The View from Above and Below: The Effects of Power Symmetries and Interdependence on Conflict Dynamics & Outcomes
34 Pages Posted: 15 Dec 2008
Date Written: November 9, 2008
Amidst the vast literature on social conflict, there are a few basic theoretical models that have helped advance the understanding and practice of constructive conflict resolution. Among these, one of the most important and influential is Deutsch's theory of conflict resolution (1973, 2006). Based on his earlier work on cooperation and competition in groups (Deutsch, 1949a, 1949b), it specified the basic conditions and processes involved in constructive versus destructive conflict. However, the original formulation of the theory assumed equal power of the parties in conflict (Johnson and Johnson, 2005). Thus, the dynamics and outcomes observed in a majority of the empirical studies supporting the theory occurred under conditions of relatively equal power between the parties. The assumption of equal power therefore constrains both the theoretical scope and practical implications of the theory. Although there have been important advances in research on the dynamics of asymmetries of power and conflict (see Blalock, 1989; Deutsch, 1973; Kim, Pinkley, and Fragale, 2005; Rouhana and Fiske, 1995; Rubin and Brown, 1975; Tjosvold, 1981, 1985, 1989, 1991; Tjosvold, Coleman and Sun, 2003; Zartman and Rubin, 2002), the findings in this area have been replete with contradictions and have resulted in a good deal of conceptual confusion (Zartman and Rubin, 2002). This paper will present three studies investigating a new social-psychological model of the dynamics of power and conflict. The model builds on the works of Lewin (1951), Deutsch (1949a, 1949b, 1973, 1982, 1985), and Kelly and Thibaut (Thibaut and Kelly, 1959; Kelly and Thibaut, 1978; Kelly, 1979, 1984, 1991) on interdependence, and of McClelland (1975) on social power. The three studies presented in this paper will include: 1) an exploratory study of survey data on how conflict behaviors differ when negotiating across different levels of power, 2) qualitative research with focus groups exploring the implications of differences in power and interdependence for conflict rules and behaviors, and 3) an experimental study that will test hypotheses derived from the theoretical model. This paper will have three sections: (1) a summary of the main principles and limitations of Deutsch's theory of conflict resolution, (2) a presentation of the main propositions of the model of power and conflict, and (3) a discussion of the implications of the research for future work in the area.
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