Conflict And Socioemotional Development Research Paper

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1. Conflict Defined

Conflict is a broad term, widely invoked in the common vernacular and in the scientific literature to suggest a state of disagreement or opposition. The term carries different connotations depending upon whether the experiencer is singular or plural. Intra-personal conflict describes a state of emotional turmoil or intellectual dissent that occurs within an individual. Interpersonal conflict describes a social interchange that is marked by opposing goals and that involves two or more persons. The earliest English usage of each term dates to the fifteenth century; both have common roots in the Latin conflictus, meaning throw or strike together (Shantz and Hartup 1992). This shared etiology tends to muddy distinctions between these two distinct forms of conflict.

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1.1 Intrapersonal Conflict

Intrapersonal conflict encompasses two broad domains. At the emotional level, conflict reflects competing impulses or desires. Freud (1965) attributed these tendencies to contradictory aggressive and sexual proclivities with origins in the id (the unregulated physical self) and to irreconcilable differences between these selfish urges and constraints imposed by the superego (the social mores conveyed by family and culture). At the cognitive level, conflict reflects dissonance produced by incongruent facts, opinions, or modes of thought. Piaget (1985) attributed these tendencies to equilibration, the innate tension between a preference for stability and a drive to master the environment. Assimilation encourages stability by incorporating new information into existing mental schema. Should this prove insufficient for mastering the environment, accommodation is required to alter mental schema in a manner consistent with the information available.

Intrapersonal conflict is by definition a private experience. It cannot be observed and it has no reliable metric. Early scientific psychologists relied on introspection to glean insight into thoughts, a practice modified and popularized by psychodynamic psychologists to probe unconscious emotional states. Subjective experience as a topic of study fell out of favor with the behavioral revolution. Reaction times, physiological cues, and projective responses were employed as proxies for inner conflict, but poor reliability and the absence of face validity undermined these efforts. With the cognitive (counter)revolution, new introspective methods gained legitimacy as advances in measurement and instrumentation were applied to mental processes. Scholars began to focus on the diverse experiences of different cultural and ethnic groups, and in so doing it became apparent that scientific inquiry into intrapersonal conflict cannot proceed in the absence of valid and reliable self-report data.

1.2 Interpersonal Conflict

Interpersonal conflict may take place at the level of the dyad or the group. Dyadic conflict is a social episode marked by overt behavioral opposition. The function of such conflicts and the manner in which they unfold vary according to characteristics of the participants and their relationship, the issue and context of the disagreement, the tactics employed, and their consequences (Deutsch 1973). Group conflict refers to negative or incompatible attitudes and behaviors directed by members or representatives of one group toward those of another group. The nature and significance of intergroup conflict differs according to leadership styles and prevailing norms, member cohesion, resource availability, and the individual and collective talents and experiences of each group (Sherif et al. 1961).

Interpersonal conflict is a quantifiable, oft-times public event. It consists of a sequence of easily recognized and well-defined components including the initial opposition, and the tactics, resolution, and outcome. That said, empirical studies of dyadic and group conflict suffer from inconsistent operational definitions. The conflict measures employed differ in terms of whether they assess unilateral or mutual oppositions, and in terms of whether the frequency of an event is distinguished from its affective intensity (Laursen and Collins 1994). Distinct patterns of interpersonal conflict emerge when considering reciprocated as opposed to unreciprocated disagreements and when angry disputes are examined apart from the mundane. Early work on interpersonal conflict focused on groups and dyads in experimenter-contrived conditions designed to elicit disagreements. Concerns about the ethical treatment of participants and a lack of generalizability prompted improvements in eco-logical validity; unobtrusive observations in natural settings have been integrated with running assessments of psychophysiological states and moment-by-moment accounts of participant cognitions and affect (Gottman 1994). The utility of self-reports increased once scholars realized that participant reports of conflict differ not only from one another but also from observer reports, suggesting that what was once considered measurement error may in fact represent important individual differences in how conflict is perceived and experienced.

2. The Role Of Conflict In Development

Conflict is inherent in growth, and human development cannot proceed without conflict. Wisdom, emotional maturity, and social skills may be tied to a series of developmentally defined tasks and the conflicts specific to each. Scholars agree that intrapersonal and interpersonal conflict each shape developmental trajectories, but there is little consensus as to the exact mode of transmission. The developmental effects of conflict appear to be limited to specific domains of influence circumscribed by individual timetables and characteristics of the disagreement such as the issue and participants.

2.1 Intrapersonal Conflict And Development

Intrapersonal conflict is instrumental to the attainment of several important milestones in socio-emotional development. First, conflict may prompt changes in internal schema and mental structures. Accommodation (Piaget 1985) exemplifies this process: A child confronted with a difficult moral dilemma may be forced to disregard views previously held dear in order to objectively consider different perspectives and reach a fair solution. Alternatively, conflict may give rise to changes in perceptions and priorities. Cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957) typifies this mechanism: A child forced to select a single partner for an outing may find that, in so choosing, the esteem of one friend has been enhanced at the expense of others. Finally, conflict may alter affect and impulse control. A child who opts to delay gratification in the hopes of improved rewards will learn to succeed by cultivating strategies that minimize emotional arousal and divert attention from proximate stimuli.

Theory concerning the ontogenetic significance of intrapersonal conflict has outpaced research on the topic. There is less research on emotional development than on cognitive and social–cognitive development, but the available evidence supports the assertion that the influence of intrapersonal conflict is defined by the topic of disagreement and the cognitive or affective domain invoked. Furthermore, effects are qualified by individual timetables: Development mediates the influence of conflict. The likelihood that some developmental periods are more susceptible to alterations than others leads to the provocative suggestion that intrapersonal conflict is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for development but rather a factor that may, at certain times, facilitate advances in the specific emotional or cognitive arena in which it arises (Shantz and Hartup 1992).

2.2 Interpersonal Conflict And Development

Social skills and social development are entwined with interpersonal conflict. Disagreements, especially those in close relationships, are one of the primary means whereby individuals define themselves and delimit their interactions with others. Three influence path- ways merit mention. First, conflict may prompt changes in self-understanding and self-evaluation. Critical disagreements force participants to re-evaluate goals and tactics, offering opportunities to hone social perspective taking and interpersonal negotiation skills (Selman 1980). Second, conflict helps to determine patterns of social interaction in close relationships that may impact developmental outcomes. Coercive exchanges tend to be self-perpetuating and, once started, they interfere with the dividends that normally accrue from positive affiliations (Patterson 1982). Third, conflict may define and alter expectations about individuals and relationships. In some cases, roles and responsibilities are negotiated directly, but in other cases, behavior is evaluated for cues as to whether current expectations are consistent with the demands of the situation and the maturity of the participants (Hinde 1997).

There is considerable support for the premise that the developmental significance of conflict depends on the relationship in which it arises (Laursen and Collins 1994). Three relationship properties are germane: closeness, permanence, and power. Dis-agreements in close relationships have the potential to alter developmental trajectories profoundly; few dis-agreements in other relationships have such effects. Disagreements in voluntary relationships are more apt to bring about individual change than those in obligatory relationships; participants in the former must behave in a manner that affords mutually satisfactory outcomes if the affiliation is to continue, whereas participants in the latter worry little about the dangers of relationship dissolution. Disagreements in horizontal or mutual relationships provide especially fertile ground for improved social skills because when power is shared, negotiation is necessary for an amicable resolution; in vertical or unilateral relationships, resolutions are more often the product of power differentials than of negotiation abilities. These variations notwithstanding, developmental shifts in conflict man agement may be identified such that the practice of coercion is gradually replaced across childhood and adolescence by negotiation and withdrawal.

3. Conclusion: The Paradoxical Influence Of Conflict

Conflict is often unpleasant and aversive. Given the option, most people would choose to avoid it. For this reason, it is commonly assumed that conflict hinders development. This assumption has been challenged on the grounds that linear models overlook the beneficent role that conflict plays in maturation. A curvilinear model of influence captures this alternative perspective: moderate conflict provides experience necessary for optimal socioemotional development, whereas too little conflict limits the potential for growth and too much conflict overwhelms mechanisms for coping with it.

3.1 Future Directions

Most research on the significance of interpersonal conflict has focused on its potential for adverse consequences. Few studies have addressed the possibility that conflict promotes socioemotional development. Strong evidence supports the assertion that children who experience high rates of angry conflict suffer from low self-esteem, poor social skills, inter-personal rejection, and adjustment problems. Yet the nature of this research is such that it is impossible to determine whether maladaptation is the cause or the consequence of interpersonal conflict. Neither can it be determined whether there are sensitive periods during which conflict exerts a particularly strong influence on development, although a few studies suggest that conflict mediates difficult transitions through precocious puberty, marital reconfiguration, and school entry. Of particular importance to this field of inquiry is research that makes a full and nuanced account of the dynamic interplay between conflict and developmental outcomes. Studies of change over time are needed to specify the paradoxical influence of conflict on concurrent individual adjustment and on long-term developmental trajectories.


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  4. Gottman J M 1994 What Predicts Divorce? The Relationship Between Marital Processes and Marital Outcomes. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ
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  7. Patterson G R 1982 Coercive Family Process. Castalia, Eugene, OR
  8. Piaget J 1985 The Equilibration of Cognitive Structures. University of Chicago Press, Chicago (Original work published 1975)
  9. Selman R 1980 The Growth of Interpersonal Understanding: Developmental and Clinical Analyses. Academic Press, New York
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