Conflict theory has both modern and classical roots; most recently, it developed in the late twentieth century in response structural functionalism. It is also, however, defined by the work of Karl Marx, a nineteenth-century philosopher and revolutionary. Conflict theories — which emphasize class struggle and change — are often pitted against consensus theories, which emphasize social stability and shared norms. The following will summarize Talcott Parsons' consensus theory known as structural functionalism, and the conflict theories of Ralf Dahrendorf and Randall Collins. The work of Karl Marx will be introduced as well. Even though consensus and conflict theories are often presented as opposing viewpoints, many theorists believe they are complementary. Some even suggest they should be integrated into a single theory. These viewpoints will be discussed as well.
Keywords Alienation; Authority; Capitalism; Collins, Randall; Class Conflict; Consensus Theory; Dahrendorf, Ralf; Dialectic; Marx, Karl; Social Class; Social Roles; Socialization; Stratification; Structural Functionalism
How do societies evolve and change? What role does conflict play in social organizations? Is conflict inherently bad? Is inequality a necessary part of any society? These are just a few of the questions that sociologists — and sociologists who describe themselves as conflict theorists, in particular — have attempted to answer. Like the field of sociology in general, conflict theory has both modern and classical roots. Most recently, conflict theory evolved in the late twentieth century in response to the perceived limitations of structural functionalism, the dominant sociological theory in post–World War II America (Ritzer & Goodman, 2004). Yet, the foundation of conflict theory rests largely upon the work of Karl Marx, a nineteenth-century philosopher and revolutionary.
Before investigating either the classical or modern roots of conflict theory, however, it's worthwhile to place conflict theory — and its counterpart, structural functionalism — in a broader context. According to Ritzer and Goodman (2004), conflict theory and structural functionalism are part of a larger, ongoing debate between consensus theorists and conflict theorists. In general, consensus theorists emphasize the stability of society. Shared norms, values, and laws all contribute to social order; change occurs slowly and in a peaceful and orderly fashion. In contrast, conflict theorists view society through the lens of group domination — social order is a temporary state that results from the dominance of one group over another. Change is both inevitable and good, occurring when subordinate groups overthrow dominant groups. Furthermore, change happens quickly, and often in a disorderly and forceful fashion.
Some argue that the overarching labels 'consensus' and 'conflict' are artificial, masking important similarities among theorists and overlooking the ways in which they complement one another (Bailey, 1997). For now, the terms provide a good starting point for understanding fundamental differences in sociological theories.
As one of the dominant paradigms in sociological thought, structural functionalism is an important theory in its own right. Many mid-twentieth century sociologists even described structural functionalism as "synonymous with sociology" (Ritzer & Goodman, 2004, p. 92). And if structural functionalism was synonymous with sociology, then Talcott Parsons, an economist by training, become nearly synonymous with structural functionalism.
According to Parsons, societies are best understood as social systems consisting of complementary parts, such as social roles, institutions, and organizations. The various parts form a social structure or normative framework, which define the expectations and obligations of the people living within the society (Fulcher & Scott, 2003). Importantly, however, Parson's primary unit of analysis was not the individual person, but rather the social role he or she occupied. People occupy multiple roles at once — teacher, sister, friend, citizen — each role defined by standards of appropriate behavior in particular social situations. According to structural functionalists, the stability and continuity of a society are primarily achieved through socialization, the process whereby infants and children learn what is expected of them, and shared norms are passed from one generation to the next.
Functions of Social Systems
In addition to structure, Parsons was also interested in the functions, or needs, of social systems. He identified adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency as the four functional needs of every society (Fulcher & Scott, 2003). Structures such as neighborhoods and families help ensure solidarity and cohesion, addressing the functional need of integration. Educational structures help ensure that future resources will be available to a society, addressing its latency needs. Although Parsons realized needs could only be met through social action, he "failed to analyze action as thoroughly as structure and function" (Fulcher & Scott, 2003, p. 51). Sensitive to such criticisms, Parsons' later work attempted to incorporate a theory of societal evolution to explain social change.
While Talcott Parsons' name is most often associated with structural functionalism, it is the work of Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945) that is "perhaps the best-known single piece of work in structural-functionalism theory" (Ritzer & Goodman, 2004, p. 93). Like Parsons, Davis and Moore also focused on social roles as opposed to the individuals within those roles. However, they placed much more emphasis on the relationship of roles to one another, arguing that some carry more prestige, power, and reward than others. Their work "made it clear that they regarded social stratification as both universal and necessary. They argued that no society is ever unstratified, or totally classless. Stratification is, in their view, a functional necessity" (Ritzer & Goodman, 2004, p. 93).
As mentioned earlier, conflict theory developed in response to the perceived limitations of structural functionalism. What then were the criticisms of structural functionalism? Ritzer (2004) provides a comprehensive overview of the many charges made against structural-functionalists:
• Structural functionalism is ahistorical; it is incapable of explaining how societies evolved into their present- day forms;
• Structural functionalism does not adequately address the question of social change; if all elements of a system work together harmoniously, as structural functionalists claim, how can the theory account for social change?
• Structural functionalism is conservative in its emphasis on shared norms and values and the maintenance of the status quo, especially in terms of status, power, and privilege;
• Structural functionalism is abstract and difficult to adequately test and measure;
• Structural functionalists overemphasize harmonious relationships, either ignoring conflict altogether or viewing it as necessarily destructive;
• Structural functionalism suffers logical errors. Some of its arguments are tautological — employing circular reasoning — while others are teleological. Defining the whole as the sum of its parts, and defining parts in relation to the whole — as structural functionalists define society — is an example of a tautological error. Assuming the end goals guide behavior — for example, that marriage is a predetermined result of societies' need for procreation — is what Turner and Maryanski (1979, as cited in Ritzer & Goodman, 2004) call "illegitimate teleology."
As a result of these criticisms, the prominence of structural functionalism has declined considerably since the 1970s, so much so that one of its founders now considers it "an embarrassment in contemporary theoretical sociology" (Ritzer & Goodman, 2004, p. 92).
Dahrendorf, writing in the mid-twentieth century, recognized that all social systems have elements of both conflict and consensus. He believed theory should account for both, but not necessarily within a single theory. Thus, for conflict theorists like Dahrendorf, structural-functionalist theories weren't wrong in any fundamental sense, as much as they were necessarily incomplete.
Dahrendorf's theory of conflict rests upon the notion of authority. "In all organizations, he argues, there is an unequal distribution of authority that creates a division between the dominant and the subordinate, between those who rule and those who are ruled" (Fulcher & Scott, 2003, p. 58). Like structural functionalists, Dahrendorf emphasized social positions rather than the people occupying those positions (Ritzer & Goodman, 2004). In other words, authority is inherent in the social positions themselves, and is not a result of the psychological or behavioral characteristics of the individuals who occupy them. Rather than emphasizing the normative expectations of social roles, however, Dahrendorf focused on the interests of particular groups of people. Subordinate groups, for example, have an interest in shifting the distribution of authority to their own advantage. People with common interests form social classes or interest groups. The various groups come into conflict with one another, thus bringing about social change. For Dahrendorf, change in society is always imminent. "A conflict of interest within...
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