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Flip the Script: How Can Conflict Be Functional & Help Facilitate Positive Social Change?

By Hala A Maizer

Welcome readers to the second part of the two-part series. In case you missed it, part one titled “What is Conflict Behaviour & How Does it Come About?” discussed what conflict behaviour is, how it manifests, and some theories around what may drive individuals and the collective to engage with it. This was done by taking a deeper dive into Galtung’s conflict triangle and the relative deprivation theory. In this piece, I will continue the conversation to explore how we can flip the script on conflict, and see how engaging in something like group conflict can yield positive, and at times sustainable social change. As established in my previous article, conflict behaviour in human beings, especially violent conflict is natural and recurrent and can bring about many negative psychological and social impacts; however, it is not to say that benefit cannot be derived from it at all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many inefficiencies in our economic and political governance systems, and brought to our attention many unethicalmedical, political and trade practices at a global scale. This new added stressor heightened the sense of uncertainty and posed a direct threat to people’s livelihoods and health, exacerbating pre-existing tensions and creating new ones[1]. This wave of discontent and social conflict is demanding we do a substantial re-examination of the status quo and the modus operandi and undergo a much-needed culture change. It seems like a massive undertaking, so how has previous generations managed? In this piece, I aim to look at this climate of rising tension and polarity not as an isolated incident in the history’s timeline but try to examine how we can harness this energy to create a more just and equal world. By using historic examples like the Women’s Suffrage Movement (WSM) and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), we will be able to see how social movements born out of conflict, tension and contrast, substantially challenge the global and collective culture and status quo like a domino effect.

Alice Paul, a leading suffragette in the U.S and the co-author of the ERA. Washington D.C-USA.

Contrast in our human experience is a constant. Wherever there is a pull there will always be a push. Wherever there is someone advocating for any change in the status quo, there will always be someone else pushing to keep or preserve it. Once we recognise that it is in this context of  contrast[2] in which our preferences are born, we are more receptive to the idea that conflict can be an agent for positive and harmonious social change. Let’s see how.

Our globalised society is subject to a constant state of metamorphosis that spawns a continuous run of social conflict. Albert Hirschman puts, it becomes unlikely for a society to rest in a state of permanent harmony and order. This is especially true when social change challenges consensus based on socially constructed norms and practices that inherently discriminates, marginalise and/or segregate groups of people either directly or indirectly. In these conditions, conflict behaviour becomes an integral element operating at the heart of the development and evolution of ideas and norms, that eventually gather enough consensus within groups and societies, transforming what was once deemed unacceptable (or rejected) by society, to acceptable and “normal”.

Conflict behaviour has the potential to be functional and have a cohesive impact on the people involved. It is important to note that not all parties involved in it would derive the same types of benefits or experience these benefits directly or even immediately. This is because the outcomes of engaging in conflict naturally produces winners and losers. The important question then becomes how can conflict be functional? how can we derive benefit from it?  Let’s see how.

The Three Features of Functional Conflict

C.R Mitchell identifies three distinct possibilities in which the benefits can be portrayed as having cohesive and integrative functions. The first framework considers conflict to be functional if the outcomes benefit some or all the parties involved. The second is if it benefits the collective society or global society as a whole, and the third is if it benefits some groups and individuals within the system. What enables conflict to become either functional or dysfunctional/ constructive or destructive is the way in which individuals, groups or the collective society choose to approach it and interact with it. As previously mentioned, whenever any change is presented to the status quo, opposition and resistance meet to counter it. This presents the necessary tension and the ‘push and pull’ between the involved parties, that steers change into a singular or mutually desired outcome, satisfying the condition for the conflict to be ‘functional’ according to the first framework. Mitchell mentions that party benefits can range from developing a consensus of shared goals and seeking common outcomes through solidarity, to creating a stronger awareness of the group’s mission and identity.

The second framework describes the collective benefits enjoyed by the socio-economic and socio-political systems we operate within. The underlying argument here suggests that certain types of conflict can stimulate societal change and are able to challenge and redefine the terms of our engagement with certain features of that system, hence allowing transformations and development to occur within it. . L.Coser describes the functionality of conflict as keeping the (social or political) system we live in in check and in a state of equilibrium and that rigid systems harbour a level of inflexibility that could lead to very destructive violent conflict. He states, “Rigid systems which suppress the incidence of conflict exert pressure towards the emergence or radical cleavages and violent forms of conflict. More elastic systems, which allow the open and direct expression of conflict within them and which adjust to the shifting balance of power which these conflicts both indicate and bring about, are less likely to be menaced by basic and explosive alignments within their midst”.

In this article, I will heavily draw on these two frameworks as they pertain to socially constructive conflict where the majority benefit from engaging with it either in the short term or the long term. However, one example of the third framework in which conflict can benefit some within the system is in cases of active warfare. Engaging with conflict in the form of warfare, especially international wars can trigger spikes in technological advancements, innovation and growth as a result of increased investment in the production of arms and defense systems because of increased demand, according to M. Humphreys.

Conflict & Social Change: The case of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (WSM) and the Equal Right Amendment (ERA)

The WSM gained traction when it challenged the interpretation of the United States Constitution by the proposition of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), testing the limits to the system’s flexibility in which they operated. The proposed amendment sought to prohibit discriminatory state action by federal or state government on accounts of gender by calling for equal legal rights to all citizens on matters like access to employment opportunities, just pay, and property rights. The case made by the WSM and eventually the ERA highlighted the plight of women and called for gender equality and representation, which embodies the first two frameworks in which groups and systems can benefit from conflict mentioned previously. This is very similar to other social movements that seek to level the playing field like the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and the LGBTQI+ Equality act amongst others, all taking place in the United States at varying points in time to tackle injustice, inequality and the marginalisation of a group of people within society and the infringement on their most basic rights.

In hindsight, the WSM had not only granted women in western societies the right to vote, but it also challenged the overall culture of how women are perceived and treated in their society. With that change roughly established in the west as a standard of conduct, the movement had a knock-on effect on the global standard and culture regarding women’s suffrage in other countries, at least legally. This first step had substantially changed what was deemed acceptable and unacceptable in that regard within other contexts.

So how has social conflict been beneficial or functional and was able to facilitate positive social change? Well, the tension the WSM created played a key role in fuelling the fight against inequality, and shaping anti-discriminatory laws, despite its seeming failure at the time. This is not to say that total gender equality and equity has been achieved globally, nor is it to say that the push for change needs to stop either. The demands for the ERA carried the heritage and legacy of the WSM, and went beyond just non-discrimination, but had also called for establishing sustainable and long-term constitutional change and commitments to gender equality. It is important to remember that changes and transformations to social systems occur gradually and over a long period of time, and not abruptly or immediately. Economic development and growth usually precede social development, this is because culture, social and behaviour change within society happened at a slower pace. R. Siegel stresses this and explains that only through sustained accounts of conflict that new interpretation of the constitution’s meaning arose. This was facilitated by the amount of resistance that countered it, which perceived this change as a potential threat to aspects of the social life at the time. She highlights that conflict is the main ingredient in constitutional changeand represents a feature of change that is central in constitutional development. Hence, this demonstrates that social conflict behaviour through social movements can bring about necessary social change through revising prejudiced laws.

It is worth nothing that the advent of change the WSM sought to achieve took time to manifest. The WSM which lasted over 60 years in the United States, and had only made the strong shift from awareness raising to solid action by way of creating public sentiment only in its 12 final years. This movement demonstrates the cohesive effect conflict can have on groups, movements and organizations. The WSM emerged as an abolitionist movement after a cycle of protests, which not only furthered its own agenda, but also the supported other social movements and organizations. Moreover, this enabled the creation of a community within the movement that then allowed their ideas to exported from the United Kingdom to the United States.

Pro-ERA ratification cheer on lawmakers on the opening day of the 2020 general assembly. Virginia- USA, Jan 2020.

Group conflict behaviour can increase the level of internal cohesion between members like the impact it had between the WSM and other parties that supported them and their cause. This was demonstrated through creating a level of consensus and alliance through holding a shared goal where there was none prior to that. The tension between groups of people within society manifested through social movements has the potential of bringing issues to the surface and forcing the collective to acknowledge their existence and address them. It paves a different way forward through a better approach to problem solving, enhancing communication through finding more clarity in defining shared values, and harbouring a stronger sense of solidarity. These movements have made headway in transforming the liberties women enjoy today on a global level. In addition to creating a new set of norms and mechanism in which we live and operate within today, movements such as WSM and ERA have pushed the collective to assess what gender equality means and looks like. We must remember that all the rights we enjoy today on an individual and collective level, and might take for granted, is a direct result of that ebb and flow, and we owe it to our predecessors that had fought for them. Therefore, we must use our voices to try and influence positive social change for future generation. After all there is no denying that we directly benefitted from previous generations’ plights.

It is important to have a more nuanced approach in the way we analyse and perceive the world and the things that can be uncomfortable, like the contrast that is often associated with conflict. We must also be mindful that conflict behaviour is but a feature of change to societal norms, socially constructed traditions and practices, as well as legislative action. It naturally produces winners and losers, hence why compromise is a requisite to societal and global consensus. Conflict has the potential to be functional as well as productive and serve people on an individual, societal and a global level, when presented through contrast. It can also be central driving element to the development of humanity – economically, socially, politically, technologically and even spiritually. I see that the study of conflict can capture both interpretations and variations of the way humans respond when faced with adversity. Either shift the blame and villainise the “other” or choose to set their sights on the solution and moving forward, which tends to be the more empowering of the two. By acknowledging that conflict behaviour is more nuanced and complex, some forms of conflict can be a destructive to relative peace, while others can be a source of balance and a basis of launching progressive and meaningful development on a larger scale. You have the power to choose to flip the script if you want to.

[1] New waves of protests and general discontent was very evident in many contexts like the United States, Turkey, Thailand, Jordan, Hong Kong, Kenya, Chile and Lebanon amongst many others.

[2] Contrast here means any experience presented to us on an individual or a collective level that is different from that which we prefer. By witnessing contrast in our daily lives, we are better positioned at clarifying our preferences. When we witness injustices for example, we are more firmly affirming that we prefer justice and/or fairness.

[3] Phyllis Schlafly often cited Christian ethics denouncing the ERA and the National Women’s Conference. According to the Smithsonian magazine, she believed “The career most women want is marriage, home, husband and children.”

This article is a contribution to our blog, written by Hala A. Maizer. Hala has a background in Economics and International Development. She works within the non-profit and humanitarian aid and development sector in the Middle East. She has attained her Master’s degree in International Development by way of Poverty, Conflict and Reconstruction from the University of Manchester. Hala is keenly interested in understanding human behaviour in societies, especially group conflict dynamics and drivers as well as social constructs and identity. She hopes to be a social researcher one day where asking questions and finding sustainable answers for societies can be her full time job ! She currently resides in the Middle East and spends her spare time out photographing nature and tending to her house plants (Jameela, Ivy, Rose, Cherry and Philip) :P.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Snakes and Ladders Blog or its members.

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