Thursday, March 18, 2010

Critique of Harris & Walton on Narrative Skills and School Conflicts

Article Reviewed:  Harris, A. R., & Walton, M. D. (2009).  “Thank you for making me write this.” Narrative skills and the management of conflict in urban schools. Urban Review, 41, 287-311.

In this article, Harris and Walton (H & W) state that Laursen, Finkelstein, and Betts (2001) “identified three types of conflict resolution strategies:  coercion, negotiation, and disengagement” in “a comprehensive meta-analysis” (p. 289).  This statement gives the impression that Laursen et al. studied categorizations of conflict resolution strategies and concluded that coercion, negotiation, and disengagement best represented the myriad taxonomies they had encountered.  That impression would be mistaken.  Laursen et al. (p. 424) did not study that question; instead, they looked to Jensen-Campbell et al. (1996) for evidence suggesting that negotiation, disengagement, and coercion might be the three strategies by which disagreements are closed.

The work done by Laursen et al. had to do, instead, with developmental trends in peer conflict resolution.  H & W observe that Laursen et al. compared the relative frequency of these three strategies at different stages of development.  H & W (p. 289) say that Laursen et al. found the following rankings at the following stages of development, with the most frequently used strategy listed first (N = negotiation, D = disengagement, C = coercion):

Childhood:  C, N, D
Adolescence:  N, D/C (equally)
Young adulthood:  N, D, C.

H & W infer, from this, that “conflict resolution strategies develop in a direction away from aggravating or aggressive strategies toward the more constructive strategies of mitigation and communication” (p. 290).  But that seems pretty glib.  One rarely finds children holding grudges for years and even decades, as adults do.  It seems that the children who try to imagine themselves in the violent settings of adults sports and wars might instead emulate adults’ admirable verbal conflict resolution skills – if the kids were seeing such skills as the standard of adulthood.

H & W devote some pages to the discussion of narratives by which children relate their conflict resolution experiences from their own perspectives.  The authors chose to focus on autobiographic narrative data because these data “show how children represent the different aspects of the conflict situation” and “can begin to reveal how children make sense of their conflicts” (p. 291).  It will soon develop, however, that some ways of making sense are privileged in these authors' eyes.

Notwithstanding the putative meta-analysis of the matter by Laursen et al., H & W divide their own discussion of these narratives into four, not three, categories:  communication and reconciliation, withdrawing from conflict, retaliation, and seeking adult help (or not).  It seems that Laursen et al. are enlisted selectively, for the purpose of supporting a scheme of linear developmental progression in the direction of negotiation and away from conflict.

So.  Having evoked the nonpresence of a tight theoretical framework, the authors proceed to marinate juicy excerpts from children's autobiographical narratives in the vinegar of their own values.  For starters, in a nation in which many adults report having no friends, and where that number is increasing, H & W aver that communication and reconciliation are the most mature conflict resolution methods.  Consider their Example 1, providing a quote from one of the children (p. 296):  “I told her how I felt when she bumped into me.  I told her that I got mad but, I knew that she [just] made a mistake.  So we both said that we were sorry.”  If only adult conflicts reaching the point of anger were routinely handled so maturely!

Oddly, the authors’ four categories do not include actual aggression or violence per se.  While I cannot lay my hands on a copy of the article by Jensen-Campbell et al. (1996) at the moment, I have the assurance of Laursen et al. that it was an empirically based piece.  Everyday experience provides its own empirical corroboration:  people do not consistently take, or even see themselves as taking, the meek route that the authors palpably prefer.  In the quote just offered, for example, the child admitted that she had been the one who had gotten mad, knowing that the other child had intended and did no harm.  The girl is commended for using “communication and reconciliation”; there is no comment on the reasonable impression that this was a conflict that she, herself, had created.

H & W provide quotes from two narratives as grist for their discussion of the communication and reconciliation strategy.  They offer a third excerpt in their discussion of the withdrawal strategy.  When they turn to the retaliation strategy, they provide their fourth quote.  “This story in Example 4,” they say, “shows much less social-cognitive and moral sophistication than did the previous examples” (p. 299).  Moral sophistication, for this purpose, appears to be measured in terms of whether the author takes “a moral stance” or assigns blame to oneself or to the other person (p. 295).  According to the authors, an instance of a “moral evaluation” occurs in Example 1 (quoted above) when the girl says, “I knew she made a mistake,” characterizing the other’s action as “an atypical lapse.”  But wouldn't it be the height of moral hypocrisy to graciously pardon the other for her mistake, when it may be one's own flash of unresonable anger that created the problem?

And so the child in the authors' Example 4 is a boy, the first such creature to appear in their examples; and his lack of moral sophistication is said to be found in his failure to offer moral evaluations, analyses of motives, or speculations as to others’ thoughts and emotions.  Apparently they think he should not have tried to describe how his little fistfight in the bathroom became a whole big to-do involving his dad and the principal and the other boy’s big brother and the Safety Council.  Had so many helpful adults become involved in the girls’ conflicts -- had their counterparts been backed up by a mean big brother -- perhaps they too would have had to devote their attention to explaining how all these people got into the mix, and why it all ultimately comes back to the fact that the other boy was hassling him.  How H & W can read his description and miss what they would otherwise consider a "moral" propensity to blame people is beyond me.

In the quoted excerpt, the boy instead takes what a lawyer might call a "strict liability" approach to the transgression at issue.  Basically, if you pick on me, you'll wish you hadn't.  It doesn't really matter what you are thinking about.  You may think you're the Queen of Sheba.  Whatever.  Just don't pick on me.  It seems, unfortunately, that H & W are not fond of a strict liability approach.  Tut-tut, they say:  there is “no evidence that the author has learned anything about how to avoid violence.”  But apparently there is no evidence that he has failed to learn anything about violence either.  Besides, why would the authors be encouraging him to “avoid” violence, when their own preferred strategy is to engage in communication and reconciliation?  The impression that both authors (Marsha and Alexis) are female does not generate confidence that they have considered the calculations by which he may have to appear strong, so as to discourage other aggressors.

The authors do go on to provide other examples that are not quite so lame.  I find their article underwhelming nontheless.  They do tell interesting stories, and their orientation toward letting the kids tell those stories themselves is commendable.  But this is one instance where conflation of conflict management and conflict suppression seems ill-advised.  The savages -- literal or figurative, in some faraway jungle or in a nearby school -- turn out to have their own cultures.  Long before the missionaries sally forth to change and fix them, we should try to understand and respect them.