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Sociological Theory

Conflict Theory

Conflict Theory and Marxism

Conflict theory views society as composed of groups with unequal power and conflicting values and interests.

Conflict theory posits that society is characterized by conflict between social groups. Groups with unequal power and competing interests compete for scarce resources. Conflict theory views the conflicts between these groups—for wealth, power, status, and other assets—as the catalyst of social action. According to conflict theory, powerful groups maintain or improve their position in society at the expense of less powerful groups. The unequal distribution of power results in social tension and, eventually, social change. Early conflict theory focused on economic factors, while later theories examined the nature and effects of social class and authority.

The work of German theorists Karl Marx (1818–83) and Friedrich Engels (1820–95) is at the heart of conflict theory. Marx's The Communist Manifesto, cowritten with Engels and published in 1848, is considered the founding work of conflict theory. Marx was a German social and political philosopher who developed the theory of communism. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argued that history is best understood as the result of class conflict. They argued that the history of all human societies is the history of class struggles. These struggles result either in revolution, which results in a reorganization of society, or simply in tragic bloodshed, with the status quo ultimately restored.

Marx defined class in economic terms, identifying the proletariat and the bourgeoisie as the two conflicting classes of his time. Marx analyzed how the bourgeoisie gains and holds on to power in capitalist societies and oppresses the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is the class that owns property, including owning and controlling the means of production, facilities and resources for producing or manufacturing goods, such as tools, factory buildings, and machinery. Members of the bourgeoisie also control social institutions and pass down their wealth and power to their children, maintaining inequalities over time. The proletariat is the working class, people who own only their own labor. Members of the proletariat are forced to sell their labor because they have no control over the means of production. Marx also termed these classes the haves and the have-nots. Members of the bourgeoisie, or the haves, are the people who have, or possess, almost everything in society, including power, wealth, and the means to hold on to them. In capitalist societies, the haves are also called capitalists. Members of the proletariat, the have-nots, are those who possess almost nothing, both in terms of material goods and wealth, as well as in terms of power.

Marx saw capitalist social relations of production—the relations between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie—as essentially exploitative. In his view the true value of labor is reflected in the prices of produced goods, but workers' pay does not reflect this value. Instead, capitalists make a profit by paying workers less than the value created by their labor.

Marx argued that by selling their labor for an exploitative wage, ceding control of their work lives to capitalists, and working in mechanized factories where artisanship is devalued, workers become alienated. Workers’ alienation, a sense of separation or estrangement from an essential part of the self, would eventually lead to social upheaval. Marx considered alienation as the basic state of being in a capitalist society. He gave the example of factory workers who did rote, repetitive tasks all day, such as shoveling coal into a furnace to power a machine. These workers essentially functioned like machines, with no real opportunity to make the work meaningful or interesting. Marx argued that in these kinds of jobs, workers would feel that they functioned as, and were considered as, mere cogs in a machine. They would come to resent supervisors and factory owners––those who make a profit off the workers' labor. The same process can occur in other contexts. For instance, artists who are hired by corporations to create logos may come to feel alienated. Rather than painting or drawing as a creative and meaningful act, they may feel that they are simply performing a function. Their work and the product they create are controlled by others, with the guiding force being profit for the corporation and its owners. Marx argued that alienated workers would come to understand that they were being exploited––their labor and talents were being used to create profit for others, while they suffered working in difficult and dehumanizing conditions. This would lead workers to revolt. Marx analyzed how members of exploited classes develop class consciousness, having an awareness of shared economic, social, and political circumstances and an understanding that organization with others in the same class is necessary in order to solve problems faced by all members of the class. He argued that class consciousness would help liberate oppressed classes from exploitation by the upper classes.
Conflict theory is rooted in Marxism. German theorist Karl Marx saw history as a series of struggles between social groups. Conflict theory uses Marx's ideas to analyze social structure, social problems, and how social change occurs.
Later theorists expanded on Marx's ideas about conflict, going beyond economic factors and considerations of class. Sociologists continue to study conflict between various social groups with unequal power. For example, they consider groups based on race, sex, gender, age, language, and many other factors. Applied to law and criminology, conflict theory suggests that powerful groups will implement laws that further their interests and will use the police and jails to oppress less powerful groups. Many conflict theorists see education as a means for perpetuating class distinctions and justifying class inequalities. They argue that schools and school systems reflect and reproduce the structural inequalities of a society, by passing down the values and norms connected to these inequalities. Another key issue is that structural inequalities in resources impact the quality of education received by different groups, affecting access to employment and other opportunities. These factors also serve to reproduce unequal social systems.

Conflict Theory and the Power Elite

The power elite is a concept that describes how a few elite leaders hold power, using it against the interests of other social groups.
C. Wright Mills (1916–62), an American conflict theory sociologist who wrote and taught in the mid-20th century, developed the concept of the power elite, a small group of elite leaders in politics, military, and business who hold power in a society. Mills argued that this power elite ruled American society and that with power concentrated among a few elite leaders, most people in society held very little power. Mills believed that the power elite's interests were in direct conflict with those of the people they ruled, a situation that was not only unfair, but also dangerous. He warned that it was a threat to democracy. Because of the power elite, citizens do not really have the power they are supposed to hold in a democracy. Mills wrote specifically about American society, but sociologists use the concept of the power elite to analyze other societies as well.

Criticism of Conflict Theory

A criticism of conflict theory is that it cannot necessarily predict when social upheaval will occur, and it focuses mostly on social change, rather than social stability.

Conflict theory has been criticized for its inability to explain the incremental processes of social change. Another criticism of conflict theory is its focus on social change, without considering social stability, and that it cannot necessarily predict how and when social upheaval will take place and what will result from such upheaval. This is related to the link between conflict theory and Marxism. Marx predicted and encouraged revolution that would completely overturn capitalism and usher in a radically different social order. Marx and Engels argued that social upheaval, even revolution, was the inevitable result of social conflict. They pointed to many historical instances in which an oppressed group overthrew its oppressors. But in many societies revolutions have not overcome or replaced class distinctions as Marx and Engels predicted. Most 21st-centuries societies, including the United States, are still characterized by the presence of different social classes. Some societies have gone through revolutions partially based on Marxist ideas, and some countries use or have used communism in an attempt to replace capitalism. However, these communist systems departed significantly from Marx's ideas, with most of them, such as the Soviet Union and North Korea, functioning as totalitarian systems, rather than as truly egalitarian systems.

Other critics of conflict theory have argued that it focuses too much on the causes of social change while ignoring the factors that hold societies together. In 1959 German-British sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf (1929–2009) published a critique of conflict theory, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society. Dahrendorf believed that Marx overlooked the obvious fact that societies do stay together. He argued class conflict is not always negative and that the state had created strong means for reducing and resolving class conflict. In capitalist societies, for instance, democracy has reduced conflict, and industrialism has increased social mobility. In addition socialization, the process through which people learn the values, norms, beliefs, and expectations of their society, enables social cohesion. Dahrendorf also claimed that there can only be conflict if there is a deeper consensus and, further, that conflict does not always lead to revolution but can result in cohesion and consensus. There does not necessarily need to be bloodshed to enact change or a massive overhaul of a part of society. In the United States, the labor movement achieved many changes related to worker safety, wages, working hours, and child labor. This movement has achieved goals with relatively little violence, and there is fairly broad social consensus on many of the changes it pushed for.