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Communication is crucial to social conflict because through it social conflict can escalate into violence or de-escalate into resolution and reconciliation, and can lead to clearer definitions of opposing positions (Gilboa 2006). Conflict is a ubiquitous form of social interaction that can have positive or negative consequences for the groups involved, can have implications for both social change and social stability, and can be understood as both a product of the social setting and a purely symbolic act that has no relationship to what are imagined as real conditions.
Social conflicts, as intense forms of human interaction, tend to draw crowds of bystanders wherever they occur. News media, perhaps relying on the idea of ‘what the public wants,’ include a disproportionate amount of social conflict, occasionally framing as conflict situations that are not viewed that way by the participants. In most cases, however, the parties involved in conflict are often quite eager to make their position known to a wider audience. Hence, social conflict is a frequent theme of news coverage, particularly television news about international politics.
The emphasis among conflict scholars has changed in tandem with broader social changes. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, social conflict was understood in the context of industrialization, urbanization, and bureaucratization. The failure of socialist revolts and the rise of fascist regimes in the early middle of the twentieth century coincided with scholarship that critiqued scientific approaches to communication research and that focused on the role of ideology and coercion in stemming revolution. The relatively stable social environment in the US during the late middle of the twentieth century was paralleled by studies of the integrative aspects of social conflict like the civil rights protests focusing attention on communication and social conflict as symbolic struggles over ideology, with potential for individual emancipation and radical social change.
Just as the communication and social conflict research of the previous generation was responsive to the social and cultural climate of the day, current and future research acknowledges significant trends in the nature of conflict itself. As communities become more diverse, with more potential centers for organized social power, contentious politics have replaced a previous generation’s bowling leagues and fraternal clubs as the primary method of social participation. In the US, for instance, the partisan and ideologically based divisions among elected officials are dutifully reflected in press reports which give equal play to Republicans and Democrats, regardless of the veracity of each side’s arguments. Whereas community conflict has been shown to reduce knowledge gaps, media coverage of ideologically based conflict over issues such as global warming and health care reform instead tends to contribute to ‘belief gaps’ in the distribution of knowledge and beliefs among ideologically sympathetic groups (Hindman 2012).
Scholars and community organizers are developing new methods of conflict mediation to manage racial, ethnic, and environmental disputes. The idea is that conflict is primarily a communication- based act that can be channeled, via communication, into positive outcomes (Gilboa 2006). Through this process, social conflict and communication can activate citizens to participate in their community’s civic life, even as more benign forms of social participation such as bowling leagues and civic club membership continue to decline (Hindman & Yamamoto 2011).
Mass media do not create social conflict or social movements, yet media coverage is one of the key resources that conflict groups seek to mobilize to achieve political goals. New information technologies are also proving to be valuable tools for coalition formation and message dissemination, both among protest groups and between protest groups and the public. Arab Spring protests leading to regime change in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya were coordinated with mobile phones and social media after repressive governments shut down mainstream media channels. Social conflict theorists tend to view all of history as a result of various groups’ struggles to control scarce resources. As long as humans continue to interact, communication, as the primary expression of social conflict, will continue to be an important field of study
- Gilboa, E. (2006). Media and international conflict. In J. G. Oetzel & S. Ting-Toomey (eds.), The Sage handbook of conflict communication: Integrating theory, research, and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 595–626.
- Hindman, D. (2009). Mass media flow and the differential distribution of politically disputed beliefs: The belief gap hypothesis. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 86, 790–808.
- Hindman, D. (2012). Knowledge gaps, belief gaps, and public opinion about health care reform. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 89, 585–605.
- Hindman, D. & Yamamoto, M. (2011). Social capital in a community context: A multilevel analysis of individual- and community-level predictors of social trust. Mass Communication and Society, 14, 838–856.