Revised from Clabaugh & Rozycki, Understanding Schools
(New York: Harper, 1990) Chapter 4.

The Functions of Conflict in the Context of Schooling

Adapted from Lewis Coser's
The Functions of Social Conflict (New York: Free Press, 1956)
1999 Edward G. Rozycki & Gary K. Clabaugh

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edited 11/19/18

Reflective people are often dismayed that the leaders of opposing factions profess the desire for peace, even as they wage war. Union and school board leaders express severe misgivings about closing down the schools as they wrangle themselves, inevitably, it seems, into a strike. To the uninformed eye, this looks like blatant hypocrisy. It is not.

Public expressions of desire are not merely a method of disseminating information. "I sincerely wish to put an end to this conflict" is not meant to inform the public about some leader's state of mind. Rather, it is a move in a negotiation process that may well result in peace. But there is a hidden proviso.

What "I sincerely wish to put an end to this conflict" has to be understood as saying is "I sincerely wish to put an end to this conflict provided that the costs of ending it do not outweigh its benefits." Wars could be avoided if one side would agree to accept the aggression of the other. School strikes could be avoided if teachers would uncomplainingly accept lowered salaries, staff cut-backs, increased class sizes and arbitrary administrative decisions. But wise negotiators understand that every unresisted encroachment on the prerogatives of a group invites additional ones. Conflict cannot be avoided by capitulation renamed "cooperation."

Sociologist Charles H. Cooley (Social Process New York: Scribner's Sons, 1918 p.39. Quoted in Coser p.18) comments,

The more one thinks of it, the more he will see that conflict and co-operation are not separable things, but phases of one process which always involves something of both.
If a person sees the school in the image of a moral community, a Temple, conflict seems to be an indication of something wrong. Similarly, the image of the school as Factory tolerates little conflict. But this is primarily because under both images, the school is seen as monocratic, ruled by a single person, or group of people. Consequently, it is the perceptions of the powerholders that become the norm for the entire organization. The principal as moral leader speaks for the school. How subversive, how immoral, to suggest his interests might be narrower than those of the entire community! As director of production in the school factory, the principal looks at conflict as "inefficient", impeding production. Again, to suggest that he might favor personal goals is to attack his competence or sincerity! So it is that our fixation with either image of the school blinds us to the way conflict serves to maintain and enhance groups.

Indeed, conflict may occur because it serves the interests of groups, particularly, the interests of group powerholders. In many school systems, board members promote antagonisms between school administrators and teachers because they feel that each group does its own job better that way. Also, such antagonism prevents administrators and teachers from forming a cohesive group against the school board.

There are five basic functions which conflict serves both among different groups and within a single group. They are connection, definition, revitalization, reconnaissance and replication.

1. Connection. Conflict makes connection. It is a basic form of exchange and interaction. It is a negotiation. Nine-year old boys and girls, teachers complain, seldom interact except when they quarrel or fight. The people who everyone describes as "not getting along" are doing just that, but in a way that is often considered socially undesirable. No one has to fight. They can just walk away. But what do they lose if they do? Conflict provides a basic way of asserting one's relationship with another person. Among groups conflict maintains a form of negotiation. Within groups it does so, by releasing tensions among members that might harm the group. One of the hallmarks of professional conduct is that persons who do not like one another personally can nonetheless work together.

2. Definition. Conflict among groups sharpens their exterior boundaries. It heightens the sense of "us" versus "them." Within groups conflict focuses the differences between ranks and social levels. The teacher demonstrates his or her rank and authority in the process of ordering students what to do.

3. Revitalization. Conflict among groups revitalizes traditions and norms. School spirit has a lot to do with football games. Indeed, the major purpose of interscholastic sports is in the group solidarity the conflict promotes. Within groups, the individual is confronted with an opportunity to recommit himself or herself to the values that underlie membership in the group. This is why harassment and hazing form part of the initiation ritual in so many groups. Hazing may drive many away, but those who remain are the more tightly bonded for it.

4. Reconnaissance. information gathering, reconnaissance, is a function of conflict. Small-scale conflicts often determine whether large-scale conflicts are worth the trouble. New teachers face "testing" by their students to see how serious the teachers are about school rules and procedures.. Students will deliberately break small rules to see how safe it would be to break bigger ones. Among groups conflict serves this information-gathering purpose. Within groups reconnaissance often serves to determine whether some members will accommodate or reject a deviant member. Kids who are seen as "different" often become "troublemakers" in the eyes of adults. This reputation gives them leverage in their personal negotiations with "normal" kids.

5. Replication. Groups that are potential adversaries often reflect (replicate) each other's complexity. Among groups, conflict causes replication. One does not find, for example, teachers in a large school district represented by several small unions. Rather, one large, complexly organized union serves the function. Since conflict among groups serves to revitalize mores and traditions, we can expect to observe a greater conformity in the behavior within the group. Each person replicates, in some way, the next. In many schools, the big Thanksgiving day game is preceded by a "school spirit week" during which students and staff are expected to wear school colors. Also, many schools promote contests among classes over attendance and grades with the intention that group pressure will bring individual students within a class to perform up to the level of the group.

Figure 4.2 shows how the functions of conflict parallel each other among groups and within groups.

Fcns of Conflict

Figure 4.2

We can see that conflict can benefit a group. But it is important to ask, whom does conflict benefit when it benefits a group? Not everybody in a group may get the same benefits nor pay the same costs. And the kinds of costs and benefits there are may vary considerably among group members. Who does the sweating and who gets the glory? What do they pay and what do they get for it? Here again a fixation on the image of the school as a Temple makes such questions hard to articulate.

Additional Notes

Click here for more on "cooperation." (here to return above)

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