“The Functions of Social Conflict” by Lewis Coser

This classic book filled two gaps for me.  Firstly, I’ve often observed that change is, in our international NGOs, very complicated, and I’ve usually ascribed this challenge, in part, to the way that our people identify themselves and their self images with their work.  At least for our best people, this leads to very strong motivation – a great thing ! – but it also leads us to conflate organisational change with an attempt to change us, as people, or to obstruct our ability to contribute to a deeply-felt cause.  This complicates things…

But I’ve not found many reflections on this characteristic of our sector in the management literature.

And, now that I’m nearing completion of a Masters in Dispute Resolution at the University of New South Wales, I’ve noticed how often the literature argues that conflict is, or can be, a positive thing.  Like most people, I’m predisposed to avoid conflict, so I’ve looked for a clearer understanding of why I should see conflict’s silver lining… conflict as a good thing?

Coser’s book was recommended by Bernie Mayer, who led a recent course I took at UNSW .  Any recommendation from Bernie should be taken seriously, and I’m very happy I read the book this week.

In “The Functions of Social Conflict,” Coser analyses the functions, rather than the dysfunctions, of conflict.  Published in 1956, it considers 16 propositions contained in another book –  Conflict, by Georg Simmel – examining, elaborating, extending, changing, and then reformulating Simmel’s original points.  Coser arranges Simmel’s propositions into seven groups, covering:

  • The way that conflict helps bind groups together;
  • The functions of hostility and tensions in relationships;
  • Conflict inside groups;
  • Conflict with other groups;
  • Conflict and ideology;
  • How conflict binds and unifies groups;
  • The ways that conflict promotes alliances between groups.

Having been published nearly 60 years ago, in some ways the book reflects a different time, and many examples included in the text are drawn from labour union / management conflicts, and international examples are heavily weighted towards cold-war conflicts.  Apt for the time, these illustrations are obviously less relevant today.

So I found myself considering how Coser’s restatements of the 16 propositions could be applied today, particularly to two conflicts that I’ve been thinking about: intra-organisational conflicts within INGOs in an era of disruptive change, and the conflicts that produce violence every day around the world:

  • Early in the book (pp 27-28), Coser considers why so much attention is given inside organisations to resolving disputes, reducing conflict, rather than looking at conflict as a positive phenomenon.  His analysis is that decision-makers tend to be: “firmly wedded to the existing order by interest and sentiment(.  The) decision-maker (thus) tends to view departures from this order as the result of psychological malfunctioning, and to explain conflict behaviour as the result of such psychological factors.  He will therefore be more likely to concern himself with ‘tensions’ or with ‘stresses’ and ‘strains’ than with those aspects of conflict behaviour that might indicate pressures for changing basic institutional arrangements.”  This is a very helpful insight, that goes some way towards helping me understand why we as managers put so much focus on avoiding conflict or, if avoidance becomes impossible, on resolving conflict as expeditiously as possible.  If Coser’s analysis is correct (and it feels correct to me), it helps explain why INGOs struggle to adapt to the massive disruptions they face today;

Closer uses interesting terms to describe “realistic” and “non-realistic” conflicts.  “Conflicts which arise from frustration of specific demands within the relationship and from estimates of gains of the participants, and which are directed at the presumed frustrating object, can be called realistic conflicts, insofar as they are means toward a specific result.  Non-realistic conflicts, on the other hand, although still involving interaction between two or more persons, are not occasioned by the rival ends of the antagonists, but by the need for tension release of at least one of them” (pg 49).

  • “Safety-valve” institutions – processes such as grievances, whistle-blower policies, complaint mechanisms – tend to focus on releasing tension.  Over time, this kind of displacement towards non-realistic aims is dysfunctional for the social system since the fundamental causes of the conflict are not addressed (pg 46), while pressure to modify the system to meet changing conditions is reduced (pg 48).  Again, this helps explain why INGOs, which have adopted many “safety-valve” processes over the last decade, often mandated by INGO Codes (ACFID, InterAction, etc.), struggle to adapt to disruptive change – pressure that could come from positive conflict is dissipated towards non-realistic aims;

Coser reaches conclusions that help understand why conflict inside INGOs can be so toxic.  It’s because our team-members tend to involve their “total personalities” in their work:

  • In groups that appeal only to a peripheral part of their members’ personality … in which relations are functionally specific and affectively neutral, conflicts are apt to be less sharp and violent than in groups wherein ties are diffuse and affective, engaging the total personality of their members.  In effect, this suggests that conflicts in groups such as Rotary Clubs or Chambers of Commerce are likely to be less violent than in groups such as religious sectors or radical parties of the Communist type” (or, I would add, INGOs).  “Organisations of the latter kind aim at encompassing the total personality, hence the bond between the members is much stronger there than in groups where segmental types of relations prevail.  If total personalities are involved, there is also a greater likelihood that nonrealistic elements will enter into realistic conflict situations.  Hence such groups will tend to suppress conflict, but if it occurs nevertheless, it will be intense and passionate” (pp 68-69).  This is a brilliant insight, that explains the intensity of intra-INGO conflict that I’ve observed and written about;
  • Simmel’s proposition, outlined on Coser’s page 111, adds to this understanding: “The parties’ consciousness of being mere representatives of supra-individual claims, of fighting not for themselves but only for a cause, can give the conflict a radicalism and mercilessness which find their analogy in the general behaviour of certain very selfless and very idealistically inclined persons… any yielding … any peace prior to the wholly decisive victory would be treason against that objectivity for the sake of which the personal character has been eliminated from the fight.”  Conflicts involving the “whole person”, in which the individual fights “not for self but only for the ideals of the group they represent, are likely to be more radical and merciless than those that are fought for personal reasons” (pg 118);
  • Similarly, on pages 152-153, Coser asserts that closely-knit groups with high personality involvement tend to suppress conflict, as the intensity and intimacy of relations means that conflict is threatening, dangerous.  Feelings of hostility tend to accumulate, and when conflict does break out, it is particularly intense, firstly “because the conflict does not merely aim at resolving the immediate issue … all accumulated grievances which were denied expressions previously are apt to emerge … secondly, because the total personality involvement of the group members makes for mobilisation of all sentiments in the conduct of the struggle … likely to threaten the very root of the relationship” (pp 152-153.)

It’s clear why conflict inside INGOs can get pretty intense!

Related to my other insight, about the functions of conflict, Coser focuses mostly on how conflict brings the need for change to light, and how it can unify groups.  More on this aspect of the book in a future posting …

Highly recommended for anybody who wants to understand conflict dynamics inside INGOs, and inside extremist movements.


If you enjoyed this article, take a look at a few other articles that I’ve published on the same topic – conflict: