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A lived experience theory of schism (LETS): Exploring the complex social dynamics powering factionalised conflict in nonprofit organisations

Sugars, Katherine Elizabeth (2022) A lived experience theory of schism (LETS): Exploring the complex social dynamics powering factionalised conflict in nonprofit organisations. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Schism is a widespread phenomenon of social groups which has persisted over centuries. An intense form of factionalised conflict, schism can be distressing for people to experience and challenging for groups to navigate. Schism research has roots in anthropology, organisation studies, and social psychology, and has been studied in societies, religions, social movements, political parties, nonprofit organisations, and other contexts. Despite broad and enduring relevance to social organising, schism research is surprisingly scant. Across disciplines and contexts, findings are disjointed and contradictory. No widely accepted definition or theory of schism was found in the literature.

The aim of the current research was to gain insight into the social dynamics powering the incidence, progression, and lived experience of schism. The goal was to increase human agency and control in schism based on emerging theoretical knowledge, and thereby improve experiences and outcomes for people and organisations.

A qualitative study of schism in nonprofit organisations in Western Australia was undertaken using an exploratory qualitative research design and a lived experience lens. Participant-centred interviews were conducted, typically of 1 hour, with 41 people who described schisms in 24 organisations. Sampling was initially by convenience then purposive snowball sampling, enabling a range of organisations, roles, and experiences to be represented. Interviews were transcribed to form a rich primary data set. Systematic coding and thematic analysis complemented immersion in individual stories. Data collection, data analysis, and theory development were iterative and interdependent. Emerging themes forced problematisation of prior knowledge. The ongoing process of theory construction employed both inductive and abductive reasoning.

A novel conceptualisation of schism emerged from this research project, representing schism as a complex social construction in an open system rather than a linear process in a bounded system, and privileging the human experience over the organisation as the entity of concern. A new definition of schism is proposed which provides a foundation for the lived experience theory of schism (LETS) presented in this thesis. Together, the definition and theory contribute to knowledge of schism in organisations and other social systems, and provide a foundation for future schism research. Findings from this project have implications for nonprofit sector policy and practice, especially in group leadership and governance.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Business
Supervisor(s): Paull, Megan and Boudville, Ian
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