Conflict theories are perspectives in social science which emphasize the social, political or material inequality of a social group, which critique the broad socio-political system, or which otherwise detract from structural functionalism and ideological conservatism. Conflict theories draw attention to power differentials, such as class conflict, and generally contrast historically dominant ideologies.
Certain conflict theories set out to highlight the ideological aspects inherent in traditional thought. Whilst many of these perspectives hold parallels, conflict theory does not refer to a unified school of thought, and should not be confused with, for instance, conflict studies, or any other specific theory of socal conflict.
Conflict theory deduces civilization as a fight for authority linking groups that are struggling for limited means. The elite or capitalist class includes the power of wealth that has access to the resources to manufacture or produce products. The working class on the other hand is individuals that have no power and their hard work is sold to capitalist class to produce these products. The elite have an advantage over the working class in that they keep this class enslaved, so that they have to rely on the elite for income and they can maintain this position of wealth.
Of the classical founders of social science, conflict theory is most commonly associated with Karl Marx (1818-1883). Based on dialectical materialist account of history, Marxism posited that capitalism, like previous socioeconomic systems, would inevitably produce internal tensions leading to its own destruction. Marx ushered a radical change, advocating proletarian revolution and freedom from the ruling classes.
The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Thus begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.
In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic, in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.
No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.
Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.
In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individual’s social conditions of existence but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.
C. Wright Mills has been called the founder of modern conflict theory. In Mill’s view, social structures are created through conflict between people with differing interests and resources. Individuals and resources, in turn, are influenced by these structures and by the “unequal distribution of power and resources in the society.” The power elite of American society, (i.e the military-industrial complex) had “emerged from the fusion of the corporate elite, the Pentagon, and the executive branch of government.” Mills argued that the interests of these elite were opposed to those of the people. He theorized that the policies of the power elite would result in “increased escalation of conflict, production of weapons of mass destruction, and possibly the annihilation of the human race.
Benefits of Conflict
Despite all of its negative aspects, conflict and disagreement between people have their good sides. Conflict is actually the main vehicle through which change takes place in our society. When we disagree, it helps us sharpen our focus and define what the important issues are for us.
Suppression of conflict and dissent is a sure sign that freedom is on the decline and democracy is in trouble. So, from this view-point, conflict is both evolutionary and absolutely necessary.
Unless we have reached a utopian society, there will always be conflict as there will always be disagreement about what is fair and best for all of us. If we accept the inevitability of conflict, it becomes obvious that it is in our best interest to gain the skills to be successful dispute resolvers.
It can be useful to begin to think about conflict as potentially beneficial in the long term: normal, natural and something to engage, not avoid. It will be easiest to make this kind of a shift in attitude if we have good skills to resolve conflict. We naturally tend to be attracted to those things we do well and shy away from those we are not so good at. Therefore, if we want to gain a more positive attitude about conflict when it appears, we will want to expand our skills to resolve conflict effectively.
Depending upon the range and quality of our dispute resolution toolbox, dealing with disagreement does not have to be disagreeable. Successfully resolving a conflict can actually be an enjoyable and empowering experience.
Becoming more skilled in resolving disputes and solving problems can also help us to understand the workings of the human mind in relationships, which ean lead to better relationships overall. This is not to say that problem solving is always fun or easy; in fact, many times it is hard work. The rewards, however, usually are worth it.