Three Different Versions of Conflict Theory

I. Marx's Sociology: Historical Materialism
Basic Propositions:
1) The basic unit of social analysis is people in social relations. Social relations are real, but they should not be viewed as having a thing-like facticity. Class is not a thing, but a relation or, better yet, an ensemble of relations. The state is not a thing or apparatus or instrument: it, too, represents a network/ensemble of social relations. The state should also be viewed as an arena of struggle, a place where social differences are contested and social policies are formulated.

People live in social formations (geographical location) and in social relations. The goal of social inquiry is to comprehend the inner logic of social relations and how this influences, or shapes, individual lives. Discussions about what exactly inner logic is can quickly become confusing. It might help, therefore, to think of inner logic with these sort of words: system principles, underlying forces, tendencies, structure, structural inertia and so forth. The structure/inner logic of social relations obliges people to behave in a certain fashion; it does not "determine" their behavior in the strong sense. Also, remember that these tendencies are not like universal laws. They are simply tendencies which can be modified, reversed & changed by social practice/human agency. Inner logic is not the same as an iron-law.

2) People make social relations, but an important reservation must be added: Marxist reject the idealist notion that social reality is nothing more than inter-subjective. Instead, they argue that social relations are the product of human activities, but that human agency is bounded/limited. Once created [by people], social relations become a reality separate from the activities of ordinary individuals. "People make history," according to Marx, "but they do not make it under conditions of their own choosing." People are thus viewed as free, active & creative, but freedom is bounded/limited; agency is bounded; creativity is bounded.

3) Labor is the source of wealth. The wealth of any particular society originates in productive labor. Workers, whether they are slaves, serfs, employees, or tenant farmers, are the direct producers of wealth. An important task for social scientists is to uncover the hidden secrets which allow members of a small social class to expropriate the wealth created by a much larger class of producers. What, in other words, are the ideological, political and economic practices that contribute to the exploitation of labor?

4) Marxist sociology rejects the widely accepted notion [held in modern economics] that there is a rough equality between actors in the capitalistic labor market. By its very nature, they argue, this labor market is marked by certain basic inequities which reflect and reinforce the political & economic interests of the powerful. The marketplace may be competitive, but never "free" and "equal."

5) Class relations are characterized by combination and opposition. Put differently: class is characterized by both dependency and exploitation. Workers are dependent upon capitalists for their means of subsistence and capitalists are dependent upon workers for their surplus labor. Relations of domination and exploitation are socially constructed and expressed through political, ideology and economic practices.

6) As mentioned above, Marxist sociologists seek to uncover the system principles or underlying logic [structure] that gives shape to social relations & social change. Marx, for instance, identifies what he calls the general laws [read: tendencies] of capitalist accumulation: a) With the development of capitalism comes greater levels of economic concentration and centralization. In their struggle to improve their position in the competitive marketplace, capitalists destroy the very foundations of that marketplace. Competitive capitalism is replaced by monopoly capitalism. In turn, the concentration and centralization of capital comes to represent one of the true enemies of democracy and other principles upon which capitalism is said to rest. Capitalism becomes its own gravedigger. b) In order to survive, capitalism must grow into new areas of investment and into new territories (deepening & broadening). This growth imperative is built into the very logic of capitalism and is responsible for many of the major human problems accompanying capitalist change & development. c) The capitalist mode of production both unifies and atomizes workers/communities. As workers are brought into the new society, old patterns of solidarity are undermined as individuals become atomized in much larger industrial-residential areas. In time, however, the proximity of workers to each other coupled with their common class grievances lead them and other community members to form alliances in their own self interest. Using their human reason, Marx believed that workers would overcome the dependence and exploitation of capitalism and move forward to forge a new society where human priority would replace profit motives [the promise of reason & of socialism].

7) Marxist reject the positivist notion that social relations are knowable only by means of direct sensory observation. They emphasize the importance of seeing through appearances (superficial sense impressions & inferences) and using the powers of human abstraction/reason/interpretation as tools for social analysis. The goal of social scientists should be to understand the distinctive features [read: structure/inner logic] of each mode of production and the empirically variable conditions that give rise to social change.

8) One might ask: What is distinctive about the capitalist mode of production? The answer, for Marxists, is the transformation of labor into wage-labor--sometimes referred to as the commodification of labor. Key questions for Marxist sociologists include: a) How was the commodification of labor accomplished? b) Once established, how are class relations managed [or reproduced]? c) What has led to changes in the shape of class relations and what are the prospects for the future?

9) Marxist social scientists would not reject either quantitative or qualitative methodologies. Both could prove useful aids in understanding social reality. They would, however, emphasize a greater use of historical materials. Their approach would more closely resemble "Intellectual Craftsmanship" (see C. Wright Mills' Sociological Imagination, Appendix).

Criticisms: 1) Many classical Marxists probably underestimate the creative and dynamic character of the capitalist mode of production (CMP). Capitalism has obviously generated important oppositional forces against it, but it has also won many adherents.

2) Some criticize historical materialism as methodologically unscientific: too historical/biased. 3) There is an unwarranted faith that, using their ability to reason, the working-class will automatically rise up in opposition to exploitation and domination in support of a socialist revolution. If one examines the historical record, do workers always "do the right thing?" The point is simply this: many forces (and psychological tendencies) mitigate against this and need to be adequately dealt with.
Now, let's turn to two versions of conflict theory that differ fundamentally from the conflict theory of Karl Marx. The first involves Lewis Coser's attempt to construct a functionalist theory of conflict; his efforts can largely be understood as an attempt to overcome some of the tendencies of Parsonian functionalism by employing some insights from Robert Merton. The second approach to understanding conflict includes is based on the writings of Ralf Dahrendorf. Using Weber's emphasis on multiple sources/foundations for stratification (esp. the authority of imperatively coordinated institutions (bureaucracy)), Dahrendorf claims to upgrade or update Marxist conflict theory to take account of significant twentieth century social transformations. 

II. Lewis Coser's Conflict Functionalism:
The aim of Coser's conflict theory is to clarify and consolidate a conceptual framework which will be useful for understanding social conflict. He tries to show that functionalism can handle questions of change and conflict without any major revisions, beyond those made by Merton. His emphasis is on the functions, rather than the dysfunctions, of social conflict. Coser wants us to view conflict as an integral part of normal social processes, not as some sort of problem or pathology or social disease. Because of his emphasis on the functional attributes of conflict and conflict as a factor leading to greater levels of social integration, Coser is best thought of as a conflict functionalist.

Conflict, for Coser, involves a "struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power and resources in which the aims of opponents are to neutralize, eliminate or injure their rivals." Read this definition carefully. Is it always the intent of actors in a conflictual situation to injure their rivals? Or is the intent focused on some other goal? Do employers seek to neutralize, injure or eliminate their workers? Is this their intent? Is this a useful way to conceptualize social conflict?

Assumptions: 1) Conflict may increase social adjustment, adaptation and integration. 2) The intensity of social conflict is related to a) the existence of safety-valve institutions, b) the tolerance of the conflicting parties, c) levels of social mobility, and d) the solidarity of the conflicting groups.

Common Criticisms: 1) Coser's definition of conflict and his view of the origins of conflict has been criticized for being superficial (see his definition of conflict above). 2) Coser retains a functionalist perspective and is therefore open to many of the same criticisms as other functionalists. What Coser does is to borrow heavily from Simmel and add a few ideas about how conflict can produce cohesion and stimulate progress. The problem is not that Coser is wrong, but that he overstates his case. He offers a few descriptive examples, but not much in the way of analysis. His illustrations are insightful but something is missing; there is no real explanations of the underlying causes of conflict. 3) At times, Coser seems to be celebrating the good, liberal society, not analyzing it.

Comments: Coser's theory of social conflict is interesting. He maintains the themes of social order and social conflict simultaneously. Conflict is seen as a power struggle where groups with similar values act to gain access to wealth, status and power. The perspective Coser offers helps us better appreciate the many ways that conflictual behavior may lead to social adjustment and progress. Nonetheless, remember that Coser still views social order as resting upon some sort of general consensus in the traditional functionalist sense. Conflict comes to be viewed merely as healthy competition, as a sort of checks and balances system in which conflict leads to steady forward progress. The nature of class, gender, and racial/ethnic inequality is not dealt with directly. The social structure is perceived as being basically sound, capable of resolving any problems that come its way (more on this when we talk about Antonio Gramsci).

What I like about Coser's approach to understanding conflict is his emphasis upon coercion andconsent. It is too simple to say that society is held together by either force/coercion or consent/common values. In the real world, consensual and coercive practices combine in interesting ways. How people's minds are won over so that they want to participate in society, even when this reproduces their own subjugation, is just as important and interesting as understanding the more direct means of physical coercion & control.

III. Ralf Dahrendorf's Conflict in Industrial Societies:
The aim of Dahrendorf's conflict theory is to develop a coercion or conflict approach toward understanding society. He starts with the ideas of Karl Marx. He focuses upon the last chapter of Marx's Capital, Vol.III. Dahrendorf also starts with a rejection of functionalism. He argues that functionalism is utopian and that his coercion/conflict theory can explain anything better than functionalism or order theory. What Dahrendorf presents, then, is a theory that alleges to be Marxist and anti-functionalist. Ironically, he reaches a theoretical position which a) departs substantially from Marx on such basic questions as what is a social class and what is the nature of social conflict, and b) is not substantially different from the views of functionalists such as Lewis Coser.

Dahrendorf claims that the social structure of advanced societies has undergone some very significant changes since Marx's time. These changes have resulted in a "transformed" capitalism, or what Dahrendorf calls an industrial society, where power is vested in "imperatively coordinated institutions" and experts (note Weber's influence here). Some of the characteristics of this new type of society include:

>the decomposition of capital: This includes the separation of ownership and control over large corporations (sometimes referred to as "people's capitalism"), new managerial styles, the decline in family capitalism (robber barons).
>the decomposition of labor: As workers have become increasingly skilled, educated and better paid, they have become more integrated into the middle layers of society. The traditional sources of discontent and labor militancy have been dissolved. The basis for class struggle is gone. Conflicts now develop within institutional structures (business organizations, unions and so forth) and are resolved rationally & fairly.
>the growth of a new middle-class.
>increased social mobility.
>increased citizen rights.
>institutionalization of class conflict.
>elimination of the grosser aspects of social inequality (through gov't assistance programs).
>rise to dominance of a new class of managers and the decline in the profit motive.

Taken together, these structural changes have produced a society that is fundamentally different from the capitalism of the past. No longer is conflict rooted in property relations and the power struggles they define. Conflict, for Dahrendorf, is situated mainly in large bureaucratically organized institutions. The most typical conflict in this type of society is that which develops between experts and laymen, and those between groups of experts competing for influence.

Dahrendorf tries to combine the insights of Marxian sociology with these new 20th century realities. And this is reflected in his terminology. Groups with latent (unconscious & unarticulated) interests represent what Dahrendorf calls quasi-groups. When these latent interests become manifest (conscious and articulated), you have a social class. For Ralf, a social class is any group with manifest interests. (He points out that the articulation of interests depends upon a number of factors such as political limitations, freedom of coalition, level of education and so on and that it is important to pay careful attention to these if we want to better regularize class conflict.) Dahrendorf notion of class and class conflict couldn't be farther from Marx's.

Comments: 1) Dahrendorf's notion about the transformed nature of capitalism is not convincingly supported; it may be more wishful thinking than reality. Is it meaningful to talk about the decomposition of capital or the decomposition of labor? Have class conflicts been regularized? Has the profit motive declined? Are the new managers more socially conscious and benevolent than their capitalist predecessors? 2) It is not clear that Marx's notion of social class is so outmoded. To argue that property relations have become passé and that we should focus exclusively on the authority relations within imperatively coordinated institutions is silly; worse, it is a sure-fire way to misread the class dynamics shaping the world today. 3) Dahrendorf makes a big deal about the distinction between his coercion and the opposition (consensus) view of society. I doubt that social reality can be torn apart so easily. Coercion and consent are a central part of daily life. To look at one at the exclusion of the other is to invite misunderstanding.