Unpacking the meaning of conflict in organizational conflict research

Elisabeth Naima Mikkelsen, Stewart Clegg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


In this conceptual essay, we review the field of organizational conflict to unpack how it has been constructed genealogically and with what consequences by investigating three major shifts in theorization that have occurred over the past six decades. First, a move away from viewing conflict as dysfunctional to viewing it as constructive. Second, a shift from normative prescriptions to descriptions of what disputants do in conflict. Third, a shift from psychological functional analyses to studying conflict as an organizational phenomenon. We find that three distinct and essentially contested conceptions frame studies of conflict at work: conflict as a distinct behavioral phenomenon, conflict as an instrumental means of achieving something else, and conflict as a social construction contingent on how reality is perceived. This conceptual essay adds to current thinking in organizational conflict research by emphasizing how philosophical and political assumptions about conflict can be seen to have framed knowledge production within the field when it is viewed historically.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)185-203
Number of pages19
JournalNegotiation and Conflict Management Research
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2018


  • conflict management
  • organizational conflict
  • philosophy of science
  • theorizing


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