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Conflict theory emphasizes the role of coercion and power in producing social order.

Key Terms

Class conflict: The struggle between groups occupying different socioeconomic positions in
the same society. These groups compete for control of economic, political and social
resources. Class conflict can manifest as physical violence, propaganda (e.g., the spread of
ideologies, such as "homeless people are lazy"), economic threats (e.g., the middle class
boycotting "Big Business"), or legal battles (e.g., class action lawsuits by consumers against
large corporations).

Ideology: the collection of beliefs that justify a social arrangement

Social class: an aspect of social location that is determined by your relationship to the
means of production (Marx) or your power, prestige and wealth (Weber).

Deviance: going against prevailing social norms

Proletariat: in Marxs economic conflict theory, the proletariat are the working class who did
not own the resources, land or tools they use to produce goods for the bourgeoisie

Bourgeoisie: in Marxs economic conflict theory, the bourgeoisie are the capitalist class who
own the resources, land and tools. They exploit the proletariat by paying them less than their
work is worth.

Capitalism: an economic system with private ownership of the means of production and the
creation of goods or services for profit.
Conflict/Marxist Theory began with Karl Marx and his analysis of history

This perspective is derived from the works of Karl Marx, who saw society as fragmented into
groups that compete for social and economic resources.

Social order is maintained by domination, with power in the hands of those with the greatest
political, economic, and social resources.
Conflict theorists see society less as a cohesive system and more as an arena of conflict and
power struggles. Instead of people working together to further the goals of the "social system "

Believe society is a dynamic entity constantly undergoing change driven by class conflict.

Marxist believes that there was a real contradiction between human nature and the way that
we must work in a capitalist society.

When consensus exists, it is attributable to people being united around common interests,
often in opposition to other groups.
Society is characterized by pervasive inequality based on social class, gender, and other
factors. Far-reaching social change is needed to reduce or eliminate social inequality and to
create an egalitarian society. Conflict theory is a macro theory.


According to conflict theory, inequality exists because those in control of a disproportionate

share of societys resources actively defend their advantages. The masses are not bound to
society by their shared values, but by coercion at the hands of those in power. This
perspective emphasizes social control, not consensus and conformity. Groups and
individuals advance their own interests, struggling over control of societal resources.
The structure of society and the nature of social relationships are the result of past and
ongoing conflicts.
Focuses on the conflict among different racial, ethnic, social class, and other groups and
emphasizes how social institutions help ensure inequality.
Marxists believe that a key part in the control of the Proletariat is the use of alienation in all
aspects of society, including the family, the education system and the media. This provides

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the Bourgeoisie with a supple mass of workers who do not mind working for the external
rewards of a constant wage.
Conflict theory sees social life as a competition, and focuses on the distribution
of resources, power, and inequality.
Those with the most resources exercise power over others with inequality and power
struggles result. There is great attention paid to class, race, and gender in this perspective
because they are seen as the grounds of the most pertinent and enduring struggles in society.
Unlike functionalist theory, conflict theory is better at explaining social change, and weaker at
explaining social stability.

Whereas most other sociological theories focus on the positive aspects

conflict focuses on the negative, conflicted, and ever-changing nature of society.

Unlike functionalists who defend the status quo, avoid social change, and believe people
cooperate to effect social order, conflict theorists challenge the status quo, encourage social
change (even when this means social revolution), and believe rich and powerful people force
social order on the poor and the weak.

Conflict theorists, for example, may interpret an elite board of regents raising tuition to pay
for esoteric new programs that raise the prestige of a local college as self-serving rather than
as beneficial for students.
Conflict theory has been critiqued for its inability to explain social stability and incremental
Power, or the lack of it, is also a basic theme of conflict theory.
Since some people benefit at the expense of others, those who benefit use ideology to justify
their unequal advantage in social relationships.
Social order is maintained, not by popular agreement, but rather by the direct or indirect
exercise of power."
Like the functionalists, conflict theorists recognize the existence of social structures, but
instead of structures existing for the good of the whole system, social structures (institutions)
serve the interests of the powerful. One should also recognize the flip side of this coin.
Structures that serve the powerful also are designed to keep other groups in society in their
place for the privilege of others.
Instead of following the functionalist path of addressing dysfunction (i.e. something that
doesn't work) conflict theorists would ask "Who Benefits?"
Example: Acid rain - Acid rain is not "bad" for everyone. The powerful people who control
polluting industries stand to make huge profits by not providing proper air purification.
Not all conflict theorists are Marxist. Weber is also a conflict theorist. Whereas Marx
focused on class conflict as the "engine" of historic change, others see conflict among groups
and individuals as a fact of life in any society. Conflict can occur over many other aspects of
society unrelated to class.





In many ways, conflict theory is the opposite of functionalism but ironically also grew out of the
Industrial Revolution, thanks largely to Karl Marx (18181883) and his collaborator, Friedrich
Engels (18201895). Whereas conservative intellectuals feared the mass violence resulting from
industrialization, Marx and Engels deplored the conditions they felt were responsible for the mass
violence and the capitalist society they felt was responsible for these conditions. Instead of
fearing the breakdown of social order that mass violence represented, they felt that revolutionary
violence was needed to eliminate capitalism and the poverty and misery they saw as its
inevitable results
Karl Marx (1818-1883)
o Humanist: wanted all individuals to reach their full human potential
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Believed humans make their own history (historical method)

Controlling material production division of labor formation of economic social classes Class

Trying to combine material and ideal factors/ structural and cultural factors
o Society was a two-class system:
1. Bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) 2.Proletariat (workers)
o Class differences have a lot to do with possession of personal property
o Believed the exploited would become conscious and unite communism elimination of class
o Main ideas behind communism are stated in the communist manifesto
Max Weber (1864-1920)
o Agreed with Marx (economics played a central role in power distinction).
o Believed in Two other factors:

Social prestige (status). Example: someone could be poor and still hold a lot of power because
of social prestige Mother Theresa

Political influence. Example: Politician who has great power, but does not earn a big salary
o Weber defined power as the ability to impose ones will on another, even when the other
o Authority: legitimate power; used with consent of the ruled
o Distribution of power and authority = basis of social conflict
o HOWEVER: if subordinates believe in the authority= avoided conflict
If authority is not recognized as a legitimate= conflict
o People with power want to keep it
o People w/out power want to seek it

3 types of authority: 1) Rational-legal 2)Traditional 3) Charismatic

Georg Simmel (1858-1918)

o Wanted to develop a mathematics of society
Collection of statements about human relationships and social behavior
o Disagreed with Marx that social classes are formed horizontally
o There are differences in power and opinions within each group.
o Concepts and contributions:

Rejects organic theory

The most important relationship is between leaders and followers, superior and subordinates

Saw society as the sum of individual


Superi-ordinate and subordinate have a reciprocal relationship

o Believed social action always involves harmony and conflict, love and hatred
o Secrecy: people who hold secrets are in a position of power.
o Some groups are formed around secrets and are known as secret societies

are usually in conflict with the greater


C. Wright Mills (1916-1962)

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Initiation creates hierarchy


C. Wright Mills is known as the founder of modern conflict theory. In his work, he
believes social structures are created because of conflict between differing interests.
People are then impacted by the creation of social structures, and the usual result is a
differential of power between the "elite" and the "others". Examples of the "elite" would be
government and large corporations.
Work centered around power
o Several dimensions of inequality (like
Power can be independent from economic class
Version of conflict theory-closer to Webers than Marx
Concept of power elite, rather than ruling class=difference between Marx and Mills
There is a triangle of power:
1. Military
2. Industry
3. Politics

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White-collar world kept power elite on top

There are three types of power:
1. Authority: power justified by the beliefs of the voluntarily obedient
2. Manipulation: power wielded unknown to the powerless
3. Coercion: the final form of power, where the powerless are forced to obey the powerful

The sociological imagination is the ability to situate personal troubles within an

informed framework of larger social processes; coined by C. Wright Mills.

To better understand what Mills meant by the sociological imagination look at this
analogy- Think of a fish swimming in the ocean. That fish is surrounded by water, but the water is
so familiar and commonplace to the fish that, if asked to describe its situation, the fish could
hardly be expected to describe the water as well. Similarly, we all live in a social milieu, but
because we are so intimately familiar with it, we cannot easily study it objectively. The
sociological imagination takes the metaphorical fish out of the water. It allows us to look on
ourselves and our social surroundings in a reflective way and to question the things we have
always taken for granted.




Ignores other ways (i.e. non-forceful ways in which people reach agreements
Sides with people who lack power
Focuses on economic factors as the sole issue for all conflict in society- This primarily is for
Marxs approach
Overly negative view of society -The theory ultimately attributes humanitarian efforts,
altruism, democracy, civil rights, and other positive aspects of society to capitalistic designs to
control the masses, not to inherent interests in preserving society and social order.
Focus on change and neglect of social stability. Some critics acknowledge that societies
are in a constant state of change, but point out that much of the change is minor or
incremental, not revolutionary. For example, many modern capitalist states have avoided a
communist revolution, and have instead instituted elaborate social service programs.
Although conflict theorists often focus on social change, they have, in fact, also developed
a theory to explain social stability. According to the conflict perspective, inequalities in power
and reward are built into all social structures. Individuals and groups who benefits from
any particular structure strive to see it maintained. For example, the wealthy may fight to
maintain their privileged access to higher education by opposing measures that would
broaden access
Some argue, for example, that laws only serve the interest of ruling elites. What about laws
against murder, sexual assault, and the like? These are in nobodys interest to permit, and,
some argue, might be better explained by consensus theories.
Classic empirical critique - theory is said to be a vague and un-testable ex post facto
explanation. This means that it is all put together after the fact. It is very easy to make
theories fit the facts when the facts are already known. Yet such propositions are un-testable in
the sense that they cannot be disproved scientifically. There are no tests to establish whether
they are right or wrong and the theory tends to be flexible enough to cover any contingency
that emerges.