Case Study: Realistic Conflict


Case Study: Realistic Conflict


Sherif & colleagues pursued three longitudinal studies said to demonstrate the viability of this analysis of inter-group relations (see Brown, 1996 for review). All of the research was conducted in a boys’ summer camp, all boys (aged around 12) were strangers to each other on arrival and had been carefully screened to ensure they were ‘psychologically well-adjusted.’ This was to ensure that all behaviour exhibited during the camp experience could not be attributed to prior friendship history or psychological dysfunction.

In the first two experiments, the boys were split into two experimental groups after the first few days. Best friends, formed during these first few days of camp, were split up so that the majority of each boy’s best friends were assigned to the out-group. Each group engaged itself in various activities without having much to do with the other. In the second phase of the experiment, a series of inter-group contests was announced (for example, tug of war), for an overall prize of a group cup and personal penknife for each of the winning group members. Losers would receive nothing. This intervention was designed to introduce negative interdependence. As Brown (1996: 538) describes ‘… whereas in the first stage group members had coexisted more or less peacefully, they were now transformed into two hostile factions, never losing the opportunity to deride the out-group and, in some instances, physically attack it.‘ Consistent in-group favouritism was also exhibited in socio-metric preferences, irrespective of the initial bonds of friendship forged in the first few days of camp. Clearly, the inter-group relationship was powerful enough to overshadow interpersonal level (that is, ‘friendship’) considerations.

In a variation of this design (Experiment 3), boys were assigned to groups in different but nearby camps. Neither group knew of each other’s existence until strategically informed. In this instance, several of the boys spontaneously offered to challenge the other group in a sporting contest. The same kinds of biased and discriminatory attitudes and behaviour exhibited by boys in the first two experiments were then observed.

All three experiments have been since much cited in support of Sherif’s (1966) theory of inter-group behaviour. The behaviour of the boys varied systematically with the changing level and character of their relationships with each other. Their attitudes and behaviour exhibited homogeneity and could thus not be attributed to personality dysfunction or a particular set of psychological traits.

Sherif’s experiments demonstrated the impact of objective inter-group relations (for example, negative interdependence of fate) in determining inter-group attitudes and behaviours. Others have also observed in an organizational context how the character of interdependence between groups can influence the tone of the relationship between them. Brown (1996) notes for example how a highly reciprocal interdependence between groups in combination with an inability to distinguish between each group’s contribution will tend to unite participating groups into a common purpose (for example, the education process within the University context). Where groups on the other hand are required to interact intensively without being bound up by a common reward system or joint problem solving activity (for example, inter-disciplinary health care teams), there is high propensity for conflict to occur.

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