Conflict theories are perspectives in sociology and social psychology that emphasize the social, political, or material inequality of a social group, that critique the broad socio-political system, or that otherwise detract from structural functionalism and ideological conservativism. Conflict theories draw attention to power differentials, such as class conflict, and generally contrast historically dominant ideologies. It is therefore a macro level analysis of society. Karl Marx is the father of the social conflict theory, which is a component of the 4 paradigms of sociology. Certain conflict theories set out to highlight the ideological aspects inherent in traditional thought. Whilst many of these perspectives hold parallels, conflict theory does not refer to a unified school of thought, and should not be confused with, for instance, peace and conflict studies, or any other specific theory of social conflict.
- In classical sociology 1
- Modern approaches 2
- Types of conflict theory 3
- See also 4
- Notes 5
- References 6
In classical sociology
Of the classical founders of social science, conflict theory is most commonly associated with Karl Marx (1818–1883). Based on a dialectical materialist account of history, Marxism posited that capitalism, like previous socioeconomic systems, would inevitably produce internal tensions leading to its own destruction. Marx ushered in radical change, advocating proletarian revolution and freedom from the ruling classes. At the same time, Karl Marx was aware that most of the people living in capitalist societies did not see how the system shaped the entire operation of society. Just like how we see private property, or the right to pass that property on to our children as natural, many of the members in capitalistic societies see the rich as having earned their wealth through hard work and education, while seeing the poor as lacking in skill and initiative. Marx rejected this type of thinking and termed it false consciousness, explanations of social problems as the shortcomings of individuals rather than the flaws of society. Marx wanted to replace this kind of thinking with something Engels termed class consciousness, workers' recognition of themselves as a class unified in opposition to capitalist and ultimately to the capitalist system itself. In general, Marx wanted the proletarians to rise up against the capitalist and overthrow the capitalist system.
Two early conflict theorists were the Polish-Austrian sociologist and political theorist Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838–1909) and the American sociologist and paleontologist Lester F. Ward (1841–1913). Although Ward and Gumplowicz developed their theories independently they had much in common and approached conflict from a comprehensive anthropological and evolutionary point-of-view as opposed to Marx's rather exclusive focus on economic factors.
Gumplowicz, in Grundriss der Soziologie (Outlines of Sociology, 1884), describes how civilization has been shaped by conflict between cultures and ethnic groups. Gumplowicz theorized that large complex human societies evolved from the war and conquest. Another organizes states around the domination of one group: masters and slaves. Eventually a complex caste system develops. Horowitz says that Gumplowicz understood conflict in all its forms: "class conflict, race conflict and ethnic conflict", and calls him one of the fathers of Conflict Theory.
Ward directly attacked and attempted to systematically refute the elite business class's laissez-faire philosophy as espoused by the hugely popular social philosopher Herbert Spencer. Ward's Dynamic Sociology (1883) was an extended thesis on how to reduce conflict and competition in society and thus optimize human progress. At the most basic level Ward saw human nature itself to be deeply conflicted between self-aggrandizement and altruism, between emotion and intellect, and between male and female. These conflicts would be then reflected in society and Ward assumed there had been a "perpetual and vigorous struggle" among various "social forces" that shaped civilization. Ward was more optimistic than Marx and Gumplowicz and believed that it was possible to build on and reform present social structures with the help of sociological analysis.
 The chief form of social conflict that Durkheim addressed was crime. Durkheim saw crime as "a factor in public health, an integral part of all healthy societies." The collective conscience defines certain acts as "criminal." Crime thus plays a role in the evolution of morality and law: "[it] implies not only that the way remains open to necessary changes but that in certain cases it directly prepares these changes."
Weber's (1864–1920) approach to conflict is contrasted with that of Marx. While Marx focused on the way individual behavior is conditioned by social structure, Weber emphasized the importance of "social action," i.e., the ability of individuals to affect their social relationships.
C. Wright Mills has been called the founder of modern conflict theory. In Mills's view, social structures are created through conflict between people with differing interests and resources. Individuals and resources, in turn, are influenced by these structures and by the "unequal distribution of power and resources in the society." The power elite of American society, (i.e., the military–industrial complex) had "emerged from the fusion of the corporate elite, the Pentagon, and the executive branch of government." Mills argued that the interests of this elite were opposed to those of the people. He theorized that the policies of the power elite would result in "increased escalation of conflict, production of weapons of mass destruction, and possibly the annihilation of the human race."
Mubarak of Egypt drew extensively on his ideas, as well as the youth movement in Tunisia and the earlier ones in the Eastern European color revolutions that had previously been inspired by Sharp's work.
A recent articulation of conflict theory is found in Alan Sears' (Canadian sociologist) book A Good Book, in Theory: A Guide to Theoretical Thinking (2008):
- Societies are defined by inequality that produces conflict, rather than which produces order and consensus. This conflict based on inequality can only be overcome through a fundamental transformation of the existing relations in the society, and is productive of new social relations.
- The disadvantaged have structural interests that run counter to the status quo, which, once they are assumed, will lead to social change. Thus, they are viewed as agents of change rather than objects one should feel sympathy for.
- Human potential (e.g., capacity for creativity) is suppressed by conditions of exploitation and oppression, which are necessary in any society with an unequal division of labour. These and other qualities do not necessarily have to be stunted due to the requirements of the so-called "civilizing process," or "functional necessity": creativity is actually an engine for economic development and change.
- The role of theory is in realizing human potential and transforming society, rather than maintaining the power structure. The opposite aim of theory would be the objectivity and detachment associated with positivism, where theory is a neutral, explanatory tool.
- Consensus is a euphemism for ideology. Genuine consensus is not achieved, rather the more powerful in societies are able to impose their conceptions on others and have them accept their discourses. Consensus does not preserve social order, it entrenches stratification, e.g., the American dream.
- The State serves the particular interests of the most powerful while claiming to represent the interests of all. Representation of disadvantaged groups in State processes may cultivate the notion of full participation, but this is an illusion/ideology.
- Inequality on a global level is characterized by the purposeful underdevelopment of Third World countries, both during colonization and after national independence. The global system (i.e., development agencies such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund) benefits the most powerful countries and multi-national corporations, rather than the subjects of development, through economic, political, and military actions.
Types of conflict theory
- Critical theory
- Feminist theory: An approach that recognizes women's political, social, and economic equality to men.
- Postmodern theory: An approach that is critical of modernism, with a mistrust of grand theories and ideologies.
- Post-structural theory
- Postcolonial theory
- Queer theory: A growing body of research findings that challenges the heterosexual bias in Western society.
- World systems theory
- Race-Conflict Approach: A point of view that focuses on inequality and conflict between people of different racial and ethnic categories.
- Bibliography of sociology
- Conflict management
- Game theory
- Social defeat
- Social-conflict theory
- Sociology of peace, war, and social conflict
- Structural functionalism
- Pure sociology
- Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, introduction by Martin Malia (New York: Penguin group, 1998), pg. 35 ISBN 0-451-52710-0
- Marx A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm
- Fifty Key Sociologists: the Formative Theorists, John Scott Irving, 2007, pg 59
- "Communicating Ideas: The Politics of Scholarly Publishing", Irving Louis Horowitz, 1986, pg 281
- "Outlines of Sociology", pg 196
- "Transforming Leadership", James MacGregor Burns, 2004, pg 189
- "German Realpolitik and American Sociology: an Inquiry Into the Sources and Political Significance of the Sociology of Conflict", James Alfred Aho, 1975, ch. 6 'Lester F. Ward's Sociology of Conflict'
- Bourricaud, F. 'The Sociology of Talcott Parsons' Chicago University Press. ISBN 0-226-06756-4. p. 94
- Durkheim, E. (1938). The Rules of Sociological Method. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 67.
- Durkheim, (1938), pp. 70–81.
- Livesay, C. Social Inequality: Theories: Weber. Sociology Central. A-Level Sociology Teaching Notes. Retrieved on: 2010-06-20.
- Knapp, P. (1994). One World – Many Worlds: Contemporary Sociological Theory (2nd Ed.). Harpercollins College Div, pp. 228–246. Online summary ISBN 978-0-06-501218-7
- "Gene Sharp: Author of the nonviolent revolution rulebook". BBC News. 21 February 2011.
- Gene Sharp biography at Albert Einstein Institution web site.
- Weber, Thomas. Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2004
- "Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution". The New York Times. 16 February 2011.
- Sears, Alan. (2008) A Good Book, In Theory: A Guide to Theoretical Thinking. North York: Higher Education University of Toronto Press, pg. 34-6, ISBN 1-55111-536-0.
- Sears, pg. 36.
- Macionis, J., and Gerber, L. (2010). Sociology, 7th edition
Library resources about
- Stark, Rodney (2007). Sociology (10th ed.). thomas wadsworth.
- Lenski, Gerhard E. (1966). Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratificaion. McGraw-Hill.