From Lewis Coser, The Functions of Social Conflict.Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1956, pp. 151- 157.



In the preceding pages we have examined a series of propositionswhich call attention to various conditions under which socialconflict may contribute to the maintenance, adjustment or adaptationof social relationships and social structures.

We will limit ourselves in these concluding remarks to recallingonly some of the results of our discussion, rather than summarizingthe content of this book, and will attempt to show that ourconclusions fall into a consistent pattern.

Conflict within a group, we have seen, may help to establish unityor to re-establish unity and cohesion where it has been threatened byhostile and antagonistic feelings among the members. Yet, we notedthat not every type of conflict is likely to benefit group structure,nor that conflict can subserve such functions for all groups. Whethersocial conflict is beneficial to internal adaptation or not dependson the type of issues over which it is fought as well as on the typeof social structure within which it occurs. However, types ofconflict and types of social structure are not independent variables.

Internal social conflicts which concern goals, values or intereststhat do not contradict the basic assumptions upon which therelationship is founded tend to be positively functional for thesocial structure. Such conflicts tend to make possible thereadjustment of norms and power relations within groups in accordancewith the felt needs of its individual members or subgroups.

Internal conflicts in which the contending parties no longer sharethe basic values upon which the legitimacy of the social system reststhreaten to disrupt the structure.

One safeguard against conflict disrupting the consensual basis ofthe relationship, however, is contained in the social structureitself: it is provided by the institutionalization and tolerance ofconflict. Whether internal conflict promises to be a means ofequilibration of social relations or readjustment of rival claims, orwhether it threatens to "tear apart," depends to a large extent onthe social structure within which it occurs.

In every type of social structure there are occasions forconflict, since individuals and subgroups are likely to make fromtime to time rival claims to scarce resources, prestige or powerpositions. But social structures differ in the way in which theyallow expression to antagonistic claims. Some show more tolerance ofconflict than others.

Closely knit groups in which there exists a high frequency ofinteraction and high personality involvement of the members have atendency to suppress conflict. While they provide frequent occasionsfor hostility (since both sentiments of love and hatred areintensified through frequency of interaction), the acting out of suchfeelings is sensed as a danger to such intimate relationships, andhence there is a tendency to suppress rather than to allow expressionof hostile feelings. In close-knit groups, feelings of hostilitytend, therefore, to accumulate and hence to intensify. If conflictbreaks out in a group that has consistently tried to preventexpression of hostile feelings, it will be particularly intense fortwo reasons: First, because the conflict does not merely aim atresolving the immediate issue which led to its outbreak; allaccumulated grievances which were denied expression previously areapt to emerge at this occasion. Second, because the total personalityinvolvement of the group members makes for mobilization of allsentiments in the conduct of the struggle.

Hence, the closer the group, the more intense the conflict. Wheremembers participate with their total personality and conflicts aresuppressed, the conflict, if it breaks out nevertheless, is likely tothreaten the very roots of the relationship.

In groups comprising individuals who participate only segmentally,conflict is less likely to be disruptive. Such groups are likely toexperience a multiplicity of conflicts. This in itself tends toconstitute a check against the breakdown of consensus: the energiesof group members are mobilized in many directions and hence will notconcentrate on one conflict cutting through the group.Moreover, where occasions for hostility are not permitted toaccumulate and conflict is allowed to occur wherever a resolution oftension seems to be indicated, such a conflict is likely to remainfocused primarily on the condition which led to its outbreak and notto revive blocked hostility; in this way the conflict is limited to"the facts of the case." One may venture to say that multiplicity ofconflicts stands in inverse relation to their intensity.

So far we have been dealing with internal social conflict only. Atthis point we must turn to a consideration of external conflict forthe structure of the group is itself affected by conflicts with othergroups in which it engages or which it prepares for. Groups which areengaged in continued struggle tend to lay claim on the totalpersonality involvement of their members so that internal conflictwould tend to mobilize all energies and affects of the members. Hencesuch groups are unlikely to tolerate more than limited departuresfrom the group unity. In such groups there is a tendency to suppressconflict; where it occurs, it leads the group to break up throughsplits or through forced withdrawal of dissenters.

Groups which are not involved in continued struggle with theoutside are less prone to make claims on total personalityinvolvement of the membership and are more likely to exhibitflexibility of structure. The multiple internal conflicts which theytolerate may in turn have an equilibrating and stabilizing impact onthe structure.

In flexible social structures, multiple conflicts crisscross eachother and thereby prevent basic cleavages along one axis. Themultiple group affiliations of individuals makes them participate invarious group conflicts so that their total personalities are notinvolved in any single one of them. Thus segmental participation in amultiplicity of conflicts constitutes a balancing mechanism withinthe structure.

In loosely structured groups and open societies, conflict, whichaims at a resolution of tension between antagonists, is likely tohave stabilizing and integrative functions for the relationship. Bypermitting immediate and direct expression of rival claims, suchsocial systems are able to readjust their structures by eliminatingthe sources of dissatisfaction. The multiple conflicts which theyexperience may serve to eliminate the causes for dissociation and tore-establish unity. These systems avail themselves, through thetoleration and institutionalization of conflict, of an importantstabilizing mechanism.

In addition, conflict within a group frequently helps torevitalize existent norms; or it contributes to the emergence of newnorms. ln this sense, social conflict is a mechanism for adjustmentof norms adequate to new conditions. A flexible society benefits fromconflict because such behavior, by helping to create and modifynorms, assures its continuance under changed conditions. Suchmechanism for readjustment of norms is hardly available to rigidsystems: by suppressing conflict, the latter smother a useful warningsignal, thereby maximizing the danger of catastrophic breakdown.

Internal conflict can also serve as a means for ascertaining therelative strength of antagonistic interests within the structure, andin this way constitute a mechanism for the maintenance or continualreadjustment of the balance of power. Since the outbreak of theconflict indicates a rejection of a previous accommodation betweenparties, once the respective power of the contenders has beenascertained through conflict, a new equilibrium can be establishedand the relationship can proceed on this new basis. Consequently, asocial structure in which there is room for conflict disposes of animportant means for avoiding or redressing conditions ofdisequilibrium by modifying the terms of power relations.

Conflicts with some produce associations or coalitions withothers. Conflicts through such associations or coalitions, byproviding a bond between the members, help to reduce social isolationor to unite individuals and groups otherwise unrelated orantagonistic to each other. A social structure in which there canexist a multiplicity of conflicts contains a mechanism for bringingtogether otherwise isolated, apathetic or mutually hostile partiesand for taking them into the field of public social activities.Moreover, such a structure fosters a multiplicity of associations andcoalitions whose diverse purposes crisscross each other, we recall,thereby preventing alliances along one major line of cleavage.

Once groups and associations have been formed through conflictwith other groups, such conflict may further serve to maintainboundary lines between them and the surrounding social environment.In this way, social conflict helps to structure the larger socialenvironment by assigning position to the various subgroups within thesystem and by helping to define the power relations between them.

Not all social systems in which individuals participatesegmentally allow the free expression of antagonistic claims. Socialsystems tolerate or institutionalize conflict to different degrees.There is no society in which any and every antagonistic claim isallowed immediate expression. Societies dispose of mechanisms tochannel discontent and hostility while keeping intact therelationship within which antagonism arises. Such mechanismsfrequently operate through "safety-valve" institutions which providesubstitute objects upon which to displace hostile sentiments as wellas means of abreaction of aggressive tendencies.

Safety-valve institutions may serve to maintain both the socialstructure and the individual's security system, but they areincompletely functional for both of them. They prevent modificationof relationships to meet changing conditions and hence thesatisfaction they afford the individual can be only partially ormomentarily adjustive. The hypothesis has been suggested that theneed for safety-valve institutions increases with the rigidity of thesocial structure, i.e., with the degree to which it disallows directexpression of antagonistic claims.

Safety-valve institutions lead to a displacement of goal in theactor: he need no longer aim at reaching a solution of theunsatisfactory situation, but merely at releasing the tension whicharose from it. Where safety-valve institutions provide substituteobjects for the displacement of hostility, the conflict itself ischanneled away from the original unsatisfactory relationship into onein which the actor's goal is no longer the attainment of specificresults, but the release of tension.

This affords us a criterion for distinguishing between realisticand nonrealistic conflict.

Social conflicts that arise from frustrations of specific demandswithin a relationship and from estimates of gains of theparticipants, and that are directed at the presumed frustratingobject, can be called realistic conflicts. Insofar as they are meanstoward specific results, they can be replaced by alternative modes ofinteraction with the contending party if such alternatives seen to bemore adequate for realizing the end in view.

Nonrealistic conflicts, on the other hand, are not occasioned bythe rival ends of the antagonists, but by the need for tensionrelease of one or both of them. In this case the conflict is notoriented toward the attainment of specific results. Insofar asunrealistic conflict is an end in itself, insofar as it affords onlytension release, the chosen antagonist can be substituted for by anyother "suitable" target.

In realistic conflict, there exist functional alternatives withregard to the means of carrying out the conflict, as well as withregard to accomplishing desired results short of conflict; in non-realistic conflict, on the other hand, there exist only functionalalternatives in the choice of antagonists.

Our hypothesis, that the need for safety-valve institutionsincreases with the rigidity of the social system, may be extended tosuggest that unrealistic conflict may be expected to occur as aconsequence of rigidity present in the social structure.

Our discussion of the distinction between types of conflict, andbetween types of social structures, leads us to conclude thatconflict tends to be dysfunctional for a social structure in whichthere is no or insufficient toleration and institutionalization ofconflict. The intensity of a conflict which threatens to " tearapart," which attacks the consensual basis of a social system, isrelated to the rigidity of the structure. What threatens theequilibrium of such a structure is not conflict as such, but therigidity itself which permits hostilities to accumulate and to bechanneled along one major line of cleavage once they break out inconflict


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