Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Conflict and Harmony

The following thoughts were written a few weeks ago.

A Drive at Sunset

Last night was extraordinarily beautiful. As the sun was setting, M and I drove down Jefferson Road in West Sacramento to where it turns into a levee road. Clouds were stretched over the pale sky like layered gauze. The sun was as red as a strawberry, halfway behind the hills, when we saw a blond field up ahead with a backdrop of towering oak trees. But the trees looked peculiar – they had large, white spots in them. I thought maybe it was the sky shining through, but the spots were too pale and uniformly-sized to be sky patches. As we approached, I realized they were nesting egrets - my favorite birds!! I never knew they roosted in trees that way.

We passed over a little canal lined with horse grass and reeds, and pulled over by the trees. The field alongside the canal was bordered by a white post-fence, with an opening to a dirt pathway. As we approached the pathway, the egrets (who were hundreds of feet away) all took flight and circled around the sky. Funny, I thought, that they wouldn't be afraid of large, loud, motorized vehicles whipping by at 50 miles per hour, but that two people on foot would spook them. They probably knew what guns sounded like, and that they were usually fired by humans on foot.

We wandered through the field, which seemed to be some kind of grain, and eventually took a side path down to the canal. Some of the egrets returned, and I could hear them honking and chattering. But mostly they settled among the branches of trees further down the canal. One flew almost directly overhead, and we had a full view of its slender elegance from beneath.

We sat down at the water’s edge, toes on the mud, and watched as fish splished and flipped in the water. Small, dark birds sped after one another, zipping down close to the water, but never touching it. We took pictures of the horse grass silhouetted against the sky. Small animals created rustling noises as they went about their business in the dry, hollow reed grasses. We joked about getting West Nile Virus from the mosquitoes that hovered around, and I said I’d rather die of West Nile than miss evenings like these. The sun slowly melted into the horizon, and eventually nighttime came.

Conflict and Consensus

As we sat, we talked about philosophy, overpopulation, and reproduction. We talked about emotions and communication, and M. gave me one of the best compliments I could imagine:

“I really admire how you do such a good job of asserting your opinions without shoving other people out of the conversation.”

That is precisely the kind of balance I strive for - only I'd never put it in those words before. I was very touched. For about five years now, I’ve been thinking constantly about my own worldview in the context of conflict and harmony.

Two bedrock theories of sociology (and other social sciences) are the structural functionalism perspective - attributed in large part to Emile Durkheim - and the conflict perspective - the brainchild of Karl Marx. Structural functionalism conceptualizes every aspect of society to have a constructive purpose, even dysfunction. This means our society’s institutions function as a result of the synthesis of different perspectives, or the compromises reached by opposed parties. The Marxist conflict perspective, on the other hand, posits that society is characterized by the constant state of opposition between various classes, or groups of people with differing interests. To put it more simply, one theory posits that we are defined by our ability to compromise on our disagreements; the other views our same society through the lens of those very conflicts themselves. Either of these perspectives can be used as a level of analysis for any sort of issue, from the interpersonal level to a global scale.

I haven’t decided whether I put more stock in Marxism or structural functionalism - either as far as an explanation for the way society works, or insofar as far as which approach I value more as a tool for organizing for social change. It’s clear that both are at work in the world, and I also truly value both techniques. However, I always feel somehow at odds with myself when I consider this fact. It seems the two paradigms cannot co-exist simultaneously because by their very nature they are diametrically opposed. But last night I had a little epiphany about balance: the two are not mutually exclusive; they happen in tandem with one another.

Similarly, both confrontation and consensus-building are useful and necessary tools. The two even complement each other in what may appear on the surface to be a contradictory or counter-productive way. In fact, one could go so far as to say they are interdependent. One oft-cited example is the respective roles played by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violence and the Black Panthers’ radicalism in the civil rights/Black freedom movement.

Thus it is neither illogical nor wrong in any way to use both as tools at appropriate moments. In thinking about this further, I see that this has been obvious all along. Most reasonable people would agree that trying to talk through a problem when it arises is the best course of initial action; and everyone but the most staunch of all pacifists would agree that things come down to confrontation sometimes. Academia, however, tends to set up a false dichotomy about the two. Do you have any thoughts on conflict or consensus?

Update: Today (yes, literally less than 12 hours after posting this blog), I ran into the professor I had for Introduction to Sociology during one of my first few semesters at Sierra College. Apparently, she works for DHCS. She was so excited that I so clearly and fondly remembered her class. That is quite a strange coincidence, no?

Bird Family

Finally, some sad news to report.

If you didn't know, a family of pigeons was nesting just outside my bathroom window. Recently, I walked to the laundry room and saw an egg splattered on the ground. I thought, “Why would anyone throw an egg at the side of my house?" But, hey, I live downtown, so I didn’t think anything of it. But a few days later, for the first time since they appeared, neither Mirabel, the female pigeon, nor Maxwell, her mate, were on their nest – and I saw there were no eggs, either. It clicked then that the egg on the ground a few days before had been one of their eggs, and that probably during the night, a raccoon or a blue jay or something had come and taken their second egg, or else maybe it had fallen. But the next time I walked downstairs, I didn't see any evidence of another egg on the ground. Poor, sweet family. Mirabel, Maxwell, and their eggs – all gone. Just an empty hollow of twigs where their white-shelled offspring were once developing.

It all makes me want to stop eating eggs. And it also makes me marvel that any birds survive, living as they do in delicate nests, beginning their lives protected only by a thin, fragile shell. Maybe you think pigeons are disgusting, but I think any bird is a miracle.


  1. I once had a couple of doves, Ma & Pa, living under the eaves of my roof and I'd watch and protect them from the neighbor's cat as much as I could. They usually had two clutches of "kids" (as I called them) every year and they came back for 3 years straight. For the most part they were good parents -- I think they only threw one of their chicks out of the nest (which broke my heart), but I would delight in watching the babies grow in the nest and then Pa would nudge them out and they'd fledge and hesitantly take off on their own. When Ma & Pa didn't come back the 4th year, it took me several days to realize that they weren't coming back. Ever. I hadn't realized that to me, in the Spring and through the Summer, these little birds were my own little secret family and I loved them. I grieved for awhile after they were gone (I hated looking at that empty nest; actually don't like thinking about it now).

  2. Jeanne, that is so sad! But at least you have the memories of those little chicks! Sounds like it was a really beautiful experience to watch them grow. Maybe my bird will come back next year, too. I didn't know the parents would actually throw their chicks out of the nest... Were they trying to get them to fly before they were ready?

  3. Heather, sometimes they're trying to get them to fly but often they kick them out if they don't think the babies will make it -- like if they don't eat or aren't growing or something. Nature gives parents incredible instincts about those things. It's amazing.

  4. Wow! I love your blogs! You have a great way with words, your compassion and humanness show brightly as you take us along to places you see and feel. Have a great night.

  5. I love pigeons! My best friend E, pigeons are her favorite bird, and she taught me their awesomeness. I'm sorry you lost your avian neighbors.

  6. Post script: the idea of structural functionalism versus conflict theory is a false dichotomy, I've decided. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that a good activist/organizer is familiar with ALL the tools of creating social justice, and the true wisdom is knowing when to use which one. Another very useful perspective, which I put a lot of stock in, and which adds lots of dimension to the conversation, is postmodern/deconstruction. The idea is that power is fluid - not located permanently/statically within one person or entity. It is relative to the situation. Said one of my short, slight female professors a few weeks ago (and I'm paraphrasing): "In this classroom, I have a lot of power. I decide which assignments you get points for, how many points you get. I make the policies. I have been published in journals and books. I have But when I walk out to my car at night by myself, I have considerably much less power than a tall, strong student." The idea of postmodernism is that power is fluid and relative to the situation, but that it can be resisted, and that small acts of resistance are really the most powerful - they create small but important fissures in large power structures.
    What do you guys think?