International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences International Encyclopedia of Marriage and FamilyInternational Dictionary of PsychoanalysisInternational Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences Further reading




I. Psychological AspectsEdward J. Murray


II. Political AspectsRobert C. North


III. Social AspectsLewis A. Coser


IV. Anthropological AspectsLaura Nader



Conflict refers to a situation in which a person is motivated to engage in two or more mutually exclusive activities. In a monogamous society a man cannot marry two women at the same time, no matter how attractive they are to him. A businessman may be faced with the choice of hiring a lazy relative or an efficient stranger for an important position. The soldier in combat may be torn between the desire to run away and the fear of losing face with his comrades. Incompatible responses cannot occur simultaneously.

Conflict may occur on many different levels. On the overt behavioral level, a tribesman may be motivated both to approach and to avoid the taboo object. On the verbal level, a person may want to speak the truth but fear to offend. On the symbolic level, ideas may clash and produce cognitive dissonance. On the emotional level, the visceral responses involved in fear and digestion are incompatible. Motives are important in conflict, and for this reason the term motivational conflict is often used. However, there is nothing basically incompatible about motives as such. Sigmund Freud suggested that opposite instincts exist side by side in the unconscious, with no disharmony. Conflict occurs only when the overt, verbal, symbolic, or emotional responses required to fulfill one motive are incompatible with those required to fulfill another.

Social existence involves a great many conflicts. The prediction and explanation of social behavior require more than knowing that a person has learned to make a certain response at a given time and place when properly motivated. The situation frequently involves other motives that produce incompatible response tendencies. The individual in society, subject to the pressures of the many groups to which he belongs and the demands of the many roles he must play, often experiences personal conflict. The entire process of the socialization of the child has been viewed as a conflict between the individual and society. Freud has gone so far as to say that civilization itself is a product of the clash between the incompatible demands of biological urges and social conformity.

The concept of conflict is particularly significant in the areas of personal adjustment and mental disorder. Freud maintained that no neurosis exists without a conflict. Clinical studies suggest that psychological conflicts are of central importance not only in neuroses but also in psychosomatic disease, sexual deviation, and functional psychosis. Furthermore, psychological conflicts appear to contribute to various forms of social pathology, such as marital, educational, and vocational failure; delinquency, crime, and prostitution; and alcoholism and drug addiction. Laboratory animals with experimentally induced conflicts may exhibit such maladaptive behavior as response fixation, tantrums, and catatoniclike posturing. They may also develop gastrointestinal ulcers, acquire a taste for alcoholic beverages, or become viciously aggressive.

The psychoanalytic contribution. The first important use of the concept of psychological conflict was by Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud in their work on hysterical neuroses (see Freud 1893–1895). These authors explained hysterical symptoms as the consequence of a conflict between incompatible ideas. For example, Anna O. was a sensitive young girl much devoted to tending her dying father. Her ideas of devotion to her father were shaken by the eruption of a wish for him to die quickly and end his suffering. The disturbing thoughts were repressed, and a series of crippling hysterical symptoms developed.

In his subsequent development of psychoanalytic theory, Freud placed a great deal of emphasis on a conflict between sexual and self-preservative instincts. Later, he phrased this as a conflict between libidinal wishes and ego anxiety. In order for a neurosis to develop, however, the libidinal wish must be repressed by anxiety. The unconscious libidinal urge then seeks an indirect outlet through such, things as dreams, slips of the tongue, or neurotic symptoms. A neurotic symptom is a compromise between the repressed libidinal wish and the inhibiting anxiety. Personality development may be viewed as a series of conflict resolutions. The most adaptive method of conflict resolution is sublimation, by which the libidinal urge is discharged in socially useful activities, such as science, art, and work.

The relationship between internal and external sources of conflict is of some theoretical significance. While Freud speaks of the clash between the individual and society, he also says that a neurotic conflict must involve an internal source of inhibition. Thus, a prisoner who is denied a sexual outlet may be frustrated and rebellious but not neurotic. On the other hand, a person whose own guilt feelings deny him a sexual outlet may indeed become neurotic. The guilt feelings derive from society, of course, but have become internalized. It might be best to reserve the term “frustration” for the external blocking of a motive and the term “conflict” for internal blocking. In both cases, the blocking can increase tension in the individual.

Much of the controversy in psychoanalytic theory has centered on the motives that enter into neurotic conflict. Alfred Adler suggested as critical in neurosis the will to power and Carl Jung the inability to achieve self-realization. Freud, at a later stage, added an aggressive motive in the form of the death instinct. Many contemporary psychoanalysts emphasize conflicts involving achievement, affiliation, and dependency motives. Nevertheless, the basic Freudian idea of a conflict between some motivated response and anxiety as crucial in neurosis has gained widespread acceptance.

The psychoanalytic ego theorists have challenged the Freudian concept of personality developments resulting primarily from conflict resolution. On the basis of direct observation of children, they have concluded that whole areas of development are conflict-free, particularly those that are ego functions, such as language, physical mastery, and curiosity. Thus, social interests in science, art, and work may be independent of libidinal development. Civilization may be more than a product of conflict.

Finally, the culturally oriented psychoanalytic theorists, such as Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, and Harry Stack Sullivan, have seriously challenged the Freudian concept of conflict between biological instincts and socially derived inhibitions. Karen Horney, for example, suggests that the developing personality is concerned only with security. In a threatening social environment, certain coping mechanisms become exaggerated and may come into conflict. For example, the neurotic person may vacillate between hostility and helplessness. Thus, the conflict is between coping mechanisms, and both arms of the conflict are motivated by insecurity deriving from society.

Lewin's taxonomy of conflict. Kurt Lewin made a comprehensive analysis of personality in terms of field theory (see Lewin 1926–1933). The behavior of the individual was seen as determined by a field of psychological forces. These forces were dependent, in part, on the positive and negative valences attached to various goals in the situation. Conflict was thought to arise when the forces relevant to two or more goals were of equal strength [seeField theoryand the biography ofLewin].

Lewin distinguished between three types of conflict: (1) where a person is between two goals of positive valence; (2) where a person faces a goal with both positive and negative valence; and (3) where a person is between two goals of negative valence. These types of conflict have become known as approach-approach, approach-avoidance, and avoidance-avoidance, respectively. A fourth type has been added, double approach-avoidance conflict.

The approach-approach type of conflict is perhaps the simplest. For example, a child may be required to choose between two equally attractive desserts, a situation reminiscent of the donkey who starved to death when placed equidistant between two bales of hay. In fact, however, experimental studies with both human and animal subjects show that this type of conflict is resolved easily and rapidly. The equilibrium is not stable so that any slight movement toward one of the positive goals results in increasing the positive valence of that goal and in rapidly increasing momentum toward that goal.

The approach-avoidance type of conflict, on the other hand, is quite stable. The approach and avoidance tendencies are pitted against one another so that an approach movement results in an increase in the negative valence and in a compensatory avoidance movement, and vice versa. The experimental studies show that approach-avoidance conflict results in a great deal of vacillating behavior. Lewin gives the example of a child required to perform some unpleasant task in order to get a reward. In addition to vacillation, the child may deal with the situation by minimal task performance, abandoning the reward, or attempting some detour.

The avoidance–avoidance type of conflict can be illustrated by the child who is required to perform an unpleasant task under threat of punishment. The child's first tendency is to avoid both alternatives and leave the situation. However, if the child is forced to remain in the situation, Lewin suggests he may withdraw into himself or engage in an emotional outburst. The experimental studies show that avoidance–avoidance conflicts are resolved very slowly and with great difficulty. Frequently, the subject simply freezes or blocks or makes a response that keeps him equidistant from both alternatives.

The double approach–avoidance type of conflict is seen in the situation in which there are two goals with approach and avoidance tendencies toward each. This type of conflict also seems to produce a great deal of blocking. Double approach-avoidance conflict is an important paradigm when one or more of the components are hidden or unconscious. For example, a man deciding between two attractive women appears to be in an easily resolved approach–approach conflict. Instead, he may be unable to make up his mind because he unconsciously fears both women. Thus, he is really in a double approach–avoidance conflict.

Miller's approach–avoidance model. The most influential contemporary theory of conflict is that proposed by Neal E. Miller. Miller concentrated on approach-avoidance conflict on the assumption that this type was of most significance in psycho-pathology and social behavior. Miller's strategy was to establish a theoretical model of conflict on the basis of carefully controlled laboratory experiments with animal subjects and then to extend these principles to complex human behavior.

The model of conflict developed by Miller is a special application of more general principles of learning, specifically the stimulus-response learning theory of Clark Hull. Approach and avoidance tendencies are conceived of as motivated responses whose strength is a function of the stimulus situation and its relation to past learning, the motivation of the subject, the incentive value of the goal, and the number of times the response in question has been reinforced. In a situation in which there are two incompatible responses conflicting with each other, the stronger response will tend to occur.

Miller's analysis of conflict also rests on another important learning principle—the goal gradient. A white rat in a simple runway will tend to run faster the closer he gets to the end containing a goal object, such as food. In other words, the approach tendency gets stronger the nearer the animal is to the positive goal. It has also been shown that the further away an animal gets from a noxious stimulus, such as an electric shock, the slower he runs. Therefore, there appears to be a gradient with respect to the tendency to avoid a negative goal. Miller also made the crucial observation that the avoidance tendency fell off more rapidly with distance from the goal than did the approach tendency. Chiefly on the basis of the observation that the avoidance gradient is steeper than the approach gradient, Miller constructed his theory of conflict.

Miller's model is shown graphically in Figure 1. The distance from a goal that is both desired and feared is shown on the abscissa while the strength of the tendency either to approach or to avoid is shown on the ordinate. Both gradients fall off in response strength as distance from the goal increases, but the avoidance tendency drops off more rapidly. The approach-avoidance gradients are represented most simply as straight lines, but Miller emphasizes that curves of many shapes could satisfy the requirements of the theory.

The particular situation shown in Figure 1 involves an intersection of the approach and avoidance gradients. The intersection is called the conflict point. To the right of the conflict point the net difference between the strengths of the response tendencies is in favor of approach, while to the left of the conflict point avoidance predominates. Therefore, a subject at some distance from a desired and feared goal should approach part way until the conflict point and then stop. A subject finding himself at the goal should retreat to the conflict point and stop.

The above basic prediction about conflict behavior has been confirmed in numerous laboratory experiments with animal and human subjects. In a classic series of experiments, the response tendency was measured by the strength with which a white rat would pull against a temporary restraint either to get to a food goal or to get away from an electric shock in a straight alley runway. The strength-of-pull measure reflected the greater steepness of the avoidance gradient. Other animals trained both to approach and to avoid the goal were observed to go part way down the alley and stop. Actually, they did not stop abruptly at the conflict point but advanced and retreated alternately in a highly tentative manner. This behavior—reminiscent of the vacillation of human subjects in an approach-avoidance situation—has been called conflict oscillation. It has been suggested that conflict itself is aversive and increases tension level above and beyond a summation of the usual motives involved.

The real power of the theory is, however, that varying outcomes of conflict situations can be predicted on the basis of knowledge about the factors assumed to influence the strength of the competing response tendencies and their effect on approach and avoidance gradients. The evidence shows that gradients are influenced by motivation as well as the number and size of reinforcements. Figure 2 shows the effects of increasing the strength of the approach tendency. As the approach tendency is increased the entire gradient is raised and the intersection point with the avoidance gradient is much closer to the goal. Therefore, a subject should approach much closer to the goal but at the same time would experience much greater fear at point A than at point B in Figure 2. Conversely, lowering the avoidance gradient should also enable the subject to advance closer to the goal but with considerably less increase in fear.

The avoidance gradient can be lowered by reducing fear with such drugs as alcohol, sodium amytal, and chlorpromazine. However, caution should be used in drawing therapeutic implications from these studies because there is some question whether the conflict resolution will continue once the drug is withdrawn. The simplest way of eliminating these experimentally induced conflicts is to allow the process of fear extinction to take place. Other methods include feeding the animal so as to evoke an emotional response incompatible with fear, gradually bringing the fear stimulus closer, and changing the stimulus conditions. [For discussion of treating humans, seeMental disorders, treatment of, article onBEHAVIOR THERAPY.]

An unresolved problem in connection with Miller's model concerns the exact shape of the approach and avoidance gradients. The most recent evidence suggests that the curves are ogival or S-shaped. However, the shape of the curve depends on the discriminability of cues along the path to the goal, the level of illumination, the species involved, and other factors.

A more critical problem has to do with the relative steepness of approach and avoidance gradients. Miller postulated that the avoidance gradient is steeper because it is based on the learned motive of fear, which varies greatly with external stimulus conditions, while the approach tendency is based on hunger, which is more dependent on the subject's internal cues and less influenced by external cues. While there is some evidence for this, other studies show that a learned approach tendency may conflict with a learned avoidance tendency, although both should be steep and possibly parallel. However, it may be that learning has more complex effects on the steepness of a gradient than has been assumed. For example, fear and guilt are both learned, but they may have gradients of differing steepness because fear is more dependent on external cues than is guilt. Internal, cue-producing responses, such as thoughts and verbal labels, would be expected to have a great effect on the shape, slope, and height of approach and avoidance gradients in most social situations.

Extension to displacement. The dimension of nearness may be viewed as a special case of stimulus generalization. Therefore, the model should be applicable to other situations involving the generalization of approach and avoidance gradients. This would include generalization from one goal object to another along a dimension of object similarity.

Miller saw a connection between goal object generalization and the psychoanalytic concept of displacement. For example, an individual who feels hostile toward his father might dream about a policeman, since dreaming about his father directly would produce anxiety. It has been shown that children whose parents severely punish aggression in the home are more aggressive outside the home. The scapegoat theory of ethnic prejudice is based on the idea of displacement and may be extended to situations involving aggression to outgroups.

The same graphic model used for conflict may be extended to displacement, with the exception that the dimension along the abscissa is one of stimulus similarity instead of spatial distance. Miller also assumes that the point of maximal displacement will not be at the intersection of the gradients, as in conflict, but to the right, where the net difference between the two response strengths is maximal in favor of approach.

Several studies have supported this extension of the theory. In one, two rats were placed in a cage and taught to attack each other in order to turn off an electric shock. During this time they showed no tendency to strike a plastic doll in the cage with them. Later, when the rats were placed in the cage one at a time and the shock turned on, each attacked the plastic doll. In this study, the learned aggression toward the partner rat was prevented by his absence and the aggression was displaced toward the previously ignored doll.

There are a number of situations in which conflict and displacement might operate simultaneously. Murray and Berkun (1955) attempted to account for this by developing a three-dimensional model combining Miller's theories of conflict and displacement. In this model, the ordinate still represented strength of response. The two other orthogonal dimensions were nearness to a goal and degree of similarity of various goals to the original goal. The approach and avoidance gradients were joined to produce intersecting approach and avoidance planes.

The Murray-Berkun model was tested in an apparatus consisting of wide white, medium width gray, and narrow black alleys adjacent to one another. In one alley (for example, wide white) the animals were trained first to approach for food and then to avoid a shock on the food tray. The alleys were connected by small windows so the animals could move from one to the other. After the conflict was established in the original alley, but not before, the animals moved into the intermediate gray alley and approached closer to the goal, then entered the most dissimilar alley (for example, narrow black) and advanced all the way to the goal, as predicted by the model.

The main results of the Murray-Berkun study have been confirmed by other investigators, but some controversy has developed over the dimension of similarity to the original goal. Some results suggest that simple distance may play a role, but other results suggest that stimulus similarity is still operating. The color of the alleys may be less important than the width. Furthermore, olfactory cues may be important.

Projective techniques. The conflict and displacement theories have also been extended, by Seymour Epstein (1962) and his associates, to the area of protective techniques. Projective pictures and word association stimuli can be arranged in sequence according to their relevance to a motive, such as sex. It is found, frequently, that the motivation appears more openly on the pictures of low relevance. This can be explained as a displacement effect by assuming that the test responses are determined by intersecting approach and avoidance gradients. Epstein and his associates have also developed a three-dimensional model, similar to the Murray-Berkun one, in which a sequence of projective test stimuli form one dimension and time another. This model accounts for such findings as a parachutist's anxiety toward association words of less and less relevance to parachuting as the time for the jump draws nearer.

Personality, psychotherapy, and culture

In their learning analysis of neurosis and psychotherapy, John Bollard and Neal E. Miller (1950) have made extensive use of the conflict model. These theorists have reinterpreted many of the psychoanalytic observations on psychosexual development in terms of conflicts learned in childhood. Punitive parental training methods can establish conflicts in the areas of weaning, cleanliness, sexual behavior, and aggression. More subtle conflicts between social motives can be learned at later stages of development.

Dollard and Miller agree with Freud that neurosis requires that the conflict be at least partly repressed. Repression involves the inhibition of thoughts, feelings, and behavior and may be viewed as the result of an approach-avoidance conflict. The emergence of thoughts of a sexual nature may be likened to an approach response, and the stopping of these thoughts is similar to avoidance behavior. A sexually arousing situation increases the approach tendency and may also increase anxiety. Thus, the person may become anxious without knowing why.

Various neurotic symptoms may be viewed as responses reinforced by anxiety reduction. A phobia represents an avoidance response to an anxiety-arousing stimulus and may also involve displacement. Conversion symptoms often serve an avoidance function. Obsessional thinking may function to block out anxiety-arousing thoughts. However, since the approach tendency is still operating, the neurotic symptoms are rarely effective and the person keeps finding himself driven back into the conflict situation. Therefore, the person shows oscillating, inconsistent, and maladaptive behavior.

Psychotherapy is viewed by Bollard and Miller as a way of reducing conflict and eliminating repression. The permissive, nonpunitive attitude of the therapist constitutes a new set of learning conditions. Anxiety can gradually be extinguished, and the need for repression is thereby reduced. The patient can discuss his fears and motives. Of great importance in therapy is the transference relationship, or the generalization or displacement to the therapist of the conflict originally learned in the family situation. As repressions and symptoms drop out, the person can use his higher mental processes to solve his problems in his social behavior outside of the therapy situation.

An example of the more detailed use of the conflict model is Bollard and Miller's explanation of the negative therapeutic effect. It often happens in psychotherapy that, following a period of progress in which the patient gains some understanding, he suddenly becomes more anxious and symptomatic. This could happen if the therapeutic progress resulted in the lowering of an avoidance gradient. With the lowering of the avoidance gradient the patient might advance in thought or behavior closer to the goal but then would reach a new conflict point involving an increase in anxiety. Thus, therapeutic progress may have the paradoxical effect of making things worse for a time.

The theories of conflict and displacement have been applied to a broader class of cultural phenomena by several social scientists. For example, in a cross-cultural study of primitive societies, John Whiting and Irvin Child (1953) have related a number of socialization variables to religious beliefs concerning illness. They found that fear of others was related to socialization anxiety about aggression. However, the actual objects of aggression—ghosts of relatives or animal spirits—were more difficult to predict. By assuming that these aggression objects lie along a continuum of similarity to parental socialization agents and by applying a modification of Miller's displacement theory, they were able to account for different patterns of aggression. When aggression anxiety is low, aggression is displaced more toward ghosts of relatives than of animal spirits; but, when aggression anxiety is high, aggression is displaced toward both ghosts of relatives and of animal spirits.

The application of the theories of conflict and displacement to problems of complex human behavior has been promising, but a great deal more research needs to be done. A major technical problem has to do with the scaling of important social dimensions along which generalization may take place. A related problem is the role of symbolic processes, language, and socially learned discriminations in conflict and displacement phenomena. Finally, more research is needed on the basic mechanisms involved, such as the determinants of the shape of the gradients, particularly with human subjects in a wide variety of social situations.

Edward J. Murray

[See alsoAggression, article onPSYCHOLOGICAL ASPECTS; Phobias.]


Dollard, John; and Miller, Neal E. 1950 Personality and Psychotherapy: An Analysis in Terms of Learning, Thinking, and Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill. → A paperback edition was published in 1965.

Epstein, Seymour 1962 The Measurement of Drive and Conflict in Humans: Theory and Experiment. Volume 10, pages 127–209 in Nebraska Symposium on Motivation. Edited by Marshall R. Jones. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

Freud, Sigmund (1893–1895) 1955 The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume 2: Studies on Hysteria, by Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth. → First published in German.

Koch, Sigmund (editor) 1959 Psychology: A Study of a Science. Volume 2. New York: McGraw-Hill. Lewin, Kurt (1926–1933) 1935 A Dynamic Theory of Personality: Selected Papers. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Luriia, Aleksandr R. 1932 The Nature of Human Conflicts: Or, Emotion, Conflict and Will, an Objective Study of Disorganization and Control of Human Behaviour. New York: Liveright.

Miller, Neal E. 1944 Experimental Studies of Conflict. Volume 1, pages 431–465 in Joseph McV. Hunt (editor), Personality and the Behavior Disorders: A Handbook Based on Experimental and Clinical Research. New York: Ronald.

Miller, Neal E. 1959 Liberalization of Basic S-R Concepts: Extensions to Conflict Behavior, Motivation and Social Learning. Volume 2, pages 196–292 in Sigmund Koch (editor), Psychology: A Study of a Science. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Murray, Edward J.; and Berkun, Mitchell M. 1955 Displacement as a Function of Conflict. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 51:47–56.

Whiting, John W. M.; and Child, Irvin L. 1953 Child Training and Personality: A Cross-cultural Study. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962.

Yates, Aubrey J. 1962 Frustration and Conflict. London: Methuen; New York: Wiley.


In the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels analyzed class conflict and the social Darwinists examined conflict among societies. But Marxism developed essentially as a doctrine of reform and revolution, while social Darwinism failed to progress beyond oversimplified concepts like “absolute hatred,” “survival of the fittest,” and “the conquest state.” The first sociologist to focus on conflict as a process both internal and external to the individual and also to the group was Georg Simmel, whose ideas have been critically restated by Lewis A. Coser (1956). Most sociologists lost interest in conflict, however, and became increasingly engrossed with patterns and processes of social integration. It is only in recent years, and especially with the threat of nuclear holocaust, that social scientists have focused serious attention upon problems of conflict.

Conflict and integration

It now seems evident that all human relations may be viewed as interlaced by two closely related processes—the conflictual and the integrative. To one degree or another, these two kinds of interaction appear as soon as, and as long as, two or more individuals are in contact. They disappear only when the parties withdraw and the relationship is completely broken.

Whenever two or more individuals or groups come into contact with each other, they may choose to make their relationship primarily conflictual or primarily integrative (i.e., cooperative, supportive, agreed upon). If the initial relationship is primarily conflictual, there will nevertheless emerge at least a few minimal strands of understanding and reciprocity—rules of combat, or perhaps only an agreement to disagree. If, on the other hand, the initial relationship is primarily integrative, it is certain that conflict will develop—if for no other reason than through the demands of the association itself as they compete with the preferences of individuals and component groups.

Some degree of community, organization, or integration is inherent in the concept of conflict. If the parties in question were not in the same place at the same time, or performing two incompatible functions at the same time, or cooperating to inflict reciprocal injury, there would be no conflict (Bernard 1957fr, p. 112). Almost any aspect of conflict, however destructive, requires interaction between the antagonists, considerable communication, and the establishment and maintenance of many reciprocal ties and subtle understandings. Conflict thus functions as a binding element between parties who may previously have had no contact at all (Coser 1956, p. 121).

On the other hand, conflict may result in the disruption or destruction of all or certain of the bonds of unity that may previously have existed between the disputants.

Conflicts take place between individuals, between individuals and organizations or groups, between distinct organizations or groups, between an organization and one or more of its components, or between component parts of a single organization or group. A conflict emerges whenever two or more persons (or groups) seek to possess the same object, occupy the same space or the same exclusive position, play incompatible roles, maintain incompatible goals, or undertake mutually incompatible means for achieving their purposes.

Inner conflict

The type of conflict discussed above—essentially social conflict—should be distinguished from the inner conflict or quandary that emerges when incompatible or mutually exclusive values present themselves in the form of an actual or potential choice or decision (Bernard 1957b, p. 113). Thus, an individual finds himself unable to make a decision because he is being pushed or pulled in opposite directions. (The same holds true for a group.) He wants to be in two places at the same time or to perform two mutually exclusive functions at the same time. Like the proverbial ass between two equally attractive bales of hay, he finds himself immobilized by the choice confronting him (Boulding 1957, p. 132). Or perhaps he finds himself equally immobilized in trying to decide upon the “lesser of two evils.”

In the individual human being the distinction between the inner conflict and the outer, or social, conflict seems relatively clear: the former involves a confrontation by the individual of a difficult choice between incompatible values, whereas the latter is concerned with an incompatibility between that individual and another individual or group. Yet the inner conflict can be viewed also as a conflict between internal components of the individual: Her heart said Yes, but her common sense said No.

When groups and organizations are considered, the inner conflicts of a given unit are undoubtedly social conflicts (conflicts between antagonistic actors) when viewed on one system level; but they are also sometimes analogous to the inner conflicts or quandaries of the individual, when viewed on another level. Among groups and organizations, then, the dialogues, debates, and struggles associated with decision making may be considered on one system level as social conflicts between individual parties; or they may be treated under certain circumstances as quandaries—conflicts internal to the organism—from the perspective of another level in the systems hierarchy. A group can be immobilized either because all the members are caught between opposing repulsions or attractions or because one component of the group is attracted (or repelled) in one direction, the other component in another direction. Thus, the distinction between the quandary and the so-called social, or external, conflict is frequently a matter of system perspective, which must be determined by requirements of the problem, the method of analysis, and the theory of the investigator (Lewin 1935–1946).

An actor who has the capacity for absorbing or destroying another actor may be viewed as dominant. An actor who cannot be absorbed by another actor or destroyed as an independent decision maker is sovereign or unconditionally viable. Conversely, the actor who survives only through the sufferance of another, dominant, party is said to be conditionally viable.

In circumstances where both actors are unconditionally sovereign or viable, or where it does not pay the dominant party to extinguish the other— to secure conditional viability—we have what Strausz-Hupé has called “protracted conflict” (1959). Here the problem is how to control the conflict, i.e., how to maintain limits, rather than to resolve it (Boulding 1962, p. 59).

Each actor or system (individual, group, organization, nation-state, and so forth) may be viewed as responding to various stimuli, including projections of his or its own needs, desires, and expectations. Or, one may equally postulate that each system possesses as an inherent part of its structure a “view of the universe” or an “image” that includes some notion or “plan” of its role and purpose (Boulding 1957, pp. 125–126; also Miller et al. 1960). Within the first view, each choice-point offers alternatives to which some combination of perceived rewards and penalties is attached. In connection with the second view, behavior or action may be seen as the carrying out of a process that moves the system toward the most highly valued part of the total image.

In any case, as the actor system carries out its means-end process, a certain number of links (choices or potential choices) will “snag” or “collide” with the links of other actors. Conflict generally emerges whenever at least one party perceives that one (or more) of his goals, or purposes, or preferences, or means for achieving a goal or preference is being threatened or hindered by the intentions or activities of one or more other parties. The parties may be seeking to move or expand into the same field or physical space, or, more abstractly, into the same field of influence or behavior (Boulding 1957, p. 124).

Perhaps the most important class of conflict processes is the reaction process in which a movement on the part of one actor “so changes the field of the other that it forces a movement of this party, which in turn changes the field of the first, forcing another move of the second, and so on” (Boulding 1962, p. 25). Party A perceives—rightly or wrongly —that he is being threatened or injured by party B. Taking what he considers to be defensive action, A behaves in a way that B perceives as injurious or threatening. When B responds “defensively,” A, perceiving now that his initial observations and fears have been validated, increases his activities, and thus the conflict spirals.

As the reciprocal threats and injuries rise, the parties may find no alternative other than to fight it out until one has reduced the other to submission. On the other hand, at some point the penalties associated with an added increment of hostility may appear too great to one or both parties, and the conflict may decelerate. In due course, however, the anxieties, fears, and discomforts associated with their basic relationship are likely to become unbearable again, and the spiraling will resume. Essentially, the cold war is such a conflict in that it vacillates between a plateau of minimal, day-today conflict and occasional peaks where the hostile interchange stops just short of large-scale violence.

The initial perception of threat or injury may or may not be accurate or justified. Many conflicts arise from what parties think may happen—from their anxieties, prejudices, fears, and uncertainties —rather than from any phenomenon that is actually threatening.


Conversely, even where actors are aware of incompatibility, there may be no actual conflict if there is no strong desire on the part of at least one party to carry out the means—or achieve the ends —which are, or appear to be, incompatible (Boulding 1962, p. 5). Whether competitive situations become conflictual may depend, then, upon whether the incompatibility is perceived and also upon whether the issues involved are considered important by the parties.

Conflict suggests a special situation of competition in which both actors are aware of the incompatibility of potential future positions and in which each is strongly impelled to occupy a position incompatible with the perceived interests of the other.

Whenever two or more systems come into contact, they may choose either a “conflict set,” where an action will benefit one actor at the expense of another; or a “trading set” of means and ends, where movements benefiting both parties are feasible (Boulding 1957, p. 131).

Yet conflict is inherent in the trading set: each party is likely to seek a maximum advantage that cannot be achieved without reducing the advantage of the other party. A satisfactory trade can be achieved only if both parties, tacitly or otherwise, observe certain rules and limitations.

Superordinate goals

A special type of competition evolves when an otherwise conflictual struggle is consciously joined by two or more parties in the interest of some more important, mutually supportive, promotively interdependent goal: two traders decide to “dicker”; two friends meet for tennis; two teams play a violent, but carefully regulated, game of football; or two neighborly merchants try to outdo each other in the same line, but on the assumption that each will prosper (Levinger 1957, p. 337). In each case, neither side is seeking to destroy the other nor to inflict more than the limited amount of injury that has been more or less agreed upon and stipulated by the rules of their competitive game. Two or more parties in conflict may be drawn into a cooperative relationship through their perception of an overriding, superordinate goal (see Oklahoma, University of … 1961).

In any one of these “institutionalized” arrangements, the parties accept, consciously or unconsciously, a contract or compact—elaborate arrangements or rules of the game for achieving their common purposes (fixing and enforcing boundaries, deciding on possession of the ball, identifying violations, enforcing penalties, and so forth).

The consensus may include not only rules but also rules for formulating rules; and it may designate roles—messengers, referees, judges—to help in deciding the issue or to enforce the agreed-upon stipulations. The “game” is likely to provide for assignments of function, special prerogatives, limitations of power, and so forth.

A procedure for resolving conflicts can be honored by usage and thus gain status of custom. Or, when established or recognized and enforced by recognized authority, such a procedure takes force as law. A large part of both custom and law functions to resolve conflicts, or to prevent them, or to confine them within designated limits.

In analyzing relationships between individuals or groups, we are not concerned, then, whether the relationship contains conflict; we assume that it does. The question is, How do they handle their conflicts—by unconfined violence and destruction and without institutional restraint, or by some regulated means within an agreed-upon framework? Have the two parties achieved sufficient integration to channel their conflicts within tolerable limits, and how is the basic contract or integration maintained? Most organizations, including political organizations on all system levels, may be viewed in these terms.

State A and state B, each seeking possession of an island, may thus be in conflict. To resolve the issue one state may withdraw its claim; or the two states may divide the island by mutual agreement; or they may both decide to fight for it. If state A withdraws without consultation or communication with state B, the conflict has been eliminated, but there is no integration—no agreement—between the two parties.

If both sides agree to fight, the two states, while still in conflict over possession of the island, are not in conflict over the means of resolution. Thus, the conflict continues, but an element of integration has emerged to the extent that the parties have agreed upon the method for deciding the issue. Later, if both sides tire of combat, they may agree upon an equal-sided armistice for achieving resolution by nonviolent and noncoercive means. On the other hand, if the armistice is unequal and it is clear that one side is coercing the other, then the agreement, although integrative, has been shaped by threat of superior force.

Integrative instruments

Integrative arrangements between parties can be reached in a number of ways. They can be entered into consciously and voluntarily. They can be imposed by one party upon another. They can be “grown into,” more or less unconsciously, through habit and custom. They can be inherited, and individuals can be—and, if we refer to states, normally are—born into them.

If, in the course of a conflict situation, one side uses force and the other submits, the assumption is that the submitting side has “agreed” and that the consequence is an integrative but essentially violent and coercive relationship. On the other hand, if one party uses force and the other refuses to submit but eschews force and turns to some method of passive resistance, then there is a highly disintegrative double conflict involving both incompatible purposes and incompatible rules of warfare. A contract, then, may be essentially violent and coercive or nonviolent and voluntary in nature.

Separate parties with a common enemy can arrange an integrative compact against the outside threat. A prolonged conflict with the British crown had much to do with the unification of the thirteen colonies under the Articles of Confederation, at first, and later under the constitution.

The American Civil War illustrates a somewhat different process. Here there was no common enemy. The contestants were at war against each other, and yet, in the long run, the conflict had a unifying consequence. The pre-existing ties between North and South, severely challenged prior to the war, were slowly and painfully repaired and greatly strengthened during the decades following the war. Many deep incompatibilities remained, but the conflicts were contained below the level of major violence.

Depending on the system level, the means, or instrument, of a compact may take the form of a marriage or other contract, articles of incorporation or confederation, a treaty, an elaborate constitution, and so forth. The instrument need not be written, however, or even explicit: two Indian tribes may smoke a pipe of peace; or the slave— whether through love, or fear, or constraint—may “agree” to the slavery “contract,” honoring the arrangement by choosing not to escape. In its implications, then, an integrative arrangement may take any form, from the wholly consensual, to the minimally consensual; from the nonviolent, noncoercive, to the overwhelmingly violent and coercive.

An integrative instrument can be wrung from a conqueror or ruler by a group of his subjects whose capability has increased sufficiently. In the later Middle Ages, European towns achieved their charters largely in this way. Such an instrument may increase the cohesion of the group at the expense of its relationship with the ruler or grantor, or, as has happened over the course of history in England, the instrument may have the effect of strengthening bonds between the parties—the king, the parliament, the church, the people. In either case, however, the conclusion of the instrument signals a change in the relative capabilities of the parties.

How is the degree of integration determined? Clearly, it is revealed through the kind of function controlled by the contract rather than the mere number of functions, the power of the contract to implement these kinds of functions, and the time span of its effectiveness.

A given category of integrative means may include a single action taken to resolve a conflict at a particular time, and also a procedure or set of procedures designated for the resolution of issues relating to a problem over time. If two parties decide that a conflict over fish caught in disputed waters shall be resolved in a single instance by an even division of the catch, this means falls in the single-action category. If the parties decide, on the other hand, that all fish caught in these same disputed waters will be divided in this fashion for the rest of the season, or over a period of five years, or in perpetuity, then the procedural “overtime” category is appropriate. Treaties and similar agreements over time are designated in this way.

Two distinct units signing a fisheries treaty have not integrated significantly. At the point when they agree to merge such functions as defense, taxation, legislation, and the enforcement of laws, however, the parties have gone a long way toward extinguishing their separate personalities and giving rise to a new state entity. When the populations of the two primary components transfer their loyalties to the new unit, when they internalize its symbols, when those who do not belong are viewed as “foreigners,” “outsiders,” and even enemies, then the integration may be considered virtually complete (Deutsch et al. 1957, pp. 5–6). Herein lies the difference between a simple treaty and a federative instrument or a constitution.

Constitutions as integrative instruments

Treaties respect and preserve the distinct identities of the individual parties, whereas a constitution joins separate contracting entities into a single unit of a new order. (Some so-called constitutions are programs rather than contracts. In such cases, there is a compact somewhere inherent, but it may be tacit rather than explicit, or it may reside in some document carrying a different label.) Historically, many constitutions have developed from treaties.

It often happened that a state enlarged its territory by conquest of adjoining peoples or acquired colonies across seas or at other great distance from the homeland. Not infrequently, the populace of the central unit enjoyed nationality and rights of citizenship, whereas the conquered people were forced into a tributary or dependent or colonial status. The Roman Empire extended its jurisdiction over much of Europe and into Africa and Asia Minor somewhat in this fashion. This far-flung integration “dis-integrated” with the Christian era, but a millennium later a number of European nation-states began reaching around the globe in a not dissimilar pattern.

Through a royal charter, the British East India Company, like overseers of a private estate, ruled over many differing peoples of India. By making treaties with native princes, moreover, the company extended its own jurisdiction—and in the long run, British sovereignty—over large reaches of further territory.

Other European chartered companies—the Dutch East India Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, the Plymouth Company, the London Company, and others—played similar roles over much of the earth. In America the companies concluded solemn compacts with the Indians, and in Africa they followed the same pattern with native chiefs.

The charter of the British East India Company became the model for the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter, from which, in turn, a direct lineage can be traced to the constitution of the United States. Thus, the same kind of integrative instrument gave form, in the one instance, to British imperial control over India and, in the other instance, to unification of the thirteen colonies into the United States of America.

Not all colonial powers expanded through written compacts, of course, although the compulsion to sign a treaty, even with the most impotent up-river chieftain, was surprisingly widespread. In any case, the relationships that were established, whether unwritten or formalized on paper and whether reached by free consent or the imposition of superior strength, were essentially contractual, or became so by observance, custom, and usage. Thus the great empires spread.

An integrative means category may be no more than a rule for resolving a common conflict of the road: [We agree that] the first vehicle to enter an intersection shall have the right of way. A more comprehensive set is likely to combine a number of related rules into a code, for example, all rules for avoiding or resolving conflicts on the streets and highways. A still more comprehensive level will be characterized by means categories that specify by what methods the various rules are to be enforced (powers) and by whom (roles). Such an instrument combines within itself a complicated means-end hierarchy, a role structure, a pattern of communications channels, and a wide range of procedures for avoiding, containing, and resolving highway conflicts.

By a particular law, then, we mean a rule of behavior established by recognized authority to prescribe regulations or govern interactions, transactions, conflicts, and other human relationships. Any law can be viewed as a generalized integrative instrument to which the authorities who enact and enforce it and the individuals and groups who are subject to it are all parties, although they may not be equal before it. The function of a given law is usually to prevent conflict, to resolve conflict, or to constrain conflict within agreed-upon limits.

A law always presupposes the existence of a “superior” compact, agreement, constitution, or other integrative relationship from which the law derives its authority and to which the law is tributary. A treaty bridges two integrated, but more or less independent, units. Treaties, indeed, belong to the same order of integrative instrument as do constitutions, that is, they provide the primary ties between parties from which further arrangements are derived and to which they are tributary.

A law and its “superior” constitution or other integrative instrument can both be viewed as links in a means-end chain. One function of the courts is to decide precedence when laws are themselves in conflict. It should be clear, then, that the relative order of links in a means-end chain—the whole problem, indeed, of what is a means, what is an end, and which links are superior and which are tributary—depends upon the chosen perspective, the unit that is chosen to be viewed as the behaving and value-invoking system. Inevitably, there will be conflicts of interest between actors on different levels.

From the organizational, legal, or state viewpoint, the single law is a means toward supporting and maintaining the constitution, which, in turn, is a means toward the achievement of security, justice, and other goals of the total system.

The individual citizen, by contrast, may understandably view the constitution as a means toward enforcement of the law for the protection of his personal interests and the achievement of his individual purposes. This view, an essentially Western democratic concept, goes a long way (although not in any sense the whole way) toward subordinating the state means-end structure to the order of a subset in the means-end hierarchy of the individual. In practice, however, the individual, even in a democratic state, stands alone if he pushes his own interests too far at the expense of the fundamental integration and the society it represents.

Durability of integrative instruments

Are there methods whereby the probable durability of an integrative instrument can be assessed?

A party that is dominant and enjoys unconditional viability under an integrative arrangement will tend to perpetuate the relationship. On the other hand, a conditionally viable party to the contract will not have much choice other than to accede, unless he perceives a possibility for increasing his own viability.

Reduced to simplest terms, the durability of a given compact or other integrative relationship will depend upon two main variables: (1) the relative capability of each party, that is, his power or relative capacity for inflicting his will; and (2) the amount of dissatisfaction evoked, or penalty demanded, by the relationship among the participating parties.

The durability of an integrative relationship will depend also upon the precedents, that is, upon whether or not previous agreements have worked to the satisfaction of the parties and have been generally long lasting.

Against this background, it is possible, by arranging the capability and satisfaction-dissatisfaction (also utility-cost, or reward-penalty) variables in different combinations, to suggest a number of hypotheses.

If parties A and B are about equally strong and equally dissatisfied with their contract relationship, but if both also feel that the additional cost of breaking it would be undesirably high, then we may postulate that the treaty's durability will be long but its effectiveness will be low. Neither party will wish to abrogate the compact, and neither will hesitate to interpret its provisions broadly or even to disregard them when there is not much danger of detection or reprisal. The levels of conflict and tension within the relationship will be high.

In another circumstance, A may be powerful and consider his relationship with B satisfactory, whereas B is deeply dissatisfied (but weak). In this pattern, we might expect high durability and, in view of B's low capacity, a considerable measure of effectiveness. A, in short, will be in a position to dominate B and enforce B's strict adherence to the agreement. The relationship will be characterized by numerous petty conflicts, a submerged pattern of potential conflicts, and considerable tension.

Over time, B's stored dissatisfaction may amount to a deep and growing sense of frustration. If, then, B's capability should begin to rise for any reason, there is a strong possibility of his striking against A even before his strength is greater than or even equal to A's. His perceptions of dissatisfaction will be so high, in short, that he will strike for the reward of ending the relationship—even at considerable risk. The possibilities of this outcome may be enhanced, moreover, because the weak and frustrated party with increasing strength will tend to overestimate his ability to punish his offending partner in the relationship.

On the other hand, if we assume that B's capability will remain low and that his dissatisfaction will diminish with time, it seems reasonable to predict his gradual acceptance—as custom or law or simply as “the way things are”—of the once irritating relationship. Various institutions for handling conflict will become increasingly accepted. This, indeed, is how time frequently functions on the side of the invader by gradually resolving or subordinating a wide range of conflicts separating him from the vanquished.

We have postulated that the durability of a given compact or other integrative instrument will depend upon the capabilities of each party to the relationship and the amount of satisfaction or dissatisfaction that the various parties derive from it. The durability of a complex organization—a city-state, nation-state, or empire—will depend upon similar variables except that there may be more issues involved, and the “parties” to the relationship are likely to consist of a ruling elite, on the one hand, and a body of subjects, citizens, or rank and file on the other.

The willingness of any participant to contribute freely to the state will depend upon the satisfactions that he perceives accruing to him from the association.

All states use some degree of force in order to endow their laws with authority and in order to control criminal elements. The difference between a state that relies primarily upon consent for its cohesion and management of conflict and one that depends upon coercion lies, first of all, in whether the force that is used has been agreed upon by the majority of the people and is exercised for designated purposes and within sanctioned limits; and, second, whether dissident minorities within the state are afforded certain minimal protection. Unless this protection is available, a majority can coerce and tyrannize a minority even though the officers of the state are applying force by virtue of legal mandate.

Robert C. North

[Other relevant material may be found under International relations; Peace; Political behavior; War.]


Bagehot, Walter (1872) 1956 Physics and Politics: Or, Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of “Natural Selection” and “Inheritance” to Political Society. Boston: Beacon.

Bernard, Jessie 1950 Where is the Modern Sociology of Conflict? American Journal of Sociology 56:11–16.

Bernard, Jessie 1957a The Sociological Study of Conflict. Pages 33–117 in International Sociological Association, The Nature of Conflict: Studies on the Sociological Aspects of International Tensions. UNESCO, Tensions and Technology Series. Paris: UNESCO.

Bernard, Jessie 1957b Parties and Issues in Conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution. 1:111–121.

Boulding, Kenneth E. 1957 Organization and Conflict. Journal of Conflict Resolution 1:122–134.

Boulding, Kenneth E. 1962 Conflict and Defense: A General Theory. A publication of the Center for Research in Conflict Resolution at the University of Michigan. New York: Harper.

Coleman, James S. 1957 Community Conflict. A publication of the Bureau of Applied Social Research, Columbia University. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Coser, Lewis A. 1956 The Functions of Social Conflict. Glencoe, Ill:. Free Press.

Dahrendorf, Ralf (1957) 1959 Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Rev. & enl. ed. Stanford (Calif.) Univ. Press. → First published in German as Soziale Klassen und Klassen-Ronflikt in der industriellen Gesellschaft.

Deutsch, Karl W. et al. 1957 Political Community and the North Atlantic Area: International Organization in the Light of Historical Experience. Princeton Univ. Press.

Follett, Mary P. (1924) 1951 Creative Experience. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith.

Gumplowicz, Ludwig 1883 Der Rassenkampf: Sociologische Untersuchungen. Innsbruck (Austria): Verlag der Wagner'schen Universitats Buchhandlung. → Also published in 1893 in French as La lutte des races: Recherches sociologiques.

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Lewin, Kurt (1935–1946) 1948 Resolving Social Conflicts: Selected Papers on Group Dynamics. New York: Harper.

Miller, George A.; Galanter, E.; and Pribram, K. H. 1960 Plans and the Structure of Behavior. New York: Holt.

Oklahoma, University of, Institute of Group Relations 1961 Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation: The Robbers Cave Experiment, by Muzafer Sherif et al. Norman, Okla.: University Book Exchange.

Oppenheimer, Franz (1907) 1914 The State: Its History and Development Viewed Sociologically. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill. → First published in German.

Park, Robert; and BURGESS, ERNEST W. (1921) 1929 Introduction to the Science of Sociology. 2d ed. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Simmel, Georg (1908) 1955 Conflict; The Web of Group Affiliations. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → These essays were first published under the titles “Der Streit” and “Die Kreuzung sozialer Kreise” in Simmers Soziologie.

Strausz-HupÉ, Robert et al. 1959 Protracted Conflict. New York: Harper. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.

Ward, Lester F. (1903) 1925 Pure Sociology: A Treatise on the Origin and Spontaneous Development of Society. 2d ed. New York and London: Macmillan.

Wright, Quincy (1942) 1944 A Study of War. 2 vols. Univ. of Chicago Press.


Social conflict may be defined as a struggle over values or claims to status, power, and scarce resources, in which the aims of the conflicting parties are not only to gain the desired values but also to neutralize, injure, or eliminate their rivals. Such conflicts may take place between individuals, between collectivities, or between individuals and collectivities. Intergroup as well as intragroup conflicts are perennial features of social life.

Conflict is an important element of social interaction. Far from being always a “negative” factor that “tears apart,” social conflict may contribute in many ways to the maintenance of groups and collectivities as well as to the cementing of interpersonal relations.

Nineteenth-century sociology paid much attention to social conflict. In all social thought derived from Hegel, particularly in Marxian thought, conflict is the key explanatory variable. The same is the case with social thinkers directly or indirectly inspired by social Darwinism, such as Herbert Spencer, Gustav Ratzenhofer, Ludwig Gumplowicz, and William Graham Sumner. The struggle for power and influence is one of the themes of Pareto's theories, as well as those of Mosca, Michels, and Sorel. Similarly, in the classical tradition in German sociology, from Tonnies to Simmel and Weber, conflict was considered a major social phenomenon. Weber, for example, insisted that “conflict cannot be excluded from social life … ‘Peace’ is nothing more than a change in the form of the conflict or in the antagonists or in the objects of the conflict, or finally in the chances of selection” ([1904–1917] 1949, pp. 26–27). Simmel, to whom we owe a classical analysis of various forms of conflict, insisted that “conflict is a form of sociation” and that “a certain amount of discord, inner divergence and outer controversy, is organically tied up with the very elements that ultimately hold the group together” ([1908] 1955, pp. 17–18). Similarly, the fathers of American sociology saw in conflict an inherent and ineradicable component of social structures. Most of them agreed with Robert Park that “only where there is conflict is behavior conscious and self-conscious; only here are the conditions for rational conduct” (1924, p. 578).

In a more recent period, the functions of conflict and the study of conflict phenomena were neglected by American sociologists. If conflict was discussed at all, attention was paid mainly to its dissociative aspects. The stress on the need for common values and harmony led a number of social theorists, from Lloyd Warner to Talcott Parsons, to consider conflict a kind of sickness of the body social. Within the last decade, however, a number of theorists opposing the prevailing harmony model have endeavored, partly under the influence of Marx and Simmel, to develop a conflict model of society. The works of Jessie Bernard (1957), Lewis Coser (1956), Ralf Dahrendorf (1957), and Max Gluckman (1956) illustrate this approach.

The objective bases of conflict

The objective bases of social conflict must be sharply separated from subjective elements. Failure to do so results in excessively psychologistic explanations, which cannot do justice to the structure of conflict or to the situations that give rise to it. Such objective bases for contentions vary widely. Conflicts may break out over the distribution of a great variety of scarce values and goods, such as income, status, power, dominion over territory, or ecological position. Such occasions for conflict behavior need to be analyzed separately from dispositions and attitudes such as hostility, aggressiveness, ressentiment, hatred, and the like. In certain types of conflicts, such as modern management-labor conflicts, the antagonists may harbor only a minimum of hostile emotions toward each other. Conflicts and hostile sentiments, although often associated, are, in fact, different phenomena.

The distinction between realistic and nonrealistic conflict has proved valuable in analysis. Realistic conflict arises when men clash in the pursuit of claims and the expectation of gain. It is viewed by the participants as a means toward the achievement of specific goals, a means that might be abandoned if other means appear to be more effective. On the other hand, nonrealistic conflict, arising from aggressive impulses that seek expression no matter what the object, allows no functional alternative of means, since it is not aimed at the attainment of a concrete result but at the expression of aggressive impulses. Scapegoating provides an example; the object of attack is secondary to the dispositional need for attack. Thus, in nonrealistic conflict there are functional alternatives for the target, in contrast to realistic conflict in which there are functional alternatives to the means used. In concrete empirical cases, it is likely, of course, that mixtures between the pure types of realistic and nonrealistic conflict will be found to be present.

Hostile attitudes do not necessarily result in conflict; nor need we expect that objective discrepancies in power, status, income, and the like will necessarily lead to the outbreak of conflict, although they can be conceived as potential sources of conflict. Here, as elsewhere, the way men define a situation, rather than the objective features of the situation, must be the focus of analysis. Potential claimants for greater income, status, deference, or power may be deterred from conflict because of fear of consequences or because they consider existing discrepancies in the distribution of valued objects to be legitimate.

The structural impact of conflict

The impact of conflict on social structures varies according to the type of such structures. In loosely structured groups and in open, pluralistic societies, conflict that aims at a resolution of tension between antagonists is likely to have stabilizing functions. If the direct expression of rival claims is permitted, such conflicts may serve to eliminate the causes for dissociation and to re-establish unity. In such flexible structures, multiple affiliations of individuals make them participate in a variety of group conflicts so that those who are antagonists in one conflict are allies in another. Thus, multiple conflicts, although varying in intensity, are likely to crisscross one another and thereby prevent cleavages along one axis. The pluralism of associations in such types of societies leads to a plurality of fronts of conflict, and the intensity of any one of these conflicts is likely to be relatively low. Segmental participation in a multiplicity of conflicts constitutes a balancing mechanism within the structure. In this way, conflicts may be said to sew pluralistic society together.

In rigid social structures and in closed groups, on the other hand, the impact of conflict is likely to be quite different. The closer the group, the more intense are conflicts likely to be, that is, the more highly involved the parties. Such groups tend to inhibit the open acting out of hostility since they fear its disruptive effect. Closed groups tend to absorb the total personality of their members; they are jealous of members' affiliation with other groups and desire to monopolize their loyalty. The resultant deep involvement of the members and the intimate association among them is likely to lead to a great deal of hostility and ambivalence, a hostility, however, to which the group denies legitimate outlets. Hence, if conflicts break out in groups that have tried to prevent them, they are likely to be peculiarly intense. This is so because, first, the personality absorption in such groups tends to favor the mobilization of all psychic energies in the conduct of the struggle, and, second, because these conflicts now are not likely to remain limited to the issues at hand but to revive all those grievances that were denied expression previously. All the previously latent causes for conflict are now superimposed upon one another.

A similar situation prevails in large social structures that are organized in unitary and rigid patterns. Here also, conflict, if it occurs at all, is likely to be intense. The lack of multiplicity of crisscrossing associations and multiple allegiances between members is likely to have as a consequence the superimposition of the various latent sources of conflicts. In such structure, a basic division of society into two large hostile classes or groups (the situation envisaged by Marx) becomes a strong probability.

While closeness of association and structural rigidity tend to lead to high intensity of conflict, they do not necessarily lead to a high degree of violence of conflict. Violence, as distinct from intensity, refers to the choice of means for carrying out the conflict rather than to the degree of involvement of the participants. Intensity and violence may vary independently of each other. The more integrated into the society or group are the parties to the conflict, the less likely will the conflict between them be violent. The greater the degree of integration, the higher the likelihood that the conflicting parties will choose weapons that will not permanently menace their common bonds. Violent class struggles or class wars are likely to give way to less militant means, such as institutionalized strikes or regularized contests, in those societies that permit the integration of lower classes or ethnic and other minorities into the social order.

Ideology and conflict

Conflicts are likely to be more intense, and more violent as well, to the degree that the contenders are collectivity-oriented rather than self-oriented and hence consider that their struggle is waged for the sake of superindividual ends. Ideological struggles that transcend the merely individual ones allow the participants a “good conscience” in the choice of their means of struggle. Hence, individuals who see themselves acting as representatives of a cause, fighting not for self but only for the ideals of a collectivity they represent, tend to be more radical and merciless than those who fight for personal advantage. The ideological end may justify the means in the eyes of the participants and lead them to consider justifiable, in public ideological contention, means that they might reject in private conflict.

This order of phenomena highlights the importance of intellectuals, that is, the makers and shapers of ideologies in society. Intellectuals who transform conflicts of interests into conflicts of ideas help provide public justification of conflicts and hence to make them more intense. Conflicts may involve the pursuit of personal interests by private individuals or they may arise from the pursuit of the interests of various types of collectivities. Intellectuals, when they function as “ideologists,” tend to strip such conflicts of their merely personal or merely interested aspects and to transform them into struggles over eternal truths. They thereby deepen and intensify them. Yet, lest the social role of intellectuals be overrated, it needs to be stressed that they can effectively function as “ideological agents” only in structures that favor the growth of ideologies. In pluralistic societies, crisscrossed by manifold conflicts upon a variety of axes, the role of ideologists is likely to be much less pronounced and their influence considerably reduced; they are likely to assume more important roles in those structures in which the superimposition of conflicts upon one axis favors the emergence of unified ideological fronts.

When manifold conflicts are superimposed upon each other, many and variegated interests can be fused by the adherence to a common ideology.

Conflict, consensus, and social change

The distinction between conflicts that exceed the limits imposed by societal consensus and those taking place within the basic consensus has informed political thought ever since Aristotle. Conflicts that do not attack the basic consensus and are in effect waged upon the very ground of consensus are likely to lead to adjustments between the various parties and hence to contribute to a closer integration of the society. In contrast, conflicts that attack basic assumptions of collective existence dissociate and split the society into warring camps.

Loosely structured groups and open pluralistic societies, by allowing conflicts to be fought out among a variety of contenders and on a variety of fronts, institute safeguards against types of conflict that might endanger basic consensus. They minimize the danger of divergences touching upon central consensual values. However, in rigid groups or societies the chances are high that if conflict occurs despite the effort to repress it, it will reach down to the basic layers of consensus. For exampie, if major strata of a society's population are permanently excluded from participation in the society's benefits, they will tend to reject the very assumptions upon which the society is built, and, if the systems of legitimation no longer fully operate, they will attempt to attack the social order through revolutionary violence. On the other hand, where no stratum of the population considers itself totally excluded from society's benefits, although all may still engage in multifarious struggles to increase their respective shares of income, wealth, power, or prestige, conflicts will tend to be waged within the limits of a consensus.

Each society contains some elements of strain and potential conflict. Analysis of social change needs to focus attention on these elements, since they provide the dynamics of change. Elements that evade and resist the patterned structure of norms and the habitual balance of power and interests may be considered harbingers of the emergence of new and alternative patterns emerging from an existing structure. Conflict prevents the ossification of social systems by exerting pressures for innovation and creativity; it prevents habitual accommodations from freezing into rigid molds and hence progressively impoverishing the ability to react creatively to novel circumstances. The clash of values and interests, the tension between what is and what some groups or individuals feel ought to be, the conflict between vested interest groups and new strata demanding their share of wealth, power, and status are all productive of social vitality.

Social change can be analyzed only in relation to specified structures. This is why it is necessary to distinguish between changes that take place within particular structures and changes that lead to the decay of old structures and the emergence of new ones. We may talk of a change of a social system as distinct from changes within a social system when all major structural relations, basic institutions, and prevailing value systems have been drastically altered. This theoretical distinction needs to be made, even though it is recognized that the concrete changes of a system may be the consequence of previous changes within the system.

Whether conflicts within a society will lead to adjustments between existing institutions or to systemic changes of the institutions depends on the degree of flexibility of the social structure. Flexible systems allow progressive rearrangements in their structures in tune with the outcome of various types of group conflict within them. Rigid societies, refusing to make such adjustments and allowing the accumulation of unresolved latent conflicts, are likely to maximize the chances of violent outbreaks attacking the consensual structure and leading to changes of social systems.

Ingroup and outgroup

Sumner's dictum that the distinction between the ingroup (ourselves) and the outgroup (everybody else) is established in, and through, conflict has found general acceptance. One of the prime mechanisms for the strengthening of group bonds and for the emergence of new groups has always been the creation or strengthening among group members of a sense of common values, interests, and purposes, all leading to a mobilization of the group's energies against outsiders. The distinction between “us” and “them,” perhaps the most fundamental social distinction, is established and periodically reaffirmed in social conflict between insiders and outsiders, between friends and enemies. In homogeneous societies, in which individuals participate in only small numbers of social circles, this distinction is likely to be so encompassing that it allows only minimal relations between the members of all but a few social circles. However, in heterogeneous societies, that is, in societies in which individuals are likely to participate in a great number of social circles in which there will be high degrees of overlapping memberships in a variety of associations and groupings, this sense of exclusiveness will be successfully minimized. In such societies, with their varieties of functionally specific and nongeneralized conflict, men who will be friends in one relationship might well be enemies in another; conflicts with some lead to new alliances with others. If everyone is somebody's ally in some respects and his opponent in many others, such conflicts will draw all into a multifarious and varied group life in which the very crisscrossing of allegiances among men segmentally involved on a variety of fronts prevents exclusiveness and withdrawal.

Peace and feuding, conflict and order, are correlative. Both the cementing and the breaking of the cake of custom constitute part of the dialectic of social life. One is hence ill-advised to distinguish sharply a sociology of order from a sociology of conflict, or a harmony model of society from a conflict model. Such attempts can only result in artificial distinctions. The analysis of social conflicts brings to awareness aspects of social reality that may be obscured if analytical attention focuses too exclusively on phenomena of social order; but an exclusive attention to conflict phenomena may obscure the central importance of social order and needs to be corrected by a correlative concern with the ordered aspects of social life. We deal here not with distinct realities but only with differing aspects of the same reality, so that exclusive emphasis on one or the other is likely to lead the analyst astray. Perhaps we need return now to Charles Horton Cooley's statement: “The more one thinks of it the more he will see that conflict and cooperation are not separable things, but phases of one process which always involves something of both” (1918, p. 39).

Lewis A. Coser

[Relevant material may be found under Peace; Sociology, article onTHE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIOLOGICAL THOUGHT.]


The major works of most of the classical social theorists contain references to, and discussions of, social conflict. The work of Karl Marx and Georg Simmel has been of special fruitfulness for subsequent theorizing. Marx's analysis is dispersed throughout most of his works. Simmel's major contribution is Conflict; The Web of Group Affiliations 1908. For more recent work in the area, consult the analytical summary in Mack & Snyder 1957.

Bernard, Jessie 1957 The Sociological Study of Conflict. Pages 33–117 in International Sociological Association, The Nature of Conflict: Studies on the Sociological Aspects of International Tensions. UNESCO, Tensions and Technology Series. Paris: UNESCO. → Contains a comprehensive bibliography.

Boulding, Kenneth E. 1962 Conflict and Defense: A General Theory. A publication of the Center for Research in Conflict Resolution at the University of Michigan. New York: Harper.

Cooley, Charles H. 1918 Social Process. New York: Scribner.

Coser, Lewis A. 1956 The Functions of Social Conflict. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Dahrendorf, Ralf (1957) 1959 Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Rev. & enl. ed. Stanford (Calif.) Univ. Press → First published in German as Soziale Klassen und Klassen-Konflikt in der industriellen Gesellschaft.

Dahrendorf, Ralf 1962 Gesellschaft und Freiheit: Zur soziologischen Analyse der Gegenwart. Munich: Piper. → This work incorporates a series of papers previously published in English.

Gluckman, Max 1956 Custom and Conflict in Africa. Oxford: Blackwell; Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Mack, Raymond W.; and Snyder, Richard S. 1957 The Analysis of Social Conflict: Toward an Overview and Synthesis. Journal of Conflict Resolution 1:212–248.

Park, Robert E.; and Burgess, Ernest 1924 Introduction to the Science of Society. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Simmel, Georg (1908) 1955 Conflict; The Web of Group Affiliations. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → These essays originally appeared as “Der Streit” and “Die Kreuzung sozialer Kreise” in Georg Simmers Soziologie, published by Duncker and Humblot, Berlin.

Weber, Max (1904–1917) 1949 Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences. Translated and edited by Edward A. Shils and H. A. Finch. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.


Conflict results from competition between at least two parties. A party may be a person, a family, a lineage, or a whole community; or it may be a class of ideas, a political organization, a tribe, or a religion. Conflict is occasioned by incompatible desires or aims and by its duration may be distinguished from strife or angry disputes arising from momentary aggravations. It is safe to assume that some of the causes of conflict are to be found in the aggressive behavior that is almost universal among the vertebrates and is presumably adaptive in a broad range of environments. The function of much conflict appears to be the control of food and reproduction through the control of territory and the maintenance of well-organized dominance hierarchies that serve to reduce the amount of fighting in a group (Ciba Foundation 1966).

Field studies of nonhuman primates reveal that relations between different species of mammals are usually peaceful or neutral; between groups of the same species, reactions range from avoidance to agonistic display and even to violence. Conflict between individuals within the local group occurs far more frequently than intergroup or interspecies conflict. One kind of behavior that appears to be limited to primates is the use of objects in agonistic display. This use of objects has not yet been observed in other animal orders.

The evolutionary frame of reference of most primate studies leads to consideration of conflict and aggression as part of the species-specific pattern of adaptive behavior. Since this aggression is the result of the long-term evolution of the species, it is functionally adaptive in the present only if the conditions of the present are the same as those under which the behavior evolved. Today man's way of life is radically different from that of the past. Yet we still inherit the biology of aggression that was adaptive in times past. In nonhuman primates, evolution has progressed slowly enough to maintain the balance between species-specific biological behavior patterns and social behavior.

We cannot ignore man's biological heritage as a framework within which culture is elaborated and developed. We must not, on the other hand, ignore the fact that man did develop culture and the ability to manipulate symbols. As a result, the evolution of human behavior needs to be explained by the processes of cultural selection as well as of biological selection. The study of conflict may be further clarified if conflict is not equated with aggressive behavior, since it is not a type of behavior but, rather, a situation resulting from incompatible interests or values. The anthropologist studies conflict as a multidimensional social process that operates in many different contexts and results in a variety of consequences. The simplest as well as the most elaborate display of conflict behavior is denned by its function, by the part it plays within a system of human activities, and by the ideas and values attached to it.

Although theoretical attention to social and cultural conflict is relatively new in anthropology, ethnographers have long been recording instances of conflict occurring under a variety of guises. Such diverse phenomena as witchcraft practices, feuds, factionalism, warfare, competitive games, contradictory values, and discord between spouses have been viewed as conflict or as the potential means for displacing conflict from one level of social grouping to another. Anthropological studies of feuds, warfare, and witchcraft have frequently concerned themselves with institutionalized or socially regulated conflict involving groups. Conflict not formalized by institutional means has been described by ethnographers as part of the case material of primitive legal systems or in terms of acculturation pressures.

The major theories of conflict, primarily influenced by the structural-functional theory of social organization and only indirectly by the psychoanalytic theory of personality, have assumed conflict to be a valid generic term for such diverse phenomena as those mentioned above; this is in part because all these conflict situations involve opposition over scarce goods and resources, either in a literal or in a figurative sense.

Some recent theoretical studies emphasize the associative aspects of conflict; others approach conflict from the viewpoint of contradictions in systems of values. Anthropologists have also attempted to use theories of frustration-aggression displacement in studies of intergroup conflict and have applied psychoanalytic concepts such as identification and status envy in interpreting frequency of intragroup aggression.

The structural-functional approach to the study of conflict or aggression emphasizes the social structural sources of conflict, the functions of conflict at various structural levels, the mechanisms for resolution or control of conflict, and the various behavioral means for communicating conflict.

While anthropologists insist that conflict is in great part a cultural product, they are also cognizant of the biological and social aspects of conflict among nonhuman primates. Although there may be discontinuities in the phenomena under observation as they pertain to nonhuman species and as they pertain to human beings, field studies of primates may be useful in constructing an evolutionary view of social and cultural conflict that will help the anthropologist to determine the universal aspects of human conflict.

The functions of conflict

Equilibrium model

Confusion of the concepts of equilibrium, integration, and stability has led to ambiguity in the study of conflict. Conflict is discord; its opposite is harmony—which for many implies integration. Integration and conflict have often been discussed as opposites, and indeed conflict has been equated with anomie—deviant, abnormal behavior which impedes the successful integration of society. Integration and related terms frequently have been used with strong value connotations, especially when changes resulting from acculturative pressures are described. Cultural integration refers to coherence among cultural elements and some degree of integration is, of course, characteristic of all societies. The absence of conflict and the presence of cooperation and coordinated action are sometimes used as indexes of integration or societal stability. Conflict is more readily observable than is integration. As a result, much of anthropological discussion of integration or stability is implicit rather than explicit, as is illustrated both by the configurational view, which employs a psychological approach to cultural integration, and by the functional view, which attempts to study the interrelations of various institutions of a culture. The configurationalists are particularly interested in discovering the themes or values that hold a culture together and distinguish it from others, and they refer to consistent, harmonious, balanced cultures as “genuine” rather than “spurious.” There has been a marked trend, however, to consider conflict and change as inevitable and essential aspects of the social process; this has led some to criticize the equilibrium model characterized by the functionalists, referred to by Dahrendorf as Utopian. The functionalists' stress on common values and equilibrium may have stemmed from a concern with normative behavior and the study of those societies not undergoing rapid change.

In recognizing conflict as an inevitable consequence of the operation of a social system, several anthropologists have raised an interesting question: Given the proposition that conflicts are both disruptive and inevitable, how can a social system persist as a going concern? Gluckman (1956) takes the position that conflict need not disrupt a social system, that, indeed, it may contribute toward the maintenance of society. He points out that struggles between the Zulu princes of South Africa for the throne occur within a continuing social system. In this example the society directs and controls the quarrels through conflicts of allegiance so that, despite rebellion among the Zulu, for example, the same social system is re-established. Multiplicity of conflicts within a social system creates a division of society into a series of opposed groups with cross-cutting membership. The degree to which conflict is regulated can vary, but the dysfunctional aspects of conflict always tend to be minimized by the channeling of behavior along controllable lines. In a Welsh village, conflicts within the social system may be institutionalized in the activities of its football clubs, carnival associations, and brass bands, whereas among the Zulu and Swazi of South Africa the fundamental conflicts of the social system are acted out in the rituals of rebellion. Social cohesion, then, is found in the conflicts between differing allegiances or in the displacement of conflict onto institutionalized forms of entertainment.

In certain African stateless societies organized on the lineage principle, stability was maintained by virtue of segmental opposition; equilibrium was achieved by a balanced opposition between territorial segments of the same order. Ethnographic study of the Iroquois and the Zuni in America and of the Tonga and the Nuer in Africa has led to an alternative suggestion, namely, that stability is the indirect result of the presence within each local group of people of a diverse set of ties cross-linking them with other groups.

The stress-strain theory

While still dealing with intragroup dissension, the stress-strain theory contrasts with the previous theories in holding that group solidarity is reduced under certain conditions of external stress, and, in fact, is maladaptive. Factionalism is likely to appear when there are strains within the social structure and when certain kinds of external stresses occur. Navajo witchcraft is described by Kluckhohn (1944), who suggests that belief in and practice of witchcraft permit the expression of direct and displaced aggression in situations of stress which, prior to the presence of U.S. authority, might have been expressed in warfare. Acculturation pressures, domination by an alien social system that overrides traditional patterns of authority, and a combination of environmental and economic threats accentuated by the impact of a dominant culture may also strain weak points in the social structure. Siegel and Beals (1960) attempt to isolate types of conflict, each having its own particular explanation. Pervasive factionalism, which occurs between unorganized and transient groupings, is distinguished from schismatic conflicts, which lead to the dissolution of subgroups of the larger society. Institutionalized conflicts are permanently or periodically resolved; examples of this are found in political party behavior, sport teams, dual organizations, and intermarrying kin groups. Relevant to the question of how conflict may produce instability are observations made among the Soga of west Africa. Fallers (1957) describes the strain and instability produced by a society structured both by corporate lineages and by the state; in this example there is a conflict of roles that results when incompatible institutions apply to the same persons. Conflicts which cannot be resolved within the existing social system eventually produce changes in the social structure.

The literature allows us to distinguish more generally between “elastic” and “rigid” social systems. An elastic social system tolerates open and direct expression of conflict and allows for organizational adjustment; within an elastic system there will be institutionalized arrangements for the expression of conflict, such as duels, feuds, joking relations, and witchcraft. In such societies conflict may serve to stabilize and integrate. Rigid societies have a tendency to suppress conflict, since they have less tolerance for it. In rigid societies, the acting out of pent-up conflict may cause changes in the social structure. The degree of tolerance of conflict varies and quite clearly affects the function of conflict.

The occurrence of conflict

Conflict occurs in all human societies but varies in degree and form of expression. In some societies verbal rather than physical aggression is more frequent, while in other societies more passive forms of expression may predominate. Some peoples inhibit aggression within the local community, only to wage war with surrounding groups. Some social anthropologists have suggested that environmental factors, such as ecology, demography, and economy, affect cross-cultural variations in social conflict. For example, warfare may be related to the level of economic development and population density. Archeological evidence indicates that warfare was unknown in Europe and the Orient until the late Neolithic period. Organized warfare was unknown in aboriginal Australia. Groups like the Pueblo Indians of the southwest United States rarely engaged in offensive warfare. It appears that competition between groups seeking to exploit the same territory or resource leads to conflict.

Demographic factors

Density of population, which seems to be associated with greater individual restraint and inhibition, may be a factor in the elaboration of verbal aggression or witchcraft practices. For example, LeVine (1961) suggests that among the Gusii of Africa, proximity of co-wives is responsible for the great number of witchcraft accusations. Observations and experiments on non-human animals support the conclusion that density of population seems to increase in-group aggression, which takes such forms as homicide and assault. Human beings sometimes invent institutions that provide a sort of safety valve whereby aggression generated in the in-group may be drained off internally instead of being translated into out-group hostility and warfare. Thus it is possible that some form of dual organization (such as the widespread phenomenon of twofold factional divisions) may be an instance of a socially invented safety valve. Greater population density may also call for more centralized and elaborated adjudication procedures which, in theory at least, may curb the degree of violent conflict. However, although environmental factors may have specific influence, they cannot provide a general explanation of inter-group or intragroup variations. Variation is not explained by any general theory of conflict. Rather, anthropologists are exploring a number of hypotheses that rest upon systemic factors focusing on one of several structural levels—intrafamily, intracommunity, intercommunity.

Conflict within the family

Gluckman (1956), in his attempt to relate estrangement in the family to the type of extended kinship system, postulated that the structure or type of descent system is a major determinant of the frequency of divorce. He suggests that divorce is rare among societies with extreme patriliny and frequent in matrilineal societies; bilateral societies would be expected to fall between the highest and the lowest rate. He distinguishes a fundamental conflict between rights centered in a woman as a wife and rights centered in her as a child-bearer, arguing that it is the rights in woman as child-bearer which establish firm husband-wife relations. In a matrilineal society these two rights are separated, for the wife's descent group maintains rights in the woman as child-bearer. Where the woman bears children for her own blood kin, her wifely bond is weak and divorce is frequent. In patrilineal societies, however, the woman's kin transfer to the husband their rights in her both as wife and as child-bearer. Where the woman bears children for her husband's group, her wifely bond is strong. Fallers (1957) later observed that the Soga of east Africa were patrilineal in descent but not characterized by stable marriage, as Gluckman would have predicted. This led Fallers to reformulate the original hypothesis, pointing out that the crucial variable in patrilineal systems is the degree to which the woman is socially absorbed into her husband's patrilineage. Where a woman is not absorbed into her husband's lineage, patriliny tends to divide marriages by dividing the loyalties of the spouses.

While the single major factor, descent, and its concomitant features may be useful in explaining marital conflict when comparing societies as wholes, it does not predict what correlates are relevant to the relative incidence of marital conflict within a society. Political and economic relations established by marriage may be powerful determinants, and Cohen (1961), in his description of variations in marital conflict within a single society, the Kanuri of northeastern Nigeria, suggests that conflicting allegiances may be only a part of the picture. He argues that economic relations between husband and wife maintain or disrupt marriage relations. Dependency of men on female services seems to undermine the expected husband-wife authority relation, and where men among the Kanuri are dependent on women, the divorce rate is high.

Intergroup conflict

The analysis of conflicting loyalties has also been used in explaining intergroup conflict. Both Colson (1953) and Gluckman (1956) argue that in stateless segmentary societies, peace may be achieved through divided loyalties. Gluckman notes that among the Nuer of east Africa the vengeance group is sufficiently scattered so that when an intergroup killing occurs, retaliation may force a person into a position of having to fight with his neighbors against his kinsmen or of being treated as an enemy by his neighbors. In this untenable situation an attempt may be made to mitigate conflict through compensation rather than blood vengeance. Evans-Pritchard's earlier analysis of the Nuer (1940) emphasized the balance of power through segmental opposition, rather than cross-cutting ties, as the chief deterrent to intergroup violence.

Murphy (1957) explored the problem of cross-cutting group loyalties and their effect on intergroup hostility and intragroup cohesiveness among the Mundurucu of the Brazilian rain forest. It has often been noted by social scientists that severe inhibition of aggression within a society encourages the channeling of aggression through external outlets such as warfare; it has also been noted that a threat coming from outside the group causes internal solidarity. In the case of the Mundurucu, warfare was not inspired by desire for material gain but, rather, served to release tensions built up by a society rigid in its inhibition of violence. There was a contradiction between the norms of behavior applicable to members of the in-group on the one hand and to members of the out-group on the other. Murphy links the form of residence with out-group aggression: matrilocal societies, characterized by multiple and conflicting loyalties of males separated at marriage from consanguineal kinsmen, must repress overt aggression in order to ensure cohesion. Hostilities that are built into the structure of such societies must be expressed by displaced aggression or unrealistic conflict if the societies are to continue to exist. The assumption is that there is aggression which must be repressed and that it is likely to find an outlet by displacement onto an outside group. Murphy believes that such societies are less likely to exhibit internecine violence than are patrilocal societies, in which men tied through descent continue living together after marriage.

Thoden van Velzen and van Wetering (1960) tested the hypothesis associating matrilocality with the absence of in-group violence by comparing 50 unstratified societies divided between matrilocal and patrilocal. They confirmed the correlation of matrilocality with intrasocietal peace, but their explanation is a significant departure from that of conflicting loyalties. They see most matrilocal societies as lacking power groups—that is, groups which resort to aggression when the interests of one of the members are threatened. According to their view, aggression develops as a result of patrilocal structures; it does not develop in matrilocal societies, so that there is no need for them to repress aggression, as Murphy suggests. These approaches are not concerned with psychoanalytic assumptions concerning intersocietal aggression or with explaining warfare; they do attempt to explain why some stateless, unstratified societies are more peaceful than others.

Recent studies which combine demographic with psychological explanations suggest that there are a type of culture and a type of social structure which produce an adolescent and adult personality predisposed to behave at times in a violent and aggressive fashion. Beatrice Whiting (1965) investigated the frequency of assault and homicide in six societies. She considers their higher frequencies in two of the six societies in the light of the concept of “protest masculinity,” the status envy hypothesis of identification, and the prevalence of female-based households.

Briefly, the status envy theory states that an individual identifies with the person who seems most important to him, the person who is perceived as controlling those resources which he wants. If during the first two or three years of life a child is constantly with his mother and sees and is handled by his father infrequently, he will identify strongly with his mother, not with his father. In short, if he is a boy, he will have cross-sex identification. If, later in life, he is involved in a world obviously dominated by men, he will be thrown into conflict and will develop a strong need to reject his earlier underlying female identification. This identity conflict may lead to an overdetermined attempt to prove his masculinity, manifested by a preoccupation with physical strength and athletic prowess, or attempts to demonstrate daring and valor, or behavior which is violent and aggressive, i.e., protest masculinity.

Conflict resolution and prevention

An understanding of the ways in which conflict is resolved is particularly relevant to an understanding of the functions of conflict and its expression. LeVine (1961) distinguishes five forms of conflict-indicating behavior: physical aggression, public verbal dispute, covert verbal aggression, breach of expectation, and avoidance. All of these forms may be found within the same culture: for example, Zapotec women rarely make use of physical aggression; Zapotec men rarely employ forms of verbal aggression. It is important to note, however, that those behaviors which proceed from and are indicative of conflict may also operate to resolve the conflict. If avoidance or physical aggression does not successfully resolve a conflict, the use of a third party to achieve settlement by arbitration, mediation, compromise, or adjudication is likely. Certain institutionalized forms of resolution, such as councils, courts, go-betweens, or “crossers,” perform these functions. Anthropologists have made significant note of the fact that the resolution and control of conflict need not necessarily be identified with specialized political offices. There are viable, stable societies which lack central government and specialized political roles but which nonetheless have available other means of resolving and regulating conflict. In such stateless societies a variety of institutions and personnel, such as diviner and shaman, may function as agents of conflict resolution. Among the Bedouin, institutions such as the feud function to punish serious transgressions and act as a brake to prevent aggression, for feuds are dreaded. Among the Dobu, sorcery is a socialized ritual that operates as the medium for a nonviolent adjustment of opposing interests. The style of conflict resolution derives from a society's structural principles of human association.

The conditions which define the presence and use of specific controlling procedures are various. Greater density of population and the dissolution of family authority and power that accompanies the development of a centralized state system may strengthen adjudication procedures in place of mediation or arbitration. In general, the procedural aspects of legal organization are more developed as political organization becomes more specialized, but other factors, such as the allocation of authority, are also relevant. For example, for the resolution of marital conflict, the differential use of the court systems available to each of two Mexican villages is closely correlated with the degree of authority allocated respectively to the family and to the court systems (Nader & Metzger 1963). Indeed, the development of courts or councils may be inhibited by the dual organization structure of a community.

A more comprehensive approach to the occurrence, function, control, and resolution of conflict may be achieved by examining the life cycles of particular conflicts. The processes through which a conflict may pass may be found to be inherent in the type of conflict. Various mechanisms are employed within the same society to heal breaches of peace. These actions may range from informal arbitration to formal legal machinery or to the performance of public ritual. Mystical beliefs and ritual action, rather than judicial machinery, are particularly effective in dealing with disturbances arising from processes inherent in the life cycle of a group.

Laura Nader

[See alsoFeud; Integration; Political anthropology; Social structure; War. Directly related are the entriesMyth and symbol; Social behavior, animal; Social control.]


Campbell, Donald T.; and Levine, Robert A. 1965 Propositions About Ethnocentrism From Social Science Theories. Unpublished manuscript.

Ciba Foundation 1966 Conflict in Society. Edited by Anthony de Reuck and Julie Knight. London: Churchill; Boston: Little. → See especially the article by Sherwood L. Washburn, “Conflict in Primate Society.”

Cohen, Ronald 1961 Marriage Instability Among the Kanuri of Northern Nigeria. American Anthropologist New Series 63:1231–1249.

Colson, Elizabeth 1953 Social Control and Vengeance in Plateau Tonga Society. Africa 23:199–211.

Coser, Lewis A. 1956 The Functions of Social Conflict. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Dahrendorf, Ralf (1957) 1959 CZass and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Rev. & enl. ed. Stanford Univ. Press. → First published as Soziale Klassen und Klassen-Konftikt in der industriellen Gesellschaft.

Dahrendorf, Ralf 1962 Gesellschaft und Freiheit: Zur soziologischen Analyse der Gegenwart. Munich: Piper.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940) 1963 The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. Oxford: Clarendon.

Fallers, Lloyd A. 1956 Bantu Bureaucracy: A Study of Integration and Conflict in the Political Institutions of an East African People. Cambridge: Heffer.

Fallers, Lloyd A. 1957 Some Determinants of Marriage Stability in Busoga. Africa 27:106–123.

Fortune, Reo F. (1932) 1963 Sorcerers of Dobu: The Social Anthropology of the Dobu Islanders of the Western Pacific. Rev. ed. London: Routledge.

Gluckman, Max (1956) 1959 Custom and Conflict in Africa. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Kluckhohn, Clyde 1944 Navaho Witchcraft. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum.

Leach, Edmund R. 1954 Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. A publication of the London School of Economics and Political Science. London School of Economics and Political Science; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

LeVine, Robert A. 1961 Anthropology and the Study of Conflict: An Introduction. Journal of Conflict Resolution 5:3–15.

McNeil, Elton B. (editor) 1965 The Nature of Human Conflict. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. → See especially “The Sociology of Human Conflict,” by Robert C. Angell.

Marx, Karl (1844–1875) 1964 Selected Writings in Sociology and Social Philosophy. 2d ed. Edited by T. B. Bottomore and M. Rubel with a foreword by Erich Fromm. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Murphy, Robert F. 1957 Intergroup Hostility and Social Cohesion. American Anthropologist New Series 59:1018–1035.

Nader, Laura; and Metzger, Duane 1963 Conflict Resolution in Two Mexican Communities. American Anthropologist New Series 65:584–592.

Rapoport, Anatol 1965 Is Warmaking a Characteristic of Human Beings or of Cultures? [A review of The Natural History of Aggression.] Scientific American 213, no. 4:115–118. → This is an excellent review of the problems encountered in generalizing the findings on aggression from animals to man.

Siegel, Bernard J.; and Beals, Alan R. 1960 Pervasive Factionalism. American Anthropologist New Series 62:394–417.

Simmel, Georg (1908) 1955 Conflict; The Web of Group Affiliations. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press. → These essays appeared originally as “Der Streit” and “Die Kreuzung sozialer Kreise” in Georg Simmel's Soziologie, published by Duncker and Humblot.

Thoden van Velzen, H. U. E.; and van Wetering, W. 1960 Residence, Power Groups, and Iritra-societal Aggression: An Inquiry Into the Conditions Leading to Peacefulness Within Non-stratified Societies. International Archives of Ethnography 49:169–200.

Whiting, Beatrice B. 1965 Sex Identity and Physical Violence: A Comparative Study. American Anthropologist Special Publication 67, no. 6, part 2:123–140. → This contains a short review of the literature on crosssex identification.

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couple relationshipswilliam r. cupach, danielj. canary

family relationshipssam vuchinich

parent-child relationshipssusan j. messman


Conflict is natural and inevitable in marriages and other close relationships. Ironically, one's experience of interpersonal conflict is often highest with one's spouse, compared to other long-term relationships (Argyle and Furnham 1983). Marital relationships are particularly prone to conflict because spouses develop a great deal of shared intimacy and interdependence. These qualities make the partners more vulnerable to one another. At the same time, cohesion strengthens the relationship such that partners can better withstand criticism from one another and the relationship can survive partner disagreements.

The term conflict often conjures up perceptions of hostile disputes and dysfunctional relationships. However, research has shown that the mere existence of conflict is not necessarily bad. In fact, some conflict produces positive outcomes. Conflict allows relational partners to express important feelings and to devise creative solutions to problems. Further, successfully managed conflict can strengthen relational bonds and increase relational cohesion and solidarity. Marital conflict also contributes to the social development of children.

The most frequent topics of conflict in marital relationships include communication, finances, children, sex, housework, jealousy, and in-laws (Gottman 1979; Mead et al. 1990). Sometimes what appears on the surface to be a simple issue can reflect deeper relational struggles about power and intimacy (e.g., disagreements about how much time to spend together versus with other people). Persistent conflict about such relational issues has the greatest impact on relationship satisfaction (Kurdek 1994).

The intensity and seriousness of conflicts varies widely both within and between couples. Some oppositions are merely mild disagreements or complaints. They receive minimal attention and produce short-lived effects. Other conflicts represent ongoing struggles about personally significant issues that produce intense personal anxiety and relational tension. Conflicts that are recurrent and stable over time are most problematic for relational stability (Lloyd 1990), although relational harm can be mitigated when partners communicate relationally confirming messages during continued conflicts ( Johnson and Roloff 2000).

Determining how much conflict is typical or normal between spouses is difficult, although there are estimates (McGonagle, Kessler, and Schilling 1992). Indeed, averages of the number of disagreements across marriages are probably not meaningful because different types of marriages exhibit different amounts of conflict (Fitzpatrick 1988; Gottman 1994; Raush et al. 1974). Some couples construct a relational culture where they argue frequently; others experience disagreements infrequently and develop a norm to disagree only on issues of importance. Developmental patterns, however, can be consistent. For example, older spouses who have been married for a longer period of time engage in fewer overt disagreements compared to younger newlyweds (Zietlow and Sillars 1988). Yet, the mere frequency of disagreements reveals very little about the overall health or stability of marital relationships. More important is the seriousness of disputes, and the manner in which they are managed (e.g., Gottman 1994).

Perhaps the most important feature of conflict management concerns its constructiveness or destructiveness (Deutsch 1973). Constructive conflict tends to be cooperative, pro-social, and relationship-preserving in nature. Constructive behaviors are relatively positive in emotional tone. Destructive conflict is competitive, antisocial, and relationship-damaging in nature. Destructive behaviors exhibit negativity, disagreeableness, and sometimes hostility.

Research has demonstrated that constructive and destructive conflict behaviors are connected to the quality and stability of marriage. This connection is probably reciprocal—conflict behaviors both influence and are affected by one's relationship satisfaction over time (Fletcher and Thomas 2000). Methods for confronting or avoiding conflict influence the extent to which spouses are satisfied in their marriage, and ultimately affect the likelihood of separation and divorce. At the same time, spouses' degree of happiness or unhappiness in a marriage affects how they communicate during their conflicts.

A rather sizeable body of research has shown that conflict behaviors effectively discriminate between distressed and nondistressed married couples. Distressed couples are those in which partners report they are unhappy with their marriage. In addition, they typically have sought marital counseling. The findings from this research yield three robust conclusions (Gottman 1994; Schaap, Buunk, and Kerkstra 1988). First, distressed couples engage in more negativity during conflict interactions. Negativity includes demands, threats, attacks, criticisms, put-downs, belligerence, contempt, rejection, defensiveness, and hostility. Second, distressed marriages demonstrate less positivity, such as showing approval, using humor, making statements that validate partner and the relationship, and seeking to understand partner's point of view. In fact, John Gottman (1994) reports that stable marriages consistently exhibit about five times more positive behaviors than negative behaviors in conflict. Third, negative behaviors in distressed marriages are more likely to be reciprocated and become absorbing. Distressed spouses are more likely to get caught up in lengthy sequences of negative behaviors that are difficult to break out of. Such sequences occur, for example, when one partner makes a complaint, and the other partner responds with a counter-complaint; or one spouse attacks and the other defends; or one partner attacks and the other withdraws.

Compared to dissatisfied couples, satisfied couples are more likely to exhibit patterns of accommodation (Rusbult et al. 1991). Accommodation occurs when one partner inhibits the tendency to respond in-kind to a partner's destructive conflict behavior. In other words, in the face of a negative sequence of events, one partner takes responsibility to nudge the discussion back onto a constructive course. Thus, although even happy couples can enact negative conflict behaviors, they are less inclined to get locked into sequences of reciprocated negative actions.

Based upon more than two decades of extensive observation of marital interaction, Gottman (1994) has proposed a theory of behavioral patterns that predict divorce. Behaviors during conflict that erode satisfaction in a marriage also jeopardize the long-term stability of marriage. Gottman refers to the most significant of these behaviors as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Couples at greater risk for divorce repeatedly engage in complaining and criticizing, which leads to contempt, which produces defensiveness, which results in stonewalling.

Complaints allow marital partners to express dissatisfaction or disapproval. When a complaint takes the form of a personal attack, in other words, when it communicates disapproval of the character or personality of the recipient, it is regarded as criticism. Because criticism conveys devaluation of the relationship, it is typically hurtful to the recipient (Leary et al. 1998). Criticism can be accompanied by the expression of contempt, and it can elicit contempt from the criticized person. Messages showing contempt communicate blatant disrespect, as well as disdain and bitter scorn.

Defensiveness is common in conflict as one attempts to protect his or her own interests. Naturally it is heightened when one is the recipient of messages showing contempt. Defensive responses include denying responsibility for reproachful actions, making excuses for untoward behavior, and responding to complaints with countercomplaints. A whining tone often accompanies defensive remarks.

Stonewalling manifests itself in emotional withdrawal from conflict interaction. Stonewallers exhibit silence, repress verbal and nonverbal feedback, and generally attempt to show a complete lack of expressiveness. Although individuals who stonewall sometimes claim they are simply displaying calmness, rationality, and objectivity, their actions actually communicate smugness, disapproval, and icy distancing, according to Gottman (1994).

Criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling can be exhibited in stable relationships as well as unstable ones. These behaviors are particularly problematic for relationships when they are (1) habitual, (2) reciprocated, and (3) insufficiently counterbalanced with positive behaviors.

Several factors have been proposed to account for the connection between relationship quality (e.g., marital satisfaction) and the constructive or destructive nature of conflict interactions. Among the more prominent accounts are (1) the causal and responsibility attributions that partners make about each other's behavior; (2) the perceived competence of conflict communication and; (3) the perceived face threat that attends conflict interactions. Attributions consist of the explanations that partners hold regarding the causality and responsibility of each other's behavior. Distressed couples tend to make negative and relationship-damaging attributions more than non-distressed couples; in other words, individuals who are unhappy with their relationship tend to attribute blame and causality to their partner for relationship problems (Bradbury and Fincham 1990). Specifically, individuals in distressed relationships tend to attribute that their partner's contribution to relationship problems is global rather than issue-specific, stable rather than fleeting, and due to their partner's personality rather than contextual circumstances. Moreover, those experiencing less relational satisfaction perceive that their partner's problematic behavior is intentional, blameworthy, and selfishly motivated. Such negative attributions are also associated with destructive conflict behaviors (Fincham and Bradbury 1992; Sillars 1980). As attributions become more negative, they contribute to a climate whereby the individual feels emotionally overwhelmed by the partner's negativity, which leads to a further decline in relational satisfaction. Thus, distressed couples get caught up in a regressive spiral such that declines in satisfaction lead to increasingly negative attributions, which lead to and derive from destructive conflict behaviors, which in turn, further diminish satisfaction over time. The greater the frequency and duration of these perceptions over time, the more likely that marital partners experience distance and isolation in the marriage and move toward divorce (Gottman 1994).

Similar to attributions, perceptions of communication competence and communication satisfaction filter the association between relational quality and conflict behavior (Canary and Cupach 1988; Canary, Cupach, and Serpe 2001; Spitzberg, Canary, and Cupach 1994). Specifically, when one enacts constructive conflict tactics, one's partner is generally more satisfied with conflict interaction and the partner sees one as communicatively competent. Destructive behaviors, on the other hand, are associated with one's partner's communication dissatisfaction and with partner perceptions that one is communicatively incompetent. Feelings of communication satisfaction and perceptions of a partner's communication competence are associated, in turn, with relational qualities such as satisfaction, trust, control mutuality, liking, and loving. Thus, more communication satisfaction and greater perceptions of partner competence contribute to improved relational qualities including higher levels of relational satisfaction and trust.

Another reason that negative conflict behaviors erode relationships is because they are face threatening. Face refers to the positive social value that one claims in social interaction, and that one assumes will be validated by others involved in the interaction (Goffman 1967). Generally people desire to be accepted, valued, and respected by important others (Brown and Levinson 1987). Partners cooperatively support one another's face by expressing affiliation and respect, and by avoiding affronts to each other's face.

By its very nature, conflict interaction threatens the face of each partner. Insofar as conflict conveys disapproval about something connected to the relational partner, the partner's face is threatened. In close interpersonal relationships such as marriage, one's face becomes inextricably tied to the relationship. When one criticizes a relational partner, the partner infers that his or her status in the relationship has been called into question (Cupach and Metts 1994).

The degree of face threat perceived in conflict depends upon the manner in which partners communicate. Messages that are seen as unfair, impolite, or disrespectful aggravate face threat. A complaint accompanied by a hostile or sarcastic tone, for example, not only communicates disapproval of an idea or a behavior, but also conveys disapproval of the partner. Individuals who perceive such disapproval experience hurt and feel devalued as a relational partner; in other words, they believe that the partner "does not regard his or her relationship with the person to be as important, close, or valuable as the person desires" (Leary et al. 1998, p. 1225). As a consequence, she or he may distance himself or herself to insulate against further hurt and face threat (Vangelisti and Young 2000).

Constructive behaviors are relationshippreserving, in part, because they tend to mitigate perceived face threat. Softening complaints by communicating diplomatically and by showing expressions of positive regard saves face for partners and reassures them that their standing in the relationship remains solid and intact, despite the expression of disagreement or discontent. Mark Leary and Carrie Springer provide the following example: "You know I adore you honey, but I can't stand it when (fill in the blank)" (2001, p. 160).

Consequences of poor conflict management extend beyond the survival of the marriage. Increasingly, research suggests that negative conflict interactions can hurt one's health. For example, one research team found that negative conflict behaviors adversely affect blood pressure and immune systems (Kiecolt-Glaser et al. 1993). Although the long-term effects of conflict interaction on health are unknown, this research suggests that negative conflict behavior in one discussion can harm physical well-being for at least a day. If negative conflict occurs routinely, it appears that one's health would be adversely affected over time.

On-going hostilities between spouses can also adversely affect their children. Although separation and divorce are often blamed for child adjustment problems, the inability to constructively manage conflict between them is much more important (Amato and Keith 1991; Emery 1982, 1992). Hostile marital conflict adversely affects children by lowering their self-esteem, diminishing achievement in school, and increasing the likelihood of depression and antisocial behavior (Gottman 1994; Jenkins and Smith 1991; Montemayor 1983). Moreover, young children learn their own methods of managing conflict by observing their parents (Minuchin 1992). To the extent that parents are incompetent at managing differences, their children are at risk for being similarly incompetent at managing conflict as grown-ups in their own families. The damaging effects of divorce on a child can be somewhat nullified if parents constructively manage their relational problems and breakups, and if parents provide positive support and do not use the child as a resource for winning the conflict.

Despite the paucity of available data regarding differences in marital conflict across cultures, there is sufficient research to speculate that different cultures exhibit different preferences for the manner in which conflict is managed. Relying on the cultural dimensions of individualism-collectivism and high versus low context, Stella Ting-Toomey (1988) proposes that individuals from different cultures privilege different forms of conflict communication. Ting-Toomey argues that members of individualistic, low-context cultures pursue maintenance of own face and rely on autonomy-preserving strategies, whereas members of collectivistic cultures tend to preserve mutual and other face and rely on approval-seeking strategies. Studies across several cultures provide preliminary support for Ting-Toomey's (1988) theory. Members of individualistic cultures tend to be more self-oriented, competitive, and direct, whereas members of collectivistic cultures tend to be more indirect, obliging, and avoiding in conflict situations (Ohbuchi and Takahashi 1994; Ting-Toomey et al. 1991; Trubisky, Ting-Toomey, and Lin 1991). Although people from individualistic cultures appear to be more direct than people from collectivistic cultures, all people appear to prefer the use of constructive conflict messages before they resort to competitive, destructive messages (Kim and Leung 2000). More empirical work needs to be conducted to explore cross-cultural differences in marital conflict specifically.

See also:Attachment: Couple Relationships; Communication: Couple Relationships; Communication: Family Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Coparenting; Decision Making; Dialectical Theory; Divorce Mediation; Equity; Forgiveness; Interparental Conflict—Effects on Children; Interparental Violence—Effects on Children; Jealousy; Marital Quality; Marital Typologies; Nagging and Complaining; Power: Marital Relationships; Problem Solving; Relationship Dissolution; Remarriage; Self-Disclosure; Sexual Dysfunction; Spouse Abuse: Prevalence; Spouse Abuse: Theoretical Explanations; Stepfamilies; Stress; Therapy: Couple Relationships; Transition to Parenthood; Triangulation


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william r. cupach

daniel j. canary


Family conflict refers to active opposition between family members. Because of the nature of family relationships, it can take a wide variety of forms, including verbal, physical, sexual, financial, or psychological. Conflicts may involve different combinations of family members. Most research has focused on dyadic marital conflict and parent-child conflict. But other types are significant, such as sibling conflict, coalitions, and feuds between different parts of extended families.

As in any kind of human group, some conflict in families is normal and serves useful social functions. But in excess, certain forms of family conflict can be damaging and even dangerous. Family conflict that is not managed effectively can be a symptom or contributing factor to serious negative outcomes for individuals or families as a whole (Vuchinich 1999). These include marital difficulties leading to divorce, domestic violence, ineffective parenting, antisocial child behavior, child psychopathology, and child abuse. As a result there has been continuing professional interest in how to regulate it. This work has resulted in useful findings and practices in a variety of treatment and prevention programs involving families. These include couple therapy, family therapy, parent training, peer mediation programs, and individual problem solving training for troubled children.

Unique Characteristics

Three characteristics distinguish family conflict from other types: intensity, complexity, and the duration of relationships. First, relationships between family members are typically the closest, most emotionally intense of any in the human experience (Bowlby 1982). The bonds between adult partners, between parents and children, or between siblings involve the highest level of attachment, affection, and commitment. There is typically daily contact for many years that bonds individuals together. When serious problems emerge in these relationships, the intense positive emotional investment can be transformed into intense negative emotion. A betrayal of a relationship, such as an extramarital affair or child sexual abuse, can produce hate as intense as the love that existed prior to the betrayal. It is well known that a high percentage of murders are committed within family groups. Family conflicts are typically more intense than conflict in other groups. This intensity means that managing conflicts may be more difficult in families, and that their consequences can be more damaging.

The second distinguishing feature of family conflicts, complexity, is especially important for understanding their sometimes-baffling characteristics. Why do battered wives stay with their husbands? Why do most abused children want to stay with the abusive parent rather than be placed elsewhere? One answer is that positive emotional bonds outweigh the pain involved with the conflicts (e.g., Wallace 1996). These are examples of the most pertinent type of complexity in family relationships—ambivalence. The person is loved, but they do things that produce hate as well. The web of family relationships includes dimensions such as love, respect, friendship, hate, resentment, jealousy, rivalry, and disapproval. Several of these dimensions are typically present in any given family relationship. Frequent family conflict may not be a problem if there are even more frequent displays of bonding behaviors. The course of conflict often depends on which dimensions are active in a relationship. Recognizing the multiple dimensions of conflict is a prerequisite for helping families deal more effectively with their problems.

The third distinguishing feature of family conflict is the duration of the relationships, the duration of some conflicts, and the long-term effects of dysfunctional conflict patterns. Family relationships last a lifetime (White 2001). A person's parents and siblings will always be their parents and siblings. Thus serious conflictual relationships within families can continue for longer periods. Such extended exposure increases the risk of harm from the conflict. It is possible to escape such relationships through running away from home, divorce, or estrangement from family ties. But even after contact has been stopped, there are residual psychological effects from the conflict.

Work on family conflict has led to some important findings relevant to prevention and treatment. One is that the form of the conflict is as important as how much of it occurs. Some families have a lot of conflict but still function well. This is possible because conflicts are embedded in the context of other behaviors. One significant factor is whether or not the conflicts are resolved (Cummings and Davies 1994). High rates of conflict may not be damaging if most of the episodes are resolved. Another key factor is how much positive behavior is exchanged when the family is not fighting. John Gottman (1995) has reported that if there are five positive behaviors for each negative behavior, then relationships are still healthy. As a result of such findings, family conflict is not always considered to be a problematic pattern. However, if conflict occurs in forms that are physically or psychologically damaging, then intervention is necessary.

Family conflict often involves more than two individuals. A third family member can be drawn into dyadic conflict to take sides in disputes. Multiple members may join forces and work as a team to win or settle disagreements. Such coalitions may be short-lived or become a permanent part of family life. They are common and can be beneficial. For example, parents typically side with each other in disputes with their children. This helps parents maintain order and is especially useful in large families.

Coalitions add a complex dimension to dispute dynamics and strategy. Skill in forming alliances can be especially valuable to individuals with little power. As with other features of conflict, coalitions can be carried to extremes. Scapegoating, a recurrent, excessive alliance between parents against a child or children, is known to be damaging to development. Certain coalitions disrupt healthy family functioning. An on-going strong alliance between one parent and a child against the other parent can threaten the interparental relationship.

Conflict Style

Conflict style influences the kinds of disputes families have. It refers to specific tactics and behavioral routines individuals or families typically use when conflicts occur. Individuals have conflict styles of their own (Sternberg and Dobson 1987). These develop through repeated exposure to conflict situations in the family of origin. The combination of individual styles and the family system results in a family style of conflict. For example, one family member may dominate in all disputes and forcefully settle all conflicts. This is a power assertive style that is based on the power relations that are part of the family system. Another style involves endless bickering in which any kind of settlement or resolution is rare. Such an irrational style often creates a negative family climate that erodes positive family bonds. A family may avoid any kind of conflict at the first sign of trouble. Conflict may be seen as being too stressful or simply inappropriate among family members. Such an avoidant style often includes covert conflict in which secretive actions lead to negative consequences for opponents (Buehler et al. 1998). A constructive conflict style is an especially important type because it openly addresses the complaints of family members and moves toward rational changes that eliminate the problem. Several other conflict styles have been identified and research in this area continues. Furthermore, it should be noted that each family is unique and thus will have unique elements in its conflict style. But most families tend to use one of the main styles identified above.

Family conflict styles are learned in childhood. Years of exposure to the same patterns indoctrinate the child with the family's conflict style (e.g., Patterson, Reid, and Dishion 1992). The parents or primary caregivers usually establish the style for the children. Years of participation in the conflict style allow the child to learn the intricacies of using the style to protect or extend their interests. Acquiring a conflict style defines the orientation one brings to any dispute situation. For example, a child in a family with a power assertive style will tend to see any disagreement as a zero-sum game. There must be one winner and one loser. One dominates, the other submits. One must strive to use whatever power one has to defeat the opponent, who is striving to defeat you. Learning a conflict style thus includes assumptions about how interpersonal relationships should be conducted. Conflict styles learned in the family are used by children as they interact with peers and others outside of the family context. This can create difficulties in developing relationships with peers. For example, a child who is an aggressive power-assertive bully in the family may have difficulties making friends with peers who reject that style of interaction.

The concept of conflict style has been useful because it clarifies the assessment of problematic interaction patterns in families. In addition it provides a framework for improving conflict management in families. Some family conflict styles tend to interfere with healthy functioning. Power assertive, irrational, and avoidant styles can be especially troublesome. Getting troubled families with such styles to use elements of the constructive conflict style can improve conflict management and problems related to it. Considerable success has been achieved with conflict management training as a component in individual, couple, and family therapy (Vuchinich 1999). However, conflict style is only one part of the family system. As a result, conflict patterns may be resistant to change unless other elements of the family system are also changed. It is important to acknowledge this fact during efforts to improve conflict management in troubled families.

Sibling Conflict

Sibling rivalry has long been recognized as a key element in family conflict. The concept assumes that parents or primary caregivers have a limited amount of affection to give to their children (Neborsky 1997). Children therefore tend to compete for the parental affection, which they want and need. Through that competition, siblings can develop ambivalence toward each other. Siblings have affection for each other, but also some enmity. If parents provide sufficient affection for both siblings, the rivalry dissipates. But if they do not, then the rivalry can be a primary feature of sibling and family relationships through adulthood. In such cases siblings strive to out-do each other to win the approval of a parent or caregiver. Often the siblings are not consciously aware that their striving is based on sibling rivalry. Harmless sibling rivalry is common in most families. But in some cases it fuels long-term destructive conflict between siblings.

The negative impact of excessive sibling rivalry can be seen from a developmental perspective (Brody et al. 1992). Rivalry can erode the positive interaction dynamics that usually occurs between young siblings. Siblings can help each other learn to walk, talk, share, and show support. Intense rivalry interrupts these processes. In addition, a conflictual relationship with a sibling can be the template for relationships with peers outside the family. Troubled peer relations in childhood are known to be a precursor of negative outcomes later on.

The key to avoiding problems with sibling rivalry is providing all children in the family with adequate emotional support. Most parents try to treat their children equally. This is an important goal because recent research has shown that differential parental treatment of siblings is linked to adjustment problems (Feinberg and Hetherington 2001). Although equal treatment is a worthy goal, achieving it is an ongoing challenge. This is especially true when the differences in the sibling age are large. For example, it is difficult to determine what is equal parental treatment if one child is a teenager and another a preschooler. Stepfamilies and blended families further complicate equal treatment.

Conflict in the Extended Family

Extended kin are those more than one generation distant in blood lines, and may include relations created through marriage, adoption, or other social mechanisms. Most frequently, bonds with extended kin are less strong than those with nuclear family members (parents, children, siblings). As a consequence, conflicts with extended kin are usually less intense than those with nuclear family members. But when extended kin have religious, legal, economic, or ethical concerns about specific marital or parenting behaviors, the potential for more serious conflict is present. There is great variation in the organization of extended kinship relations across human cultures. There is little sustained research on conflict involving extended kin outside of the United States.

Grandparents can disagree with the way their grandchildren are parented (e.g., Cherlin and Furstenberg 1986). This can be a result of generational changes in parenting practices or problematic relationships between parent and grandparent. In-laws often disagree on a variety of marital and parenting issues. This is normal given that a marriage is a merger between two different family systems. These conflicts can become severe if there are also ethnic, cultural, or religious differences involved.

U.S. society usually gives the biological parents the right to make major decisions about their children in terms of parenting style, cultural orientation, and religion. But a high rate of divorce complicates matters in many cases. For example, immediately after divorce, noncustodial parents and grandparents often disagree with the way the children are parented by the biological parent and stepparent. Grandparents may be denied visitation rights. Such circumstances create an ongoing potential for extended family conflict. But the geographical distance that is typical between extended family members, and the U.S. cultural emphasis on the priority of the nuclear family, mitigates most extended family conflicts.


Family conflicts are usually experienced as unpleasant events, unless some resolution occurs. There is often reluctance to talk about personal disputes. But some families can benefit from changing their conflict style. Such change requires open discussions and sustained effort. But it can improve family functioning. When conflict is severe, there may be deeper family issues involved besides conflict style and communication. In such cases, addressing conflict dynamics can be a beginning point in dealing with more complex family problems.

See also:Communication: Family Relationships; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Decision Making; Developmental Psychopathology; Family and Relational Rules; Family Business; Forgiveness; Interparental Conflict—Effects on Children; Interparental Violence—Effects on Children; Juvenile Delinquency; Nagging and Complaining; Problem Solving; Self-Disclosure; Sibling Relationships; Spanking; Spouse Abuse: Prevalence; Spouse Abuse: Theoretical Explanations; Theoretical Explanations; Stepfamilies; Stress; Therapy: Parent-Child Relationships; Triangulation


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sam vuchinich


Living with others increases the opportunity for all types of interaction, especially conflict. Struggles between parents and their children are common manifestations of family life. In fact, families may have more conflict that other social groups. Prior theory and research regarding Western, individualist cultures suggests that as such contact and interdependence between people increases, conflict becomes more likely and more frequent (Braiker and Kelley 1979). However, in Eastern collectivist cultures, the increase in conflict may not result in such situations due to a preference for nonconfrontation (Chua and Gudykunst 1987). However, virtually no research examines how family communication in conflict differs based upon culture. Some reasons for this paucity of research are discussed in the conclusion. This entry focuses on research describing the nature of parent-child conflict from a Western perspective.

As with marital relationships, an average amount of conflict between parents and children is difficult to determine, although there are estimates (e.g., Montemayor 1986). The frequency of conflict appears to be linked with child development. For example, the highest number of conflicts—mother-child interactions—occurred with two-year-olds versus children who were eighteen months or three years old (Dunn and Munn 1987). Among adolescents, conflict interactions tend to increase until about the age of fifteen, and then subside in later adolescence. Parent-child conflict is probably related to parental development as well, though research is currently less definitive in this area.

Beyond conflict frequency, one of the most rudimentary features of conflict management is whether an issue is engaged or avoided. Engagement involves overt, verbal confrontation. Avoidance can take many forms, including withholding complaints, evading discussion of sensitive issues, and defensively withdrawing from a conflict discussion. Different families establish different norms regarding the frequency with which conflicts are engaged or avoided.

Another important dimension of conflict management concerns its positivity or negativity (Sillars and Wilmot 1994). Some behaviors are relatively positive in sentiment and affective tone, such as conciliatory statements, supportive comments that validate the other's point of view, attempts to understand the other's position, and so on. Negative behaviors are disagreeable, inflammatory, and sometimes hostile. Examples include demands, threats, insults, and defensiveness. Distressed families exhibit more negative conflict behaviors, greater reciprocation of negative emotions and behaviors, and a lower proportion of positive behaviors compared to non-distressed families (e.g., Montemayor 1986).

An important feature of parent-child relationships that may affect the negativity of conflicts is that the relationships are not voluntary. In other words, children do not pick their parents. Like marriage partners, parents and their offspring develop considerable intimacy. More so than spouses, however, parents and their children are "bound" in a family relationship, which can serve to intensify serious conflicts between them, and family disputes often represent underlying relational struggles regarding power or intimacy (Emery 1992).

Regardless of the "involuntary" nature of parent-child relationships, family conflict has the potential to positively impact children. Specifically, childhood conflict interactions can contribute positively to personal and social development. Moreover, parents can develop their negotiation skills in conflicts with their children. To garner such positive rewards from conflict interactions, family members need two basic skills for conflict management: flexibility versus rigidity and the ability to manage conflict without escalating the severity of the problem.

Clearly, the study of these general features of parent-child conflict contributes to understanding the experience. Additionally, one important theme consistently emerges in discussions of these general features: development. Focusing on how parent-child conflict evolves as children (and parents) age provides a more thorough picture of the phenomenon. The following sections survey the research findings regarding parent-child conflict based upon the general age group of the children.

Conflict with Young Children

Much of the research on parent-child conflict has focused on conflicts between toddlers and their parents. Although conflict may be especially prevalent during the "terrible twos" phase, conflict with parents becomes a significant feature of family interactions beginning at eighteen months (Dunn and Munn 1985) and continuing over the life span. Importantly, both parents' and children's conflict behaviors evolve over time.

For example, before children reach the age of sixteen months, mothers are more likely to use distraction or simple labels such as "naughty" or "nice" during conflict episodes. As the child ages, mothers are more likely to reference social rules, use bargaining, and provide justifications to the child during conflict episodes (Dunn and Munn 1985). Learning from these experiences with their mothers, children begin to develop their own abilities to use reasoning and justifications as early as age three.

Most of the research on parent-child conflict focuses on interactions between mothers and children. The mother most frequently acts as the primary caregiver. As such, mothers participate much more in parent-child conflicts than do fathers (Vuchinich 1987). Specifically, children oppose mothers more often than they oppose fathers. This greater number of interactions for mothers may mean that mothers exert more influence over children's development of conflict management behaviors. Additionally, fathers achieve child compliance slightly more frequently than do mothers (Lytton 1979). Moreover, children rarely follow a father's simple "no" with a bold opposition, but they would boldly oppose a mother's "no."

Traditional perspectives on parent-child conflict have considered conflict as parental discipline and/or parental attempts at compliance-gaining with their children. Research focused on observing conflict interactions between mothers and their small children illustrates some keys to successful parental compliance gaining. First, when a parent's behavior is synchronous (i.e., staying on topic) with what the child just stated (child's immediately preceding talk turn), children are more likely to comply with parental requests (Rocissano, Slade, and Lynch 1987). In addition, these same researchers argued that parental flexibility during interactions with toddlers leads to more child compliance. In general, parental positivity and flexibility before and during interactions has been consistently linked with child compliance.

Although much of the early parent-child conflict research focused on parental control and child noncompliance, more recent research has emphasized the bidirectionality of parent-child conflict (e.g., Eisenberg 1992; Patterson 1982). Bidirectionality means that just as parents' behaviors influence children, children's behaviors influence parents. For example, Gerald Patterson's theory of coercive control suggests that parents adapt their conflict management behaviors to children's coercive behaviors (e.g., hitting, yelling, and ignoring the parent) rather the reverse. This bidirectional approach to parent-child conflict broadens the focus from just compliance-gaining to a wider variety of conflict topics.

For instance, conflict between parents and toddlers in the two- to four-year-old range largely reflects the child's attempt to gain social control. Consequently, disagreements about rights of possession are particularly salient for children in this age group (Hay and Ross 1982). Other common conflict issues involve caretaking, manners, destructive/hurtful actions, rules of the house, physical space, and independence.

Between the ages of four and seven, children become less concerned with possessions and the rightful use of objects, and more concerned with controlling the actions of others (Shantz 1987). For instance, five-year-olds can become quite distressed when the mother will not play in a preferred manner. Such struggles to gain the compliance of others are integral to the child's development of interpersonal competence. The child learns that cooperating with others is an important part of control and achieving one's own instrumental goals. Engaging in conflict facilitates children's acquisition of social perspective-taking skills (Selman 1980).

Conflict with Adolescents

By the time children reach adolescence, their communication with others has gained greater sophistication across contexts. In conflict situations, they no longer express unrestrained hostility as a small child does. In addition, they exhibit greater flexibility in conflicts with their parents. Nonetheless, adolescents still express more hostility and show more rigidity than do adults. Even with their increased maturity, adolescents are still developing their conflict management skills. For example, when observing interactions between mothers and teenagers, researchers have found that mothers more consistently respond to their child in a flexible and positive manner regardless of the child's comment (Fletcher et al. 1996). However, the researchers also found that, unlike the mothers, the teenagers tended to parallel the mothers' comments in terms of following a negative comment with a negative reply.

Given the broad range of what qualifies as a teenager, adolescence consists of multiple stages rather than one. Traditional perspectives hold that due to parallel hormonal and physiological changes during puberty, conflict behavior first increases from the early stages of adolescence to the middle stages and then decreases again by late adolescence. However, other researchers have found that conflict simply decreases from early to late adolescence with no peak during middle adolescence. In attempting to resolve this controversy, researchers have found that conflict increases in hostile and coercive families but decreases in warm and supportive families (Rueter and Conger 1995) .

Mothers and fathers take on different roles during conflict than they had with their younger children. In particular, adolescent boys begin to act more assertive and forceful with their mothers but not their fathers. Mothers complement their sons' behavior by being less dominant, whereas fathers become more dominant (Paikoff and Brooks-Gunn 1991). Even though both mothers' and children's behaviors change, mothers still experience more conflicts with their adolescent children than do fathers.

The topics of conflict evolve as the child matures. Whereas younger children are concerned with gaining social control, adolescents attempt to gain personal control. Adolescents and parents often disagree about the extent to which parental control and supervision over the adolescent are legitimate. Specifically, parents and adolescents have conflict about such routine, day-to-day issues as responsibility for chores, doing schoolwork, observing a curfew, and respecting the adolescent's right to privacy. Interestingly, the issues of parent-adolescent conflict persist across generations. Thus, today's "rebellious" adolescents mature into tomorrow's "controlling" parents (Montemayor 1983).

Although conflict between parents and teens may be inevitable, effective conflict management does not always occur. The potential costs of poorly managed parent-adolescent conflict are great. For example, adolescents may become "ungovernable," use drugs, and/or run away from home. Certain communication behaviors during conflict have been linked with such teenage misbehaviors (Alexander 1973). Specifically, the researcher found that when parents and adolescents do not reciprocate each other's supportive communication behaviors (e.g., showing empathy and equality) and do reciprocate each other's defensive behaviors (e.g., showing indifference and superiority) the child appears more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors.

Conflict with Adult Children

Although conflicts between parents and children persist after the child becomes an adult, little research examines these relationships. The frequency of conflicts likely drops off significantly for most parents and their adult children. However, with some level of maintained contact and interdependence, conflicts likely remain a fundamental aspect of the parent-child relationship. For example, young adults have been found to experience psychological adjustment and identity problems when they perceive that their families have a great deal of conflict (Nelson et al. 1993). Just as personal development continues past adolescence, the impact of conflict with significant others on that development continues.

Karen Fingerman's (1996) research illustrates that conflicts with parents continue even as the child reaches middle age and the parent becomes elderly. Again, development appears to play an important in role in understanding difficulties between middle-aged daughters and their elderly mothers. Due to their different stages in life, the mothers and daughters hold differing opinions regarding the salience of the relationship. In addition, mothers and daughters tend to disagree regarding the mother's needs. These studies illustrate both that parent-child conflict endures and that the link between development and conflict persists.


Although conflict may be inevitable in families, the consequences of parent-child conflict tend to be positive rather than negative. For example, oppositions between parents (usually mothers) and their small children are usually brief in duration and not emotionally charged. Although such conflicts can test the patience of both child and parent, they do not seriously affect the relationship between parent and child. In addition, while conflict interactions between parents and adolescents can be more intense and dramatic, only 5 to 10 percent of families with adolescents experience detrimental effects on parent-child relationships (Paikoff and Brooks-Gunn 1991).

Considerable research depicts the processes surrounding conflict between parents and their young children and conflict between parents and their adolescent children. However, more research is needed to understand the nature of conflict between parents and their adult children. In addition, the research into parent-child conflict has not sufficiently examined the influence of culture on conflict management. It seems likely that the topics of conflict between mothers and toddlers as well as between teenagers and their parents may be universal.

However, the management of conflict between parents and children likely varies by culture (Ting-Toomey 1988). Unfortunately, researchers have not explored conflict management differences due to cultural norms in parent-child interactions. Moreover, such investigations of cultural differences appear problematic for two reasons. First, the concepts of individualism and collectivism may oversimplify cultural differences. Although a nation might be defined as collectivist or individualist, the individuals that make up that country likely vary widely in their behavior (Kim and Leung 2000). For example, a family living in the highly individualistic United States may nevertheless value nonconfrontation in conflict and may exhibit a strong tendency toward collectivist culture communication behaviors.

Second, virtually every investigation of conflict management differences due to culture has utilized various conflict style scales (Kim and Leung 2000). Obviously, survey methods do not work well with young children. Moreover, the conceptualization that underlies such scales appears problematic for effective comparisons across cultures. Specifically, Min-Sun Kim and Truman Leung (2000) argued that the dimensions (concern for self and concern for other) that underlie the various styles of conflict management do not have the same meaning in conflict situations across cultures. For example, U.S. society values assertiveness in conflict and perceives avoidance behaviors as showing a lack of concern for others. However, in Chinese society, avoidance of confrontation is perceived as showing high concern for others. Future research needs to resolve such methodological and conceptual issues to examine how culture likely plays an important role in the development of conflict management behaviors from early childhood.

See also:Communication: Family Relationships; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Decision Making; Developmental Psychopathology; Discipline; Divorce: Effects on Parents; Family Business; Fatherhood; Filial Responsibility; Forgiveness; Motherhood; Nagging and Complaining; Oppositionality; Parenting Education; Parenting Styles; Problem Solving; Self-Disclosure; Spanking; Stepfamilies; Stress; Therapy: Parent-Child Relationships; Triangulation


alexander, j. f. (1973). "defensive and supportive communication in normal and deviant families." journal of consulting and clinical psychology 40:223–231.

braiker, h. b., and kelley, h. h. (1979). "conflict in thedevelopment of close relationships." in social exchange in developing relationships, ed. r. l. burgess and t. l. huston. new york: academic press.

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dunn, j., and munn, p. (1985). "becoming a family member: family conflict and the development of social understanding." child development 56:480–492.

dunn, j., and munn, p. (1987). "development of justification in disputes with another sibling." developmental psychology 23:791–798.

eisenberg, a. r. (1992). "conflicts between mothers andtheir young children." merrill-palmer quarterly 38:21–43.

emery, r. e. (1992). "family conflicts and their developmental implications: a conceptual analysis of meanings for the structure of relationships." in conflict in child and adolescent development, ed. c. u. shantz and w. w. hartup. cambridge, uk: cambridge university press.

fingerman, k. l. (1996). "sources of tension in the agingmother and adult daughter relationship." psychology and aging 11:591–606.

fletcher, k. e.; fischer, m.; barkley, r. a.; and smallish, l.(1996). "a sequential analysis of the mother-adolescent interactions of adhd, adhd/odd, and normal teenagers during neutral and conflict discussions." journal of abnormal child psychology 24:271–297.

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kim, m., and leung, t. (2000). "a multicultural view ofconflict management styles: review and critical synthesis." communication yearbook 23:227–269.

lytton, h. (1979). "disciplinary encounters between youngboys and their mothers and fathers: is there a contingency system?" developmental psychology 15:256–268.

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susan j. messman

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In psychoanalysis, the notion of conflict generally refers to intrapsychic conflict in which antagonistic forces are pitted against each other. The idea is central to psychoanalytic doctrine: It is no exaggeration to say that in light of the importance given to infantile sexuality and the unconscious, conflict is basic to the structuring of the psychic armature; further, it can be said that Sigmund Freud devoted his entire life to elaborating a theory of conflict.

Freud takes a cautious approach in his early work. He remains close to a psychology of consciousness at the beginning of his theory of repression, when he evokes, in the patient under the influence of a wish, the surging forth of "contrasting representations" and "irreconcilable ideas" that are so painful that, by an effort of "counter-will" the patient decides "to forget the thing" (1941b [1892], Notice III). From the outset, then, he posits the idea of a fundamental conflict between wishes and what opposes them. When Freud later unreservedly states that this processrepressionis essentially unconscious, that perspective, as much as the role of sexuality in wishes, becomes the basis for his parting of ways with Josef Breuer and for his ongoing opposition to such thinkers as Pierre Janet.

From that point on, it is possible to follow the stages in his elaboration of a general theory of conflict:

  • as their name indicates, the neuropsychoses of defense (hysteria, obsessional neurosis, phobia) can be attributed to the conflict between wishes and obstacles to their fulfillment;
  • this struggle is expressed in compromise formations in which the wish is blocked and, at the same time, finds fulfillment in disguised forms: This is the return of the repressed, in the form of symptoms, dreams, slips of the tongue, parapraxes, and so forth, and all these socially and morally acceptable substitutive formations nevertheless produce an occult satisfaction of desire, thus providing and outlet for accumulated psychic energy;
  • it is thus important to distinguish manifest conflict, as it appears in the complaints of the patient and those around him or her, in symptomatology, and so on, from latent conflict, which only the work of psychoanalysis can bring to light;
  • the source of conflict is always to be sought in psychosexuality. Such, at least, is the position that Freud vigorously affirms in the first part of his work. However, the status of aggression posed a problem and would remain a troublesome point"" in his theory. He returned to the issue, without finding a satisfactory solution, with his second theory of the instincts and the introduction of the "death instinct," in his attempt to find what might lie "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" (1920g) and by reframing questions related to sadism and masochism (for example, in "The Economic Problem of Masochism" [1924c]) and the like;
  • the theorization of the neuropsychoses of defense explicitly posits the existence of psychopathological states that do not follow this schema in that they are not produced by a conflict between the instincts and the defenses: perversions ("the neuroses are the negative form of perversion," Freud writes in "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" [1905d, p. 238]) and actual neuroses, in which the symptom is produced by a direct flow of libidinal energy into the somatic functions, without passing through psychical working over (this latter category was taken up and extensively developed in modern studies of psychosomatic disorders). However, these distinctions, which seem to originate in a somewhat overly rigorous psychoanalytic nosography, were challenged by Freud's successors;
  • an important watershed occurred around 1910 with regard to two connected areas, when Freud began to envisage conflicts between the "two principles of mental functioning," the pleasure principle and the reality principle ("Formulations on the Two Principles of Mental Functioning" [1911b]), and the opposition between narcissistic cathexes and object cathexes ("On Narcissism: An Introduction" [1914c]);
  • at the same time, Freud's theorization of the Oedipus complex (explicitly designated by that name for the first time in 1910, although the idea is present much earlier) brought to light the idea of conflicting identifications (first and foremost, between paternal and maternal identifications);
  • from this point on, the stages in libidinal development having been established, different developmental and structural levels of psychic conflict can be distinguished. In the case of orality, biting/not biting the breast; according to Karl Abraham, this ambivalent phase is preceded by a preambivalent phase. In the anal phase, expulsion/retention; this is where the sadistic/masochistic and active/passive oppositions are imbricated. The phallic phase is characterized by the oppositions between phallic/castrated and masculine/feminine as well as by the principal form of conflict that places desire in opposition to prohibition. As is clear from this brief summary, conflict in Freudian thought often takes the form of pairs of opposites.

There is more at issue here than merely situating conflicts in the activation of the erogenous zones. When there is conflict, it involves the putting into play of object relations (for example, in the case of anality, in the oppositions between satisfying/disappointing or giving/refusing). The love/hate opposition, which Melanie Klein posits as fundamental (working within the perspective inaugurated in Freud's second theory of the instincts) has since undergone extensive elaboration. Finally, at the most basic level of all, the opposition between being/nonbeing should no doubt be added; its importance is apparent in the study of psychoses.

Conflict can pit the instincts themselves against one another. In his early work Freud places the sexual instinct in opposition to the instinct for self-preservation; in his second theory, he opposes the life instinct to the death instinct. Moreover, clinical practice suggests that instincts may be conflictual in themselves: It has been observed that in certain anxiety states instinctual satisfaction is fantasized as a cataclysmic explosion that would annihilate all the subject's vital energy in a single instant and cause death. We should also recall the forms of conflict in which different agencies within the psychic apparatus are in opposition: the conscious and the unconscious in Freud's early theory, or the Id, the Ego, and the Superego in his later work.

In all the above forms, conflict is considered in terms of its intrapsychic workings. However, it is clear we should also consider its articulation with interpersonal conflicts and, beyond that, the problem of conflicts between the individual and society, which Freud himself addressed several times, notably in Group Psychology and Analysis of the Ego (1921c) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a).

Roger Perron

See also: Allergy; Ambivalence; "Analysis Terminable and Interminable"; Beyond the Pleasure Principle ; Compromise formation; Defense; Defense mechanisms; Doubt; Drive/instinct; Dualism; Dynamic point of view, the; Ego autonomy; Hysteria; Oedipus complex; Neutrality/Benevolent neutrality; Nuclear complex; Prohibition; Psychotic potential; Reaction-formation; Splitting; Symptom-formation; Transference hatred.


Freud, Sigmund. (1894a). The neuro-psychoses of defence. SE, 3: 45-61.

. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 130-243.

. (1911b). Formulations on the two principles of mental functioning. SE, 12: 218-226.

. (1914c). On narcissism: an introduction. SE, 14: 67-102.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

. (1921c). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. SE, 18: 65-143.

. (1924c). The economic problem of masochism. SE, 19: 155-170.

. (1930a). Civilization and its discontents, SE, 21: 57-145.

. (1941b [1892]). Sketches for the 'Preliminary commmunication' of 1893, (B) 'III.' SE, 1: 149-150.

Further Reading

Brenner, Charles. (1982). The mind in conflict. New York: International Universities Press.

Frank, George. (1996). Conflict and deficit: two theories or one? Psychoanalytical Psychology, 13, 567-570.

Smith, Henry. (2003). Conceptions of conflict in psychoanalytic theory and practice. Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 72,49-96.

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In general usage, a conflict is a disagreement or incompatibility of goals. In conflict resolution literature, however, conflict is distinguished from dispute, with the former being a long-term, deep-rooted problem, and the latter being a short-term, more superficial difference that can usually be resolved through simple negotiation. Conflicts, in this sense, are often caused by attacks on, or the absence of, basic human needs, especially identity, security, and a sense of self-worth. Most conflicts between ethnic groups, for example, are of this type. One group may threaten the legitimacy and value of anothers identity, or it may attack or threaten them physically, psychologically, socially, economically, or politically, thereby causing a conflict.

Conflicts can also be caused by disagreements about fundamental moral values (e.g., definitions of right and wrong). In the United States, the conflicts over abortion rights, homosexual marriage, and the role of Christianity in public affairs are all examples of such value conflicts.

Finally, conflicts can involve disagreements about rights or denial of rights. These can include fundamental human rights, which are laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or they can be more narrowly defined in national or state constitutions or laws, or in local ordinances. In all of these cases, the problem is not easily negotiable: people do not negotiate about their religious beliefs, nor do they compromise their basic rights. They fight for them.

Disputes, on the other hand, are often differences of interests: who is going to do what and when, how much someone will pay for something, or how a limited good will be distributed. Such disputes are usually negotiable, and a so-called win-win, or integrative, solution can often be found through which everyone is satisfied and the dispute is resolved.

Politics, being about the distribution and use of power, is inherently conflictual. It could be argued that all politics is conflict and conflict resolution, because it involves the processes used to determine who has power to make decisions and to prevail in disputes at the family, organizational, community, national, and international levels. At all of these levels, institutions have been developed to routinize the management of such disputes: families may use a consensus process or one of parental control; organizations have management policies and procedures; communities, nations, and even the international system have laws, legislatures, executive branches, and courts. All of these institutions are designed to resolve conflicts over who will do what, what rights people have, and even what moral codes will be followed (as, for instance, with abortion laws).

In general, these mechanisms work fairly well, and most conflicts are successfully prevented or resolved. Sometimes, however, established mechanisms break down and destructive and protracted conflicts develop. These may take the form of domestic violence or protracted family disputes between spouses or between parents and children. Also common are long-running conflicts within organizations over such topics as who will lead, what goals will be pursued, or how work is to be accomplished. When routinized conflict resolution mechanisms break down at the national or international level, insurgencies or overt war is often the result.

SEE ALSO Government; Social Contract


Burgess, Heidi, and Guy M. Burgess. 1997. Encyclopedia of Conflict Resolution. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio.

Deutsch, Morton, and Peter Coleman, eds. 2000. The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Kriesberg, Louis. 2002. Constructive Conflicts, 2nd ed. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.

Heidi Burgess

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96. Conflict

See also 413. WAR .

an opponent in any kind of contest or conflict. Also called antipathist .
Rare. an antagonist.
an attitude of antagonism or aversion.
the act of threatening, especially revenge or punishment.
a refusal to obey; defiance.
duelist, duellist
1. a person engaged in a duel.
2. a person skilled at dueling.
a person who participates in a feud or other conflict.
the state of being an insurgent or rebel; the activities of insurgents or rebels.
a revolt of peasants against the social classes above them.
monomachy, monomachia
single combat; a duel. monomachist , n.
the state or position of being impartial or not allied with or committed to any party or viewpoint in a conflict, especially a war or armed conflict, neutral , n., adj.
1. the state or quality of being an opponent.
2. an act or instance of opposing.
1. the state or quality of being an antagonist.
2. an act or instance of antagonism. oppugnant , adj.
Rare. the act or process of appeasing.
1. rebels collectively or as a group.
2. an area or region held by rebels.
sciamachy, sciomachy
battle with shadows or imaginary enemies.
a skirmish or other minor conflict.

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con·flict • n. / ˈkänˌflikt/ a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one. ∎  a prolonged armed struggle. ∎  an incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles, or interests: there was a conflict between his business and domestic life. ∎  Psychol. a condition in which a person experiences a clash of opposing wishes or needs. • v. / kənˈflikt; ˈkänˌflikt/ [intr.] be incompatible or at variance; clash: parents' and children's interests sometimes conflict. ∎  [as adj.] (conflicted) having or showing confused and mutually inconsistent feelings: my feelings are so conflicted that I hardly know how to answer. DERIVATIVES: con·flic·tive / kənˈfliktiv; ˈkänˌflik-/ adj. con·flic·tu·al / kənˈflikchoōəl/ adj.

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conflict (kon-flikt) n. (in psychology) the state produced when a stimulus produces two opposing reactions. Conflict has been used to explain the development of neurotic disorders, and the resolution of conflict remains an important part of psychoanalysis. See also conversion.

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conflict The condition in which motivations urge an animal to perform more than one activity at a time. Conflict may lead to one motivation becoming dominant or to unresolved, ambivalent behaviour, displacement activity, intention movements, or redirected behaviour.

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MICHAEL ALLABY. "conflict." A Dictionary of Ecology. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. 29 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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conflict The condition in which motivations urge an animal to perform more than one activity at a time. Conflict may lead to one motivation becoming dominant; or to unresolved, ambivalent behaviour; or to irrelevant behaviour.

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MICHAEL ALLABY. "conflict." A Dictionary of Zoology. 1999. Encyclopedia.com. 29 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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conflict sb. XV. — L. conflīctus. f. conflīct-, pp. stem of conflīgere, f. CON- + flīgere strike.
So conflict vb. XV.

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T. F. HOAD. "conflict." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 1996. Encyclopedia.com. 29 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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GORDON MARSHALL. "conflict." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. Encyclopedia.com. 29 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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See Models; Science and Religion, Models and Relations; Science and Religion, Methodologies

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conflictaddict, afflict, conflict, constrict, contradict, convict, delict, depict, evict, hand-picked, inflict, interdict, Pict, predict, strict •edict •Benedict • verdict •imperfect, perfect, pluperfect, word-perfect •object • subject • relict • district •concoct, decoct •landlocked • dreadlocked •unprovoked, unsmoked •uncooked, unlooked •abduct, adduct, conduct, construct, destruct, duct, instruct, misconduct, obstruct •ventiduct • aqueduct • product •safe-conduct • viaduct •handworked, unworked •mulct • unthanked • sacrosanct •distinct, extinct, succinct •precinct • instinct •conjunct, defunct, disjunct, injunct •adjunct • unasked

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"conflict." Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes. 2007. Encyclopedia.com. 29 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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