According to Conflict Theory, society is: • A struggle for dominance among competing social groups (classes, genders, races, religions, etc. ). When conflict theorists look at society, they see the social domination of subordinate groups through the power, authority, and coercion of dominant groups. In the conflict view, the most powerful members of dominant groups create the rules for success and opportunity in society, often denying subordinate groups such success and opportunities; this ensures that the powerful continue to monopolize power, privilege, and authority.

You should note that most conflict theorists oppose this sort of coercion and favor a more equal social order. Some support a complete socioeconomic revolution to socialism (Marx), while others are more reformist, or perhaps do not see all social inequalities stemming from the capitalist system (they believe we could solve racial, gender, and class inequality without turning to socialism). However, many conflict theorists focus on capitalism as the source of social inequalities. The primary cause of social problems, according to the conflict perspective, is the exploitation and oppression of subordinate groups by dominants.

Conflict theorists generally view oppression and inequality as wrong, whereas Structural-Functionalists may see it as necessary for the smooth running and integration of society. Structural-Functionalism and Conflict Theory therefore have different VALUE-ORIENTATIONS but can lead to similar insights about inequality (e. g. , they both believe that stereotypes and discrimination benefit dominant groups, but conflict theorists say this should end and most structural-functionalists believe it makes perfect sense that subordinates should be discriminated against, since it serves positive social ends).

Conflict theory sees social change as rapid, continuous, and inevitable as groups seek to replace each other in the social hierarchy. Marx’s “Communist Manifesto:” • Capitalism causes inequality and oppression in society (but is an inevitable stage in societies’ progression to equality through socialism in Marx’s view) • Capitalism produces two groups – Bourgeoisie (who own the means of production) and Proletariat (who don’t, and must sell their labor or wages) • Because of the need for accumulation of capital, the Bourgeoisie must remain competitive by exploiting the workers (a process in which the owner extract the “surplus value,” or profit, from the workers) • Surplus value = the difference between the value (price) of the product and the value of the labor needed to produce it (wages) – “exploitation” only happens in Marx’s view when the capitalist extracts that surplus value from the worker • Because the worker is exploited, s/he becomes a “commodity,” or a product, which for Marx means anything used for the purpose of exchange (the worker has to sell him/herself and his/her labor) • When the worker is commodified and exploited, s/he becomes “alienated” – estranged, isolated, disconnected – from the product and process of labor and from other workers and humanity • However, industrialization eventually creates the conditions for workers to develop CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS – to realize their common interests vs. the Bourgeoisie and unite in revolution • The Proletariat, when they defeat the Bourgeoisie (which Marx sees as the necessary evolution of capitalist societies), will establish equality and common ownership of property (socialism) • For Marx, society is constantly moving toward the Communist Utopia In contrast to Structural-Functionalists, who argue that the most talented individuals occupy the highest positions, conflict theorists argue that dominant groups monopolize positions of power, maintaining power from generation to generation and keeping subordinate groups out. Also in contrast to Structural-Functionalists, who argue that the most important positions in society are the best rewarded, conflict theorists argue that dominant groups get inordinate power to define which positions are socially rewarded. Highly-paid positions are not necessarily most important for society, they argue, but keep power in the hands of the privileged and powerful. Applications Education McLeod’s “Ain’t No Makin’ It” is a good example of conflict theory as applied to education.

He argues that teachers treat lower-class kids like less competent students, placing them in lower “tracks” because they have generally had fewer opportunities to develop language, critical thinking, and social skills prior to entering school than middle and upper class kids. When placed in lower tracks, lower-class kids are trained for blue-collar jobs by an emphasis on obedience and following rules rather than autonomy, higher-order thinking, and self-expression. They point out that while private schools are expensive and generally reserved for the upper classes, public schools, especially those that serve the poor, are underfunded, understaffed, and growing worse.

Schools are also powerful agents of socialization that can be used as tools for one group to exert power over others – for example, by demanding that all students learn English, schools are ensuring that English-speakers dominate students from non-English speaking backgrounds. Many conflict theorists argue, however, that schools can do little to reduce inequality without broader changes in society (e. g. creating a broader base of high-paying jobs or equalizing disparities in the tax base of communities). Crime Reiman’s “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison” is a good example of a conflict theory perspective on crime. Conflict theorists argue that both crime and the laws defining it are products of a struggle for power. They argue that a few powerful groups control the legislative process and that these groups outlaw behavior that threatens their interests.

For example, laws prohibiting vagrancy, trespassing, and theft are said to be designed to protect the wealthy from attacks by the poor. Although laws against such things as murder and rape are not so clearly in the interests of a single social class, the poor and powerless are much more likely than the wealthy to be arrested if they commit such crimes. Conflict theorists also see class and ethnic exploitation as a basic cause of many different kinds of crime. Much of the high crime rate among the poor, they argue, is attributable to a lack of legitimate opportunities for improving their economic condition. They would also be likely to point to racism as well as classism in the criminal justice system, suggesting that crime will isappear only if inequality and exploitation in that system and in society at large are also eliminated. Sports Again, the conflict theorists would be likely to look at who “makes it” in sports through a lens of inequality. As in Messner’s article, the conflict theorist would point out that while many people strive for big-time athletic success, boys (or girls) from the lower classes may be under inordinate pressure to achieve athletic success as their “ticket out of the ghetto. ” The conflict theorist would also be critical of the commercialism pervading sports today, pointing out that athletes are not as socially valuable as, say, teachers but make a lot more money.

Some argue that athletes are often exploited by corporate and university interests, thus becoming “commodities” and possibly becoming “alienated” from a sport they once loved. Because sports is such a big-time business, conflict theorists would be concerned that college players in particular are being exploited by colleges and universities, who may give them scholarships but make much more money off their talents than the players do. In turn, colleges often “use” players for their talents while investing little in their education. As above, the conflict theorist would point out that inequality in sports cannot be reduced unless changes first occur to lessen broader income inequalities and our commercial culture.


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