Conflict Theory 



Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology:

Conflict Theory

Functionalism and Conflict Theory

Power as the Key to Understanding Society


Functionalism and Conflict Theory

When looking at the question of values we looked a little a the functionalist view of values and their general approach to society. Functionalist theory (or structural functionalism) was a very popular perspective during the 1950 and 1960's.

It is also sometimes also called the consensus perspective. As we learned in the unit on values, many people believe that common values provide the basis for society. This agreement or consensus on the basic values is how it got this name.

Whereas functional analysis looks at a society and sees a unit that resembles an organism with all the parts functioning for the good of the whole; conflict theorists see a system made up of groups and individuals who are pursuing their own interests.

Functionalists see social order as growing our of common values and a belief that the society and it's norms are legitimate and benefit us all.

Conflict theorists on the other hand, see competing groups and believe that order is based on coercion and force. So to understand a society they believe that power is the most important variable to consider.


 Power as the Key Variable

If you want to understand a society, conflict theory argues, find out who has power and everything else will become clear. All that you need to do is ask what are the interests of the people with power and you will find social arrangements that reflect that power and those interests. Note: when you hear conflict theory think power not fighting and disagreement.

Take slavery for example. Can you really imagine a slave system based on consensus.  A system in which the slaves agree that their position is legitimate and are happy to perform their role for the good of the whole.

One may find individual slaves who represent the beliefs listed above but conflict theorists argue,  slavery is a system that requires the use of force to maintain the system, recapture runaway slaves, beat them, hang them,  etc., etc.

Most of the time in societies, the difference in power is not as extreme as in a slave system, so the social order rests on less extreme measures of coercion.

We have labor unions in a power struggle with management, a conflict  which in its early days was violent.  Over time the recognition of the rights of workers to form unions and collective bargaining emerged as a way to nonviolently manage this power struggle.  However, behind this bargaining is always the possibility of a strike by the workers or a lockout by the owners.

Power struggles often involve more than one group.  For example you may see political interest groups trying to form coalitions to get enough power to change laws to make them reflect their interests. Mothers Against Drunk drivers for example may try to get support from churches and insurance companies to change the laws governing drunk driving.

While functionalism often gives us a picture of a society that is relatively static, it expects changes in technology or the environment to be the major sources of change. By contrast in the view of conflict theory society is a dynamic changing system with change resulting from shifting balances of power.

For example, not long ago coal companies who owned underground mines in the Eastern parts of the U.S. opened up huge mechanized open pit mines in the West. The mines in the West used huge machines, had a very small labor force, and were non-union. 

This decreased the power of the underground miners in the East because when they struck the companies could keep supplying their customers from the Western mines. The result was that in the end, the unions had to settle for contracts in which they lost benefits.

These same principles can be used to understand the relationships between men and women.

As women gained the possibility of economic independence over the last generation, they were able make major strides toward equality in other areas of their lives as well. When the Cuban revolution encouraged women to join the work force and guaranteed them the basic necessities of life -- the divorce rate in Cuba went to record highs. The argument is that with economic power women felt they no longer had to stay in bad relationships.

While Marx is one of the most obvious examples of a conflict theorist there are others in the history of sociology as well. Max Weber, Georg Simmel, C. W. Mills, and Ralf Darendorf are other examples of conflict theorists.   

I once heard a Catholic theologian from Peru say, "You don't have to be a Marxist to realize that in my country there is a small ruling class that makes decisions that are in its own best interests."

But let's bring the question down our situation right here in an educational institution.

Could we run community colleges without grades and transcripts?

Would you study just as hard if there were no grades given?

To what extent take classes and do the assignments because you believe the requirements are legitimate or because you have to do them to get a degree?

For in reality the transcript with its power over your future career choices and earnings is the basis of power in the relationship between the community college and its students.

Or can we explain grades as having the function of providing the necessary incentive to help each  reach a higher level of learning? And thus is good for the whole system not just for the social group of which we are a part.

 Or both?


I have written this module, not as a comprehensive overview of conflict theory but as an introduction to help you as you read further examples of the application of conflict theory  in this class.

I would be happy also to respond to questions or comments you have.

My own view is that both of these perspectives are useful and that contrary to the view of our textbook author we don't have to choose one theory or the other. 

A theory is valuable to the degree to which it helps us understand a particular situation.

The questions to ask of a theory are:

Does the theory  help us notice and things we might otherwise overlook ?

Does the theory help us see relationships between parts of the system that are hidden?

Does the theory describe how the parts of a system are linked together? 

Does the theory provide a guide for research into some aspect of society?

Does the theory give us a good explanation which can be supported with evidence?

These are the features of theoretical perspectives which make them valuable.

My answer to the questions listed above is yes for each of the basic theoretical perspectives of  functionalism and conflict theory.  

Later on when we look at the social scientific view the family and romantic love; I will try to make the case for symbolic interaction as well.