Conflict Theory

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Conflict Theory:

Conflict Theory Elite Theory Traditional Contemporary Conflict Theory Neoconflict Theory Radical Sociological Theory


Definition “Conflict theories…seek to explain how the unequal distribution of resources leads to conflict between those who possess and control valuable resources, on the one side, and those who seek to increase their share of these resources, on the other…” Turner et al (1998)

Intellectual Underpinnings:

Intellectual Underpinnings Marx was earliest and most important Conflict inevitable in society Weber – conflict not always inevitable Would depend how bad exploitation was Simmel – conflict not necessarily divisive Could be beneficial force for social change

Elite Theory:

Elite Theory Developed in Italy Important influence on conflict theory Most important elite theorists: Robert Michels (1876-1936) Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941 Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923)

Main Premise of Elite Theory:

Main Premise of Elite Theory Only a small number of people in any society will be able to hold power and authority, and this fact automatically puts them in opposition with the rest of society who are subordinate to them.

Gaetano Mosca:

Gaetano Mosca Politics is the real source of power in society Not economics, as Marx thought

Robert Michels:

Robert Michels “iron law of oligarchy” Small groups that gain authority in society will eventually use that power to run political parties for their own ends

Vilfredo Pareto:

Vilfredo Pareto “circulation of elites” Always a small number of elites who want to govern society When one elite gains political power will have to contend with other elites who are struggling to dominate “lions” – power becomes crystallized “foxes” - waiting to step in

Contemporary Conflict Theory:

Contemporary Conflict Theory Two traditions: 1. Weberian - analytical, “scientific” form Dahrendorf, Louis Coser, Randall Collins 2. Critical Concern with critique of society C. Wright Mills (radical sociology) Marxist and neo-Marxist theory Frankfurt School


Dahrendorf Idea of “conflict groups” Smaller scale than Marx not just two classes Power struggles rather than violent revolution

Louis Coser:

Louis Coser Drew on Simmel’s work “greedy institutions” Demand total involvement from workers There is a “web of conflict” (many sources) Conflict can lead to change and innovation

Randall Collins (1941 - ) Neo-conflict Theory:

Randall Collins (1941 - ) Neo-conflict Theory Neo-conflict perspective Not a functionalist, but adds Durkheim’s idea that people held together by emotional and value bonds, not just interests In all societies there are basic goods like wealth, power, and prestige desired by all Therefore, always conflict

Collins (cont.):

Collins (cont.) “direct coercion” at heart of conflict May use force if necessary People have 4 types of resources: Material and technical Strength, physical attractiveness Social networks (# of friends, associations) Identity capital (can influence others to your point of view)

Collins (cont.):

Collins (cont.) Resources can be obtained from 3 areas: 1. Occupational area 2. Community realm 3. Political arena Therefore, many variations can occur Collin’s ideas are a refinement of older conflict theory

C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) Radical Sociology:

C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) Radical Sociology “libertarian socialist” Key theme: bureaucracy and alienation in U.S. society “Power elites” – centralization of power Stressed relationship between biography and history

The Sociological Imagination:

The Sociological Imagination “enables its possessor to understand the large historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions…By such means, the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues” (Mills, 1959)

Bureaucracy and Alienation:

Bureaucracy and Alienation Material hardships of past now replaced by psychological problems Stems from alienation We are manipulated bureaucracy White collar employees make profits off labour which then give to owners Because of bureaucracy, increasingly fewer people own means of production

Bureaucracy and Alienation (cont.):

Bureaucracy and Alienation (cont.) Traditional values undermined (i.e. pride in one’s work) and loss of self-respect occurs Develop low self-esteem and “status panic” Personalities have become commodities Turn to meaningless leisure activities and live fragmented lives Society becomes prone to fascist or totalitarian takeover

The Power Elite (1958):

The Power Elite (1958) Power in hands of a few interconnected elite groups “big three”: the political, military, economic institutions Combination of Marxist and Elite theory Saw small property ownership and small business as safeguard for freedom and democracy

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