Conflict Theory Antiwar Protest March (Image © Sage Ross / Con

Conflict Theory
Antiwar Protest March (Image © Sage Ross /
Conflict theorists have often criticized structural functionalist theory for seeing equilibrium as a “normal” condition for society. First, they point out that human societies seldom exist in a state of equilibrium. Conflict theorists argue that conflict, strife, and competition appear as fundamental to human societies as do harmony and integration of functions. Indeed, they argue that conflict is inevitable and even sometimes constructive. If a family never experienced conflict, there would be no way for the individual members to seek change to meet their personal needs as they change. Structural functionalists tended to see equilibrium as “good” and therefore to perceive conflict as evil or threatening. However, many sociologists began to question this idea in the 1960s. Many functionalists, for example, saw the antiwar movement of that time as destabilizing the equilibrium of U.S. society. In effect, they tacitly agreed that antiwar protesters must be a threat to society. However, the antiwar protesters, in general, did not feel they were trying to harm the United States; instead, most thought of themselves as trying to rescue or improve their society which they felt had blundered into an unjust and unwise war. Similarly, many people perceived those supporting the civil rights movement of the day as a threat to equilibrium and therefore to society. However, the civil rights protesters thought that racism, if left unchecked, might eventually destroy the United States.
Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington, DC, 1963 (Image © Library of Congress)
The result was that an increasing number of sociological theorists began to turn for inspiration to Europe, where for many years a different tradition of sociological theory had been popular, specifically conflict theory. Conflict theorists pointed out that the role of power in society was just as important as the effects of sharing beliefs in holding society together.
By analogy, can a family remain together if its members never have any conflict?
How would differences among family members be resolved if there were zero conflict ever in a family? Of course, too much conflict can tear a family apart. But without some conflict, there is no way for a family to rebalance the needs of its members. Conflict theories would argue that the same thing is true of societies at large. Too much conflict can destroy a society, but it is through conflict short of anarchy that society implements changes that sometimes are needed to rebalance the society to meet the needs of its members.
One of the first conflict theorists from the United States to gain popularity in sociology was C. Wright Mills. Mills was the author of The Power Elite(1956). In this book, Mills took exception to the idea of a society run by pluralism (the leveling and compromising effect of many different individuals or groups pursuing their own separate interests—much as Adam Smith had suggested). Instead, Mills suggested that most social decisions and policies are set by a small group of very powerful individuals within any give community or society.
Karl Marx (Image, used under license of
By the end of the 1960s, many conflict theorists adopted the theoretical ideas of Karl Marx, the German author of The Communist Manifesto. Marx believed that the causes of conflict in modern industrial society were traceable to the effects of capitalism. Marx believed that the conflict between the social classes set into motions various forces that led inevitably to social conflict. He also believed that capitalism contained within itself the seeds of its own destruction and would inevitably lead to a revolution by the workers that would overthrown capitalism and establish socialism in its place.
Another group of conflict theorists emerged at about the same time. They focused less on economic conflict than on what they referred to as “status politics.” Status politics drive social conflicts and social movements that are the result of conflicting worldviews and lifestyles, not because of strictly economic factors.
For an example, Joseph Gusfield carried out a conflict theory analysis of the temperance movement using the ideas of status politics. Gusfield found that the antialcohol forces were not so much lower class (many were well-to-do middle class) as they were older, more rural, and conservative Protestants with a traditional worldview compared to those in favor of ready access to alcohol. Similarly, Louis Zurcher’s analysis of antipornography campaigns in the 1960s found the “conporns” nearly identical in characteristics to Gusfield’s antialcohol constituents and the “proporns” quite similar to the proalcohol forces (i.e., younger, more urban, better educated, etc.)
Temperance March (Image © Library of Congress)
Critical Thinking
What issues can you think of in today’s society that probably reflect status politics at least as much as class politics?

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