conflict theory

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Conflict has always been central to sociological theory and analysis. Some of the earliest approaches included Ludwig Gumplowicz's theory of ethnic conflict and Gaetano Mosca's theory of conflict between elites and masses. Many have seen Marx's theory of class as providing a conflict theory of social change. Today, however, the term conflict theory is more often used to refer to the sociological writings of opponents to the dominance of structural functionalism, in the two decades after the Second World War. Its proponents drew on Max Weber and (to a lesser extent) Karl Marx to construct their arguments, giving differing emphases to economic conflict (Marx) and conflict about power (Weber). Conflict theorists emphasized the importance of interests over norms and values, and the ways in which the pursuit of interests generated various types of conflict as normal aspects of social life, rather than abnormal or dysfunctional occurrences. For example, in Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1959)—a standard work of conflict theory—Ralf Dahrendorf, although critical of Marxist notions of class, argued that classes in the advanced ‘post-capitalist’ societies of Britain, Germany, and the United States were derived ‘from positions in associations co-ordinated by authority’, and that these societies were therefore characterized by disputes about ‘participation in or exclusion from the exercise of authority’.

The claims of conflict theory against functionalism were comparatively modest compared with later criticisms. For example, Dahrendorf argued that structural functionalism was not so much wrong as partial: that power or authority within a social system was not simply integrative, something which emerges from the system in order to keep it together, but also divisive, something which has to be imposed over conflicting interests. At the same time he argued, again against Marx, that social conflict was multi-faceted and does not congeal around one central issue.

Conflict theorists did not claim to present any general theory of society but emphasized coercion rather than consensus as the cause of social order. John Rex, in Key Problems of Sociological Theory (1961), offered a version of conflict theory owing rather more to Marx. The works of C. Wright Mills and Alvin Gouldner took a similar orientation to the centrality of conflict. The most effective contribution from this period is David Lockwood's paper on social integration and system integration (in G. K. Zollschan and W. Hirsch (eds.), Explorations in Social Change, 1964). Lock-wood argues that we can distinguish between system integration, which refers to relationships between different parts of the social system, the economy, and political system; and social integration, which refers to norms and values. Structural functionalismtends to run both together and gives priority to social integration: if that persists then the assumption is that system integration is also present. Lockwood points out that social integration can exist without system integration. An economic crisis, for example, can indicate the existence of system conflict, but does not automatically lead to a breakdown in social integration. Lewis Coser's The Functions of Social Conflict (1956) attempts to incorporate the analysis of social conflict into structural-functionalism, seeing it as a process of tension management, or as part of a process of reintegration in response to social change. Randall Collins's more recent version of conflict theory is distinguished by the fact that it is rooted in the microlevel concerns of individual actors, indeed he claims his theoretical roots lie in phenomenology. Increasingly, during the 1980s, he turned to outlining a microsociological theory highlighting the role of ‘interaction ritual chains’ as the basic unit in the ordering of societies (compare his Conflict Sociology, 1975 and Theoretical Sociology, 1988).


Subjects: Sociology.

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