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How conflict can lead to mutual positive change

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Conflicts can be painful and destructive social experiences. But they can also lead to new ideas, better social interactions and mutually beneficial solutions to shared problems. A new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg describes conflict as a partnership between interdependent participants where positive outcomes are achieved in concert, not in opposition.

For her thesis Constructive Conflict in Classrooms and Beyond, Elizabeth Olsson studied constructive conflict by sitting inside classrooms and watching teachers and students interact for one school year. Her findings demonstrate what conflict looks like inside classrooms, but the thesis also engages in a theoretical discussion that speaks beyond classroom walls.

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Elizabeth Olsson successfully defended her thesis on June 11, 2021.
Photo: Hannah Saldert

“Since most people believe conflict is inherently negative, I was looking for exceptional situations when a social problem occurred and participants addressed it in ways that brought the problem out into the open, leading to new understandings and creative solutions,” says Elizabeth Olsson.  

She identifies constructive conflict as social disputes that participants co-opt as opportunities for mutually beneficial social change and development. The thesis analyses constructive conflict from three categories: cooperative conflict, collaborative conflict and transformative conflict.

..the right, just and desirable thing to do

“For cooperative conflict, I use the example of how a teacher persuaded her students that following her directions was the right, just and desirable thing to do. For collaborative conflict, I share a story of a substitute teacher who realised that she doesn’t know what the students are capable of and so asked the class to help her understand if they had a good lesson,” says Elizabeth Olsson.

When writing about transformative conflict, Elizabeth Olsson tells the story of a teacher so fed up with her students’ misbehavior that she exploded in anger and frustration during a lesson. However, everything seemed to change when the teacher learned to appreciate her students’ perspectives and realized that her students are also in emotional pain.

The stories help Elizabeth Olsson theorize what constructive conflict is, how it occurs, and why participants address some social disputes in beneficial ways. The thesis takes a transdisciplinary approach, bringing contributions from peace and development research, conflict resolution, sociology, social psychology and education research into conversation with each other.

The empirical study, which consists of 174 lesson observations and 97 interviews with 88 students and 24 teachers, allowed Elizabeth Olsson to witness, participate in, and document constructive conflicts as they occurred and let her explore these interactions from the perspectives of participants.  

“I hope that this discussion helps people recognize and embrace social disparities as opportunities worth pursuing rather than obstacles best avoided or eliminated,” says Elizabeth Olsson.

More information

Elizabeth Olsson successfully defended her doctoral thesis at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, on June 11, 2021.