October 04, 2007


Caption: There's one of each.

Along with links and comments about current events, the theme of this week's Goat Rope is the sociology of conflict. If this is your first visit, please click on earlier posts.

Basically, this week El Cabrero has been strip-mining Lewis Coser's (1913-2003)sociological classic, The Functions of Social Conflict, which was published in 1956. It holds up pretty well after more than 50 years.

Coser had some interesting ideas about how different groups handle internal conflicts. Generally, open societies and loosely knit groups can handle lots of conflict without threatening the overall consensus:

In flexible social structures, multiple conflicts crisscross each other and thereby prevent basic cleavages along one axis. The multiple group affiliations of individuals makes them participate in various group conflicts so that their total personalities are not involved in any single one of them. Thus segmental participation in a multiplicity of conflicts constitutes a balancing mechanism within the structure.

In loosely structured groups and open societies, conflict, which aims at a resolution of tension between antagonists, is likely to have stabilizing and integrative functions for the relationship. By permitting immediate and direct expression of rival claims, such social systems are able to readjust their structures by eliminating the sources of dissatisfaction. The multiple conflicts which they experience may serve to eliminate the causes for dissociation and to re-establish unity. These systems avail themselves, through the toleration and institutionalisation of conflict, of an important stabilizing mechanism.

In totalitarian societies or sectarian groups (religious, political or otherwise), internal conflicts or antagonisms are often repressed. Often groups like this define themselves as being in conflict with other groups and need some kind of external enemy to function. If one isn't readily available, it will have to be invented. If internal conflict does break out, it is likely to be very intense and could threaten the group as a whole.

For example, if someone in such a group goes over to "the enemy," this threatens the boundaries of the in-group:

Therefore the group must fight the renegade with all its might since he threatens symbolically, if not in fact, its existence as an ongoing concern. In the religious sphere, for example, apostasy strikes at the very life of a church, hence the violence of denunciation of the apostate contained in the pronouncements of the early Church fathers or in rabbinical statements from the time of the Maccabees onward.

Even more threatening than the apostate is the heretic, i.e. someone who claims to uphold the values of the group in a different way. Heretics threaten to split the group. Hostility to heretics (religious, political or otherwise) is often even greater than hostility to renegades:

It is less dangerous for a group if the one who breaks with it goes over to the enemy than if, as a heretic, he forms his own rival group...

The contrast between open and closed groups is pretty stark in the case of handing dissent. In flexible groups and open societies, crisscrossing conflicts and different tendencies can actually help hold the group together.

In closed societies or sects, internal dissent is seen as dangerous and will be suppressed or repressed. Instead of allowing realistic conflicts to take place, they may engage in scapegoating or other kinds of unrealistic conflicts as a safety valve. If the conflict ever manages to surface, it's likely to be nasty and threaten the group's survival.

Given the choice, I prefer an open society...

SCREWED UP PRIORITIES DEPARTMENT. This item from Wired Science contrasts the costs of CHIP with that of two months of the Iraq war. I used some different numbers and came up with something slightly different: six weeks of war=$35 billion for CHIP but the point is the same.

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? Just before vetoing the Children's Health Insurance Program, President Bush proclaimed Oct. 1 Child Health Day...

THE GOOD GUYS. Here's an op-ed from the Washington Post about the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a truly outstanding group that has done a great job of advocating for low income and working families. We are in the early stages of setting up an affiliated group in El Cabrero's beloved state of West Virginia.

CREATIONISM IN EUROPE may be a non-starter according to Wired Science.

REASON #9763 why we need the Employee Free Choice Act...and a new NLRB.

JOHNNY, GET YOUR ETHNOLOGIST. Here's an item about the Human Terrain Team, which involves anthropologists working with U.S. military units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Whatever the politics and ethics involved may entail, El Cabrero is still reeling from the fact that anthropology has become a practical major.



Wabi-Sabi said...

Lots of good stuff as usual.

Thinking about people "going over to the enemy" reminded me when I helped judge some Teacher Achievement Awards with a large group of award winning, outstanding teachers.

As they were discussing the reaction at their schools when they were notified that they were an award winner, almost everyone reported other teachers attacking them. The teachers agreed that they would have preferred being recognized in a ceremony outside their home school because of the animosity from their colleagues.

One teacher compared it to a crab climbing out of a bucket and the other crabs pulling it back in.

I think the same thing happens in some of our communities and even families. I've heard too many Pastors and parents plant seeds of doubt for children who are preparing to go away to college.

They may as well be saying "Don't you start climbing out of this bucket now, ya' hear?"

El Cabrero said...

Hey Jim,

All too true. It's like the Japanese saying about when a nail sticks up, knock it down.