No. 003


TR Young



Distributed as part of the
TRANSFORMING SOCIOLOGY SERIES of The Red Feather Institute, 8085 Essex, Weidman, Michigan, 48893.


redfeth.gif (6856 bytes)ARCHIVES

of  the


of the




From Conflict Theory to Conflict Methodology. Gouldner (1970) makes it clear that one political meaning of survey methodology is that it provides the technical basis for a police state. At the same time, the dynamics of the greatest part of contemporary methodology, based as it is on tact, consensus, cooperation, persuasion, and establishment sponsorship are compatible with a managed society; managed on behalf of large­scale organizations: business, government, military, industry, finance, and large­scale education.

Yet there is more conflict built into the research process than Gouldner has mentioned. The essence of surveys, polls and samples is that they reduce knowledge about society to a few useful facts derived from isolated individuals who do not have the benefit of considered discussion with all other members of the group or sector of society to which these 'facts' purport to apply. The collective interest is lost to individual interests which inform the responses made on the questionnaire. Individual interests often reach beyond the single individual to her/his family, his/her union, her/his ethnic group, his/her city, state or even nation. However the geometry of the 'We' is reduced to its smallest and most self-centered dimensions when surveys, polls and samples are generated from single respondents in the home, office or shop.

It is this form of social organization, that of large scale organizations in which individuals are treated as single individuals, or treated as disconnected interest groups, out of which mass societies emerge. Thus an 'objective' form of social research is returned to the society from which it comes to alter, dramatically, the very organization of that society. What purports to be objective, value-free research has a sub-text not immediately visible to the innocent scientist or his subject.

In a society with severe conflict built into its structure, class, racist, or gender inequality, objective research takes on a partisan character not easily known to the writers and readers of that research. For example, in asking about social policy on aid to women with dependent children, those persons whose children are adequately feed, housed, parented, educated, clothed and churched are not part of the interest group to whose well being such programs are pointed. Rather, the informed self interest of most persons in the USA and elsewhere, is to minimize local, state and federal taxation on similarly situated families.

Where an interactively rich research format to be instituted such that parents in need of housing, health care or better educational resources could make a case, opinions registered as 'public opinion' might very well be significantly different. Were there a wide reaching discussion about the sources of poverty, the wider social effects of ill health and great uncertainty in a sector of the general population or about the moral implications of turning away from the needs of children; were such discussion to be part of the research process, the 'facts' upon which public policy are based might well be qualitatively different.

There is a case to be made that private opinions could be informed by news media such that the Generalized Other is expanded to include a more general interest. The case could be made that there is already an informationally rich public opinion process adequate to the general interest is in place in the various media; radio, television, news magazines and television news. One could assert that even given such an informationally rich process, still individuals make informed judgments such that a much more narrowly based opinion is expressed in the survey or poll. However the range of opinion and the nature of reporting is such to further divide and privatize the opinion process (Dahlgren, 1979). PBS may do as well as any news facility but even there, the range of opinion is narrowed to that of the centrist liberal and the centrist conservative point of view; there is no regular appearance of marxists, feminists, critical theorists or Black Power advocates.

More to the point of conflict, much research is commissioned with the information needs of corporations and public agencies in mind. The University of Michigan, for a fee, will add items to surveys which are fielded by the Survey Research Institute in Ann Arbor. Many private research organizations undertake research designed to serve the same information needs. Private policy, based upon such information weighs heavily against the interest of consumers, workers, competitors and or regulatory agencies.

Research undertaken by public agencies; schools, public health agencies, housing agencies, transportation authorities or other such public entities all presume the bureaucratic structure of a large scale organization in which it is assumed that individuals will come before the public agency singly and conform to the rules of discourse within the agency. Thus both the hierarchy of the bureau and its mass social base is, in the same moment, twinborn.

Research could be done within a more united community gathering as was the case in Newark during the years of the War on Poverty (PBS, January 17, 1995). Public policy on the construction of a Medical Center during the late 1960s turned out to be very different from that set by public officials who had used the bureaucratic/mass format for the setting of public policy. After several months of intense debate, legal actions and wide spread dis-order, several important additional features were added which benefited the Afro-American community in ways not possible within the instituted policy process.

Politicizing Ethno-Methodology In the same way, Gouldner's analysis of the political meaning of Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology is valid on its own terms yet still incomplete. As Garfinkel (1967) uses it, ethnomethodology simply evokes taken-for-granted normative structures, otherwise not visible, by engaging in small-gauge deviances or other behavior inappropriate to the occasion under construction. Garfinkel does not endorse the replacement of such minor deviances; he assumes the legitimacy of whatever order is made visible. One does not study social realities in order to change them as Marx teaches; in Garfinkel, one studies social realities in order to write books which instruct others about that which does exist.

In factories, shops, restaurants, elevators, offices, schools and churches, information about the invisible, taken-for-granted normative structure is offered up as value-neutral observations. What action others then take on the basis of putatively neutral research is understood to be outside the purview of the researcher. In all bureaucracies; in all stratified social organizations; in all societies organized by deep cleavages and by great inequalities in power, wealth and social honor, such information flows to the managers, police, social workers, teachers, and other authorities who then use is as part of the 'scientific administrative' process to produce and reproduce social occasions agreeable to the authoritarian management of society.

Ethnomethodology is completed as a full fledged exercise in conflict methodology by understanding that the deliberate practice of things offensive to the established social order might well be institutionalized as an alternative to that established and stratified social order; that such alternative ways of thinking, acting and behaving may well be more congenial to the human project than the normative structures Garfinkel wants only to reveal and report.

A fully conflict use of Ethnomethodology is thus vital to a conflict theoretical approach since it offers an understanding that a methodology which stands in overt hostile contrast to its subject produces dimensions of scientific enterprise closed off by traditional methodologies limited, as they are, by 'ethical' standards reduces the sociological enterprize to merely reporting and describing that which exists. Such a methodology is a conservative methodology in that it tends to freeze the status quo and, in the doing, creates the false impression that what exists is what must exist. 1

This paper will serve as a starting point from which to understand the epistemological advantages accruing from a conflict methodology. In the pursuit of insight, understanding, validity and other ways of "knowing", these advantages include additional dimensions of meaning, additional levels of awareness, additional sources of data, as well as dimensions of dedication lost to the "impartial" researcher. Conflict methodology, as an epistemological tool, restores moral responsibility to the research act; no longer can the social scientist claim neutrality in the knowledge process; s/he is part of the process by which society is created and recreated and must accept both the good and evil for which s/he is in part responsible.

There are a variety of modes in which the social scientist may stand in overt hostile contrast to the subject of study. They range from the gentle and small-gauge activities of Ethnomethodologists such as Garfinkel to the bestial and brutal natural and contrived experiments in prisons, asylums, and concentration camps, not to mention fraternities. Experiments in human degradation, sensory deprivation, physical pain, inquisition, in electro­shock therapy, in chemotherapy, in rehabilitation all provide valid scientific data; all are varieties of conflict methodology; all stand in direct hostile contrast to the subject of study.

The practice of conflict methodology requires that consensus aspects of research methodology taught by contemporary graduate schools be set aside. Objectivity, tact, informed consent, and open research designs are right and proper in societies in which consensus and the norm of reciprocity are, in fact, honored. They are well placed in egalitarian societies; they are greatly to be honored in democratic social occasions; they are desirable in those social occasions in which those who live out their years and desires fully participate in the creation of those social forms. One can argue for more hostile research procedures even under those conditions; double blind as a research tactic is appropriate even under consensus conditions.

More deliberately deceptive and overtly hostile research tactics may be defended as ethical under conditions of oppression and conditions in which unnecessary repression occurs. The heart of this paper offers consideration of such times and tactics. There is a special argument against the overt use of conflict methodology which must be answered before one can get on with the business of use social science as an emancipatory tool. The argument centers around what is called the Heisenberg effect.

The False Neutrality of Objectivity: Heisenberg and Hawthorn.
The Heisenberg effect states that, by studying a field, that field is changed. Presumably, the results from such intrusion are invalid and therefore, what one has left is not science. In its sociological expression the principle is known as the Hawthorne Effect. The dominant schools of research methodology in American sociology view it to be a cardinal sin of science to deliberately provoke the operation of the Heisenberg principle. To the end of research neutrality, unobtrusive measures, double blind techniques, surreptitious participant observation are greatly to be valued. In a word secrecy, duplicity, clandestine, and concealed research tactics are to be preferred as one tries to obtain knowledge without changing the object of knowledge.

When such findings are hostile to the interests of workers, minorities, women, third world peoples, or other research subjects, a gloss of neutrality is constructed by publishing such findings in scholarly journals. The claim is that, since the journals are available to everyone, neutrality is maintained. The thinness of such arguments becomes apparent when one realizes that large corporations, governments and wealthy individuals hire whole cadres of people to search these journals for just that information which serves the interest in control and/or exploitation.

If the findings are available only to those who are in hostile contrast to the subject, the canons of objectivity, value neutrality, and freedom of speech become disclaimers with which a researcher can fashion the image of consensus while, at the same time, be a well paid and honored partner to the hostility and partiality the use of such findings entail. Thus the conflict relationship between researcher and researched is transferred to a second, third and fourth intermediary who makes no pretense at complying with the 'ethics' of scholarly research.

The Knowledge Benefits of Conflict Research As a special case of conflict methodology, ethnomethodology on the other hand requires that one poke, probe, provoke, and puncture the social system in order to make visible its chief characteristics. Avoidance of Heisenberg/Hawthorne principle, under an ethnomethodological view, is a political obstacle to a more complete understanding of the nature of the social system. Thus, an ethnomethodologist might assign students the task of challenging the trust relationship of another in a social occasion in order to obtain, on the part of the student of sociology, a full understanding of the importance of naive trust in social relations.

The importance of trust, faith, honesty, sincerity or other taken-for-granted key components in the construction of social reality are never visible to research procedures available to consensus methodologists. Trust, for example, is a highly important social-psychological component of a wide range of social systems and is a part of that which is taken for granted. The taken­for­granted aspects of trust means that it is seldom visible. When we drive into a gas station or shop in a large market, we take for granted that the clerks are 'really' clerks and not con-artists or imposters. Asking for some identity or outside validation of the right of the clerk to take the status-role is seldom done. Asking one's mother if she is, in fact, 'really' one's mother seems senseless, yet mothering and clerking are social processes in which role are allocated and behavior regulated. Anyone could feign the behavioral components for a time without having been assigned the role. The unobtrusive/consensus observer would scarcely notice a crucial element of these social systems with his limited repertoire of research techniques. Unless one were the subject of the response to a test of trust, one could not know the meaning of that response.

In scientific terms, both parties to the conflict arising from a challenge to trust know the meaning of the response far better than an "objective" observer ever could know. In point of fact, the more we stand in hostile contrast to naive trust, the more we understand its vital role in the construction of social systems.

Halfway between the gentle things and the horrible things which comprise the content of conflict methodology is the law suit. 2 As Joseph Sax has demonstrated at length in Defending the Environment, the law suit produces information and clarified positions which would otherwise be hidden from public view by what Sax calls the Insider Perspective (pp. 53­62). The Insider Perspective produces a surrender of the public trust on the part of public agencies in that decisions must balance off all constraints, pressures, and influences among conflicting constituencies and thus the insider cannot make decisions hostile to the interests of the most powerful of the agencies' constituents.

Sax provides us with insight on the advantage of a trained researcher acting as adversary in seeking out information on behalf of his client using such legal instruments as the hearing, the injunction, the court order, as well as public record laws by which to ferret out information. Sax emphasizes that a request for information by a private person can be ignored by administrators of governmental and other private organizations while a court order for documents cannot readily be discounted. By means of this kind of conflict methodology, the canons of bureaucratic secrecy are set aside: or seriously challenged on behalf of the public which such agencies purport to serve. As a methodology, the law suit is clearly superior to questionnaires, interviews, content analysis, and other tactics of consensus and cooperation in a variety of situations. As a methodology, there is conflict; there is partisanship, there is subjectivity, there is hostile intent to damage the interests of the object of one's research.

The Politics of Methodology in a Stratified Society. The canons of consensual methodology are as fully compatible with a conservative politics in a stratified society as is structural functionalism. The canons of conflict methodology may be put to a variety of political uses, one of which is radical sociology. Radical sociology cannot limit itself to the research procedures of conservative scientists; to do so is unscientific as well as self­defeating. The experience of the liberal camp in sociology demonstrates the last point excellently well. Liberal sociologists are far too concerned with tact and consensus to be effective in dealing with the establishment on any terms save those permitted by sponsors.

We must understand that a conflict theoretical approach requires a conflict methodology; that a conflict methodology is more productive of accurate, continuing, relevant, reliable information under some conditions of social organization than is "tactful", safe, consensual, contemporary methodology. We must understand that Garfinkel and, to a lesser extent, Goffman, embody the precepts of conflict methodology. As sociologists, we must appreciate them on these terms. The social conditions under which a conflict methodology is required include all those social conditions which, taken together, produce the stratification of wealth, of power, and of social esteem.

Among the conditions requiring the techniques of conflict methodology in contemporary society; East and West, one may cite the recent growth and development of the large, complex organization as the central arena in which life is experienced and behavior constrained. There is also the systematic evasion of reciprocity typically found in mass society. There is as well, the emerging superiority of the military as the dominant institution across societies; there is the vast increase in the technology of data control largely dedicated to exploitative ends. We urgently require a repertoire of conflict methodologies by which to counter these developments and to promote those conditions of social organization which promise a better chance to survive and which promise to force large scale establishments to serve human ends rather than continue the use of human genius and human skill to serve corporate ends.

The Politics of Methodology in Social Science.
The art and craft of social methodologists are, in highly important ways, politically controlled. The effect of this political domination is, in most respects, a conservative effect. The assumptions and procedures in social methodologies have been assumed and presented as scientific and beyond political causes, radical or conservative. That this is not the case will be clearly demonstrated in the sections of this paper which follow. If this is not the case, then one must acknowledge the political meaning of methodologies in social science and begin to deal with the responsibility which accrues with this awareness. As long as social scientists are falsely conscious of methodology as value free, they bear no great responsibility for the use of their "science" as a political tool. As social scientists lose their innocence on this point, they become responsible in the first instance, and they become culpable for the ham (or good) they do in the second.

Beyond an interest in arresting the evasion of responsibility on the part of social scientists, and perhaps more important in the long run, this paper is interested in an attempt to put methodology into a larger theoretical perspective than now surrounds it. Presently we confine our theoretical excursion in methodology to narrow questions of scaling, quantifying, validity, associations, and dispersion. There is more to the philosophy of methodology than mere epistemology. Epistemology is a basic interest. also basic is an interest in how information is constrained and how it decays. Social systems are generated and maintained by constraining the flow of information. Any systematic study of that flow of information must be regulated if the system is going to survive. The only information which is irrelevant to a system is information which is not likely to be the object of study. lie have long understood the vital role information plays in linking social systems. Under the mistaken assumption of functional interdependence, we have assumed that the tactics of consensus methodology are sufficient. This assumption has blinded us to the full range of methodologies dealing with.information flow in a complex society. Graduate schools, especially in sociology, train the researcher in consensus methodology but ignore all the tactics of conflict methodology. This is a political act: its character can be understood by reference to the contingency table (next page).

Table 1
Consensus Methodology: 1=in; 3=out Conflict Methodology: 2=In; 4Out
Advice, Counsel
Medical Prescriptions

Operant Conditioning
'Brain Washing'


Grand Jury Proceedings
Covert Intelligence
Action/Praxis Sociology

In this table, one can see that only in one of the four quadrants is the label "science" applied to those methodologies by which information is accurately and continuously accumulated, assessed, and reported. In this quadrant are the methodologies by which information is monitored by experts under conditions of consensus and under conditions of information output.

The important thing to note in Table I is that in all four cells, the flow of information must be managed by experts in the field if the endeavor is to be successful. All four methodologies are, in fact, scientific in the sense that accurate, reliable, effective information flows systems are instituted. No one form of information control is any more or less scientific than another. And yet one is called science and the other three are variously labeled. Two sets of methodologies receive laudable labels and the other two receive pejorative labels. The difference in labeling these methodologies, frequently exactly the same for the flow of information into and out of systems, is best understood as a political act rather than an objective, necessary scientific act.

While it is true that the methods by which information may be gleaned from a system under congenial conditions requires the canons of science; it is also true that the methods by which one obtains, analyzes, interprets, and summarizes information under hostile conditions requires that one resort to the canons of science. Not to do so in the latter case is manifestly dangerous to the system doing the surveillance and the consequences of unscientific methods are decidedly political. The people in the C.I.A. are just as much scientists as the people in the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.

The people who attempt to introduce information into systems under conditions of hostile contrast must operate by the same canons of science as do consultants. In each case the methods may be different but in each case, the efficacy of the method must be scientifically tested before adopted if the best job is to be done. In the case of quadrant three endeavor, the methodologist must know whether the questionnaire is an appropriate tool by which to elicit information and he uses scientific tests as a way to know. The "propagandist" too, must know if his tactics are efficacious and he uses the tools of science as a means to know such.

one can make the claim that neither the methodologist or the "propagandist" is a scientist. . . that both are mere technicians who use the tools of science. This case illuminates the political nature of methodology; to "label" one practitioner a scientist when he is serving a system by providing it with information it needs to serve its survival needs while labeling the other practitioner a "propagandist" for providing a system with information hostile to its purposes are precisely the acts which makes methodology Political. it is a specious point to argue that under one case the subject has the option to deny the information and under the second the subject is denied the option of rejecting the information. If a person is seriously ill and denies information to a doctor, his option is a political one­­to live or to die. if a social system denies information to a friendly scientist, it restricts its own options and may not be able to elaborate the structure it needs to remain matched to its environment. . equally a political decision. The meaning of any event is found in its context. In both contexts above, the context makes methodology a political event.

But the central question with which the theorist must deal is why the scientific acquisition of information from a system under consensus conditions is labeled science while the scientific dealing with information flow under the other conditions represented in the contingency table is not labeled "science". In particular, it is termed "science" when one extracts information under consensus and it is termed "espionage" or "intelligence" work when one extracts information under conflict situations. Is there any scientific reason for treating one activity as science and the other as nonscience. I think not. The standards of rigor and replication hold equally well for both sets of techniques. The tests of validity and predictability are equally of interest to the scientist as to the interrogator.

Light can be shed on the question by recourse to information theory. In particular, information can flow between two systems to the degree they share structure in common. In the diagram on the following page, it is possible to schematically represent the major differences in conflict and consensus methodologies. In the diagram, one may note that x Y; i.e., some structure of system A is identical to some structure of system B. If A intersects B in such a way that x = Y. then information can flow. In concrete terms, if two systems share the same members, they have structure in common and can exchange information. if two systems have language in common, they share structure and have the non sine qua of information flow. If two systems share values in common, they share structure, and information flow is facilitated. In the first instance above, the structure is social organizational; in the second, the structure is cultural, and in the third instance, the structure shared is social psychological.

But two systems never share structure by accident. The commonality of structure is always a product of previously occurring organizational or re-organizational activity . . . political activity. If system A above is some set of persons called methodologists and system B above is some second set of persons called subjects, then the task of generating shared structure is a political process where the systems do not share structure. It is, as well, a political question which system (or both) is to be changed. Under conditions of consensus, the political process is ended and the scientists share values and or members as well as language while under conditions of conflict, the political process has not as yet ended and the "Scientists" must construct temporary structures to match the system under study or reorganize that system in such a way as to obtain the desired information flow.

In the diagram above, x i y and some temporary structure Z, is necessary. In a concrete instance, if A is again a set of methodologists and B is a set of subjects, then the systems stand in hostile contrast with respect to one or more structures crucial to the flow of information. The tactics available to A are represented by the generic symbol "Z". Among these tactics include the use of deception. Suppose the methodologists are police who wish to acquire information about the involvement of subjects in revolutionary activity. The police have hostile intent vis a vis the subject group and attempt to disguise that hostility by assigning an undercover agent and by instructing him to present a front of revolutionary zeal. By both tactics, the police have access to accurate, reliable, relevant, continuing, decipherable information where before it was inaccessible. The police have generated temporary social organizational structure, the undercover agent; and temporary social psychological structure, the attitudes taken by agent Z.

In all respects these procedures are just as scientific as what transpires between a researcher and his subject under consensus conditions. The difference is that one researcher has hostile intent and the other researcher neutral or benevolent intent. Any system, to preserve itself, must label those investigations hostile to its present structure with condemnatory terminology and must celebrate all those investigations compatible to its structure.

Conflict Methodology and the Destruction of Information.
Just as sociologists are not trained in the techniques by which information is acquired under conditions of conflict, neither are they trained in the tactics of destruction of information. This is a political act supportive of a conservative bias in the social sciences. We have always believed that information is sacred and should never be destroyed. Yet modern systems theory instructs us that as the rate of change of the environment increases, the half­life of information decreases. In a stable environment, the political task of a practitioner in the management of information is to preserve information. In a changing environment, existing information becomes an obstacle to the search and use of new information and must be destroyed (neutralized and/or stored) if the system is to be able to adopt the new information. In another place, I have discussed the role of "camp" in neutralizing cherished values themselves hostile to changed conditions. 3 But by and large, there is little attention given over to methodologies of information destruction in sociology seminars.

The structure of science is biased toward the veneration of existing information however it is acquired, transferred, stored, retrieved, or incorporated. These phases in the flow of information are sufficient in

In a changing environment, another informational task develops, that of destroying existing information organization and replacing it with alternate information systems. This replacement is an eminently political endeavor as is the protection of existing information systems when they are challenged. There are methodologies of replacement which are largely ignored in the graduate education of social scientists.

The Sociology Liberation Movement, Praxis and Conflict Methodology.
We can begin to bring radical sociology and conflict methodology to bear on issues in Western society and Western sociology, and thereby liberate sociology from conservative theory and methodology. By moving to conflict theoretical and methodology positions in sociology, it begins to be possible to serve elements of society which are powerless, oppressed, alienated and inured to those conditions. We sociologists are presently activists in the camp of the reactionary elements of society and inured to that condition. We must resist our own powerlessness and alienation by acknowledging the political nature of science and by putting that power to a better service than that of a managerial ethnic in a stratified society. We can begin that liberation by being political, by being authentic (if these are different), by teaching people instead of students, by embodied knowledge rather than by disembodied knowledge; by dealing with issues from a sociological perspective rather than by using issues to sell a sociological perspective, by being more interested in the substance of education rather than the image of it (credit production hours), by bringing passion to the scholarly enterprise, by extending the dimensions of experience for the people who study with us rather than by limiting these.


Dahlgren, Peter. 1979. Television News and the Suppression of Reflexivity. No. 41 in the Red Feather Institute Transforming Sociology Series.

Garfinkel, Harold. 1967. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice Hall.

Goffman, Irving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday and Co.

Gouldner, Alvin. 1970. The Coming Crises in Western Sociology. Basic Books.

Habermas, Jurgen. 1972. Knowledge and Human Interest. Beacon Press.

Habermas, Jurgen. 1975. Legitimation Crisis. Beacon Press.

McNall, Scott and Johnson, James. 1975. "The New Conservatives: Ethnomethodologists, Phenomenologists, and Symbolic Interactionists." The Insurgent Sociologist, Vol. V, No. IV, Summer.


1. Codes of 'ethical' conduct sponsored and endorsed by professional societies are neither ethical nor value-neutral. They are shameful disclaimers of moral responsibility for the knowledge process to which all good social science contributes. Far from being ethical codes, they are morally irresponsible codes which distant the research from the effects and uses of the knowledge processed. Return

2. I am indebted to Paul Chassy for this insight. Return

3. T. R. Young, "Camp and Corruption," Annual Meetings of the Rocky Mountain Social Science Association, 1968. Return