In a world of finite resources, growing populations, expanding democracy among weak nations, and expanding opportunities for communication across geographic boundaries, disagreements are inevitable. Disagreements might be about the distribution or conservation of resources, about status, power, or differences among various groups within the population, about the history of past interactions, or about a myriad of other issues, both real and imagined. These struggles are indications of social conflict, or public clashes among groups over competing claims (Coser 1956).
Communication is crucial to social conflict because through it, social conflict can escalate into violence or de-escalate into resolution and reconciliation, and can lead to clearer definitions of opposing positions (Gilboa 2006). Conflict is a ubiquitous form of social interaction that can have positive or negative consequences for the groups involved, can have implications for both social change and social stability, and can be understood as both a product of the social setting and a purely symbolic act that has no relationship to what are imagined as real conditions.
Social conflicts, as intense forms of human interaction, tend to draw crowds of bystanders wherever they occur. News media, perhaps relying on the idea of “what the public wants,” include a disproportionate amount of social conflict, occasionally framing as conflict situations that are not viewed that way by the participants. In most cases, however, the parties involved in conflict are often quite eager to make their position known to a wider audience. Hence, social conflict is a frequent theme of news coverage, particularly television news about international politics.
Social Conflict and Communication Research
The emphasis among conflict scholars has changed in tandem with broader social changes. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social conflict was understood in the context of industrialization, urbanization, and bureaucratization. The failure of socialist revolts and the rise of fascist regimes in the early middle of the twentieth century coincided with scholarship that critiqued scientific approaches to communication research and that focused on the role of ideology and coercion in stemming revolution. The relatively stable US social environment of the late middle of the twentieth century was paralleled by studies of the integrative aspects of social conflict. The civil rights, antiwar, and environmental protests of the latter half of the twentieth century focused attention on communication and social conflict as symbolic struggles over ideology, with potential for individual emancipation and radical social change.
The study of communication and social conflict has advanced along a number of divergent paths, owing mainly to the philosophical worldviews and methodological preferences of the researchers. Scholars committed to understanding the world as it is tend to view social conflict and communication as components of a highly integrated and gradually changing world. Radical scholars committed to understanding the world as it might become tend to be interested in the use of communication to suppress revolutionary conflict and to maintain the dominance of oppressive groups (Burrell and Morgan 1979).
Conflict, Communication, And Radical Change
As a social reformer and political activist, Karl Marx (1818–1883) viewed social conflict, and class conflict in particular, as a driving force behind social change. Antagonisms between the owners of the means of production and the exploited laborers, in combination with widening economic crises, would eventually lead to revolutionary change. Private property and capitalist-supporting institutions such as the government and religion would be abolished, and the working class would become the ruling class, finally able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Although history has proven Marx incorrect regarding the inevitability of revolutionary change, many of his ideas continue to stimulate research about the relationships between social conflict and change, about the connections among the legal, political, and economic systems, and about social institutions’ support of dominant groups.
Scholars who are influenced by the economic aspects of Marxian scholarship focus on the concentration of ownership and interlocking directorships of media industries, and the accompanying concentration of the means of cultural production. C. Wright Mills’s focus was on the “power elite”: an alliance of leaders within business, military, and governmental bureaucracies. These highly interlinked groups of leaders work together to insure their own position at the seats of power, and to ensure that the war-making economy is perpetuated. Mills argued that mass media play an important role in legitimizing and perpetuating the power of elites and by distancing elites from citizens. Mills’s conclusion was that the media serve primarily to hand down decisions to the public, which can only react, and not influence them.
Cultural critical studies emerged as an attempt to explain why the revolution that Marx predicted never came to be, and to emphasize processes by which dominant ideology becomes integrated into common sense so that citizens become the instruments of their own oppression. Critical cultural scholars find opportunities for both emancipation and coercion in popular culture and mass media. Todd Gitlin’s (1980) analysis of media roles in the social construction and demise of a radical student movement in the 1960s illustrates how potent challenges to the status quo can be absorbed without resulting in substantive social change.
Communication and The Regulation of Conflict
Marx’s concern with social conflict was based primarily on his analysis of capitalism and his observation of the excesses of the industrial revolution. Max Weber (1864–1917), on the other hand, was more broadly interested in conflict that was not solely reducible to economic differences. Weber defined conflict as simply action that is intended to carry out an actor’s own will against the resistance of others (Weber 1994, 13). Power is distributed on the basis of class, status, and political parties – not exclusively according to economic classes. Authority derives from claims to legitimacy based on rationality, bureaucracy, rules, and laws. Legitimacy derives from claims based on tradition, as in hereditary power. Authority derives from claims based on the charisma or heroism of the individual (Weber 1994, 108). Conflict parties with greater power and authority are more likely to prevail.
Ralf Dahrendorf’s (b. 1929) theory of social conflict builds upon revisions of Marx’s and Weber’s concepts of conflict and power. Rejecting Marx’s claim that the only force for change in society was revolutionary class conflict, Dahrendorf saw instead that conflict was a fundamental and ubiquitous force behind the gradual forms of social change that characterize society. In Dahrendorf’s definition, conflict comprises relations between two groups each of which wants to attain something available to only one group. Dahrendorf’s revision of Marxism was to reject property ownership as the only basis for class formation. Instead, he argued that the main determinants of conflict are power and authority, both of which are more fundamental than class or property ownership. Conflict groups, then, typically represent a group with authority that wants to preserve the status quo versus another group lacking in authority and intent on challenging the status quo.
Weber described a number of features of rationality-based authority that are pertinent to questions of communication and social conflict. Ultimately, bureaucracy can be understood as a means of limiting communication and controlling conflict both within an organization and between an organization and the outside world. Conflicts are channeled to specially trained employees according to formally defined procedures and rules. The hierarchical nature of the bureaucracy insures that the organization’s leaders are not bothered by each dispute that occurs at lower levels of the organization. This is because subordinates are restricted in their ability to communicate beyond a level or two above their own position. The organization can continue to function even as various levels of the bureaucracy are engaged in conflict control. Although bureaucratic control of conflict may lead to unsatisfactory resolutions for one or more participants in the conflict, the principle of equality before the law is in most circumstances preferred over conflict resolution according to privilege and favor.
Just as bureaucracies can be viewed as mechanisms for limiting and controlling conflict, the division of labor, or specialization of occupations and tasks, can be viewed not only as a means of increasing productivity but also as a means of limiting conflict and competition among organizations. Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) considered the interdependencies created by the division of labor to be the main unifying force of modern society.
In keeping with Durkheim’s emphasis on questions of social order, a line of conflict sociologists developed propositions that stress the integrative aspects of social conflict. Georg Simmel (1858–1918) argued, in direct contradiction of Marx, that conflict is merely an intense but pervasive aspect of social interaction that can have positive or negative effects on society.
Robert Park (1864–1944) was a former journalist, and a student of Charles Dewey and Georg Simmel, who spent the majority of his academic career as a sociologist at the University of Chicago. Park’s notion of conflict was also heavily influenced by Weber. He argued that conflict, and its less intense forms of struggle, namely competition and rivalry, are intrinsic to the formation and maintenance of social groups. Building on one of Simmel’s propositions, Park claimed that the most intense, emotionally involving conflicts are over ideals in which the individuals fight not for themselves but instead for an abstract ideal. He coined the term “urban ecology” to explain the distribution of various groups of people throughout the city, and the succession of ethnic groups from the core of the city to the outer edges. For Park and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, ethnic media played an important role in maintaining the cultures and social control of ethnic neighborhoods, substituting publicity for the gossip and ostracism that were used to control deviant members of the community in the old world.
Another University of Chicago sociologist, Herbert Blumer (1900–1987), shared Park’s interest in community formation through public discussion. The public is a group of people who are confronted with an issue, are divided in their view of how to solve the issue, and discuss the issue. Through discussion, the various factions come into conflict and thus intensify their critical powers in order to advance better arguments and to stake out their respective positions. This becomes the basis of public opinion: sharpened differences that emerge among conflicting groups engaged in public discussion (Blumer 1954). Social conflict in combination with public discussion can clarify the positions of the conflicting groups, and can lead to the search for additional information and solutions to the problem.
Lewis Coser (1913–2003) organized and formalized many of Simmel’s propositions about the relationship between conflict and the integration of social groups. For example, conflict with outgroups is expected to increase the solidarity within the group, leads to rallying behind the leader, leads to the search for allies, and leads to an interest in maintaining the enemy in order to maintain solidarity within the group. Within large and complex groups, internal conflict increases cohesion as conflicting groups become more loyal to their own group and because formal procedures are used to give each group a fair hearing.
A program of mass communication research that combines Coser’s integrative view of social conflict with Dahrendorf’s interest in the division between authorities and those without authority was developed and applied to the analysis of news media in Minnesota communities. Phillip Tichenor, George Donohue, and Clarice Olien developed the community structural pluralism model over 30 years of research on the relationship between mass communication and its social and institutional environment. In this perspective, local mass media are best understood in terms of their dependence upon powerful local and non-local institutions. The general principle is that the media can report whatever their sources are willing to tell them. In the end, media reports of social conflict serve both social control and social change functions. Their “guard dog” metaphor suggests that mass media tend to be particularly vigorous in reporting conflict when elites are divided over an issue. At the national level, news media cover international events from the perspective of the home country’s political and economic elites.
Future Directions in Social Conflict and Communication Research
Just as the communication and social conflict research of the previous generation was responsive to the social and cultural climate of the day, current and future research acknowledges significant trends in the nature of conflict itself. The historic shift since World War II has been from conflict among industrial-age, professional military forces to the civil wars, ethnic violence, and other forms of what Charles Tilly (2003) calls contentious politics.
Incessant and critical media coverage of the humanitarian crises resulting from modern social conflicts is thought in some cases to stimulate western military intervention. On closer examination, Robinson (2002) showed that the so-called “CNN effect” was limited to cases in which a western country has no existing policy regarding the issues related to the crisis, and its elites are undecided on how to deal with the crisis.
As global climate change produces increasing environmental catastrophes, media coverage of the aftermath can be expected to amplify the jurisdictional disputes that arise among relief agencies, and are expected to prime viewers to judge political leaders on the basis of their presence and performance during the disaster.
As communities become more diverse, with more potential centers for organized social power, contentious politics have replaced a previous generation’s bowling leagues and fraternal clubs as the primary method of social participation. Scholars and community organizers are developing new methods of conflict mediation to manage racial, ethnic, and environmental disputes. The idea is that conflict is primarily a communication-based act that can be channeled, via communications, into positive outcomes (Gilboa 2006; Warfield 2006). Through this process, social conflict and communication can activate citizens to participate in their community’s civic life, even as more benign forms of social participation such as bowling leagues and civic club membership continue to decline. Civic journalism projects were designed to use local media to stimulate civic involvement by first creating forums to air citizen concerns, then using media resources to explore the scope of the problems and to create forums in which elected officials and the public discuss policies to address the problems.
Mass media do not create social conflict or social movements, yet media coverage is one of the key resources that conflict groups mobilize to achieve political goals. New information technologies are proving to be valuable tools for coalition formation and message dissemination, both among protest groups and between protest groups and the public. Mainstream media reporters covering large-scale social protests such as demonstrations during World Trade Organization meetings can turn to the websites of the various groups involved in the protest in order to learn about the substantive goals of each (Owens & Palmer 2003). Social movement scholars focusing on the strategic mobilization of the resources among protest groups understand that new communication technologies are among the many resources available for organizing against authorities.
Social conflict theorists tend to view all of history as result of various groups struggling to control scarce resources. As long as humans continue to interact, communication, as the primary expression of social conflict, will continue to be an important field of study.
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