Argument of the Power and Conflict Theory Essay

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Power-Conflict Theory

Analysis of Power and Conflict Theory

Coleman (2006) has done a great service to the community of scholarship by bringing together a number of views of power. He provides summaries of these views in an attempt to formulate a helpful rubric for understanding power-conflict dynamics. Almost two thirds of his important article is taken up with a presentation of power, while the last third tackles conflict dynamics and resolution. The emphasis is clear: Coleman wants to insert power into the conflict equation. He is driven by the following concern: "Because of its ubiquity, it is paramount that when we address conflict, we consider power" (2006, p. 121). He addresses this issue by reviewing existing notions of power, first at the level of definition, and next at the level of components (personal and environmental). Then he elaborates six principles for power-conflict dynamics before moving into some implications for training in conflict resolution.

While appreciating the many valid arguments in Coleman's article, this essay will take issue with it on a number of points. It will attempt fairly to assess the definition of power used. It will work toward a critical assessment of the dynamic principles Coleman's discussion engenders. Finally, by proposing a hypothetical situation at the end, it will attempt to show the limitations of current interactionist perspective when its fail to provide a comprehensive understanding of the role of language or silence in conflict dynamics and the role of non-power-based situations on the part of one of the participants.

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Power in Coleman's Position

TOPIC: Essay on Argument of the Power and Conflict Theory Assignment

The significance of power for grasping conflict is not a new perspective. Coleman is not claiming that it is, although at the end he says that perhaps "the time is ripe for a new approach to power" (p. 140). He views power as important enough to warrant renewed emphasis. His article aims to fill that gap. Yet he recognizes that the construct of power is abstract and ambiguous (p. 121). Therefore, he tries to find a working definition that will be analytically comprehensive and practically useful. His initial definition follows Follet's work: "I begin by defining power generally as the ability to make things happen or to bring about desired outcomes" (p. 121). This definition gives him a clear and functional concept, while not escaping the generality that is essential to any comprehensive definition of a force. A couple of things are crucial about this definition. For one, it gives power a causal ability. One cannot have passive power by this definition (which is not the same as the potential or resources for power). If one cannot "make things happen," one has no power. For another thing, this initial definition is goal-oriented. Coleman sees power in terms of outcomes. Thus it is inescapably teleological.

The advantages of this definition of power are several. In Coleman's view, it "avoids the common misconception that power is fundamentally competitive and coercive" (p. 121). Here one encounters one of his primary assertions. Part of his article's point is to combat this limited view of power with a more expansive understanding. He wants to broaden the notion of power, hitherto limited, to encompass a larger scope for its construct. This definition views power not as a scarce resource, he says, but as an inextinguishable one (p. 122). It is not a finite quantity, like land or oil. Power cannot be captured and owned to the exclusion of others. It is a vast, changing, and infinite. The importance of this is large. It means that there is no monopoly on power. Power can be held and wielded by everyone. Another advantage of this definition of power is that it is not pinned down to a specific location, nor is it conceived of as a one-way flow (p. 122). Coleman conceives of power as decentralized and interchangeable within mutual interaction. As one will see, his definition undergoes refinement as he wades easily through other ways of approaching power and incorporates them into his final concept.

Not content simply to rest on his own definition of power, Coleman introduces several other approaches. Here it becomes more difficult to separate his line of argument from that of others. One can assume that the research summaries he presents fall within the bounds of his own acceptance. From this one can detect several strands of argument regarding power that are his. For one, he writes, "Power, therefore, is determined not only by the characteristics of the person or persons involved in any given situation, nor solely by the characteristics of the situation, but by the interaction of these two sets of factors" (p. 122). Clearly, then, Coleman supports an interactionist view (following Deutsch). Power is not strictly an individual quality but is also a situational quality. Power is dependent on how interaction unfolds between participants in conflict. It does not substantially exist outside of that interactive web of relations.

Two other strands of argument are discernible. One is that power shifts occur within the three interrelated realms of the personal, the relational, and the environmental (p. 123). In the dynamics of power, a gain in one area may mean a gain or a loss in another area. This paradigm is important for his conceptualization of power. The second is that Coleman clearly adopts the distinction between primary and secondary power developed by Deutsch. Primary power refers to "the ability to affect those activities (the law, the media, policies, and so on) that define the domain" (p. 123). Here is where real power lies. Primary power sets up the field rules by which the game (secondary power) is played. It defines the ideology and supporting myths of a culture or situation. It constrains the possible moves that are available for secondary power to make. Secondary power is the exercise of power within the structure of those rules. It must take into account the way the field is established, organized, and legitimized before it can have an influence. Coleman writes, "Only once the domain has been defined does it become possible for power as conceived of in a conventional sense to be exercised" (p. 124). Yet primary power is not immutable. Secondary power can overtake it through revolutions. This points to something important in Coleman's view: primary power is not concrete but is socially constructed. It rests on consensus, not objectivity. Its source is cultural, social, and contextual.

As he begins reflecting on the components of power, he adjusts his definition toward more specificity. He writes, "It [power] can be usefully conceptualized as the ability (or the perception of the ability) to leverage relevant resources in a specific situation in order to effectively achieve personal, relational, or environmental goals, often through using various strategies and channels of influence of both a primary and secondary nature" (p. 125). Clearly the teleological focus is still present, but he has assimilated the distinct notion of situation (context), expanded on the notion of goals (personal, relational, and environmental), refined the levels of power (primary and secondary), and included the key practical methods by which power comes into actual being (influence channels). One sees that his discussion of power was intended to fill out from abstraction a more concrete definition of power.

Coleman then attempts to clarify the factors that orient a person to power in situations of conflict. These are personal and environmental. Their influence is great since they determine a person's behavioral patterns in social situations. For example, using McClelland's framework, a person can approach power through support, autonomy, assertion, or togetherness (p. 126). A person could maintain an authoritarian framework, or one in which they need power (p. 127). They could approach power relations through various ideological frames, electing a unitary, a radical, or a pluralistic frame (p. 128). Coleman's discussion of these and other various power registers is incisive and relevant. His conclusion is that these different factors, as well as the environmental factors such as culture, social roles, and hierarchical structures (to list just a few), must be considered when thinking about conflict dynamics and conflict resolution. The personal factors operate in dynamic pulse with the situational environment. This gives rise to the actual situation of conflict within which these factors must be considered.

Dynamic Conflict in Coleman's Position

In Coleman, conflict seems like the vessel within which the liquids of power swirl. Conflict is the situational framework that gives rise to dynamic interaction between forces. He expresses this in different ways. He states, "Power is commonly used in conflict as leverage for achieving one's goals" (p. 120, italics added). He says that power influences the types of conflicts available to wage (p. 120, italics added). Or, "Conflict is often a means of seeking or maintaining the balance or imbalance of power in relationships" (p. 120). In other words, the motion of power is what makes conflict dynamic. One power can move against or away from another power. One power can merge with another power. While the total amount of power in conflict stays constant, its density and… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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