Benefits of Conflicts and Disputes


It may come as a surprise, particularly since we often dwell on the costs of conflict, that conflict also has benefits. Yet, clearly there are significant benefits to conflict or it would not be the prominent characteristic of human relationships that it is. Conflict is often driven by a sense of grievance, be it scarcity, inequality, cultural or moral differences, or the distribution of power.

Thereby, engaging in the conflict provides one means of addressing these concerns–either affirming a position of advantage or overcoming perceived shortcomings.[2] Conflict, says Guy Burgess « is the engine of social learning. » Without conflict, attitudes, behavior, and relationships stay the same, regardless of whether they are fair. Conflict reveals problems and encourages those problems to be dealt with. Whether they are dealt with constructively or destructively depends on how the conflict is handled.


To say that there are benefits to conflict is certainly not to say that motivations or consequences are always benign or just. Spoilersbenefit from sustaining conflict, but most outside observers would probably argue that their actions are malign. Conflict profiteers also gain from conflict by gaining money or power, but those gains are also widely viewed as illegitimate. Legitimate benefits of conflict accrue to much wider groupings. While certainly not exhaustive, some of the most significant benefits of conflict are social, psychological, and material.


The Collective Benefits of Conflicts and Disputes


Social interaction often begins through some form of conflict. Coser explains that children often first interact when they fight over a toy; this later evolves into cooperative play. Adults too, he observes, often might first in the context of the dispute. Once the dispute is resolved, trust can be gained, and the parties can interact smoothly after that.


Conflict is particularly prevalent, Coser observes, in intimate relationships.[3] It is extremely unlikely that two people living and working together in close proximity over a long period of time would not disagree on anything. So absence of conflict probably suggests that one person is being suppressed or is subordinating his or her view or wishes to the other. This might be acceptable over the short term, but over the long term, it is very dangerous to the relationship as anger is likely to build to the point where the conflict, when it surfaces, will be very intense.


Yet constructively handled conflict can lead to long-term peace and cooperation. Husbands and wives in strong relationships will not always agree, but they will have a constructive process for resolving their differences.


Similar processes appear to be at work in parent-child relationships. For example, studies have suggested that relationships between children and adults often begin conflictually and then develop in more positive directions.[4]


Conflict often has significant benefits for group cohesion. It can help to construct group boundaries by helping individuals recognize their common interest. War, for example, has been described as the creator of the modern nation-state, at least in Europe. Conflict, thus, can provide stability and serve as a unifying force. In helping individuals to realize their common interest, conflict can go a long way in constructing identities, an issue to be taken up below. Facing a common opponent can create new bonds and associations amongst those that previously were unrelated. Identifying a common threat may allow individuals to not only realize a common interest but also to reaffirm a shared identity that may have a longer history. Groups may actually seek enemies to maintain internal cohesion.[5] (For example, it has been argued that the U.S. had to find an enemy to replace the U.S.S.R. once the Cold War ended. Iraq, it was argued, was the unlucky choice.) The same dynamic can be seen in workplace conflicts and even family conflicts, as workers coalesce–in unions or otherwise–to bargain more effectively with management; and children may cooperate to outwit parents (not necessarily seen as a benefit by the parents, of course, but it might be better than the kids fighting!)


Group cohesion may be strengthened as much, if not more, by an internal threat. In some cases, conflict can provide a safety-valve to allow a group to clear the air in a less destructive way than might otherwise occur. The potential also clearly exists for this to descend into scapegoating, which may or may not be beneficial for cohesion. Infighting has costs of its own and may be dysfunctional. Expressing anger to the in-group is more costly. At the same time, in some instances it might be preferable to social breakdown. Whether in the international system or in families, conflict can give rise to new norms and rules to govern conduct which can have long-term benefits. Likewise, in domestic contexts, conflict can lead to establishing new statutes meant to deal with the sources of conflict. In addition, in any of these contexts, institutions are often created to enforce new rules.


As the prior examples suggest, group cohesion can be important for fighting oppression. This is a defensive mechanism that applies as much to a national group as it does to an interest group that finds its core interest at risk. Conflict allows groups and individuals to protect their interests. Conflict can also bring about needed social change and empower previously lower-powered groups. After all, if no one ever contested anything, many gross injustices would continue indefinitely.


The Psychological Benefits of Conflicts and Disputes


As introduced above, conflict can initiate a process through which individuals realize they have common interests and common enemies. As a result, individuals may come to see a strong stake in their side emerging triumphant. One’s identity is important for maintaining self-esteem. Therefore, the more of one’s identity that is tied up in the group, the more likely individuals are to fight for it. The threat produced by conflict often results in stronger self-identities. This can be positive or negative depending on the nature of that identity.


The Material Benefits of Conflicts and Disputes


Conflict often has concrete material rewards in the form of money or jobs. It provides benefits in terms enhancing one’s power. A number of examples point to the tremendous economic benefits that are often realized from conflict. Often cited is the money to be gained by arms manufacturers and people providing security services–the « military-industrial complex » is alive and well! It even funds psychotherapists and mediators! Where would we be, if people learned to resolve their conflicts on their own?! Conflict also frequently provides significant benefits to those that are ostensibly bystanders. Often, those on the sidelines see their relative power increase as a result of combatants weakening each other.


Concluding Thoughts


Conflict is almost certainly to remain a fundamental challenge for human societies. The fact that it can produce benefits for individuals, groups, and nations leaves one to conclude this is likely to continue. Many would probably concur that a number of the benefits outlined above are clearly positive outcomes (and not necessarily speaking only selfishly). Fighting injustice and forging identities are but two important roles of conflict. The challenge is to realize the benefits of conflict in such a way so as to minimize the many costs also associated with conflict.


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