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Capturing complexity in conflict: A critical ethnography of nonprofit organization development through a social justice lens

Joan Marion Mikalson, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This qualitative study investigates the individual, structural, and social systemic interconnections of conflict in a nonprofit organization. It confronts the simplicity of mainstream, popular resolution methods that typically over-individualize and frame organizational conflict as a personal problem. In contrast to traditional organizational diagnoses based on individual self-reporting of past conflicts and the reduction of conflict systems into isolated parts, this study captures organizational conflict interaction in the moment and emphasizes the complex entanglement of organizational conflict networks. In the tradition of ethnographic fieldwork, participant observation captures conflict-rich events over a compressed timeframe of sixteen months. Critical ethnographic elicitation methods filtered through a social justice perspective, probe insider stories to reveal patterns and themes of complex meaning systems that contribute to contextually grounded analyses. This study intimately follows the conflict story within an animal welfare organization that dared to address conflict, and in doing so, managed to clarify organizational identity, identify contradictions between their implicit values and explicit mission, and unravel routines and reform relationships to reorganize and reclaim their organization. Key findings include the role of conflict in revealing significant differences in underlying ideology and the relationship of conflict to gendered organizational processes. The approach to conflict resolution outlined in this study is invaluable to grassroots and social action organizations seeking to maximize conflict for organizational growth and development.

Subject Area

Management|Social structure|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Mikalson, Joan Marion, "Capturing complexity in conflict: A critical ethnography of nonprofit organization development through a social justice lens" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3118317.