Definition

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2012), the term “conflict” has Latin roots. Dating back to the early 15th century, conflictus, the past participle of configigere, means to strike (“fligere”) together (“com”) or be in conflict. The psychological sense of incompatible urges in one person dates back to the 19th century.
Most scholars adopt some variation of Mortensen’s (1974) definition of conflict: “conflict is an expressed struggle over incompatible interests in the distribution of limited resources” (p. 93). Across definitions of conflict, there seems to be “agreement between early and recent scholars… particularly in scope, nature of action, and the relationship among parties” (Putnam, 2006, p. 5). Communication scholars tend to include some form of interaction when defining conflict. For example, Folger, Poole, and Stutman (1997) defined conflict as occurring “when interdependent people perceive incompatible goals and interference form each other in achieving those goals” (p. 4). This type of definition puts communication at the center of conflict.
Canary, Cupach, and Messman (1995) examined how social scientists conceptualize and measure conflict in parent-child, friendship, and romantic relationships. In doing so, the authors argued that many researchers specify communicative behaviors in definitions of conflict, whereas others define conflict as an episode involving hostility. Therefore, differentiating conflict from related concepts, such as hostility, disagreement, and misunderstanding is important to defining conflict (Keltner, 1994). Specifically, Roloff, Putnam, and Anastasiou (2003) worked to establish conflict as unique from other communicative processes such as persuasion, argumentation, and compliance gaining. Overall, these different definitions of conflict allow communication scholars to focus on several types of social interaction and to study the many facets of conflictual communication (Putnam, 2006).


Historical Overview

Putnam (2006) provided a rich overview of the history of conflict research within communication scholarships. In short, she explained that initial studies of conflict that include communication as a variable measured it very simplistically. For example, initial studies of the Prisoner’s Dilemma game measured communication in terms of allowed to talk/not allowed to talk. Within the field of communication, rhetorical scholarship initially focused on crisis rhetoric (e.g. Burgess, 1973) and public conflicts (e.g. Bowers, 1974). Small group scholars began studying conflict in terms of bargaining (e.g. Johnson, McCarty, & Allen, 1976) and conflict in small groups (e.g. Baird, 1974). Research on communication and conflict in the 1970s led to the rapid acceleration of conflict studies in family and interpersonal communication (e.g. Sillars, 1980), organizational conflict styles (e.g. Putnam & Wilson, 1982) and intercultural conflict (e.g. Gudykunst, 1985).

In Interpersonal Communication Research

Communication scholars often turn to Social Exchange Theory (Kelley & Thibaut, 1978), Attribution Theory (Fincham, Bradbury, & Scott, 1990), Systems Theory (Huston, 2000) and the Chilling Effect Framework (Roloff & Cloven, 1990) to understand conflict. Models of conflict, such as the Process Model (Cupach & Canary, 2000), seek to help scholars better understand conflict as a process. From a relational slant, the Relational Turbulence Model (Solomon & Knobloch, 2001), the Personal-Relational Equilibrium Model (Kumashiro, Rusbult, & Finkle, 2008) and the Relational Escalation Approach (Cunningham, Shamblen, Barbee, & Ault, 2005) allow for a focus on conflict arising from relational dynamics.
Several communication scholars focus on studying conflict in a specific relational context. For example, there are sizeable bodies of research on conflict in the contexts of marital relationships (e.g. Gottman, 1982; Noller, Feeney, Bonnell, & Callan, 1994), dating relationships (e.g. Siegert & Stamp, 1994), friendships (e.g. Samter & Cupach, 1998), parent-child relationships (e.g. Sillars, Smith, & Koerner, 2010), sibling relationships (e.g. Campione-Barr & Smetana, 2010), and social networks (e.g. Roloff & Soule, 2002), to name a few.
Interpersonal communication research about conflict foregrounds how conflict is managed through communication processes. Blake and Mouton (1964) posited a framework of conflict styles that involves competing, collaborating/integrating, compromising, accommodating, and avoiding. Alternatively, depending on message directness (i.e., engagement vs. avoidance) and message valence (i.e., positive/negative vs. face-attaching/face-honoring ), van de Vliert and Euwema (1994) proposed a four-category conceptualization of conflict strategies: negotiation, nonconfrontation, direct fighting, and indirect fighting. Scholars have also stressed that communication during conflict consisted of a sequence of responses, and due to “conflict patterns” formed in a relationship over time, responses could be highly predictable (Raush, Barry, Hertel, & Swain, 1974). In particular, two conflict patterns are examined extensively by communication scholars. First, negative reciprocity refers to exchange of negativity during conflicting situations (Caughlin, Vangelisti, & Mikucki-Enyart, 2013). Second, demand/withdraw pattern occurs when one person nags, complains, demands, but the other person avoids or disengages (Caughlin et al., 2013).
In terms of communication effects, research consistently shows associations between communication during conflict and relational outcomes such as satisfaction and relational quality. For example, Gottman and Levenson (2000) found that negativity and positivity during an argument predicted relational dissolution. Further, Conflict behavior and patterns in dating and married relationships may be related to various relational outcomes, including dissatisfaction and dissolution (Caughlin & Vangelisti, 2006). Additional research indicates that people in different marital and family types manage conflict different ways. For example, Koerner and Fitzpatrick (2009) found that families that were high in conformity orientation tended to avoid conflict, whereas families that were high in conversation orientation tended to exhibit more social support in conflict situations.
Communication scholars have also tied conflict patterns to several negative health outcomes. For example, Caughlin and Malis (2004) found connections between patterns of conflict and substance use. Similarly, Shimkowski and Schrodt (2012) reported that co-parental communication mediated the link between inter-parental conflict and children’s mental well-being. Although there cannot be one-size-fits all advices for managing conflict in order to avoid negative health outcomes, scholars (e.g., Donohue & Kolt,1992) have identified several teachable conflict communication skills that are effective to facilitate positive relational outcomes.


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