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Useful Functions of Conflict

The explosiveness, the outward costs, and the divisiveness of conflict are so great that it is often difficult to see the ways in which conflict fulfils socially useful functions. Yet it does at least the following three things. First, it promotes loyalty within the group. Second, it signals the needs for and helps promote short-run social change. And third, it appears intimately involved in moving societies towards new levels of social integration.

If conflict pits groups and organizations against one another, it also tends to promote unity within each of the conflicting groups. The necessity to work together against a common foe submerges rivalries within the group and people, who otherwise are competitors, to work together in harmony. Competing football halfbacks flock for each other, rival student leaders work together to win concessions from the administration, and union leaders join forces against management. Nations that are torn by dissent in peacetime rally together when they are attacked by other countries. Thus, conflict is not simply divisive, it works to unify groups.

A second positive function of conflict is that it serves to notify the society that serious problems exist that is not being handled by the traditional social organization. It forces the recognition of those problems and encourages the development of new solutions to them.

The third general positive function of conflict is closely related to the second. And it is much more problematic. One view of human history tends to focus upon conflict particularly upon war - as a primary mechanism through which nations have developed. In other words, war was the mechanism that permitted the consolidation of scattered, weak societies into large, powerful ones. Similar arguments have been advanced that war was necessary during the early modern period in Europe to permit the formation of nations as we know them.