A theory is defined as a general statement about how some parts of the world fit together and how they work (Henslin, 2006). It is an explanation of how two or more facts are related to each other. Sociologists interpret observations and piece them together into a framework of related ideas. Sociologist use three major theories: functional analysis, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory (Hughes, 1897). Conflict theory is a theoretical framework in which society is viewed as composed of groups competing for scarce resources (Henslin, 2006). Some sociologists examine how conflict affects the layers of society, whether it is an organization, a small group, a community, or a society as a whole. As individuals of authority or leadership try to enforce conformity it creates resentment and resistance between parties. It results in a constant struggle in society to determine who has power or authority (Hogan, 2005). Conflict develops on all different levels of social structure and class. It is not limited to any specific relations, organizations, or groups. Conflict is prevalent everywhere. In today’s society class conflict is one of the worst problems that persist. Everyday is a struggle for individuals to improve their lives and use cut throat tactics to make it to the top of the world they live in. The authority figures are the capitalists and the less powerful are the workers. This creates not only a class conflict between the workers, but it also creates a class conflict between the workers and the capitalists. Since the
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Industrial Revolution there has been an increase in popularity of the conflict theory over functionalism (Wells, 1979).
The views of functionalism and conflict differ greatly. They are the complete opposites of each other. In functionalism, various parts of society are independent but functionally related. Each part contributes positively and they fit together nice and stable. In conflict, society is a system of accommodations among competing groups. These groups do not fit together and makes for an unstable society. A functional society is governed by consensus and cooperation, while conflict society may at any time become unbalanced because of shifts in power. Order in a conflict society is often achieved through coercion and even force (Wells, 1979). Two great advocates of these theories were Karl Marx and Charles W. Mills.
Karl Marx, (1818-1883), was the founder of conflict theory, which states that the competition within society for wealth and power is the process of shaping social structure (Henslin, 2006). Marx was a very influential philosopher, economist, and social revolutionary (Hughes, 1897). He addressed a large number of issues in his life, but maybe none as well known as his analysis of history in terms of class conflict. In the introduction of the Communist Manifesto (1848), he wrote, “The history of all hitherto
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existing society is the history of class struggles.”(Kuhn, 2006). Marx believed that conflict of groups produce a progressive development of greater equality, democracy, autonomy, and individuality as authority is disassembled (Kriesberg, 2001). Marx believed this only happened when the authority or rule of power groups was overthrown, leading to a closer society. However in a capitalistic society Marx believed owners can accumulate great amounts of resources and that they could then control others lives and rule the society by political corruption, almost in the sense of monopoly. During the 1960’s, Marx’s views which emphasized the importance of stratification, class, conflict and material interests gained popularity (Kriesberg, 2001). Although Marx did not invent socialism, he influenced the movement strongly and his theories became known as Marxism.
Charles Wright Mills, (1916-1962), is usually regarded as the founder of modern conflict theory (Elwell, 2001). Mills interpreted the world through a theoretical view influenced greatly by Max Weber. Mills claims there are three types of power. The first type of power is coercion or physical force, but this type of power is rarely used or needed. The second type of power is authority. This only works if it is attached to a position which is cared for by the beliefs of the obedient. The third and final power is manipulation. Manipulation is often the most common and also the most effective (Elwell, 2001). From 1950 to 1962 Mills published nearly a dozen books which gave revival to conflict theory in the 1960’s (Elwell, 2001). In his book “The Sociological
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Imagination” it argues that the main task of a sociologist is to use social structures and personal actions in their interrelations (Mills, 1959). Social structures don’t just happen;
They are the outcome of struggles and negotiations between people with different interests and different resources. Those people and resources are then shaped by larger structures and by the unequal distribution of power and resources in society. Mills defined the sociological imagination as the ability to see the micro-level of individual action and the macro-level of social structure in relation to each other (Mills, 1959). Micro is an examination of small-scale patterns of society and macro examines large-scale patterns. For example, an individual may have personal problems (unemployed and divorced) which is distinguishable from social issues (having a high rate of unemployed workforce and a high rate of divorce in society.) A person can have several reasons for their problem such as laziness or poor work habits; but to explain high rates of society (affects of Great Depression) is simply a failure to handle the real dynamics and stresses of economy. Like Marx, Mills views the problem of stratification as part of modern society. Unlike Marx, Mills doesn’t blame it on capitalism alone. Mills agreed that a lot of the problem is due to the monopoly of production. He also believed much of it was due because of modern division of labor. Mills also believed that widespread stratification and political and economic indifference is a serious threat to society and government.
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Much theorizing about social conflicts has been directed at explaining the sources of conflicts in terms of underlying conditions. A social conflict exists when two or more parties believe they have incompatible objectives to the same thing. Given this definition
of social conflicts, several stages can be distinguished. Each of those continues to have inner lying problems. These levels of conflicts can be resolved in a number of ways, depending on what type of theory is used. One thing is for sure, these theories raise fundamental questions about inequality, social structure, and social dynamics.
Elwell, Frank W. Dr. (2001). C. Wright Mills: C. Wright Mills Homepage. Retrieved on November 26, 2006, from http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Mills/index.htm.
Henslin, James M. (2006). Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach. Southern Illinois University: Pearson A and B.
Hogan, Richard. (2005). Was Wright wrong? High class jobs and the professional earning advantage. Social Science Quarterly, Vol 86, Iss 3 p.645. Retrieved on November 8, 2006, from Proquest database.
Hughes, Everett Cherrington. (1897). On work, race, and the sociological imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kriesberg, Louis. (2001). Social Conflict Theories and Conflict Resolution. Peace and Change, Vol. 8. Retrieved on November 8, 2006, from Ebscohost database.
Kuhn, Rick. (2006). Manifesto of the Communist Party. Retrieved from
Mills, C. Wright. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wells, Alan. (1979). Conflict Theory and Functionalism. Teaching Sociology, Vol. 6, No 4 p.429-437. Retrieved on November 15, 2006, from Proquest database.