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19.2B: The Conflict Perspective

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    8552
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    Conflict theory argues that the economic and political structures of a society create social divisions, inequalities, and conflicts.

     

    LEARNING OBJECTIVES

     

    Examine the differing views on conflict theory from various sociologists, such as Karl Marx and C. Wright Mills

     

    KEY TAKEAWAYS

    Key Points

     

    • Conflict theories are perspectives in social science that emphasize the social, political, or material inequality of a social group.
    • Of the classical founders of social science, conflict theory is most commonly associated with Karl Marx, who posited that capitalism would inevitably produce internal tensions leading to its own destruction.
    • Marx advocated for the rejection of false consciousness (explanations of social problems as the shortcomings of individuals rather than the flaws of society ) and the claiming of class consciousness (workers’ recognition of themselves as a class unified in opposition to the capitalist system).
    • The Polish-Austrian sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz and the American sociologist Lester F. Ward approached conflict from a comprehensive anthropological and evolutionary point-of-view.
    • 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.
    • Conflict theory is most often associated with Marxism, but may also be associated with other perspectives such as critical theory, feminist theory, postmodern theory, queer theory, and race -conflict theory.

     

    Key Terms

     

    • functionalism: Structural functionalism, or simply functionalism, is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability.
    • military-industrial complex: The armed forces of a nation together with the industries that supply their weapons and materiel.
    • capitalism: A socio-economic system based on private property rights, including the private ownership of resources or capital, with economic decisions made largely through the operation of a market unregulated by the state.

    Conflict theories are perspectives in social science 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 conservatism. Sociologists in the tradition of conflict theory argue that the economic and political structures of a society create social divisions, classes, hierarchies, antagonisms and conflicts that produce and reproduce inequalities. Certain conflict theories set out to highlight the ideological aspects inherent in traditional thought. While 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.

    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 onto our children as natural, many of 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, which involves 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, which is when workers recognize themselves as a class unified in opposition to capitalists and ultimately to the capitalist system itself. In general, Marx wanted the working class to rise up against the capitalists and overthrow the capitalist system.

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    Healthcare reform supporter: Karl Marx wanted to replace false consciousness with class consciousness, in which the working class would rise up against 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.

    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. ” Mills argued that the interests of the power elite of American society (for example, the military-industrial complex) were opposed to those of the people. He theorized that the policies of the power elite would result in the “increased escalation of conflict, production of weapons of mass destruction, and possibly the annihilation of the human race. ”

    Conflict theory is most commonly associated with Marxism, but as a reaction to functionalism and the positivist method, it may also be associated with a number of other perspectives, including critical theory, feminist theory, postmodern theory, post-structural theory, postcolonial theory, queer theory, world systems theory, and race-conflict theory.