Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Rancorous Communities Destroy Relationships

November 3, 2002

When a community grows and there are groups of people who don’t depend each other for their economic or social relationships, conflict can be divisive. If they don’t know or respect each other, disagreement can be personalized, accusatory or abusive.

Kathy Kremer, rural sociologist at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, studied the dynamics of controversy in a small, rural Minnesota community. Her research corroborated the theory of James Coleman who described seven stages of community conflict. Kremer found an usual willingness for community members to talk about what they had gone through.

Kremer states, "No matter what side of the issue they were on, nearly all people I spoke with had a sense that things could have been different. What they perceived as negative change in their community and personal lives could have been prevented. The dynamics of controversy move forward without an opportunity to return. Ties with neighbors and friends remain broken for years. Rural residents hoped something could be done to prevent this from happening in other communities. They desperately hoped something positive from could come from a negative situation."

"Please tell our story. It didn’t need to happen this way."

First stage. As relationships deteriorate, controversy moves from a specific issue into general issues. At the heart of the controversy are differences in values and interests. New issues broaden the scope of the conflict. This is done to solidify the identity of the group and to attract broader support for one’s position.

Other previously suppressed issues are added on to the initial issue to enlarge the battle to make it more winnable. The problems are defined, the cause described and blame is fixed. The issues are framed and talked about to help mobilize adherents, garner bystander support and demobilize opponents.

Second stage. The broader disagreements widen the spectrum and legitimizes increased antagonism, personal attacks, and hostility. This perpetuates the conflict. The opponents’ personal behaviors and beliefs from the past are brought up and enter the disagreement.

The original issue is lost. Personal attacks can go both ways. It isn’t about the issue, it is about a power struggle. Much time is spent plotting solutions, tactics, and strategies.

These might include harassing phone calls, accusations of incivility, obscene hand gestures, and verbal assaults to one’s spouse and children. You name it, it happens - or people think it has happened.

Stage three. Step three in this process is a polarization of social relations. People hang out with those who share beliefs around this issue. It is easier for communities to be around like-minded individuals. Interaction with opposite groups wither.

Lifelong friends and neighbors stop speaking or greeting each other. People are shunned at church and school events. This extends to family, siblings and friends not directly involved in the controversy. People are ostracized. Children are rejected by other kids.

On the other hand, there is high interaction and new associations being formed within one’s own new allegiance group. There are many gatherings, meetings and discussions.

Stage four. Next comes the formation of partisan organizations to help with planning, communicating, organizing and mobilizing the group. Clubs and individuals go out of their way to stake a stand pro or con that are beyond the call of duty. A following grows and is significant enough in terms of numbers, prestige, or influence to be taken into account by the opposing side.

Stage five. New leaders emerge without long term connections to the community or to leadership roles. They are willing to take a more extreme position than most group members would be willing to take. Their leadership role is a one time deal as they generally recede into the background once the controversy is over. People and resources from outside the community are brought in as allies.

Stage six. Other community organizations are forced to take sides. They are drawn into the struggle. They try to maintain neutrality but they feel the effects of the controversy on themselves, the community and their organization. There are some in the community who are not willing to take a public position but offer private support. They feel there are too many business and professional risks connected to being an advocate for one side or the other.

Stage seven. The next step in community conflict is that communication proceeds by word of mouth rather from media outlets. Coffee shop talk and telephone calls intensify the rhetoric and the distorted claims of truth. This was the only stage in the conflict that was not verified in Kremer’s research.

Relationships suffer. The result of these stages of conflict was that the group that did not prevail considered the issue unresolved. Community division and rancor then transfers to other activities and interactions among community members.

Long after the original issue has been lost to memory, bad feelings and animosity continue to poison community relationships. Too much damage had occurred in the process of fighting to heal the wounds of conflict. These things take on a life of their own. Sheer momentum propels them forward.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are ways the community can step in and make a conscious effort to halt the progress of the dispute early before it gets out of hand. In a companion article, I will review conflict resolution techniques that have been used effectively to prevent the escalation of personalized conflict in rural communities.