You are on page 1of 11

Excerpts from Wallace and Wolf, Contemporary Sociological Theory, Prentice-Hall, 1986.

INTRODUCTION

Conflict theory is the major alternative to functionalism as an approach to analyzing the general structure of societies; and it is increasingly popular and important in modern sociology. It is also a less unified perspective than the others discussed in this book, and the disagreements among its proponents are often more bitter than those they have with theorists who use other approaches. However, conflict theorists of all types share a number of important assumptions and preconceptions. Together these create a distinctive way of looking at the world. . Functionalists, as we have seen, look at societies and social institutions as systems in which all the parts depend on each other and work together to create equilibrium. They do not deny the existence of conflict; but they believe society develops ways to control it, and it is these that they analyze. Conflict theorists' perception of society could hardly be more different. Where functionalists see interdependence and unity in society, conflict theorists see an arena in which groups fight for power, and the "control" of conflict simply means that one group is able, temporarily, to suppress its rivals. Functionalists see civ-I law, for example, as a way of increasing social integration; but conflict theorists see civil law as a way of defining and upholding a particular order that benefits some groups at the expense of others. We can see how very different a view of things this perspective creates if we go back to the example we used in introducing functionalism-a modern airport. A functionalist perspective points out the way the different parts of an airport work together to keep the system functioning. Conflict theory is interested in the rivalries among different workers and management, and the position each group is in to do well for itself. A conflict theorist might point out that the air traffic controllers want more staff and additional expensive equipment; that the pilots are continually trying to restrict entry into the profession in order to keep salaries high; that the porters, maintenance staff, and cleaners all belong to militant unions; and that all these groups are at odds with the airlines and terminal management, who want to keep costs down and profits up. The focus is on the shifting balance of power among competing groups, not on the equilibrium of interdependence and cooperation. I

'The contrast between equilibrium and conflict analyses of society is very old. One of the major modern theorists we discuss later, Ralf Dahrendorf, builds one of his expositions of conflict theory around the figure of Thrasymachus, a famous Greek Sophist who appears in the work of Plato as a "conflict theorist" attacking the "equilibrium theory" that Plato puts in I the mouth of Socrates. Ralf Dahrendorf,

for example. these theorists are frequently considered Utopian writers. especially under the categories of "ideology" and "legitimacy. rather than as means of defining a whole society's identity and goals. The first group of theorists believes the social scientist to have a moral obligation to engage in a critique of society. above all. any conflict. to seize lands and mineral wealth and give little in return. We shall find that conflict theorists have a great deal to say about ideas as an aspect of groups' interests. by contrast. This general "conflict" orientation incorporates three central and connected assumptions. The third distinctive aspect of conflict theory is that values and ideas are seen as weapons used by different groups to advance their own ends. greater wealth. but conflict theory can also be divided into two quite dissimilar traditions. but that the Indians were not simply exterminated. such a theorist would argue. This analysis leads. in turn. Conflict theorists always view power not only as scarce and unequally divided-and therefore a source of conflict-but also as essentially coercive. in their view of social science and in whether they believe that conflict can ever be eradicated. What is surprising. Calif. Conflict theorists are not always explicit about this view of mankind. from a conflict perspective. and more advanced weapons. and central to the whole conflict perspective. The first is that people have a number of basic "interests. but it is present in all their work. conflict theorists would tend to interpret the notion of America's "manifest destiny" and the idea of "civilizing" the tribes as clear examples of how people develop ideas that suit their own interests. and were therefore bound. Theorists in this group also generally believe that in principle a society could exist in which there were no longer grounds for social conflict. This chapter will discuss each separately. These differ. to a concern with the distribution of those resources that give people more or less power.theorist'would consider what happened to the American Indians to have been inevitable. The white settlers had greater numbers. Second. is not that the settlers' religion and political beliefs did not stop them. The second group. The Two Traditions The basic elements of conflict theory which we have described are common to all its proponents. considers conflict to be an . 1968). is an emphasis on power as the core of social relationships." things they want and attempt to acquire and which are not defined by societies but rather common to them all." In the case of America's treatment of the Indians. Therefore. It refuses to separate-or to admit that one can really separate-analysis from judgment or fact from value."In Praise of Thrasymachus" in Essays in the Theo7y of Society (Stanford. For example.: Stanford University Press.

In the second group. and with the role of ideas in creating or undermining the legitimacy of a social position. Marxism and conflict theory are sometimes discussed as though the two were synonymous. but in both these authors we find the same two concerns: with the way social positions bestow more or less power on their incumbents. In this sense. indeed. Marxists generally argue that if people do not behave in accordance with these interests it can only mean that they have been deceived about what their "true interests" are by a social system that works in others' favor. There can also be no better example than Marxism of the close connection between a theorist's ideas and the events of the "real world". Instead. and the American sociologists of the Chicago School. therefore. Veblen. where we describe the work of Ralf Dahrendorf. Simmel. The basic elements of conflict theory are all apparent in Marx's work. If we look at the major influences on modern conflict theory. Marxist sociologists form a school whose analyses take place within the framework Marx created. are most influenced by the work of Karl Marx. We therefore turn now to a discussion of the roots of modern conflict theory in the work of these two classical thinkers. the Frankfurt School theorists. first of all. that people have an essential nature and predefined interests. Because Marx's work is still used by so many writers in their analyses of contemporary society. and Legitimacy: Marx and Weber The basic elements of conflict theory were set out by two of the greatest early sociologists. INTELLECTUAL ROOTS Power. the ideas of many other long-dead writers are essential to contemporary analyses. Marx analyzed both historical and contemporary society in terms .inevitable and permanent aspect of social life. as well as to the influence of such writers as the European elite theorists. where we will discuss modern Marxism. and it also rejects the idea that social science's conclusions are necessarily value-laden. He believed. Lewis Coser. Of course. Much of Weber's work incorporates a debate with Marx and Marxist analysis. Marxism is an entirely contemporary theory. Karl Marx (1818-1883) Conflict theory in sociology is the creation of Karl Marx. we find that those in the first group. we discuss it in additional detail later in the chapter. Indeed. Marx's influence is still apparent. Second. but Marx's work is rather different. Karl Marx and Max Weber. Schumpeter. Wright Mills. for it is in the name of Marx's ideas that revolutionaries around the world attack existing forms of society and that organized Communist parties rule a large part of mankind. and Randall Collins. Position. and C. but the most important continuities are with the writings of Max Weber. its proponents are interested in establishing a social science with the same canon of objectivity as informs the natural sciences.

and he insisted that the ideas of an age reflect the interests of the "ruling class. There was considerable tension in his parents' marriage. "communist" society. during his poststudent years. he came to resent the older man and his authoritarian behavior. he played an important role in Christian-Social political circles." something the left-wing never forgave. These conflicts played an important part in the complete breakdown Weber suffered in his early thirties. Max Weber (1864-1920) Max Weber was born into a prominent bourgeois German family. other "critical" conflict theorists retain this emphasis. During this period his home was a center of German intellectual life. At the same time. As a youth. and which doomed proposals to have him join the government or become a candidate for President of the Republic. to a lesser degree. both in his intellectual work and in political activities. other analysts from Weber on have seen it as an important. After initially supporting the war. He was a founding member of the Deutsche Demokratische Partei. with a seat in the Reichstag (Parliament).of conflicts between different social groups with different interests. His father was an important member of the National Liberal Party. explanation. and involved in writing the new constitution. and revolution and virtual civil war at home. The last years of Weber's life were also those of the First World War. and produced a range of works on topics which included economic policy." Marx emphasized the primacy of technology and of patterns of property ownership in determining the nature of people's lives and the course of social conflict. However. he emphasized the link between the nature of ideas or "ideologies" and the interests of those who develop them. he later urged peace feelers and called for widespread changes in the German political structure. Such beliefs are accepted partly or in full by the more "critical" or "Utopian" theorists. Before and after this period he was enormously productive. conflict-free. the social psychology of industrial work. For all his lifelong concern with the relationship between politics and intellectual thought. the sociology of religion. of the abdication of the Kaiser and the establishment of a German Republic. Weber had none of . and the methodology of social science. when he was still financially dependent and living at home. while being rejected by the analytic conflict theorists who draw on Weber. but only partial. But he also called the abortive 1918 revolution a "bloody carnival. of German defeat. The divide between the two approaches thus derives from the central differences between Marx and Weber themselves. Whereas Marxist and. During this period Weber was intensely involved in politics. while his mother came from a wealthy but also intensely religious and cultured background. economic history. He held chairs at the universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg. Weber tended to identify with his father. Finally. political development. Marx's work is also distinguished by its claim to predict the future and its belief in the possibility of a perfect. producing papers on current issues.

His analyses are complex and difficult to categorize. they had no interest in changing the traditional economic system. "ideal types. He suggests that there are three main foundations for successful claims to authority-or three. formal law. which."5 This system ensured an income for the "dominant stratum" by giving them the right to collect taxes. Thus. in examining what gives one individual or group an advantage over others. This tended to decrease the taxable rural population.the utopian prophet about him. in Europe.8 Equally important. English (and other European) landlords had no such stake in the tax system. He formulated "ideal types" by abstracting from different historical contexts the essential elements of a concept. but stimulated the growth of the cities. Among the factors he identified in China was the system of "Prebends. Consequently. and because our societies accept statutory law as the ultimate source of authority. but enjoyed because it has been handed down from the past. Weber's analysis of China provides a good example of his method. However. This was seen as evidence of God's favor. Weber wanted to explain why capitalism developed in the West and not in other societies such as China or India. have rights of self-government and corresponding political strength. and his ideas are the single most important influence on "analytic" conflict theory. unlike their European counterparts or the traditional Chinese village-based sibs or clans. China had no centralized system of courts or of rationalized.2 Like Marx. whereas actually enjoying its fruits would be sinful indulgences Weber analyzed the way people maneuver in pursuit of advantage in terms of both such particular values and circumstances and more general sociological categories. a historian or sociologist must also recognize the importance of goals and values specific to a society. provided the security of property rights within which commercial capitalism and capitalist groups could 7 flourish.4 For example. By contrast. and so had a strong incentive to increase the income from their lands by methods such as enclosing the land and developing scientific farming. a very large proportion of non-Marxist intellectuals would nominate him as the greatest of sociologists. Weber saw people's activities as largely self-interested." Charismatic authority rests on a leader's personal qualities.6 In addition. Nor did the Chinese commercial cities. the Confucian literati' monopolized . and rational-legal authority is derived from formal rules. of which they kept a portion for themselves. he suggested that the Calvinists' desire to save their souls found expression in the unique goal of simply accumulating wealth. and they have had none of Marx's impact on the world. Nonetheless. modern bureaucrats are obeyed because and insofar as statutes empower them to do certain things. traditional authority is also personal. For example. he believed that in addition to such universal interests as the acquisition of wealth. which were in many ways equally or more advanced. Weber gives particular attention to authority-the claim that one has a legitimate right to be obeyed.

he meant people who shared the same position in economic life. At the same time. Weber argues. Weber believed ideas and values to have an important. like him. believe that economic factors are not always the major determinants of people's lives and power.12 Weber's argument has had great influence on modern "analytic" theorists who. or political faction may. he was aware of the role they could play in strengthening the position of a social group or a given social order.senior administrative positions. Weber distinguished among classes. the importance of "legitimacy. which were won on the basis of competitive examinations. "status groups. unlike Marx. and whose existence induced Chinese families to concentrate above all on educating sons for the examinations. education. he argued. Weber believed Marx to be wrong in identifying economic characteristics as the sole crucial determinant of both social structure and people's chances in life. Position.9 Thus. independent effect on history (as in the case of Calvinism and Confucianism) and did not consider them to be simply reflections of underlying interests. and Legitimacy: Twentieth-Century Theorists . a balance of power developed that checked the move from administrative and economic traditionalism to "rationalization. as in the case of a hereditary aristocracy. as in Marx's definition. 10 By a class. Someone's religion. be as important a source of power and success. and parties. all of which could be more or less important for people's lives and serve as foci of group organization and conflict. A party he defined as an association that exists to "secure power within a corporate group for its leaders in order to attain ideal or material advantages for its active members. are groups whose distinctiveness lies not in their shared economic position but in either their shared mode of lifeoften founded on a common education-or in the prestige attach ed to their birth and family. It is important to emphasize that."" Examples include political parties seeking power in the modern state but also the factions that fought for control of Rome or the Italian city-states. His influence is also apparent in these theorists' discussion of the relationship between ideas and power. Finally. Confucian education was essentially literary. " as Weber's term stand is generally translated." As his emphasis on the role of the Chinese educational elite makes clear. Hence there was a powerful educational elite that disdained the scientific and logical thought characteristic of modern industrial societies. or marketable skills. He emphasized. in particular." the belief that someone's position and the system incorporating it are right and proper. Instead of relying on Marx's category of class. status groups. Power. This concept recurs in and influences much of modern conflict analysis. whether this involved property.

Moreover. the elites who are in control generally share a common culture. Although in no sense did they form a school. including the economic. However. Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923)."14 Instead. and Weber's friend. like the highly influential Lester Ward. In other words. Elite Theory The most prominent elite theorists are Weber's contemporary. these theorists contended. Wright Mills' social critique. 13 Their central argument was that only a small number of people in any organization can hold authority and that their occupation of these positions automatically places them at odds with those sub ected to it. analyzed society in terms of the . their general image of society as divided horizontally into an elite and a mass is also apparent in C." the proposition that small groups in authority come to run political parties essentially for their own ends. by contrast. on the other hand. The most important are the European elite theorists. but he emphasized the "governing elites" who rule a society. Robert Michels (1876-1936). and Joseph SchumPeter. to be reformers. Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941). Indeed. and the existence of ruling and subject classes who face each other like alien nations. and only of America could it be said that here itsociology is practiced without socialism. as well as using it to their own individual advantage. Early American sociologists were essentially empiricist and pragmatic in style. Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) Veblen's major importance for modern conflict theory lies in the fact that he was one of the very few early American sociologists to analyze the roots of power and conflict in a broad historical context. they shared a number of important ideas. have been most influenced by the elite theorists' insistence on authority and the state as dominant sources of power. Pareto. who approached "social problems" with a faith in government policies and gradualist reforms-15 Veblen. they tended. elite theory presents explicitly the argument that people's self-interest and the intrinsically unequal nature of power make conflict both inevitable and permanent. Mosca upended Marx. a number of other theorists developed comparable ideas that have also had a significant impact on modern analysts. Pareto's great rival. Mosca was primarily concerned with the conflict between holders of political power and those they dominate. Thorstein Veblen. identifying political positions as the source of domination in all other spheres.Although the major elements of conflict theory were set out by Marx and Weber. but in the sense that they act together to defend their position. and they are organized-not necessarily formally. Michels' main concern was with the so-called "iron law of oligarchy. recognized the existence of other nonpolitical elites. especially Dahrendorf. The modern analytic theorists.

19 Schumpeter had no belief in a conflict-free Utopia. especially including styles of consumption and leisure. powerful classes are replaced by others. is in decline in its turn. 18 As this situation changed with the rise of the modern state. Technological innovation has become institutionalized. Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) Of the generation that followed Weber. the capitalist class. the aristocracy's position declined. and the conscript army. At present. with its own group attitudes and group interests. like Marx. Meanwhile. where people consequently sought armed protection. however. since for everyone to enjoy high status-is a contradiction in terms. who actually make goods. Veblen argued. He also developed Marx's ideas about changes in the distribution of power and with them the process of human history. and he also denounced passionately much of the existing order. and . who are involved in finance and sales and whom he characterized as parasites living off the innovation and productiveness of the rest of the population. Wright Mills both continued this tradition and drew directly on Veblen in his discussion of status struggles. A very large part of people's behavior. In his case they are the "industrial" class. The new classes attack the old successfully and deny the legitimacy of their position. and the "pecuniary" class.conflicting interests of different social groups. believed that modern society is characterized by the conflict between opposing "economic" groups. dispose of older groups. and where fighting skill had to be acquired and maintained over a lifetime. They attained power in a society where war was continual. and independent entrepreneurs are less important. attacks the legitimacy of the old order and creates for itself a new power base in the increasingly important government bureaucracies. Ultimately. a new class of intellectuals. He argues that the medieval feudal aristocracy developed from warrior groups. Two of Schumpeter's most interesting examples are the rise of imperialist warrior groups and the decline of the capitalist bourgeoisie. Veblen.16 Veblen was also interested in the constants of human nature that underlie social behavior. Among modern theorists. 17 Their position can then be used to obtain further wealth and privilege. He argued that people desire passionately the esteem of others and that esteem essentially a competitive affair. Schumpeter argued that "classes"-a term he used loose ly to describe more or less organized and distinctive social groups-achieve power because they command skills that are either new and innovative or that (because of changing circumstances) are far more important than they were in the past. and protect themselves from competition. it was the Austrian Joseph Schumpeter who most clearly developed Weber's interest in how a group's success is rooted in its social position. because they fail to continue providing valued services and because new innovatory groups rise up. Schumpeter argues. which ascended because of its economic achievements. modern arms. and in the importance of legitimacy. can be explained by the struggle for high standing in the eyes of one's neighbors. C.

he tended to regret the passing of capitalist society rather than use his work as a vehicle for criticism and advocacy'of chanlye. His father died when Simmel was still a child. to stay within a single academic discipline. including Weber.20 Simmel's sensitivity to how human relationships form and change was related to his own background and his feelings of insecurity and rootlessness. believe in an objective. Yet although he applied constantly for senior positions in German universities. in his work. Whereas Marx and Weber wanted to understand what made a particular society operate. exchange theorists. However. he was constantly turned down. His lectures were enormously popular. he published widely. but also symbolic interactionists. . just as he acknowledged his great debt to Marx. that he was appointed finally to a chair at the University of Strasbourg. He has influenced a whole range of modern theorists who are similarly interested in interpersonal relationships: some conflict theorists. He was born in Berlin. and network analysts." an unpaid lecturer dependent on student fees. like him. Georg Simmel (1858-1918) Among the great early sociologists. It emphasizes the abstract qualities of a social order. so his own work has influenced "critical" modern theorists. and partly because he refused. at the age of fifty-six. the most important active theorist in the tradition of the Frankfurt School. The Web of Conflict: Simmel and'the Chicago School In addition to the central tradition of conflict analysis. Simmel was the most interested in identifying universal patterns in human behavior. He studied history and philosophy at the University of Berlin. the youngest child of a Jewish businessman who had converted to Christianity. the influence of his ideas about capitalism's loss of legitimacy is apparent in the work of Jurgen Habermas. p2irtly because of anti-Semitism. and the boy was never close to his mother. and stayed on there as a "Privatdozent. which we have just described. there exists a rather different approach to the study of conflict. and is exemplified by the writings of Georg Simmel and the Chicago School. and among his friends were many of the foremost academics and writers of the time. rather than the origins and progress of actual conflicts. Simmel concentrated on developing what is almost a mathematics of society: a collection of statements about human relationships and social behavior that apply irrespective of the historical setting. In particular. as well as those who. analytic sociology. It was only in 1914.

with common interests which are different from tl-iose of people in ot'her.antagonistic grou ps. Once again. accommodation. and assimilation into a common culture. and modern theorists can be divided into two groups according to who is the dominant influence upon them. love and hatred"21 did more than reinforce the tendency of "analytic" conflict theorists to consider conflict a permanent condition. but indeed are intimately related. determines their individual careers. the central characteristics of social life. They consisted of competition.23 Park argued that competition. Simmel's insistence that "social action always involves harmony and conflict. For example. conflict. the influence of this rather different tradition is especially apparent in the work of Lewis Coser." which is renowned for research into the social life and culture of the City. which is universal and continuous among individuals. whose own societies were much more racially and culturally homogeneous. It also alerted them to the way that varying degrees of social contact and interdependence affect the nature of conflict. whose only formal training was in Simmel's courses in Berlin. Simmel's is of a society integrated by numerous crosscutting conflicts. A number of other sociologists who share the same general conflict perspective have also influenced modern theory and . Lewis Coser's discussion of how conflict can actually stabilize a society is based directly on Simmel's writing. self-contained.The most important part of Simmel's analysis for later conflict theory is his insistence that association and conflict between individuals and social groups not only can exist side by side. Park and his colleagues were more interested in analyzing racial antagonisms and conflict among different ethnic groups than the class struggles stressed by Marx and other Europeans. Marx's image is of a society divided horizontally into antagonistic blocks. for him. Conflict may thus involve groups as well as individuals. Robert Park and the Chicago School An emphasis on conflict as a general and abstract principle of social life has been more typical of American than of European sociology.built up the "Chicago School of Sociology. Conflict arises rather over status.22 He also developed a system of general concepts that described what were. Robert Park (1864-1944). Summary The most important historical influences on modern conflict theory are the writings of Karl Marx and Max Weber. and over the way super-ordination--power--is allocated socially.. One cannot divide people neatly into self-contained groups. in which those who stand together in one respect are opposed in another. one of the most important of American conflict theorists.

.American sociology.