Coping behaviour of extension agents in role conflict situations: a case study in Xinji, China.

Prof.dr. C.M.J. van Woerkum, dr. M.C.H. Wagemans (supervisors) Wageningen Agricultural University, The Netherlands (1998) 160 pp
Source: OAI

ABSTRACT This book is about the coping behaviour of extension agents in role conflict situations in a changing environment in China. The study presents the case of cotton production in Xinji county, China.Chapter 1 gives background information on Chinese agricultural and rural reform since 1978 and its impact for extension system and extension agents. Before the rural reform, Chinese agriculture was collectively managed. The extension system dealt with collective groups of farmers and was used as a policy instrument to implement government policy. Since the rural reform, the rural economy and social environment have been changed considerably, the main transformations being that the managerial unit changed from commune and brigade to individual household, and traditional agriculture switched to industrialised and commercialised agriculture. After the rural reform, the extension system had to deal with individual farmers and to take their wishes into consideration.The second Chapter formulates the research problem and research objectives. Since the reform, it has become clear that farmers' interests also have to be served by the extension system. Farmers will not follow extension recommendations unless they are convinced that it is in their interests to do so. Thus the client market has emerged alongside policy as a second important driving force for the extension system. Now the extension system has to serve both the interests of policy makers and farmers. In China there is a clear conflict between the goals of the government and of farmers in the field of cotton production. The government wants farmers to produce a certain amount of cotton while farmers want to make more profits from non-farming sectors or in growing fruit trees and vegetables. Therefore, two driving forces - policy and client market - create a conflict situation for the extension agents. The extension agents find themselves exposed to conflicting expectations. From this, the main research question emerges as: how do extension agents in Xinji county experience and cope with the role conflict generated by the increasingly opposing demands of the policy mandate and client market force? Research objectives and relevance of the study are also discussed in this Chapter.Chapter 3 provides a theoretical framework relevant to this study. Role conflict theories have been reviewed. As a result, four types of behaviour and three behaviour determinants are put forward. The four types of behaviour are: take sides, compromise, avoid and resolve conflict. The three behaviour determinants are: legitimate power and positive and negative sanctions power of the role senders. Some critiques on the existing role conflict theories are discussed and modifications are made, for example, a focal person's own goal is added as one behaviour determinant. Some cultural differences are also discussed in relation to the validation of the role conflict theory.Chapter 4 presents the research approach and methodology used in this work. A grounded theory was used to guide the study process, and case studies were used to conduct the research. Data collection methods and techniques are discussed and, the Chapter concludes with some experiences of undertaking social research in China.In Chapter 5, a description of the study area and the situation of cotton production are provided, in which the natural environment, social structure, basic facts and production with particular regard to the cotton production are elaborated. The importance of cotton production in China is also given in order to clarify why the government is intervening so strongly in this sector.In Chapter 6, both government policy and farmers' attitudes towards cotton production are presented. Conflicts between the expectations of the government and farmers for extension agents are discussed.The main research findings are presented in Chapters 7 and 8. All extension agents perceive a role conflict in cotton production, but the degree of role conflict varies. The higher level of extension agents (CEAs) perceive a clear role conflict, but not as strong as the extension agents at lower levels (TEAs and VLs). This study shows that the existing role conflict resolution theories are too simple and too static. It finds that there are more types of coping behaviour and more factors which determine coping behaviour. In Tables 7.2, 9.1 and 9.2, the various types of coping behaviour adopted by the different levels of extension agents are given. The reasons and conditions for adoption are also provided in these tables.A new theoretical model for understanding the coping behaviour of extension agents is introduced in Chapter 8, in which a division is made between internal and external factors. The internal factors are considered to be the major determinants for explaining coping behaviour in a role conflict situation. They are as follows: goals of a focal person; degree of power held by a focal person; perceived legitimate power and perceived sanction power of role senders; past experience; attributes of role conflict and; interpersonal relations. The external factors do not have a direct influence on the coping behaviour of a focal person, but can influence internal factors and finally can have an indirect influence. They are: incentive structure; organisational hierarchy; focal person's background; professional position and specialisation of the focal person; whether party member; age of the focal person and; peer behaviour. The reasons behind the different types of coping behaviour of extension agents at different levels are also presented in Chapter 7. These reasons are discussed along the following lines of differentiation: the power of the focal person; the governing principles; uncertainty at varying levels; incentive structure and; feasibility of monitoring field activities and in power distance.The handling of role conflict is a dynamic rather than a static process. Three aspects of the dynamic process are discussed in Chapter 8:
many roles are negotiated at all levels, and all parties within the role negotiation are both sending and receiving roles. A lot of bargaining take place in the negotiation process;
there is no fixed coping behaviour in the role conflict situation, and shifting patterns of selective coping behaviour result, in line with situational changes;
the relationship between all three parties (government officials, extension agents and farmers) is in a dynamic process of change. All parties experiment during the whole process of the role conflict in order to find a suitable way to deal with it.
In the final Chapter, conclusions, discussion and recommendations are outlined based on the study. It is concluded that there are indeed more types of coping behaviour than the existing role conflict theory proposes. Besides taking sides, compromising, avoiding and resolving conflict, there are also other types of behaviour such as: to concentrate on one's own goal, to wait-and-see, to experiment and resign. These new types of coping greatly extend our understanding on the coping strategies that a focal person may take. This study shows that focal persons such as extension agents at any level also have some personal goals other than the expectations of the government and farmers. These personal goals influence their coping behaviour to a certain extent. The only point of differentiation might be the degree of power that the focal persons have in seeking their own goals in a role conflict situation. As this study shows, CEAs have more power to pursue their own goals than TEAs and VLs. When faced with a role conflict situation, extension agents demonstrate a more professional attitude at county level, but act more as government officials at township level. In a difficult role conflict situation, focal persons do not always take action. They may wait-and-see or even resign from the conflict situation. These two strategies are normally applied when role senders from different sides put strong pressure on the focal persons, leading to them not knowing how to perform their tasks. The identification of the strategy of experimentation is extremely important in extending our understanding of the focal person's coping behaviour. This study shows that a focal person would adopt this behaviour in a new and difficult situation.This research indicates that the strength of a role conflict is a very important determinant for understanding the coping behaviour of focal persons. When the role conflict is weak, i.e. when the difference in expectations between role senders is not big, then it is fairly straightforward for a focal person to respond in certain ways. In this case decisions will be strongly related to the focal person's own goals or other factors, because no matter what he/she does, there will be no strong objections from either of the role senders. However, when the role conflict becomes strong, i.e. when the difference in expectations between role senders is big, then a focal person may find it difficult to commit him/herself to certain behaviour, especially when both role senders have sanction powers. In such cases, the focal persons are more likely to become ego defensive and fall back onto other coping strategies, such as wait-and-see or experimentation. This factor has received little attention in the existing role conflict theory. In the final section of Chapter 9, some areas for further research and practical recommendations are suggested, based on the research results.