At the very end, Thucydides formulated once: "If you want to know why people are fighting a war, ask them and they will tell you".

Never the less the functional view on conflict is highly dominating among social scholars, even Coser does not want a dominant role of his view on conflict when he says: "I do not think ... that factors that make for societal conflict are more "fundamental" elements ... than those creating an underlying harmony." V. d. Berghe stated in 1963: "(A theory should be established) that achieves an adequate balance between stability and the various sources of ... change, between consensus and conflict, between equilibrium and disequilibrium". At the end, it is all nature to have both, consent and coercion, because we need both.

The creators of Babylon 5 are of the same awareness. That is why the shadows, although they will be defeated, will come back in another 10.000 years to play their role in the intergalactic society.

6 Who said what ? The References

Benoit, E. (1977). Kenneth Building as Socio-Political Theorist. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 21

Van der Berge, P. (1963). Dialectic and Functionalism: Toward a Theoretical Thesis. American Sociological Review, 28, p. 5

Blainey, G. (1973). The Cause of War. New York: Free Press

Bradshaw, G. .J. (2003). Course Materials to Conflict Resolution. Port Elizabeth: University of Port Elizabeth

Burke, K. (1936). Permanence and Change. New York: New Republic

Byrne, S. & Carter, N. (1996). Social Cubism: Social Forces of Ethnoterritorial Politics in Northern Ireland and Quebec, Journal Of Peace & Conflict Studies (3)(2), p. 53

Cohen, A. (1966). Deviance and Control. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall

Coser, L. A. (1967). Continuities in the Study of Social Conflict . New York: The Free Press

Dahrendorf, R. (1958). Toward a Theory of Social Conflict. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Deutsch, M. (1973). The Resolution of Conflict: Constructive and Destructive Processes. New Haven: Yale University

Dewey, J. (1930). Human Nature and Conduct. New York: The Modern Library

Dewey, J. (1950). Reason and Revolution. New York: O.U.P.

Dougherty, J. E. & Pfaltzgraf, R. L. (1990). Contending Theories of International

Relations. New York: HarperCollins

Kluckhohn, C. (1960), Mirror for Man. Greenwich: Fawcett World Library

Kriesberg, L. (1982). Social Conflicts. Englewood Cliffs: Prentince Hall

Hebb, D. O. (1949). The Organisation of Behaviour. New York: Wiley

McAlister Coleman, C. (1943). Men and Coal. New York: Farrar & Rinehart

Mead, G. (1934). Mind, self and society from the perspective of a social behaviourist , Edited by Charles W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago

Mitchell, C. (1982). The Structure of International Conflict. London: Mamillan

Park, R. E. & Burgess, E. W. (1924). Introduction to Science of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Parsons, T. (1937). The Structure of Social Action. Glencloe: Free Press

Parsons, T., Shils, E. A., Naegel, K. & Pitts, J. R. (1961). Theories of Society. New York: The Free Press

Persell, C. H. (1990). Understanding Society. An Introduction to Sociology. New York: Harper&Row

Pruitt, D. G. & Rubin, J. Z. (1985). Social Conflict: Escalation Stalemate and Settlement. New York: Random House

Tanter, R. (1969). International War and Turmoil. In Violence in America. New York: New American Library

Thio, A. (1992). Sociology. An Introduction. New York: HarperCollins

Wells, D. (1967). The War Myth. New York: Pegasus

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The Role of Social Conflict
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