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David Morrison
UCLA Dissertation Proposal
[email protected]
While a sociological literature has developed around communes and
‘intentional communities’ – those brainchildren of countercultural commitment
to leftist or spiritualist ideology, which are relatively removed from mainstream
society - relatively little attention has been paid to residential co-operatives, those
sociologically under theorized step-children of community activism. This is
unfortunate, given that co-operatives (both consumptive and productive) have
more socially transformative potential as a mitigating ‘third way’ between the
excesses of capitalism and communism. This study proposes to explore what is
wrong with the co-operative movement (why it hasn’t realized that
transformative potential) and the types of problems, difficulties, conflicts that
arise within residential student co-operatives, along with the endogenous ways of
resolving those problems, difficulties and conflicts. I plan to do this through
participant observation and semi-structured interviews comparing two different
co-operative environments: the 1,400 member co-operative environment at
Berkeley, where the membership is relatively politicized, involved in leadership
decisions, and committed to the principles of the co-operative movement, and the
430 member student co-op at UCHA, with a more bureaucratized leadership
structure and a membership in which ideological commitment is more sporadic
and contingent. This comparison should shed light on the tension between
ideological commitment and bureaucratic efficiency within the co-operative
movement, as well as the role of ideology in shaping these relatively selfcontained residential environments.
The Expression of Conflict In a ‘Co-operative’ Social
I propose to study the expression of conflict in a cooperative housing environment
with 433 student residents as a way of supplementing the current work on interpersonal
conflict. There is an ambiguity in the phrase ‘the expression of conflict’ that I want to
highlight at the outset. Conflict is ‘expressed’ in terms of how conflict plays itself out in a
social process (what people do about the conflict and grievances, either actively or
interactively): Do they argue? Do they accommodate? Do they avoid the other party?
Conflict is also ‘expressed’ by how conflict is characterized (what people, either the
principles or third parties, say about the conflict): How do they define the conflict? Do
they even call it a ‘conflict’? What types of narratives do they construct and what are
their rhetorical strategies for framing the nature of the conflict? The ambiguity is
intentional here, because these processes are coterminous and interpenetrated. That is,
what people say about conflict (how they characterize and construct their grievances)
influences what they do, and is, in fact, part of what they do.
Nonetheless, its helpful to keep action analytically distinct from constructions.
Physical violence, for example, is more than a characterization. While framing the event
is one part of how one galvanizes a group of partisan supporters, they undertake other
relevant courses of action as well (seeking out friendly or influential supporters,
gathering information, calling meetings or showing up for them, etc.). When two people
yell at each other, part of what they are doing (even in their epitaphs) is characterizing the
nature of their conflict (the other person is a jerk), but the yelling itself takes on its own
dynamics, and stretches the rationality embedded in dispassionate sociologic terms such
as ‘constructing’, ‘characterizing’, ‘defining’, ‘contextualizing’, ‘framing’, and the like.
I intend to stick with the term ‘conflict’ here, in spite of the fact that I am referring to
a broader social process, because this in the term widely in play, and because overtly
expressed conflict has a special significance in that it (a) represents the end result of a
contingent interactional progression and (b) has a special significance to the actors
involved, as witnessed by the intensity of their actions, the development of methods for
managing potential sources of conflict in the future, and on how the outcomes of conflict
shape the social environment.
I plan to engage the theoretical work of Emerson and Messinger’s, “The micro-
politics of trouble”1 and Donald Black’s, The Social Structure of Right and Wrong.
Emerson & Messinger develop a descriptive analysis of the social processes shaping the
emergence of conflict - in particular how conflict is identified and framed initially by the
principles, and subsequently through the efforts of informal and formal (or official) ‘third
parties’2. Black treats conflict management as a ‘dependent variable’, and attempts a
causal analysis of the styles of conflict management based on underlying ‘objective’
structural features of the context (pp. 91, 158). Black’s work is programmatic and
theoretical. While he draws on numerous empirical sources to reinforce his programmatic
statements and theoretical structure, he does not pursue any empirical evidence in enough
depth to either confirm or negate aspects of his theory.
But two of Black’s students, M.P. Baumgartner and Calvin Morril, went on to
conduct such empirical tests of Black’s theory. In her book, The Moral Order of the
Suburb, Baumgartner examines a suburban community characterized by ‘moral
minimalism’, as the most prevalent approach to managing conflict. As an exploration of
the factors affecting the
study of suburban life and Calvin Morrill’s (The Executive Way) exploration of
business practices by looking, in closer detail, at a relatively bounded community with
different characteristics: less affluent, greater social density, more member involvement
in community life, and with a distinctive characteristic that members are involved in
creating and enforcing the rules, norms and policies of the social environment – making it
Social Problems, 1977
They use the term ‘trouble’ rather than ‘conflict’ to emphasize the fact that ‘conflict’ is one possible way
for participants to characterize the problems they are having (along with ‘deviance’ or more conciliatory
frames). Conflict as a framework for defining and contextualizing troubles, is contingent on a previous
social process. In so far as it functions to define a problem, it organizes the perceptions and actions of the
person employing that frame.
a relatively self-contained community for study.
I intend primarily to use semi-structured interviews, observational data, and
participant observational methods to develop a ‘natural history’ of three aspects of social
1) Origins of the expression of conflict. This can be seen, as either (a) conditions
generating initial grievances or (b) the overt expression of grievances in conflict. While
my study is a descriptive analysis of a single social context, contrasts with other
empirical work (here, primarily Baumgartner’s) may make it possible to identify the
major social causes of such conflicts.
2) Social processes shaping the management of overtly expressed conflict, and
subsequent personal or collective pursuit of remedies (either through individual, group,
factional or some form of bureaucratic action).
3) Outcomes, functions, and effects of conflicts in shaping the social environment.
This is particularly salient for conflicts that take on a collective significance. In some
cases, conflicts specifically concern the resources, policies or composition of the
governing body of the organization as a whole. The outcome then directly shapes to local
political structure. In other cases policies and resources are shaped so as to manage
similar cases in the future. Memcom, for example, is a crew specifically established to
handle grievances and conflicts. In addition to serving in this role, the existence of
Memcom affects the local political topography of the organization and can feedback into
new conflicts - in some cases between Memcom and the board of directors (BOD).
Conflict is an especially significant aspect of a social environment for several
reasons. Since a full theory of conflict should take into account the conditions under
which conflict both does and does not occur, the flip side of an analysis of conflict should
shed light on the Hobbesian question of how social order is possible. Social order cannot
be understood without an analysis of the conditions under which disorder and strife
become more or less frequent and salient aspects of the setting. Methods for handling
conflict (both as it occurs and in anticipation of future conflict) are a significant part of
how a social environment is structured. Conflict is also a key part of any analysis of
social influence and/or social control. As such, deviance and conformity to social norms both behaviorally and perceptually - are contingent outcomes of a fuller theory of
conflict. Moments of conflict are also significant in that these are moments when
underlying norms and values are invoked, elaborated serve as rationales for subsequent
social action.
Theoretical Orientation:
I should begin with some general remarks about how I am conceptualizing conflict,
before moving on to a preliminary overview of several distinctive features of this context,
which make it useful for comparison with the existing literature.
Most broadly, I conceptualize conflict as arising when two individuals or parties
desire separate and discordant outcomes about some issue for which they are personally,
materially, and/or ideologically invested. Additionally, it is important that the outcome of
these conflicting desires not be prefigured by some compelling relational, institutional or
bureaucratic praxis, and that the participants have at least some vague sense that the other
party is likely to resist their efforts for achieving their preferred outcome. Of course, the
term ‘compelling’ is a relative one. Even when confronted with a clear asymmetry of
power or legitimacy individuals can and occasionally do strive to achieve their preferred
outcomes: a child can complain about their chores to a parent even where there is a clear
standard of parental control in the family and wider society; individuals can reject the
legitimacy of property rights and engage in ‘restitutive’ instances of predatory crime;
where such asymmetries of power and legitimacy are socially established, the dynamic is
altered and conflict merges, fluidly but with important implications, into deviance.
While we can conceptualize conflict in its broadest terms, methodologically, there is a
limit to what we can empirically establish about conflict. For conflict to move from
vague or private intrapersonal misgivings into witnessable, accountable features of
interpersonal life, the conflict must be expressed in some way. Initially, the conflict is
likely to be expressed through subtle references, in and oblique manner that I will term
‘covertly’ expressed conflict. While I believe that even covertly expressed conflict can
have interpersonal and relational dimensions (intimate acquaintances can both have clear,
although perhaps disparate, understandings for their relational troubles even in the
absence of an overt acknowledgement - in fact, some contexts, such as power
asymmetries facilitate covert conflicts that are nonetheless locally known and
understood), I agree with Emerson and Messinger’s (1977: 125) suggestion that the overt
expression and acknowledgement of conflict alters the basic dynamics of the trouble. It is
at this point that individuals begin to mobilize their resources for achieving their desired
They can do this in a variety of ways. This variety is large, but not infinite. It is
constrained by the material, relational and ideological resources available in a given
context. Raw physical force is always an option, but in most modern contexts, an option
with serious associated sanctions that is generally out of step with an individuals’
normative framework. More commonly, individuals will turn to rhetorical strategies for
framing the issue in terms conducive to achieving their desired outcome. (It is often
difficult to discern whether individual’s rhetorical strategies are self-serving or whether
they are sincerely pursuing their preferred outcome precisely, as they may claim, because
of how they frame, account for, and contextualize the terms of the conflict.) Also, their
purposes in their initial expression of a grievance are multiple, varied and problematic.
They generally first express a problematic condition with some emotional intimate, but
this may or may not be the person with whom they are having the conflict, and they do so
in a process that is alternately solution-oriented (instrumental) or problem-oriented
(expressive). While they generally seek some type of support this may be emotional
support, practical advice or practical help on dealing with the person or situation.
It is at this point that a grievance or covert conflict becomes an overt, interpersonal
conflict. But again who they approach, and the manner in which they approach another
individual or party has important consequences shaping the evolution of the conflict from
a private to a relatively public affair; covert and overt are end points in a continuum, as
an individual may confine themselves to confessions among intimates, achieving
understanding from a person not involved in the conflict. But here they may decide to
take more explicit action oriented to achieving their preferred outcome, and that can take
the form of mobilizing interpersonal resources (such as a supportive coalition of
partisans) or institutional resources (such as bureaucratic procedures or officially
sanctioned agents). At this point the conflict can move from the informal, interpersonal
realm to a progressively more official, collectivized and public matter.
To recapitulate an initial natural history of conflict, conflicts begin as a vague sense
of some intrapersonal problem, and move to a grievance when acknowledged and defined
intrapersonally. Grievances can then: remain unexpressed, as individuals can either ‘lump
it’ or handle it unilaterally, such as through avoidance (Emerson, personal
communication); become expressed covertly, by attempting to subtly shape subsequent
interaction, or expressed overtly - either covert and overt expression of grievances can
lead to a satisfactory remedy; or grievances can be ‘named, claimed and the claim
denied’ (Felstiner, Abel, and Sarat, 1981) at which point they become overtly expressed
conflict. Overtly expressed conflict, also takes different forms: it can be handled
primarily between two individuals; other individuals can become involved informally and
act either as partisans or mediators; or official parties and more formal procedures can
become invoked.
Even after the stage of involvement by other parties, the conflict can come to come to
be defined through a contingent social process primarily as: deviance, where one party
has mobilized either a coalition or some official process which has functioned to isolate
the other party; a conflict which continues to be framed primarily in interpersonal terms
as an issue between to individuals (although others may be disproportionally sympathetic
to one or another party, based on their affiliations and ideological commitments, they do
not conceive of themselves as involved, they frame the conflict as primarily being
between the principals); a conflict, such as around policy disputes or the allocation of
community resources and budgets, may prefigured to be framed in collectivized terms
through the manner in which it is initially raised; or a conflict can initially be framed in
interpersonal terms and come to be framed through incipiently collectivized terms.
The existence of conflict calls into question group boundaries and loyalties. Labeling
theorists have critiqued the uniformity of social norms as they have been conceptualized
by functionalists. Moments of conflict are moments in which social norms are
questioned, either by individuals or by people in groups. An analysis of the various
‘sides’ of a conflict demonstrates the contours, fissures, and factions in a social
environment - replacing overly homogenous conceptions of social norms and cultures
with a richer appreciation for the fluidity and difficulty in defining social groups and
group boundaries (both for participants and analysts). Rather than beginning with a
notion of collective behavior, a focus on conflict within and between groups, poses the
issue of group cohesion and group boundaries - and how these are formed, maintained
and/or torn apart - as a dilemma for social actors and as an empirically researchable
agenda for social analysts.
A key feature of how an initially interpersonal conflict comes to be framed and
accepted in collectivized terms is the invocation of some ‘community’, ideological or
normative principle which may contingently become accepted by a critical mass of the
community. This last process is interesting, and reminiscent of the Garfinkel-Parsons
debate on the relative role of agency versus cultural or structural determinism in that it
poses some intriguing questions, such as: How do norms actually work in social life?
How are they invoked, interpreted, framed, created, denied or reacted to? What purposes
to they serve? How are they related to underlying material or ideological interests? How
do they fit in the set of affiliative relationships? Do they function to separate and/or unite
partisans and (contingently) ‘third parties’ to a conflict?
In all of the stages of overtly expressed conflict, the other individuals involved can
act either as disinterested officials, neutral third parties or partisans. The status of ‘other
individuals’ qua ‘others’ rather than as members of partisan coalitions themselves now
involved as active disputants to the conflict, is itself problematic, contingent and subject
to change. In relatively democratic contexts, the fact that ‘officials’ have become
involved does not necessarily mean that these officials are acting as ‘third parties’. Even
conflicts which are prefigured at the outset in collectivized terms can maintain a structure
of two party conflicts, take on a multi-party factionalist form, or become moderated by
some third-party process (such as the courts or some other ‘outside’ agent, that is, outside
of the immediate context of the conflict or organization).
In their paper(1977), “the micro-politics of trouble”, Emerson and Messinger state
that third parties are significant in shaping the way in which the conflict is framed and the
outcome determined (they use the term ‘trouble’ to emphasize the status of ‘conflict’ as a
contingent outcome of the framing process). They bring attention to the fact, also
emphasized by Black (1993) that much conflict management is achieved through
informal social processes, and that these informal processes shape and, in turn, are shaped
by official third party agents and formal bureaucratic procedures. For example, the way a
conflict is framed by informal, interpersonal processes, can determine which official
agents are called in, and what specific types of procedures they will draw on. They make
some initial remarks problematizing the third-party status of official agents, and call for a
fuller theory of ‘trouble’ linking micro- and macro-sociological processes.
I would suggest that one way to empirically explore the link between micro- and
macro-sociological processes in managing conflict would be through descriptive
qualitative analysis of meso-sociological processes within a relatively bounded
community small enough to be organized largely through informal social processes (and
for a field investigator to have intimate, detailed knowledge of the lives of a substantial
number of the participants) and large enough for quasi-formal and formal structural and
bureaucratic processes to begin to emerge.
The UCHA co-op is such a place. The co-op is a distinctive and theoretically
interesting field setting in that it is a relatively bounded community in which members
are responsible for electing representatives who determine the rules, norms and policies
of the organization. While certainly other organizations do this (notably states) they are
rarely small enough to be witnessable and observable by both members and analysts in
their entirety, nor to be organized simultaneously by informal and formal processes. In
addition it serves as a useful contrast with the available literature on conflict mediation,
notably Morrill’s (1995) The Executive Way (which analyses professional environments)
and Baumgartner’s (1988) The Moral Order of a Suburb (which analyses a residential
environment with contrasting structural and normative characteristics).
Since both of these studies are based on Black’s theory of ‘social control’ and
‘conflict management’ (which he treats as interchangeable terms, p.92:fn1), I will return
to a more in-depth evaluation of Black’s theory, before considering Morrill and
Baumgartner’s empirical work. Black outlines his ‘general theory of social primarily in
two articles of his book, The Social Structure of Right and Wrong: in “Social control as a
dependent variable”, and in “Elementary forms of conflict management”. Black identifies
several potential styles of social control (penal, compensatory, therapeutic, conciliatory,
preventative, reformistic and expiatory) as well as distinguishing whether social control is
exercised informally or formally and in a religious or secular manner. Black also
distinguishes forms of social control, such as whether it is exercised individually or
collectively. Black goes on to further distinguish the quantity of social control and the
quantity of normative variation before presenting several models of social control.
Black’s focus, in treating social control as a dependent variable, is to treat the various
forms, styles and quantity that social control can take as an outcome, an effect, of some
underlying cause (independent variable). The article suggests empirical investigation into
the causes of a given instance of social control. He is rather careful not to suggest what
the independent variables are, leaving that as the topic of empirical research, but there is
an implication of a structural or even objectivist leaning (“we are concerned here entirely
with the development of sociological theory about social control and not in any way with
the psychology - or subjective aspect of this phenomena [fn:6]”). Fundamentally, Black is
recommending a line of research into factors influencing the specific varieties of social
control as an outcome measure of some underlying social cause.
Black makes it clear that there is no necessary contradiction between investigating the
causes and effects of social control, that is, “a single approach might understand social
control as both an independent and a dependent variable. For example, social control
might be regarded as a reaction to deviant behavior that counteracts its disequilibriating
effects on the social system in which it occurs (see Homans, 1950:310-312; Parsons,
1951: 297-321) [fn.: 6]”. Essentially, this is the broader research agenda that I intend to
follow, as outlined above: an empirical investigation into the causes, styles and effects of
For my purposes, Black’s most significant theoretical predictions are outlined in his
theory of the structural factors associated with 2 forms of conflict management: discipline
and rebellion, and avoidance. He lists the structural factors associated with discipline and
rebellion as being: inequality, vertical segmentation, social distance, functional utility and
immobility. Discipline and rebellion are both forms of conflict management within
hierarchical contexts (78). In these regards, and recalling my earlier comments on the
distinction between factors associated with the generation of a given type of grievance
and factors associated with the expression of a given type of conflict, I would predict that
hierarchical settings are more likely to generate rebellious or disciplinary orientations or
forms of grievances, but, based on Morrill and Baumgartners’ work, hierarchical settings
also tend to discourage the open expression of conflict by prefiguring the outcomes to
any potential overt conflict in favor of the more powerful party, such that, overall
hierarchical power structures would appear to have simmering grievances characterized
by covertly expressed conflict.
Avoidance, for Black (79-82), is associated with: absence of hierarchy, social fluidity,
social fragmentation, functional independence and individuation. These factors each
seem relevant to Baumgartner’s characterization of the ‘moral order’ of suburbia as a
minimalistic moral order exemplified by avoidance of open conflict or confrontation.
Looking at her data, I would also add another relevant feature: territorialism. Here again,
in a different way, the outcomes of conflict are largely prefigured by the demarcations of
property: individuals confine themselves to confrontations largely within family units and
the shared property relations and affiliative structures implied within them, such that,
when faced with norm-violating behavior across family and property boundaries
individuals essentially retreat back into their prescribed social and territorial domain.
From this we can predict that shared property relations and shared responsibility for
managing the policies and resources of a context like the co-op would generate increased
opportunities for the open and conflicting expression of heterogeneous normative
In her book, The Moral Order of a Suburb, Mary (M.P.) Baumgartner discusses her
partial theory of the conditions generating forms of conflict based on the 12 months she
spent conducting fieldwork in a small satellite community (16,000) of New York city,
which she refers to through the ‘pseudonym’ Hampton, possibly a reference to ‘the
Hamptons’ of Long Island. I say ‘partial theory’, because Baumgartner is aware of the
distinctiveness a community which she refers to as ‘middle class’ (but which sounds
more like ‘upper-middle’ and ‘upper’ class). Its not possible to generate a holistic causal
theory based on the analysis of one case - there is no independent variable which, in fact,
varies - hence, no basis for comparison, and Baumgartner knows it. Her theory emerges
implicitly, largely through her descriptions of the distinctive features of the place,
coupled with her characterizations of the forms of conflict and conflict management
emergent within her empirical field of reference. Her characterizations have problems,
which emerge more through her fairly conscientious references to exceptions and
negative cases. I want to discuss both her theory and a more comprehensive theory that
could emerge through an analysis of those negative cases, coupled with more extensive
data from a context like the co-op - where the forms conflict takes run counter to those
she discusses.
She refers to the moral order of a suburb as an order of ‘moral minimalism’ which she
ascribes to a few factors, and from which some other factors may be inferred. ‘Moral
minimalism’ refers to a handling of conflict based primarily on its avoidance. It may
seem strange to study a context with so little open conflict as a basis for promulgating a
theory of conflict, but actually that is quite useful, largely by contrast with my context where this is a lot conflict. The factors she discusses (at times explicitly, at other times
these arise implicitly through her ethnographic descriptions of the place) are quite
different than the co-op and in many ways diametrically opposed, so the book serves as a
useful contrast.
The society is affluent; individuals have a lot of space (allowing the possibility of
withdrawal into their homes or at least other rooms); there is very little community
property (she mentions several small and trivial examples such as a television used by
adolescent siblings, and even here, in each case, she cites these as examples where
conflict arose); in fact, there is little community at all - the social organization is best
described as atomistic, based on small (micro in the extreme) nuclear family units (again,
the exception to the is in the ‘working class’ families, which have more extended family
networks, and, again, she raises this example to discuss exceptions where there is more
conflict). This last point is particularly important by way of contrast with my case. There
appear to be very few conflicts of interest at any level of social organization beyond the
nuclear family - again her few examples of open conflict arise from such cases. There are
very few resources which individuals would debate the uses of. There are also very few
social structures beyond the nuclear family.
One example is a small mall. The adolescents of the town would like to frequent this
mall and spend time associating with their peers; the adults would like the area relatively
peaceful and quiet. This, then, is a common area and common resource with separate
visions of how that resource should be used by incipient social groupings of individuals;
conflict arises. There is a planning department. Separate visions emerge as to the
appropriate standards for the community and what activities are acceptable (as when one
individual houses chickens and another wants to stable horses); conflict arises (in this
case open and somewhat organized conflict, which she does not attempt to reconcile with
her characterization of ‘moral minimalism’). There is a police department. Separate
visions arise as to the appropriate standards of community policing (for example, speed
ticketing and drivers passing a car on the right at a light); conflict arises. She treats the
cases of conflict as exceptions to the norm of moral minimalism, but of course the
exceptions are vital to an incipient causal theory of several factors underlying the
emergence of conflict and its subsequent form. Given the paucity of conflict the factors
must remain incipient, but the cases are nonetheless illuminating.
In each of the cases where conflict does arise, there is either: some shared resource
individuals are vying for control over; mutually exclusive normative frameworks
underlying social action that come into contact with one another; or some type of social
deviance. This last bears mention first. Most of the cases of social deviance are basically
a subset of the aforementioned second factor, where one normative framework is
represented by one individual, or at most a few, individuals. She mentions a couple that
enjoyed drinking alcohol on their porch and cussing, for example. This is normal
behavior in some communities (a poor area of North Oakland I lived in, for example) and
would not cause notice or sanction. It contrasted with the general disdain for activity in
common or public areas in Hampton, however, and in this environment was cause
regarded as deviant and cause for the general social sanction of avoidance and isolation.
There were a few instances of deviance which were a bit different, however, and
where individuals appeared to be acting in manners which they knew to violate norms,
and which were, perhaps for the titillating purpose of violating community expectations,
as where a man went naked and defecated in full view of his neighbors; or when a
woman ‘trapped’ people in conversation, either unaware or unconcerned, of their
discomfort. In these cases individuals were socially inept or intentionally disruptive. I’m
not sure if I can advance a causal theory of conditions generating these behaviors. A
functionalist tack would be to suggest that such deviance is an inevitable feature of all
societies. The oft-cited example goes: even in heaven, there would be individuals
sanctioned for wearing the hem of their robes to high (or low). This is really a nonexplanation however; it doesn’t account for variation in rates of deviance across societies
or social contexts - either in terms of the absolute level of the occurrence of deviant
behaviors or the subjectivistic tendency to label actions as deviance. That is, rates of
deviance or levels of (in)tolerance. Durkheim himself, however, did attempt to look at
rates of deviance in Suicide, and relate them to social structures of isolation or
community cohesiveness (although he committed the original ecological fallacy of failing
to account for whether his Protestants were actually the ones committing suicide or
whether they just drove the Catholics crazy). This is important, because he formulated an
implicit theory of anomie based on this topic, stating that anomie (and deviance) arises
where normative frameworks are not sufficiently fixed and certain within the minds of
individuals. I mention deviance as an exception for now; I am not trying to advance a
theory of it at the moment.
I do think, based on Baumgartner’s analysis (and other sociologic traditions) that we
can conclude that conflict will arise more frequently where social actors or groups are
vying for control of a limited resource; or, where individuals are advancing divergent
normative frameworks or visions of how the community should be formed. Of course,
there can be no conflict between separate visions of the community if there is no
consciousness of living in a ‘community’, per se, to begin with.
The conditions of Baumgartner's suburb go a long way to explaining its ‘minimalistic
moral order’, particularly its affluence, (lessening the scarcity of common resources), its
atomistic social organization and its general homogeneity. Again, the cases where
conflict does emerge are generally exceptions to those factors.
Conversely, where there are (1) limited resources, (2) high community involvement,
(3) the factionalistic emergence of social groupings below the community level (such as
Baumgartner’s teens/adults or whites/Italians), and (4) high levels of commitment to
(potentially divergent) normative frameworks we can expect concomitantly higher levels
of emergent conflict.
All of these points are significant to my study of a context that has (1) limited
resources, (2) individuals highly involved in a community life, (3) highly diverse cultural,
ethnic, and normative backgrounds, providing ripe conditions for ethnic and cultural
factionalism, (4) high levels of idealism and ideological commitment (to these potentially
divergent frames).
A firth factor, the existence of relatively hierarchical or populist patterns of decisionmaking and influence, is problematic. I would say this factor increases the likelihood of
grievances but decreases the overt expression of conflict. Quite simply, hierarchical
systems are less likely to be responsive to the concerns and ideological commitments of
the majority of the membership. Conversely, this ‘silent’ (or perhaps, quietly ‘griping’)
majority is likely to cynically assess their ability to individually or collectively ‘do
anything’ about their dissatisfying conditions, and instead decide to ‘lump it’ (Nader,
Baumgartner’s study is also problematic in terms of the setting and her analytic style.
In terms of the setting, the community is simply too big for her to have personal
knowledge or a close personal relationship with any more than a small fraction of the
individuals comprising it. In addition, it is unclear how fixed the boundaries are. In order
for the reader to regard Hampton as a ‘community’ per se (completely aside from the
extent to which the residents themselves regard it as a community), there should be a
closer discussion of the permeability of Hamptons boundaries. Without this, is difficult to
assess its status as a sociologically meaningful unit of analysis.
More vexing from an ethnographer’s point of view, and possibly relating to the issue
of her inadequate knowledge of Hampton’s inhabitants, is the paucity of descriptive
context she provides about individuals involved in the various disputes. Her writing style
is generally to provide an analytic point, and then a few indented paragraphs of cases
representing her theoretical conclusions. If one value of ethnography stems from its
ability to impart a totalistic sense for subjects’ Lebenswelten, her lack of ethnographic
detail is clearly short of the mark. The reader is left hanging about what individuals’ lives
are like; the cases appear as little notes in a bottle from some distant islands of social
reality. If we are to theorize based on analyses of individuals’ lives, we much represent
enough about them and their distinctiveness to understand them as full-fledged
individuals, not merely instances of a type.
The reader may have noticed that I haven’t included deviance as an independent
factor generating conflict. Quite honestly, I’m simply not ready to commit to whether
deviance is an independent cause or a reflection of an underlying independent variable
about the society (such as diversity or tolerance). While I see the co-op as like a ‘minisociety’ of 433 individuals, and I stand by my characterization of it as a sociologically
meaningful unit of analysis, its boundaries are admittedly quite permeable. To begin
with, it is a residential community, not a commune serving as both a unit of production
and consumption (admittedly all members are variably involved in the work of its
maintenance, but it requires a net inward flow of goods and services). Individuals are
engaged in socially formative professional lives. More significantly, since individuals
arrive there more or less as adults, I am not ready to say that social deviation and
intolerance are related to the cultural and structural conditions of the co-op itself. Some
individuals seem to arrive predisposed to deviance and others seem to arrive predisposed
to label deviance.
Idealism and community involvement are self-selecting, in the sense that individuals
without these traits keep a low profile; making them simply less involved in the
community generally and in conflicts specifically. I don’t think this really undermines my
analysis of community involvement or idealism, however; once again, those individuals
who are highly involved in the community and highly ‘principled’ (that is, committed to
their normative frameworks to the extent that they are willing to publicly advocated and
argue for them) are more likely to become embroiled in conflict. These individuals are
more likely to enter the BOD and generally more likely to enter the center of community
life, with their more laid-back counterparts more likely play a marginal role in the
community - showing up to sleep and perhaps eat, and disappearing at other times.
In his contemporary ethnographic study, The Executive Way, Calvin Morrill
distinguishes three types of social organization in professional contexts: mechanistic,
atomistic and matrix. Mechanistic environments have strong hierarchical structures and
rigid bureaucratic procedures; atomistic organizations, like Baumgartner’s suburb, afford
a greater relative level of autonomy to their professionals (or at least to their departmental
divisions) and hierarchical relations between professionals and their staffs; matrix
systems are characterized by overlapping hierarchical relations where one worker may be
accountable to two or more managing divisions, and where managers for one project may
conflict with managers from another division overseeing a different aspect of the same
project. Although Morrill does not engage the Marxist literature, the implication of his
study, for lack of a better phrase, is that the Marxists got it ass-backwards - as far as the
effect of hierarchical power relations on conflict and stability goes: hierarchical power
relations reduce conflict by predetermining the outcome of potential conflict.
Morrill’s study is in line with Baumgartner’s to the extent that atomism and
autonomy, in giving professionals less reason to vie for competing visions as to the
direction of the organization and less occasion to compete for limited resources, reduce
the expression of conflict. Each professional’s territory, like Baumgartner’s picket-fenced
properties, is more clearly demarcated. The exception being in matrix organizations,
which are more intrinsically unstable.
I find it somewhat ironic that Morrill’s insight as to the conflict-minimizing effect of
hierarchically rigid systems of power relations arose from observing the life situation and
concomitant world-view of the dominant class, while Marx’s haunting imbukes of
unequal relations of production and exchange reflect his position among an impoverished
segment of the population (two of his children died of poverty-related conditions after
Marx’s evident atheism pushed him out of a relatively privileged academic’s life). That
is, Morrill notes that hierarchy promotes stability; Marx notes the inequality promulgates
injustice and fans the flames of lower-class resentment of the existing social order. Their
analyses could both be right, reflecting and underscoring the class-positions of the
participants upon which the analyses are based. As Marx stated, “in all societies the ideas
of the ruling class are the ruling ideas”. Methodologically, this gets back to the issue of
how lines of inquiry affect, and in some sense predetermine, theoretical conclusions.
So the theoretical crux of the matter here is whether we can analytically distinguish
and empirically measure factors which increase the subjective experience of resentment
towards a social order by a some (objectively or experientially) powerless social segment,
from the open expression of such tensions in relatively public or objectively measurable
displays of conflict. Based on my intimate knowledge of the co-op as a mini-society I
would say that we can. Further, to the extent that the social system of the co-op itself
independently generates acts of deviance (that is, independent the variable proclivities for
deviant behavior that individuals bring to the co-op upon entrance) I would say that it is
related to this subjective experience of resentment. Where the open expression of conflict
is repressed, hidden and relatively minor expressions of rebellion through deviant action
(conceived in strictly functionalist terms as rebellion from a coherent and consensually
agreed upon normative order) will increase. In the co-op, such resentment is expressed
passively by blowing-off workshifts, sluggish work performance once there, and
apathetic regard for community issues (such as elections and cleanliness); it is expressed
actively either through intentional disregard for rules (vandalism or smoking in forbidden
areas, for examples) or through cynically self-interested actions: cronyism, corruption,
and theft.
In intend to explore the independent effects of these factors by triangulating 3 sources
of data: close personal observations of current social processes through participant
observation, allowing ethnographic detail of events as they occur; semi-structured
interviews of individuals’ (other than myself) characterizations of both current and past
conflicts and factors affecting them; lastly, semi-archival materials available in the co-op
itself, such as Memcom and BOD minutes, the rule book (as a the official definition of
the structure and normative order) or media depictions of the co-op. I view these last
sources of interest both as a source of information about past events and, where I have
more in-depth information available, as a way of tracing factors affecting media content
and its analysis.
My first methodological goal is to describe in detail the features of this social
environment that distinguish it from Morrill and Baumgartner’s work - some of which I
have already described above. Through detailed description of the structure of this
environment, coupled with a description of the types of conflict and forms in which
conflict is expressed, I believe I can advance a causal analysis of the relation between
social structure and forms of expressing conflict. Again, Morrill dealt with professional
contexts organized around professional norms and goals, Baumgartner examined the
‘moral minimalism’ of suburban contexts characterized by limited community property
or community involvement in, or responsibility for, the norms and policies governing her
community as a whole.
The deeper methodological question is the logic orienting my collection of data and
framing my phenomenon of study: what type of conflict am I planning to collect data on?
The preceding discussion was intended to pose a number of these issues, which I will
explore more explicitly here. My basic intent is to frame a ‘natural history’ of the stages
(and contingent forms) of expressing conflict. I distinguish grievances (either covertly or
overtly expressed); conflict expressed in interpersonal terms; conflict which comes to be
framed in collective terms; and conflict prefigured in collective terms at the outset (as in
policy matters or budget disputes).
Among collective disputes I distinguish: conflict expressed without attempting a
remedy as in members ‘griping’, or airing grievances to other members who are poorly
situation to instigate a remedy (complaining about the food to people sitting next to them,
or about fines to other members who have received similar fines - rather than to the
kitchen manager or Memcom, respectively); conflict expressed in manners intended to
seek a remedy or to change the policy or problematized condition (fundamentally by
approaching the relevant members of the hierarchy or attempting to galvanize a coalition
from one’s social network or like-minded partisans); collectivized conflicts that maintain
a relatively impartial third party structure (such as a sexual harassment case invoking and
defining the boundaries of the normative order of acceptable behavior which galvanizes a
large segment but remains adjudicated by a relatively impartial Memcom); and
collectivized conflicts wherein the power structure itself becomes embroiled in the
conflict and their status as ‘third-party’ arbitrators is openly called into question (as in an
election dispute about the composition of the BOD that ends up becoming decided by the
BOD membership themselves).
I don’t want to get into the reasons for the most basic definition of conflict stated at
the beginning: conflicting desires by two individuals or parties for preferred, mutually
exclusive outcomes around some issue for which they are personally, materially or
ideologically committed. That is, I view the reasons why people want what they want and
why individuals living in similar situations do or do not become embroiled in conflict are
too intrapersonal and varied to be amenable to sociologic analysis. At the same time, I do
view the structure of the environment as significant in shaping the types of conflict, the
expression of conflict, and the management and outcomes of conflict that will the found
My way of reconciling these two concerns is to pose that, rather than constraining or
determining the actions of individuals, the structural and local cultural environment
provides opportunities3 for different forms of conflict. For example, the existence of a
high degree of shared property, community involvement, a relatively responsive local
political structure, shared responsibility for determining the norms, policies and
allocation of resources in the organization will in no way force or require individuals to
become embroiled in conflicts about any of the associated issues. Individuals do so based
originally, based on their intrapersonal definitions of the situation and conception of their
own interests and values. But the existence of these factors creates the potential for
individuals operating from different normative frameworks to clash about the direction or
goals of the organization. Such conflicts become witnessable as soon as they are
expressed, and become increasingly visible as individuals attempt to galvanize a partisan
coalition bend specifically on achieving their self-defined interests. They draw upon
affiliative networks, and advocate or convince others of their point of view, all in an
observable social process which clarifies the structure of their situation and takes the
interpersonal processes as the starting point for analysis.
In addition close description of each stage in a natural history of conflict can help to
define both the structure of conflict, and reveal the factions, normative frameworks, and
social structure of the social context.
Distinctive Features of the Context:
A few words on what life is like in a co-operative living environment. My interest in
this field environment is sparked in part by the idealism of the setting. There are slogans
on the wall proclaiming: “The co-op: we own it.” There is a stated egalitarianism
stemming in part from the Rochdale principles of co-operative living (more on this later).
Advocates of the co-operative movement self-consciously conceived of it as a ‘third way’
between capitalism and communism: emerging within a larger context of advanced
industrial capital, formed by individuals collectively pooling their resources.
The specific co-op that I am examining is the UCHA (University of California
Housing Association) at UCLA. (It was previously called the UCLA co-op, but, so the
co-op mythology goes anyway, the university, in its wisdom, threatened legal action
based on UCHA’s ‘co-opting’ its proprietary name.) One thing particularly appealing
about it, as a research setting, is that it is a relatively bounded community. It currently has
433 members, housed in three buildings Robison, Essene and Hardman-Hanson (HH). It
has an operating budget of 2.3 million dollars per year. It makes sociological sense to
refer to it as a ‘place’ or ‘field setting’. There’s been a lot of increasingly reflexive talk
lately in ethnographic circles (see Emerson, 2001:43 or Gupta and Ferguson, 1997:15)
about the constitution of ‘the field’ as a legitimate social unit available for analysis.
Perhaps with a neutral evaluative stance, rather than the positive associations that the word implies
While it is true that there are divisions within the co-op, it cannot be equated with the
conglomeration of alienated individuals in an office building that Gupta and Ferguson
critique as a sociologically meaningless ‘place’. (A skyscraper is a material structure, a
set of social relations, perhaps, but not a coherent ‘place’ in the minds of its inhabitants.)
The co-op is such a place, as witnessed by the way ‘co-opers’ talk about it. Their speech
is full of reifying references to ‘the co-op’ as a meaningful unit of endogenous analysis:
how ‘it’ does business, the decisions ‘it’ makes, etc.
In my orientation I was told, with only a bit of irony, that the co-op is basically
organized along the lines of an Eastern European state before the fall of the Soviet Union.
While in principle the highest governing body is the membership itself, at 433 members a
full-house meeting is a bit unwieldy to be run on a consensus basis, and, in practice,
pretty much all governing decisions are made by the board of directors (BOD, or simply
‘the board’) in conjunction with an executive director (ED) named Arusha; he is a Sri
Lankan man who came to the co-op about 10 years ago as a student. Each member of the
BOD is elected in a house vote, and votes on the BOD. Arusha has no vote, and his pay
and employment status are decided by the BOD, but in practice he is a quite persuasive
orator and the BOD generally tends (with a few recent explosive exceptions) to defer to
his recommendations. Arusha is also extremely influential given that, while the BOD is
comprised of busy students, this is his full time job. He both implements and shapes BOD
policy, as a result of his competence, diligence and institutional role as a manager.
The rent is rather cheap, about 400 dollars per month, which includes rent, food (such
as it is) and utilities (minus phone) in Westwood. Space is scarce, with only 28 singles in
HH and about 10 in Robison, and the rest of the members living in triples, doubles or
‘suites’ - rooms with a bit more space and two ‘sides’ separated by a wall. The co-op
could simply not run at this cost without each of the members working 4 hours per week
in one of the ‘crews’: kitchen, and vegetarian cooking crew (which I founded),
maintenance, security, the social crew, the MR (members’ resource) crew, the co-op
store, main office, postal room and cleaning crew. Previously ‘accounting’ was also a
crew run by an accountant, Junko, who was herself a previous co-oper, but I recently
fired her after her intransigence in supplying clear reports.
It now appears clear that Junko was stealing from us, and surrounding herself with
Japanese office accounting workers, because they were loyal to her and did what they
were told. In her case it also came out of particulars of her relationship with previous
boards and her feeling that she was being exploited, asked to volunteer for a long period
without recompense - she was trying to make back her lost wages. This is one ‘case’ I
would like to discuss, given the danger of corruption to cooperatives once
bureaucratization begins to take hold. I believe that such corruption is born of student
apathy, in failing to keep close tabs on its leadership, coupled with a perception of ‘the
co-op’ as an impersonal bureaucratic structure unresponsive to their needs. I expect a
reader to complain that I have just claimed there was a sense of community here. This is a
bit complicated. Communalism is the utopian image; Eastern-European style communism
is the dystopian one. When members refer to ‘the co-op’ often they do so in both
dystopian and utopian ways. My ambivalence here reflects the ambivalence of the
membership themselves.
In addition to the work crews there are two elected committees, the BOD which I
served on all last year (I was president in the Spring) and will probably return to this year,
and the membership committee (Memcom), which I served on as vice-president before
joining the BOD. The model I personally have for the two committees, a model which I
have advocated both to the board and Arusha, is as the board serving analogously to the
state legislature and Memcom serving as the judiciary. This is not a statement advocating
that Mecum’s process should resemble the impersonal, formal, asymmetric power
relations operating in government judiciaries; rather, it is a statement about the
appropriate separation of powers between the two committees. I believe they should be
one roughly similar power statuses, Arusha and most of the rest of the board don’t. This
is one of the sources of conflict that I myself have become embroiled in, based in part on
my previous experiences of being railroaded by the board as a Memcom member. So far
at least, when the two bodies come into conflict, the board reigns supreme; although, I’ve
instituted some policies designed to mitigate this a bit.
Memcom’s primary formal role is to mediate, resolve and adjudicate member
disputes, as well as independently sanctioning deviant members with fines, work
penalties or expulsions. These disputes are often purely dyadic in nature, but can also
involve some sort of disgruntlement around fines given out by work shift managers,
bathroom-cleaning checkers.
Independent sanctions are intended to be for work- and rent-deficiencies as well as
rule violations, such as smoking in ‘enclosed areas’ (the definition of which has been
mildly contentious). In addition to this, Memcom is also charged with running house
elections, and is specifically charged by the rulebook as having ‘sole discretion in
mediating election disputes’. Memcom also handles ‘reg check’, wherein students present
documentation as to their student status, and ‘bump’. Bump is a mammoth undertaking
whereby students vie for available room spaces once a quarter based on seniority (or
group seniority where two or more members bump into a double or triple together), in a
setting similar to an impromptu auction set up in the cafeteria.
In practice, Memcom has often shirked off its role as house cop. While there is a
formal statement in the rulebook that any member who misses two shifts without notice
per (10-week) quarter or 3 shifts with notice, is subject to expulsion, in practice,
Memcom has rarely enforced this rule. Recently the board stepped in and expelled many
members for work-deficiency, but by this time, Memcom had also gotten around to doing
it in the same week, resulting in dual expulsion notices being sent out with conflicting
conditions for re-instatement. Memcom has also frequently blown off its responsibilities
in regards to expelling members in response to rent deficiency, with some members
literally owing thousands of past-due rent, before, again, the board finally stepped in with
its own round of expulsions.
Such things lead to a lot of cross-committee griping: Memcom members (and
previous members like myself) are angry that the board is stepping on Memcom’s turf;
board members feel that Memcom is a bunch of flakes who don’t know what their job is.
Memcom is also upset about the range of their responsibilities and the lack of power visà-vis the board. (The disparate verb conjugation is an artifact of Memcom simultaneously
being seen both as an entity and a collection of individuals.) I will return to what I’ve
attempted to do about these things and where it’s gone from there. Part of the difference
in professionalism stems from the fact that Arusha himself sits in on board meetings, but
does not attend Memcom meetings. He has admitted to me in private conversations that
he doesn’t see a legitimate role for Memcom, and would rather consolidate power with
the board - having it serve both functions.
There are a lot of members fed up with the co-op, who simply talk about staying there
until some unspecified point when they have enough money to move into a place where
they can have more space and privacy, cook their own food, clean their bathrooms
whenever and to whatever level they desire and not have to deal with crew-chiefs,
‘unfair’ fines, and all the petty hassles involved in living in a place with three buildings,
one kitchen and 433 people. A lot of people use it as a temporary place to stay; a first
stop in Los Angeles or the USA. For this reason there is a very high composition of
foreign-born students, typically around 60%. There is also a very high level of racial
diversity. This is one of its impressive features given the racial and ethnic exclusivity of
the UCLA student body generally.
Some history is worth mention here. The UCHA was founded in 1935 by George
Brown, who went on to be a congressman and support for the co-operative movement, in
part to confront racism in Westwood. At that time it was illegal for blacks to live in
Westwood, unless they were servants. The UCHA successfully argued that since all
members had to perform weekly work shifts, and contribute labor power such as food and
cleaning services, then all members were, pardon the expression, both masters and slaves.
Over the decades since then many of these principles have been encoded in a
rulebook possessing something like the rule of law. The only hedge here is that it is up
for the membership committee, the BOD and Arusha to interpret that rule. Sometimes we
attempt to interpret it in a good faith effort to abide by the clear intent, other times we
either explicitly ignore the stated rules or interpret them through extremely heavy-handed
bad faith efforts to arrive at our desired agenda. I’ve done this, and I’ve seen others do it
too. In one of our worst meetings since I’ve been on the board, Darryl Parry, the current
kitchen manager said, ‘if the rule-book doesn’t say that, then fuck the rule book’. He was
speaking to a rather sympathetic audience, in retrospect. He was speaking to the board of
I’ve come to the conclusion recently that the co-op is one of the most diverse microcosms
that one could happen upon in the history of the world. It has emerged in a historical
moment where globalization has taken sufficient hold that people from all over Africa,
Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Austronesia find themselves sufficiently
connected so as to have heard of UCLA and have a reason and means to arrive here; but
the environments are still sufficiently disintegrated to be quite distinctive. Its an ideal
place to live if you want to brush up on multiple language skills, for example. At times,
Arusha and others have complained to me that it has become ethnically cliquish - he
recently complained about the ‘Chinese contingent’ of the board voting as a block rather
than in the interests of the membership as a whole, for example. I personally like its semicliquish nature. One sees people from many different cultures and hears multiple
languages wafting around the lobby, cafeteria and common rooms, in a way that an
assimilation model would undermine.
A full theory of conflict should adequately conceptualize the difference between a
problem, a grievance, covertly expressed and overtly expressed conflict.