Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Howard R. Pollio

Committee Members

Lowell Gaertner, Kathleen Row, Sandra Thomas


Face-to-face interactions are the experiential basis for our reflected understandings of the social world. Face-to-face conflict (as a form of social transaction) is present across different forms of social conflict (e.g., international or intergroup conflicts). Understanding the phenomenology of face-to-face conflict thus provides insight concerning experiences of social conflict and our evaluations of it. In this investigation, a hermeneutic phenomenological approach was used to describe the thematic meanings of face-to-face conflict experiences.

Eleven dialogical interviews were conducted concerning situations in which participants “experienced a conflict between themselves and another person(s)” and comprise 17 hours of recorded dialogue between the participants and investigator. Two different groups conducted interpretation of transcribed interviews: one at the University of Tennessee Center for Applied Phenomenological Research and the other at the University of Tennessee Nursing College. Interpretive groups were composed of 10-15 scholars from the University and surrounding community, trained in hermeneutic phenomenology. Interpretation also was conducted independently and presented to both groups for discussion and further analysis.

Results of the thematic analysis indicated that the structure for the face-to-face conflict experience consists of three moments— the betrayal, fight, and aftermath— which emerge against the ground of a preexisting relationship. The themes associated with betrayal are (1) issue(s) and problem(s), (2) seriousness of the issue(s), (3) shock and surprise, (4) feeling hurt and losing trust, (5) unfairness and wrongness, and (6) deciding whether to act. The fight is structured by themes of (1) control, power, strength, (2) blaming and being blamed, (3) frustration and confusion, (4) fear and anger, and (5) disconnection and difference. The aftermath concerns (1) accountability and responsibility, (2) hope and regret, (3) learning and change, and (4) deciding on the relationship, that is, (a) to leave the relationship, (b) to remain in the relationship without changing it, or (c) to change the relationship. One may further understand these moments and themes as structured in terms of interpersonal and psychological processes of controlling the conflict, judging the conflict, understanding the conflict, feeling the conflict, and explaining the conflict.

Prevailing models of social conflict tend to view it in terms of interdependent exchange relations in which rational social agents seek to secure a share of finite and valued resources, often at the expense of others in their social environment. The understanding of face-to-face conflict that emerges here suggests an alternative to the utilitarian and functionalist understandings. Face-to-face conflict is a dialogical relation that challenges, questions, and recreates the meaning of self-in-relationship within the context of a particular sociocultural world. The findings are discussed in terms of qualitative and quantitative studies of anger, intractable conflict, victim-perpetrator relationships, and forgiveness; they also are described with respect to various theories concerning the role of conflict in individual social experience.

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