The Conflict Perspective

(From Jonathan Turner, Sociology: The Science of Human Organization. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1985, pp. 31-34)

The conflict perspective views the social world as riddled with tension and strife. While stability and order remain recognized facts of the social world, the conflict perspective seeks to discover the tensions that exist behind the facade of order. Because some segments of human systems hold more power, money, prestige, and other valuables than do other segments, there is inevitably a conflict of interests between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Those who possess valuable resources naturally wish to retain them. Those without resources want to secure them.

In some respects conflict analysis is similar to functionalism [click here to read a short synopis of Durkheim's functionalist theory]. As in the functional perspective, the social world is viewed as a system of parts. As with functionalism also, the goal is to analyze the impact of certain processes on the overall system. Unlike the functional approach, which is typically concerned with stability and order among system parts, however, the conflict perspective focuses on the tensions and conflicts among system parts [click here to read a short synopis of Marx's conflict theory]. In particular, conflict theorists examine the changes that ensue from tension and conflict. Rather than study the needs met by the economy of a society, for example, conflict sociologists would study how those who own and control the economy seek to deny resources, such as power and money, to those who merely work in factories and corporate bureaucracies. They would analyze how such opposed interests produce tension, overt conflict, and eventual change in the relations between owners and workers in the economy.

Like functionalists, conflict sociologists analyze macrostructures. Conflict sociologists emphasize the conflict processes inherent in these structures, however. Examination of tensions between nation states, social classes, employers and employees, communities, ethnic and racial populations, and other aggregates of people is more typical than the study of family tension, interpersonal disputes, and similar face-to-face conflicts. Like the functionalist, the conflict sociologist is most concerned with the big events that shape entire communities, organizations, societies, and even world systems. Common to all conflict approaches are the following points of emphasis:

In recent years, the general metaphor contained in these assumptions has been incorporated into microanalysis of human organization. Such analysis explores the relations among individual people in concrete situations. It assumes that individuals in any social relationship have different levels of resources, such as knowledge, prestige, power, attractiveness, or anything else that people value. Those with more resources than others use their means to gain advantage, which creates the potential for competition and conflict among individuals. From this close perspective, any interaction among people can involve a conflict of interests between those with more and those with fewer resources. In essence, individuals negotiate over resources in order to achieve some degree of balance and accommodation to each other.

This relatively recent view of conflict has often used what is called an exchange theoretical orientation. Exchange theory is, in its essential details, a variation of conflict theory. It is also a perspective that permits analysis of both the interpersonal microdynamics and the largescale macrodynamics of conflict processes, using a common theoretical orientation.

Like all conflict theories, the exchange approach is concerned with the distribution of valuable resources, such as money, power, and prestige. Human affairs are viewed as exchanges of precious resources. Whether among individuals, corporations, communities, or nations, social relations always involve one party's seeking to gain valuable resources from another. In order to gain these valuables, other desirables must be given up. Thus, social relationships involve efforts by individuals and collective units to extract a profit in the exchange of resources. When one individual lends assistance to another, for example, something is expected in return-typically approval, esteem, or willingness to return the favor later. Union and management bargain for agreements over how much labor is to be exchanged for money, power, and fringe benefits. When corporations compete in the market, each seeks to realize monetary profit. The key elements of the exchange perspective:

We have deliberately used the term units to emphasize that either individuals or groups of individuals can be the parties in exchange relations. Central to the exchange perspective is the view that all social relationships-whether between lovers or nations-are a process in which each party seeks to make a net profit from what it must give up to obtain valuable goods from the other party. Like the conflict perspective, the exchange analysis holds that when units receive less than they give up, tension and conflict are likely to occur. When the exchange of resources is considered equitable, some degree of stability in relations is likely.

Emile Durkheim

Durkheim (1858-1917) asked a simple set of questions: What holds society together? Why are people willing to form and abide by social relationships? What processes function to sustain social order? In asking such questions Durkheim emphasized that sociology must always perform functional analysis; it must determine what a process does for the maintenance of the social order.

Durkheim's functional analysis always stressed the important function of ideas. Human beings create ideas to regulate their affairs. They hold values, beliefs, doctrines, and dogmas; they regulate their conduct with norms and rules; and they come to see these ideas as compelling truths and to invest them with great emotion.

But Durkheim, like Spencer, recognized that societies move from simple to more-complex forms. Ideas, or the "collective conscience," have less power in more-complex forms. They become more general and abstract and can no longer regulate human affairs in great detail. Social relations become based increasingly on exchanges of mutual interest and benefits. People work for pay rather than out of moral duty to the society. Such social relations often cause conflict and disorder, however. A lack of consensus over ideas can create a state of deregulation and can cause problems for the maintenance of social relations.

Durkheim's insights seem simple, but they had far-reaching implications for sociology:

Durkheim's vision of what holds society together was buttressed by a concern with developing sociology as a science. He was the first sociologist to test his theories about society with systematic data collection and statistical analysis. In so doing, he sought to implement Comte's vision of a science of society.

Karl Marx

The history of sociology now turns to Germany and Karl Marx (1818-1883). Marx, an advocate of revolution, inspired modern conflict theory. Seeing the misery of workers and peasants in early industrial Europe, he devoted his life to crusading for a revolution that he believed would better their lives. In advocating this revolution, Marx achieved some enduring insights into society. He saw society as held together not so much by consensus over ideas as by power. Those with power could force and manipulate others to do their bidding. Power came from property, from owning the means of production on which the economic system and people's survival depends. Those who possess the land in agricultural societies have power, those who own factories in industrial societies have power, and this power is immense. Owners coerce, they manipulate ideas, and they convince people that exploitation is in people's best interests.

Marx emphasized that societies reveal natural sources of conflict and tension. Order and stability are always subject to countervailing forces of disorder and change. The unequal distribution of power makes this conflict inevitable. Each type of economic system-slavery, feudalism, and capitalism, as examples-reveals a different set of power relationships between those who own property and those who do not. But in each type those without power seek to gain it, and once they have power, others attempt to take it from them.

Marx opened new fields of study for sociologists. How are resources distributed? How are resources used to manipulate people and classes? What tensions and conflicts are likely to emerge? How do these change society? Marx provided new insight into the social forces of power, inequality, and conflict. He held that societies were not stable social organisms, governed by democratic rules and mutually beneficial exchanges. The rules were imposed by those with power, and the exchanges were one-sided. Marx's analysis presented a view of society and change that contradicted Comte's, Spencer's, and Durkheim's overly consensual and orderly models.