Conflict Methodology

No. 009

Theoretical Foundations of Conflict Methodology *




Feb., 1975

First presented at the 5th Annual AKD Research Symposium. I am particularly indebted to Professor David Crocker for sharing his understanding of critical theory and Habermas with me


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Theoretical Foundations of Conflict Methodology *

T. R. Young
The Red Feather Institute


The assumptions of Critical Theory are utilized as the larger context in which conflict methodology is to be understood. Critical Theory postulates three human interests central to the construction of a rational society. For each interest, a qualitatively different methodology is required. While the empirical-analytic methodology serves a purposive-instrumental interest, and phenomenology and ethnomethodology serve a second interest for interpretation and understanding, an interest in emancipation is not adequately served in contemporary sociology. Conflict methodology is presented as a research approach by which the emancipatory interest is better served. Propositions from information theory, social psychological theory as well as modern systems theory are used as the theoretical foundations for grounding principles of conflict methodology. Fifteen principles of conflict methodology are generated. The role of conflict research in entering back into the construction of social reality is discussed in the final principles presented here.

INTRODUCTION:  The transformation of sociology to its full potential as a profession linked to human purpose and human endeavor requires a careful specification of the theoretical and practical interests which guide its research endeavor. In this article I want to delineate the social psychological and informational theoretical grounds for a conflict methodology and, as well, initiate interest in formulating some principles of conflict research. Following Marcuse and Habermas I agree that contemporary Western methodology is a one dimensional enterprise for the most part having lost its dimensions of critical interpretation and critical participation by accepting the arguments of Comte, Weber, Lundberg, and other sociological politicians. * The restoration of humanity to sociology as profession and sociologists as persons requires a restoration of the critical capacity in the practice of sociology (Horkheimer, 1973; Habermas, 1971).

Habermas identifies three human interests which orient the researcher to action. The first is an interest in technical control. This interest invests the scientific researcher with predilection toward empirical deductive methodologies for sociology. It is generally represented in the positivistic science of surveys, general systems theories, cybernetics, and statistical inference in the quest for prediction and rational control of the factors of reality construction. The second interest is a practical interest of knowing what and how intersubjective meaning is possible in the process of constructing social environments. In the West, this interest shapes such scientific enterprise as phenomenology, symbolic interaction, dramaturgical analysis, and the sociology of knowledge generally. A third human interest, largely ignored by professional sociologists in communist and capitalist societies, is an interest in emancipatory knowledge. For Habermas and for critical theorists generally, emancipatory knowledge requires a reflexive self knowledge for individuals as well as for societies such that the general laws of human behavior can be transformed, wherever possible, to create a more rational society. The human capacities which are developed by emancipatory knowledge are autonomy and responsibility. The methodology by which these three interests are achieved is one which augments the capacity of a given population to construct its own social life world in sensible forms.

There is, in professional sociology, no explicitly delineated methodology by which to serve the emancipatory interest coherently and systematically. The interest which informs this article is an interest in developing a set of research principles by which the emancipatory interest is better served. * While there is much in the way of critical analysis of western society and much of it very good indeed (Wolff and Moore, 1967), a first concern here is to systematize and ground some principles of conflict methodology such that critical analysis is more effective in transforming society into a more rational social life world. A second interest is to make critical analysis itself more visible and more amenable to rational development. The more general emancipatory point from which this paper works is that social research is but one information flow component in mass society with which communication both in the personal realm and the public realm is repaired. The use of conflict methodology as a means by which to improve communication processes in the public sphere is woven into the fabric of the principles of conflict methodology discussed here. In order to ground the principles of conflict methodology, I will develop some propositions from information theory, from social psychological theory as well as from social organizational theory with which to generate these principles. One should bear in mind the fact that other propositions from other theoretical domains could be used to anchor methodologies of critical analysis.

INFORMATION THEORETICAL GROUNDS FOR CONFLICT METHODOLOGY: Perhaps the most compelling case for a conflict methodology for the purist comes from information theory premises. The later are more trustworthy for the political skeptic, devoid as they are of substantive content. A central proposition to examine from information theory is that all information sets are sets of constrained information (Rapoport, 1968). Any given social system may be viewed as an information set whose boundaries are maintained by erecting constraints on the content and flow of information. If the system is to exist as an independent entity, it must carefully control the kind of information permitted to enter and leave the system. If the system is to be interdependent, then external systems must have routine access to quality data concerning the operations of that system. At the same time, constraints on the flow of information into the system must be changed. Both facts underwrite conflict methods for prying quality data loose as well as forcing information into any system if interdependence is to be achieved.

In a society organized under the managerial ethic * specific social organizations have an inner imperative to control information flow in and out of the system(s). This imperative derives from the ability of various publics to understand the fraudulent character of official pronouncements of service and economy given an adequate scientific research apparatus. The canons of consensus research as presently constituted are particularly helpful to withhold such information flow permitting as they do only consensus research relations.

Consensus research requires that the researcher operate within the constraints of the system for which he is doing research. The obligation to direct the research focus one way rather than another is an information constraint. The obligation to report back to the sponsor is another information constraint. The obligation to maintain confidentiality of the results of research is a third constraint on the flow of information. These constraints, taken together, define the researcher as a partisan on behalf of the sponsoring organization. A conflict methodologist, by contrast, is constrained by no such obligation. Rather, the conflict researcher is constrained to focus on, report back and be fully responsible to the information needs of persons in discharge of their efforts to participate and control the conditions of their own existence. As a first and guiding principle of conflict methodology, we can say that it is a set of techniques organized to obtain quality information from organizations which stand in hostile contrast to the interests of people generally for reflective self-control over their own social life world.

A second principle for conflict methodology derives from the fact that social organizations under the managerial ethic erect barriers to information originating from within a public. In addition to careful control on information leaking out of the system, social organizations under the managerial ethic define information sets from the public affecting policy and purposes of the organization as noise, nonsense, socialism, criminal conspiracy and/or economic folly. A companion task for conflict methodology is to use its knowledge of large scale organizations in order to introduce "unacceptable" information into the system. There is no scientific reason why information flow specialists should be restricted to consensus research. In like manner, there is no scientific reason why sociologists should deal only in information outflow. There are good political reasons, however. These constraints on social research to deal in methods of information acquisition only establish a finely tuned research apparatus geared to serve the information needs of a managerial elite on terms specified by that elite. For a second principle, we can say that a mature conflict methodology accepts as a principle of social research the dictum that the role of the researcher is to facilitate the negotiation with social reality rather than merely describing it. To that end, it is necessary for the conflict methodologist to make available to those excluded from public policy processes, a set of guidelines which enable the client population to participate in evaluating and in controlling those social organizations which purport to serve them.

Another useful premise from information theory is that the amount of information transferred (T) is a function of the amount of information common to both the systems in question. It follows that if system X has information in it that is not available to system Y, then information exchange is impaired. If information exchange is impaired, the ability of system X and system Y to interact and minimize demands on each other and their environment is impaired. Withholding information reduces negentropy (a measure of order in the system) as well as synergy (a measure of the efficiency which order is acquired and used). The conflict implication of this discussion is that, under whole system planning, system X and system Y cannot be permitted to withhold information from each other (nor from other systems which purport to be subunits within the larger system). Should such information be withheld, that synergy which is the central emergent characteristic of that organization is lost.

Consider also the case of system X which has perfect knowledge of system Y but where system Y has less than perfect knowledge of the contents of system X. The net effect of this situation is that "T" is reduced for system X, zero for system Y, and greatly reduced for the suprasystem (XY). Rapoport (1968: 137) has emphasized the relationship between information and negentropy while Raymond (1968: 157) has speculated on how information works to increase and decrease negentropy. Traditional literature in sociology deals with the increase and decrease of order as the "hobbesian problem of order." Both structural-functional theory and conflict theory try to deal with the relationship between order and information flow although not nearly so clearly focused as in information theory. The structural-functional position is that the problem of order is solved, for the most part, by a process of symbolic interaction which brings agreement and commitment to the same social lifeworld for members of a group. Conflict theory, while conceding integrated behavior could be produced by symbolic interaction, argues that, in differentiated societies, especially those with class and power divisions, coercion and management augment, replace, or obstruct symbolic interaction as a means to generate order. For our purposes it is sufficient to say that communication does increase order in the system in a matter proportional to the amount of information transmitted. For the suprasystem, the withholding of information by system X means that the expenditure of energy to communicate does not result in appreciable negentropy increases for system X and certainly not for system Y. A third principle of conflict methodology derives from the foregoing discussion. In order to maximize synergy, methods by which information in any part of the system is available to all parts of the system are necessary, even over the objections of such sub-units. In social systems, this means that policy procedures are made visible and accessible to the public sphere. The conflict methodologist resists efforts to withhold information from the public.

In information theory, questions relating to the quality of information exchange also focus on the idea of redundancy. In the given situation, system X can sequentially improve information exchange with system Y by storing some information about the pattern of information flow of system Y. (If "U" always comes after "Q", then "U" provides no new information, if "H" sometimes comes after "W", then sometimes it provides new information.) The most desirable situation involves sufficient redundancy to minimize errors but not so much as to preempt the capacity of the channel. Conflict methodology provides a means for double-checking the information flow from system Y and, by comparing output from system Y with statements from system Y about that output, improve the quality of information flow from system Y, whether system Y agrees or not. Even if system Y objects to such comparison and acts to reduce redundancy, system X will know that it does not know the quality of information flow from system Y and can respond accordingly. This is more than system X could know if there were no redundancy. A fourth principle of conflict methodology is that no "fact" from a social system is accepted without checking for external validators. This principle provides for sufficient redundancy. In a particular case, a large scale organization, using its information-flow specialists from the -world of theatre, psychology, and sociology could mock up a convincing impression of quality and economy of service. The fourth principle would require research by which to check claims of service against objective criteria which are publicly established indicators of norms of quality and quantity in order to improve the quality of information flow between systems.

Information theory also instructs us that the information conveyed is not an intrinsic property of the message itself... The meaning is always dependent upon the variety available to the sender and the variety of meanings available to the receiver. Ashby (1968: 129) provides proof that given a message, only the ability of the receiver to reduce the variety of meanings possible enables any meaning at all to emerge; noting however that if the sender had no variety of meaning possible, no information would have been transmitted in the first place. In terms of our interests, it is absolutely imperative that sender X and receiver Y know of each other's constraints and variety if information is to flow.

In a particular case, if system X has a great many options and system Y has none, then meaning is unilaterally determined by system X and the message is nonsense to system Y. The same is true for system X with respect to the situation where system Y controls the constraints on meaning. In human systems, the implication of this discussion is that system Y must have some ability to constrain the behavior of system X and, as well, have some variety in response to messages originating in system X or else there is no intersubjective meaning possible. This generally means that system Y must participate in the policy determination of system X. Since, in a complex system, each member of the system is in a different environment from every other member, if messages are to be meaningful, each component must have sufficient variety by which to cope with the variety in that environment. The emancipatory point here is that, for any given set of instructions for constructing a social life world, there must be some situationally determined meaning available for those engaged in such activity. There is only one condition under which information as ideology is meaningful) that of an undifferentiated stable environment. A fifth principle of conflict methodology deriving from the foregoing discussion is that conflict methodology attempts to negotiate the constraints on information flow such that meaning within systems is maximized.

In the politics of information transfer, there are three general solutions to the problem of inadequate information transmission) one is to establish sequential interaction in order to improve match between system X and system Y; another way is to replace system X with system X' and a final way is to bridge system X and system Y with a third system Z which shares constraints with the first two systems even if the first two systems do not share constraints with each other. In a specific case, social system X and Y may share values, role-relationships, or interests such that sequential interaction proceeds easily between the two systems. Even if values and/or role relationships are absent, still the sharing of interests might be a sufficient basis upon which to begin to reduce mismatch. In a second case, system X may have nothing in common with system Y and there may be nothing to serve as a basis for integrating initiating sequential interaction. The third case is that where two systems are mismatched but a third system can bridge the gap--mediators between two groups having conflicting interests is an example of this solution.

All three cases are of interest to the conflict methodologist both in the acquisition of quality data from a system as well as in the introduction of policy by which to constrain that system. In the first case, intensive reciprocating interaction will help increase match between system X and system Y. That interaction will always have the political effect of reorganizing one system or the other as a means to gain the necessary match in coding and decoding routines. The specific pattern of reorganizing will depend upon the power of the system in question; more powerful systems forcing less powerful to bear the social and economic costs of reorganizing. It is important to note that information about system X is most helpful to system Y where system Y is the less powerful of the two systems. Conflict methodology can provide system Y with information by which to gauge the balance of sharing and social costs. Conflict methodology in effect redresses power imbalances-consensus methodology exacerbates power imbalance by providing the more powerful system with information about the weaker system. As a sixth principle, we may say that conflict methodology requires a set of techniques for forcing sequential interaction where one or more parties refuse to reciprocate. It is worthwhile to note that the form of sequential interaction is also a creative dialectic by which the order in system X is changed, the order in system Y is changed, and the order in system XY is increased.

The second case is even more interesting since, if match is to be made, one or the other systems will have to initiate contact and this entails the social cost of instituting new role relationships, discarding old values or transcending special interests. In a specific case, the values, interests, and role relationships between the U.S. Congress and organized labor might be so tenuous that all messages between the two social entities might have the technical character of noise. In the case at hand, organized labor forced reciprocity of interaction by a variety of tactics; the strike, electing congressmen who shared values and/or interests and by other legal and extralegal means. There was some attempt to reduce the options available to organized labor by banning strikes, token minimal-wage legislation, company unions and the like, but at present, information flows readily between Congress and organized labor. Unorganized labor has no such share in policy formation. Generally, conflict methodology can do much to serve the information needs of marginal workers, women, consumers, ethnic groups and other excluded social entities by the servicing of an adequate technology of participation. For the seventh principle, we may state that conflict methodology aids in the construction of alternative information linkages between systems or individuals where none exist as a means to maximize the quality of information flow.

The third case, that of the information bridge, is an inefficient and costly alternative since it means the support of three systems where two would do. However, there are some advantages in synergy increase which might more than offset the cost of the mediating system. The role of Mr. Kissinger in bridging between the Arab states and Israel is a case in point. Mr. Kissinger was able to stress shared interests as precedent over existing values in the course of establishing role relationships. Conflict methodology was important here by down-grading some information sets to a minor status and by augmenting the value of other information sets (by promises of power, wealth, power, as well as by threats of withdrawal of support and more war). Mr. Kissinger was able to persuade the Israelis and Arabs that interests and roles at the international level transcended interests and values at purely national levels. The eighth principle of conflict methodology is that, under some conditions of information organization, it is necessary to destroy or radically revise existing information sets for systems without sufficient bridging. Third parties are helpful to this principle.

SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGICAL GROUNDS FOR CONFLICT METHODOLOGY: The crucial test of human existence is the capacity to participate in the construction of a symbolic environment. For each society, the form and content of the life-world thus constructed might vary but the process of participation does not. It is clear that there are obstacles to full and meaningful participation for many individuals. Some of these obstacles are individually centered; organic or psychological impairments which reduce the capacity to communicate. However, many of the obstacles to full and authentic participation of the individual are social organizational in nature. The mix of factors in any given case of distorted symbolic interaction varies of course; however in modern times, several social organizational factors have developed by which the capacity of each member of society to contribute to the symbolic interactional processes is impaired. Among these factors one finds the system of stratification wherein power and wealth differences bestow an unequal role in the constructing of social-life worlds. There is also the rise of a professional cadre of managers which attempts to defeat the reflexive and critical capacities of customers, workers, students, as well as "enemies." And there is the structure of information flow which is unidirectional as in bureaucracies and in mass media. Of considerable interest also is the rise of scientific and commercial languages wherein human concerns are stripped from the set of symbols out of which an interactional frame is to be constructed.

At a more basic level, the transition to a society wherein social roles are episodic, short-term and narrowly focused means that the linkage between self and society is greatly changed. Without a trans-situational self, it may be difficult for one to take oneself as the object of reflection and self-regulation. In a dramaturgical society wherein one takes and creates a role without its being vested into the structure of self, there then is no permanent accountability of self-reflexive nature. One experiences no shame at one's own performances since that performance has no bearing on one's moral standing. When roles are scripted and performances managed, then there arises considerable doubt that the premises in Symbolic Interactional Theory are valid about one's social self being a product of interacting persons. The implication of all of this for conflict methodology is that it has a bias in favor of self-reflecting, self-organizing, self-controlling individuals. This bias augments the capacity of such individuals to engage in a process of communication which enhances the subjectively meaningful production of self and society. This is what is meant by a "substantively rational society." A ninth principle of conflict methodology is that the social rules of research always serve the needs of sentient human beings in the production of a social-life world rather than the administrative needs of non-sentient entities in the production of merely industrial, military, financial, commercial, or educational systems. This means that conflict methodology is directed at opposing those social organizational features which objectify and preclude intersubjective processes of reality construction for the individual.

From the micro-analytic perspective, a human has no way of knowing, epistemologically, that one exists unless something in the external environment responds or reacts to him. One may fell a tree, kick a cat' praise a child, or affect a friend and elicit that response. In a folk community, one who is defined as a social object regularly observes people responding to oneself. In a mass society, the significant features of one's social environment; the government, the marketplace, the work place, the school place, even the church does not respond to one as an individual unit of existence. The manager, the preacher, the professor respond to people as objects to process en masse rather than as subjects with whom to engage in dialogue.

In order that individuals might achieve individuation it is necessary to organize social research so that individuals mediate the research question, the research findings and the research use. At the macro-level, this means that sociologists observe the ninth principle of conflict methodology just mentioned. At the micro-level it means that social research is also tailored to the information needs of the single individual to confront and to force social institutions to respond. A single worker who is the subject of private animosity on the part of a bureaucrat or political repression on the part of an administrator requires a research design by which that animosity/repression can be ascertained. That person needs a technology of scaling and inference available just as do ethnic groups and feminist groups need technologies of scaling social distance and of inferring racist or sexist attitudes and behavior at the macro-level. The individual needs the structure of social research scaled down to his individual needs and focused in on those monolithic establishments which create the illusion of service to the mass by ignoring endemic disservice to a congery of discrete individuals. A tenth principle of conflict methodology is that some part of the research capacity of sociology must be organized such that specific individuals can mediate the research process. In some forms of legal practice, of medical practice, and of educational practice, the individual does, in fact, mediate that practice. This is seldom the case in sociology even if there is much research of merit aimed at serving the information needs of similarly situated blocs of individuals.

SOCIAL ORGANIZATIONAL GROUNDS FOR CONFLICT METHODOLOGY: An eleventh principle of Conflict Methodology derives from the fact that, in the course of constructing social reality, there is a self fulfilling prophecy involved. The prophecy has two components; the prophecy itself and the subsequent run of behavior which is held to be a publicly understood embodiment of that prophecy. These two components stand initially in dialectic opposition. Their synthesis is the final social product. Conflict methodology, as a social scientific enterprise, is responsible for evaluating the congruence between the prophecy and performances.

In the concrete case, if any large scale organization purports to be in functional interdependence with society, then information about quality, quantity, and economy of production and service must be forthcoming in order to test that claim. As a principle of conflict methodology, it is more important to test performances against prophecies of services rather than to test hypotheses against chance. This principle restores social meaning to a disembodied statistical inference. The eleventh principle may be stated as follows: Conflict methodology advances creative social synthesis by testing dramaturgical prophecies against social practices. The entire field for this principle may be referred to as dramaturgical analysis (Young, 1974).

From modern systems theory, we know that all irreversible thermodynamics systems, including sociodynamics systems, * must draw on order in their environment if they are to survive. It is necessary to understand that any social organization will continue to be in conflict with its environment on a number of counts. One point of conflict is an interest in its own continuity, another point of conflict is its specialized competencies; a third point of conflict is over scarce resources. The first point presumes a time when the system is no longer substantively rational; the second presumes a built-in inability to take the perspective of other specialized systems; while the third point presumes the inability to find a perfect balance between competing demands for environmental resources.

For symbolically constructed systems, the first point of conflict means that formal and informal obstacles to quality data on the conflict between system and environment will be instituted by that system and that research techniques must be developed by which to breech those obstacles. This source of conflict is a more general way by which to refer to the conflict dimension of Marxian theory. While Marx properly focused upon historically existing conflict relationships in the class model of social conflict, a systems theoretical basis for conflict theory and conflict methodology helps reaffirm Marxian theory while generalizing it to all system transactions. The dependence of every system upon its environment (which of course includes other systems) means that when the environment changes, the system must change as well in order to maintain sufficient match by which order is transferred. If the changes in the environment are irreversible then either the system must change or perish. The implication of this for conflict methodology is that science (i.e., research generally) is to be used to produce society rather than to reproduce society in patterns which precisely duplicate nonfunctional forms of social organization. The position of critical theory is, of course, that mere positivism can only reproduce society-as-is. This capacity of neo-positivism while conservative, is hostile to a rational society, i.e., one which can transfer order from its environment without destroying it. For our purposes, a twelfth principle of conflict methodology states that the acquisition of quality data on system-environment interchange is necessary for system irreversibility. *

The second point which presumes an inability to take the perspective of other specialized systems requires a technology of information exchange by which information from the perspective of system X is routinely incorporated in the policies of system Y even over the objection of system Y. The thirteenth principle on conflict methodology specified here states that systems must have some means for mutuality of information exchange with those systems which purport to be in functional interchange with them.

The point of conflict over balance requires that one speak to the larger question about the purpose of research endeavor itself. In this formulation, the conflict methodologist does research with a whole-system bias rather than for and only for a special sector. The responsibility here is to maximize the competence of the whole system to engage in unrestricted, uncoerced dialogue with which standards of quality and quantity of service are set. The fourteenth principle of conflict methodology to be specified here may be stated as: The form and balance of the social-life form produced by social research is always mediated by a whole-system perspective sensitive to the limitations of the environment from which it draws its order. Since social systems draw order from a population base, the integrity of that population base is a first concern.

CONCLUSION: Putting these principles into action, the conflict methodologist is concerned with serving the epistomological needs of human beings for participation in the construction of a rational and decent society marked by creativity, autonomy, sociality and a deep humanist spirituality...all in dialectic and continuing interconnection. As scientific methods and theories replace folk methods and theories with which to construct society, science as such takes on greater value relevance. The instant social science knowledge is generated, it stands in hostile contrast to preexisting folk ways of constructing social reality. The concern must always be that, ultimately, social science is a human enterprise and helps build a social life-world at least as substantively rational as the one it is destroying (see Dreitzel, 1972, for a discussion of  substantive rationality). This last point defines and informs the fifteenth and final principle of conflict methodology. The thematic concern of conflict methodology is the construction of a rational and decent society.


To establish the research capacity for critical analysis and change.
To provide the data of repression and exploitation in everyday life.
To ascertain the essential features of the social paradigms produced in everyday interaction.
To gauge the degree to which prophecies of social life are fulfilled in given social domains.
To oppose mystification and false consciousness in a managed society.
To generate data from the past and from the future in the effort to enhance the reflexive capacity of a society for pro-social and emancipatory social change.
To ensure that social research technology is invested with the capacity to construct a rational and decent society.


* First presented at the 5th Annual AKD Research Symposium. I am particularly indebted to Professor David Crocker for sharing his understanding of critical theory and Habermas with me. Return

* I do not mean an invidious use of "politician" here. Rather it is the view adopted here that every theory and every methodology has political significance as they enter back into the construction of the social life from which they come. Return

* I think it is possible to accept the analytic categories of Habermas for orientation to the question of science and social knowledge without committing one to a position that these three interests exhaust the universe of interests which frame and give meaning to the forms of scientific knowledge. Return

* In any society in which social organizational values supercede human values, monopoly capitalism in the West and bureaucratic socialism in the East (Young, 1971). Return

* A sociodynamic system is one in which there is patterned social behavior based on the psycho-biological energy systems of individuals (Young, 1972b). Return

*For a more detailed discussion of irreversible social systems, see Young, 1972b. Return


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