Communal individualism : managing conflict in Alcoholics Anonymous
Hoffmann, Heath Carter
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This study explores how members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) manage conflict in the context of the AA meeting. AA is a unique organization because it lacks an institutionalized authority structure and thus does not have formal organizational mechanisms (e.g. a leader or manager) for responding to and mediating interpersonal conflicts between members. In the absence of formal authority structure, we might expect conflict to be rampant in AA. However, this is not the case. Certainly, as in other social contexts, AA members experience interpersonal and intra-personal conflicts during meetings, which they manage by using strategies like avoidance, tolerance, criticism, humor, therapy, and in rare cases members ask for help from the police. To explain variations in how members respond to deviant behavior I use Donald Blackï¿½s (1993) general theory of conflict management. Black suggests that conflict management varies with the social structure of the group or organization. The social structure of a setting embodies the configuration of statuses and social ties that participants share. In the case of AA, its members are relatively egalitarian and groups tend to be internally homogeneous producing a social structure that encourages the use of therapy and tolerance to manage conflict. However, more authoritative conflict management strategies such as criticism and law are used in social structures where the deviant member occupies a lower status in the group (i.e. has not been sober for very long) and has weak or infrequent ties to the AA program. In the same way, deviance by high status members is frequently tolerated by lower status members and only authoritatively challenged, if at all, by other high status members. This work contributes to the development of Blackï¿½s theoretical paradigm and also illustrates the importance of equality and egalitarianism in creating a therapeutic milieu.