Monday, April 11, 2011

Covering the field — from consensus to conflict

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 4/22/2007

Ever wonder about the nature of society? Sociologists do, which means I do. In 750 words I’ll try to summarize better than 100 years of scholarship and provide an example to boot!

Defending the north end zone is the “consensus” model. Society forms around consensus on norms (expected behaviors) and values (standards to judge good and bad). Defending the south end zone is the “conflict” model. Society is forged out of the struggle of groups pursuing their interests; social power and authority are important aspects to understanding society.

I’m exaggerating the differences here, but in reality, they are much closer than I’m making them out to be. In short, the consensus model emphasizes “common” values and the conflict model emphasizes “whose” values. The consensus model emphasizes universal interests and the conflict model emphasizes specific interests.

The growing controversy over use of several million dollars of refinanced debt owed by the Vigo County School Corp. to purchase synthetic turf for Vigo County’s three high school football fields seems almost a scripted event to highlight these two models of society. Turf proponents emphasize the broadest possible values (consensus model) in arguing for the turf. Who could be against community pride, education, competitiveness, economic development, safety, and efficiency?

Turf opponents emphasize interests (conflict model). They look at the situation not in terms of whether something fits broad, common values, but in terms of who benefits and at whose expense. They frame the controversy in terms of one group benefiting at the expense of other groups, such as taxpayers versus taxspenders, athletes versus academics, and football versus other sports.

The consensus model adds its own “value” of order, that society should be orderly and harmonious and that dissension and conflict are “bad.” Furthermore, that which leads to disorder and disharmony is harmful. Similarly, the conflict model adds its own “value” of fairness. Despite accepting a view of society as basically “unfair” much of the conflict model’s subsequent analysis is about “fairness,” equity, or equality between competing interest groups.

Proponents of turf (consensus model) organize shows of support for the expenditure, enlisting as many people as possible to show broad support for the values they claim the expenditure reflects. Opponents of turf (conflict model), in a less orchestrated manner, point out the unfairness of the expenditure or demand further explanation/justification for the favoring of one interest group over others.

In turn the proponents criticize the opponents for being insulting, disrespectful, and for pitting groups against one another. To which the opponents respond with more examples of the narrow interests being served by the proponents and more examples of how the proponents would benefit at significant costs to the other groups. Eventually both sides are talking past one another.

Competing scientific models are judged in terms of how well they explain the data and their ability to predict future events. So, the proponents of turf will broaden the meaning of the expenditure. It will become an argument less about football but youth, athletics, education and community. They might argue that without organized sports, that the community would be worse off, that kids would be less supervised, and more likely to get into trouble. After all, a common response to idle youth is sports programs, whether summer tennis lessons or midnight basketball.

Opponents won’t deny these assertions. Instead they will provide more examples of the groups who are passed over. They will not debate the larger, grander notions of whether sports are good or bad; instead they will keep the focus on the expenditure for turf (maybe sports in general) and what that means to other groups. They might point out groups who cannot, other than indirectly, if at all, benefit from the turf.

For example, those unable for physical reasons to play football are not benefited; this would include those medically unable to play and girls. They may argue that if the taxpayers are going to provide such lavish support for the one group, that they must, for fairness sake, provide similar benefits to the excluded. As this drama unfolds, we’ll see which model predicts future events the best.

My students, at this point, often ask me, “… which one is correct, the consensus or conflict model of society?” The conflict model developed, in part, from criticism of the consensus model. Today, most sociologists agree, the conflict model can explain what the consensus model does and more. That, however, still doesn’t make one “right” and the other “wrong.”

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