Functions of Social Conflict

Coser, Lewis A.

This stimulating work explores the paradoxical thesis that conflict is not socially destructive in most cases, but rather an essential mechanism in the positive evolution of society. Over the course of eight chapters the author discusses sixteen propositions regarding the nature of social conflict. Each proposition is stated initially as a quotation from the work "Conflict" of German sociologist Georg Simmel ("Der Streit," 1908). The author then comments on the initial statement, drawing on his obviously vast learning in the fields of sociology, psychology, politics, and history. Each of the sixteen commentaries concludes with a restatement of the original proposition incorporating modifications deemed appropriate from the survey of more recent works. This structure makes the book as useful as a reference as it is interesting to read straight through. The reader who wants only to refresh the memory or who is interested in only part of the work can easily locate the relevant numbered proposition.Proposition 2: The ability to engage in conflict with disagreeable individuals allows us to remain in a social relationship with them. Conflict prevents them from growing even more abusive while also giving us some emotional satisfaction. Without conflict, we would be forced to withdraw altogether from social contact with such people.Proposition 7: Open societies derive strength from the large number of antagonistic groups that they include. Cross-membership in a number of these groups keeps individuals from orienting themselves on one side or the other of a single dividing issue threatening social cohesion. The varied antagonisms and conflicts cancel each other out.Proposition 8: Relationships characterized by open and frequent conflict are often the most stable. Conflict tends to be suppressed by parties who fear that their relationship is too unstable to survive the tumult.Proposition 13: Conflict tends to bind the antagonists into acceptance of a common social order. Conventions regarding the rules of warfare are one outstanding example. Virtually all law is the result of social conflict.Proposition 14: Despite the disadvantages of disunity in conflict, the parties to any given conflict will tend to prefer unity in the ranks of their adversaries. Only a unified adversary can be counted upon to adhere to the rules of engagement and to the terms of the agreement that concludes the conflict.

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