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Definitions of Conflict: An Academic Sampler

Compiled by Gregg Walker, Professor of Speech Communication at Oregon State University

As a component of his course COMM 440/540 - Theories of Conflict and Conflict Management, Gregg Walker developed this table providing a sampling of various scholarly definitions of conflict. Professor Walker warns his students that this page is "continually under construction" and that additional definitions may be added as they are discovered. People interested in watching the evolution of this table can visit the original at his course site.

Author(s)          Definition                       Key Terms     
Coser 1956  Social conflict is a struggle between opponents over values and claims to scarce status, power and resources.  struggle, opposition, scarcity 
Schelling 1960  Conflicts that are strategic are essentially bargaining situations in which the ability of one participant to gain his ends is dependent on the choices or decisions that the other participant will make. strategy, bargaining, dependence 
Deutsch 1973  A conflict exists whenever incompatible activities occur . . . one party is interfering, disrupting, obstructing, or in some other way making another party's actions less effective. incompatibility, interference effectiveness 
Wall 1985 Conflict is a process in which two or more parties attempt to frustrate the other's goal attainment . . . the factors underlying conflict are threefold: interdependence, differences in goals, and differences in perceptions. goals, interdependence,  
Pruitt and  
Rubin 1986 
Conflict means perceived divergence of interest, or a belief that the parties' current aspirations cannot be achieved simultaneously.  interests, aspirations, beliefs 
Conrad 1990 Conflicts are communicative interactions among people who are interdependent and who perceive that their interests are incompatible, inconsistent, or in tension. communication, interdependence  
Tjosvold and  
van de Vliert  
Conflict--incompatible activities-- occurs within cooperative as well as competitive contexts . . . conflict parties' can hold cooperative or competitive goals.  incompatibility, cooperation  
Poole, and  
Stutman 1997
Conflict is the interaction of interdependent people who perceive incompatible goals and interference from each other in achieving those goals.  interaction, interdependence  

Professor Walker notes: "As Table 1 reveals, these definitions have much in common.  First, they indicate the inevitability of conflict in human affairs.  Second, they reveal key features of conflict situations.  Many of the defninitions, for example, stress that conflicts involve interdependent parties who perceive some kind of incompatibility between them."

How do you define conflict? Are there any unique aspects of conflict in higher education settings?
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Page last updated 11/27/2005

A project of Campus Conflict Resolution Resources.
Supported by a FIPSE grant from the US Department of Education
and seed money from the Hewlett Foundation-funded CRInfo project.

Correspondence to CMHE Report
(Attn: Bill Warters)
Campus Conflict Resolution Resources Project
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Wayne State University
Detroit, MI 48201.

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