Keys to Effective Conflict Resolution (Pt.1)

Mark McCleary


To assert that conflict is the prerequisite for a discussion of conflict resolution is a tautology that needs to be stated for those being introduced to these topics of conflict and its resolution. This section will discuss conflict paradigms and conflict theories.

Conflict Paradigms

There are four major paradigms regarding social conflict—conflict theory, functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and rational-utilitarianism (Collins, 1994). None of the four is superior to the others, but rather represent different ways of viewing conflict, such as church settings where competition over resources makes conflict theory useful for its analysis. On the other hand, there are situations where functionalism would best analyze how things work together rather than their overt conflictual dysfunction. In other situations, symbolic interactionism might be the best lens when analyzing micro inter-communications among congregants while rational-utilitarianism might offer a better view of certain conflict situations that are rooted in congregant rationalist exchanges over the prior three conflict perspectives.

Karl Marx’s theory (Collins, 1994) is the classical representation of conflict theory. He posited conflict as a macro phenomenon that describes social behavior in light of a process of economic struggle. This struggle was primarily between social classes who owned or controlled the means of production by exploiting the proletariat working class. This macroscopic way of seeing things tends to have little to say about the individual levels of social life. Nevertheless, this perspective can inform some church situations concerning the larger and broader effects of social dysfunction within its ranks. Conflict theory is a way of seeing conflicts among church congregants as parties compete and struggle over material and spiritual forces and other interests as they seek to survive within congregational social life.

Structural functionalism (Ritzer and Goodman, 2004) emphasizes the static structures of an organization, while conflict theory focuses on the ideological and self-interest motivations within an organization. A structural functionalist lens can assist churches in identifying disparity or oppression among its congregants that negatively impacts congregational harmony. Emile Durkheim (Collins, 1994) is the chief proponent and representative of functionalism. His view of conflict explains social relations and phenomena as mechanisms that function adaptively within their environment by stressing the interdependence of patterns and institutions in their interactions. This perspective focuses more on things working collectively than the clash or competition between parties as conflict theory posits. A functionalist view might sensitize church analysts to the hidden dynamics and systemic practices that reward some while unfairly constraining others.

Symbolic interactionism’s leading proponents were William James, Charles S. Pierce, George H. Mead, and Charles H. Cooley (Collins, 1994). This perspective sees conflict resulting from interactions and the sharing of distinct meanings via micro interactions. Its primary unit of analysis centers on conversations and micro encounters in order to discover society in the mind of individuals and small groups. The value of this paradigm is its potential for analyzing churches via a micro analysis of conflict between individuals and small collectives wherein words, language, and misinterpretations between men, women, and their small group associations are often the locus of divergence between participants.

The fourth conflict paradigm is rational-utilitarianism (Collins, 1994) and its chief advocates were British social philosophers such as Adam Smith, J. S. Mill, and George Homans. Rational-utilitarianism looks at an individual’s pursuit of his or her own interests. This perspective highlights contrasting interests and their underlining motivations of choice and preference (Neumann & Morganstern, 1944). A derivative of rational-utilitarianism is Game theory, wherein choice and preference are noticeable dynamics. These dynamics concern interdependence, weighing rewards, costs and benefits or the parties calculating within and between themselves (Ritzer and Goodman, 2004). This paradigm is helpful in calculating the rationalist interactions between individuals and groups motivated by self-interest. Its short-coming is its inability to measure the element of myopia as humans have limited ability to process information for weighing their rationalizations. Rational-utilitarianism is a helpful analytic paradigm for understanding that churches comprise human relations wherein individuals and groups manifest conflict because of disparity in the interdependence and the calculus of determining rewards or costs in their decisions.

These four views are beneficial for church stakeholders who seek to understand the dynamics and impact of social conflict. Their consideration provides understanding of the broad dimensions, peripheral and depth, depending on the conflict situation, of conflict analysis.




Collins, R. (1994). Four sociological traditions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Newmann, J. and Morganstern, O. (1944). Theory of games and economic behavior. New York, NY.: Wiley.

Ritzer, G. and Goodman, D. (2004). Sociological theory. Boston, MA.: McGraw-Hill.


Mark McCleary


Dr. Mark A. McCleary holds both Doctor of Ministry and Doctor of Philosophy degrees, and brings with them a passion for conflict management, church renewal and social justice. Having been born in Baltimore, he recently returned to his hometown to pastor the Liberty SDA Church. He is the author of several books including The Gospel Presentation. You can contact him via Facebook or email.

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