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Conflict Theory Essay

A. What is Conflict Theory?

Farley (2000:73) contends that conflict theory arose primarily from the work of Marx and was continued in the work of C Wright Mills and Ralf Dahrandorf. The general underlying assumption associated with conflict theory is that society is made up of groups with competing self-interests. Often the competing groups have unequal power. People compete for resources that are in scarce supply. Generally, the resources that are in short supply involve wealth and power. Conflict theory generally consists of the following four points.

1. Conflict Built into Society

Societies naturally tend toward conflict. This occurs because wealth and power are distributed unequally; therefore, different social groups have different and conflicting interests (Farley, 2000:73).

2. One Group Becomes Dominant

Because competing interest groups have unequal power, one group usually becomes dominant. The dominant group then uses its power to control most or all other aspects of the social structure. The dominant group can ensure that society operates in a way that serves the interests of the dominant group. As a result the dominant group controls a vastly disproportionate share of scarce resources such as wealth and social status (Farley, 2000:73-74).

3. Consensus is Artificial

When a consensus appears in a society, it is usually artificial and is unlikely to persist over the long run. A Functionalist might argue that consensus is “necessary” and is, therefore, automatically something desired by all concerned. The conflict theorist contends that a consensus in a society is either based on coercion and/or repression by the dominant group.

4. Conflict in Society is Desirable

Conflict is desirable because it makes possible social change which may lead to more equitable distribution of wealth and power (Farley, 2000:74).

5. Ideology

A central assumption of Marxist theory is that the distribution of wealth by and large determines other aspects of society, such as the political system and the characteristics of culture. This includes the norms, values, and beliefs of the culture. The norms, values, and beliefs of the culture are such that they legitimize the control of wealth. Everyone, the rich and poor alike, accept the cultural beliefs as just and correct. Another term for these beliefs is IDEOLOGY. Marx, however, argued that beliefs in the dominant ideology is not in the interest of the subordinate group. Marx referred to the pattern of the subordinate group’s acceptance of an ideology that goes against it’s own self interest as false-consciousness.

a. False Consciousness

A consensus can also be achieved when a minority group accepts an ideology that is not in its self interest. This is false consciousness. It can occur because the dominant group exerts disproportionate control over the sources of influence and public opinion. It might also come about because the dominant group, through sheer power and force, can create an atmosphere where the subordinate group feels that resistance is futile. In either case, the apparent consensus is fundamentally unstable and is not likely to persist over time (Farley, 2000:74).

b. Class Consciousness

Racism can only be dealt with by changing the institutions that are the source of racism. Marx called upon the oppressed to realize how dominant ideology serves to oppress the subordinate group. Arrival at this understanding is called class-consciousness.

B. Marx

Karl Marx’s writings on class conflict, differing class interests, the ownership and control of the means of production, and the exploitation by one class over the other were precursors to the development of conflict theory. Marx saw class and class conflict as the moving forces in history. A dominant class owns the means of production and exploits other classes. It is then in the interests of the dominated classes to overthrow those in positions of dominance and to establish a social order more favorable to their interests (Kitano, 1985:42) (also see Farley, 2000:74-75).

C. C Wright Mills and the Role of Intellectuals in Society “Only when mind has an autonomous basis, independent of power, but powerfully related to it, can mind exert its force in the shaping of human affairs. This is democratically possible only when there exists a free and knowledgeable public, to which people of knowledge may address themselves, and to which people of power are truly responsible” (C Wright Mills, 1956) V.

A Comparison of Functionalism and Conflict Theory

Both perspectives can be viewed as two faces of the same society. For example, one of the basic problems facing a nonwhite individual in the functional model is that of high alienation and loss of identity. However, racial conflict, with its ideological apparatus and action system, functions to alleviate alienation and to facilitate an ethnic identity. Group solidarity is enhanced, group boundaries are clarified, and the linkage between the individual and the group is strengthened through personal commitment and social action. In time, the group identity can be extended to the larger system through communication; the individual is exposed to larger social networks and to national core values (Kitano, 1985:43). Farley (2000:75-76) provides two observations regarding the nexus between conflict and functionalist theory. He contends that a synthesis of the two theories is possible.

A. Both Theories are Partially Correct

Society might operate according to both perspectives. Order and stability might exist in the presence of extreme income inequality. It is possible, for example, that a given institution might serve to make society efficient while at the same time serving the interests of the dominant elite.

B. Societies Go through Cycles of Stability and Conflict

Societies go through cycles of stability and conflict. Under different circumstances, people behave differently. At one point in time a society may be stable and orderly, where minorities are able to get ahead through hard work. At another point, however, society might be characterized by disorder and conflict where minorities might advance only via protest and rebellion (Farley, 2000:86).

VI. The Social Structural Perspective and Social Problems

Functionalist and conflict people tend to disagree on two basic elements. One revolves around the definition of the social problem. The other is the location of the problem (Farley, 2000:76).

A. The Definition of Social Problems

What is considered a social problem? It is human reaction that makes something a problem.

1. Functionalist

For a functionalist, any thing is a problem if it threatens the smooth and efficient running of society. Conflict of most kinds is seen as problematic because conflict threatens consensus. Conflict can potentially have serious consequences if it causes the disruption of society.

2. Conflict Theory

For a conflict theorist, on the other hand, social problems include things like poverty and racism and, more generally, the inequitable distribution of wealth and other scarce resources (Farley, 2000:77).

B. The Location of Social Problems

Where do the two perspectives place the source of social problems (Farley, 2000:77-78)?

1. Functionalist

The cause of social problems for a functionalist lies predominantly in the characteristics of the disadvantaged group. For example, functionalist might argue that a minority group lacks the necessary skills that would yield the greatest rewards in society. Or, perhaps the group in question has a culture that is incompatible with the dominant culture. In either case, the burden of change is placed mostly on the disadvantaged group.

2. Conflict Theory

Conflict theorists see the source of social problems as being embedded in the exploitative behavior of the dominant group. It is assumed from the conflict perspective that if someone or some group is suffering or placed in a disadvantageous position, there must be some other group (that is more powerful) that benefits from the misery of the disadvantaged group (Farley, 2000:77-78).

VII. The Social Structural Perspectives and Majority-Minority Relations

Ethnic stratification refers to a system that distributes scarce resources on an unequal basis according to race and ethnicity (2000:79).

A. Functionalist Theories about Majority/Minority Relations

A paradox of sorts exists for the functionalists. Inequality, they argue, is desirable in society because it ensures that the most qualified people will get the most important jobs in a society. On the other hand, functionalists contend that ethnic inequality has the potential to cause serious disruption of society (Farley, 2000:78-79).

1. Inequality

Functionalist would argue that inequality is necessary in order to create incentives. Some jobs are more necessary than others. They also require more training. To ensure that these jobs are filled by competent individuals, they have to provide more greater rewards.

2. Is Ethnic Stratification Necessary?

A functionalist might argue that the stratification must meet some kind of societal need. The problem is that, while a society might need to be stratified (in order to ensure important jobs are filled, etc.), it is not at all clear why ethnic stratification is functional.

3. Ethnocentrism: The Source of Ethnic Stratification

In order to understand ethnic stratification, one has to understand ethnocentrism, according to the functionalists (Farley, 2000:80).

a. Society’s Need for Consensus

Functionalist would argue that ethnocentrism in moderation is functional for a society. The explanation for this lies in society’s need for consensus and to have a shared identity. The only way a society can cooperate is when it shares basic values. Ethnocentrism contributes to this in several ways.

b. Ethnic Stratification: An Unfortunate By-product

An unfortunate side effect is that aggression might be also directed against an ethnic minority within the society.

4. The Elimination of Ethnic Stratification

The methods advocated by functionalists to diminish the effects of ethnocentrism is to: Reduce the cultural differences between the majority and minority group Eliminate legal and other barriers set up by the dominant group which excludes minorities. Ensure that the minority groups develop skills that would allow them to participate in a society. This approach leads to assimilation, which is the process whereby minorities are fully integrated into the system and becomes culturally similar to the majority group. (Farley, 2000:80).

B. Conflict Theories about Majority/Minority Relations

The conflict theories tend to see majority minority relationships as a matter of domination and exploitation. The conflict perspective is, in essence, a critique of functionalism. Many argue that functionalism is merely a justification for inequality (Farley, 2000:81).

1. Ethnic Stratification: Not an Unfortunate By-product

Ethnic stratification exists because it serves the interests of the dominant elite. It occurs because of the exploitative nature of the majority group as a whole or because of the exploitative nature of a wealthy elite within the majority group (Farley, 2000:83).

2. Inequality is Inherited, Not Earned

The necessity of stratification for productive purposes is also called into question. Stratification cannot act as an incentive because inequality is inherited, not earned. In order for inequality to work the way the functionalist claim, there would have to be free mobility between generations. Example:

The daughter of a share cropper, who is very bright, should have the same chance of becoming a medical doctor as anyone else.

3. Planned Shortages

It is also argued that the shortages found in highly demanding jobs often exist because professional organizations restrict entry into the profession — not because there is a shortage of qualified people (Farley, 2000:83). C. Varieties of Conflict Theory in Race and Ethnic Relations

1. Marxist Theories

Farley (2000:85) contends that Marxists see inequality as being based mainly on class. There are two – those who own the means of production and the rest of society who works for wages. Marxist see racism as a mechanism that keeps the working class from recognizing their own interests. It divides workers.
While minorities fight with each other, wages remain low and profits remain high. Marxists believe that workers would be best serves by putting aside their racial and ethnic differences and to act on their common class interests.

2. Split Labor Market Theories

Split-Labor Market Theory argues that there are three classes: There owners of the means of production, higher paid laborers and lower paid laborers. The owners are interested in getting the best workers for the lowest wage. The higher paid workers, on the other hand, are trying to protect their jobs from competition from lower paid workers. One means the higher-paid workers use to protect their interests is to discriminate against lower-paid ethnic workers (Farley, 2000:85).

3. Internal Colonialism

Internal colonialism theory argues that societal inequality as largely racial and ethnic (Farley, 2000:85). The dominant racial or ethnic group establishes a system of inequality for the benefit of the dominant racial or ethnic group. The oppressed (Blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans) are involuntarily brought under the rule of the dominant group. Internal colonialism argues that the dominant group promotes a racist ideology, it attacks the culture of the people who are dominated. It isolates the dominated from mainstream labor markets. The dominant group rationalizes exploitation through myths of the cultural inferiority of the oppressed.

VIII. Culture of Poverty

Oscar Lewis, author of La Vita (1965), coined the term “Culture of Poverty” (also see Edward C. Banfield, The Unheavenly City Revisited, 1974). The essence of Culture of Poverty theory holds that poor people share deviant cultural characteristics. The poor have lifestyles that differ from the rest of society and that these characteristics perpetuate their life of poverty. According to the Culture of Poverty thesis (in Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:173) “the poor are qualitatively different in values and that these cultural differences explain continued poverty.” The Culture of Poverty Theory is a functionalist theory. Eitzen and Baca-Zinn (1994:173) maintain that there is a strong implication embedded in the Culture of Poverty that defects in the lifestyle of the poor [cultural deprivation] perpetuate poverty. Such defects are passed from one generation to the next.

Under these circumstances it is extremely difficult for people, once trapped by the Culture of Poverty, to escape poverty. Characteristics that typify the Culture of Poverty exist across a variety of racial and ethnic groups. While these characteristics (see below) are certainly present in poverty populations, Culture of Poverty Theory leaves the impression that they typify all poor people. THAT IS A FALLACY! The following characteristics typify the culture of poverty. Some may be accurate in some settings. Some may have had explanatory powers a few decades ago, but today are no longer accurate. Some are contradictory. They all tend to present negative connotations. All are highly stereotypical.

Characteristics of the Culture of Poverty

1. Parents are more permissive in raising their children. They are less verbal with their children. Family-heads display a strong disposition toward authoritarianism. 2. Children raised in poverty also have drastically different orientations in life when compared to middle-class children. There is an absence of childhood. Children experience an early initiation to sex. 3. Families often form based upon free unions or consensual marriage. This partially explains the trend toward female-headed homes. 4. The poor are more fatalistic. One might expect that a poor person would believe the following idea: “What will be will be and I can’t change it.” 5. The poor are less apt to defer gratification. Banfield argues that the essence of the poor subculture is its present-time orientation. He asserts that the poor do not know how to defer gratification (see Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:173). 6. The poor are less interested in formal education.

Source: Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994, and Farley, 1988

The Culture of Poverty theory argues that the characteristics presented above enable the poor to adapt to poverty. For example, the lack of childhood happens because sometimes poor children have to begin working at an early age. Moreover, poor children have to “hustle” to survive. There is no time to be young. To act young is a sign of weakness. The absences of privacy and competition for limited goods are self-explanatory characteristics of poverty. Perhaps the strong disposition toward authoritarianism is necessary because of the hard choices that poverty provides.

A. The Moynihan Report

The Culture of Poverty is a functionalist approach to poverty. It assumes a “right” or “correct” culture and a deviant culture. The poor are poor and are likely to remain poor because their culture deviates from the norm. The Moynihan Report (1965) is an example of a study that (perhaps inadvertently) borrows aspects of the Culture of Poverty to explain African-American poverty. Its goal was to explain continued poverty in the 1960s. The Moynihan Study accurately pointed out that much of the poverty associated with the Black community was due to a history of slavery and economic oppression (unemployment). It also called attention to the necessity of altering one’s lifestyle as a means to cope with poverty. Moynihan, however, ultimately came to concentrate on the characteristics of the Black family that required changing, rather than the system of oppression that needed changing.

B. A Critique of the Moynihan Report and the Culture of Poverty

1. It Blames the victim

The most important criticism of the report is that it put the blame for poverty on the victim. Blaming the victim places the burden of change on the victim and removes it from society. From the Culture of Poverty perspective, poverty is viewed as the fault of the poor in that, their culture, not social injustice, causes and perpetuates poverty. The implied assumption is that until the poor changes their “culture,” no amount of government intervention will solve the problem of poverty.

2. Negative Emphasis on Female-headed Families

Another objection to the Culture of Poverty thesis revolves around the negative emphasis placed upon female-headed families. Female-headed families do not ensure a life of poverty. Children of single-parent family perform well in school. They do not have greater problems with mental health. Poverty, of course, affects both. Poverty, not single-parenting, generates social problems like illiteracy and crime, not single-parenting. Furthermore, single-parent are usually women and women are placed in economically disadvantaged positions due to the structure of the economy that pays women only 68 percent the salary that it pays men. THIS IS NOT CULTURAL. It’s SYSTEMIC.

3. The Attack on Divorce

There appears, imbedded in culture of poverty theory, an attack on divorce. There is no evidence that divorce, itself, causes poverty. Sometimes divorce can lead to better social adjustment. Since 1957, as the number of divorces has risen, the percentage of people saying they are happy with their marriage has also risen from 67 percent to 80 percent (footnote missing!). People who focus on the problems associated with single-parent families also forget the positive impact of the extended family. The extended family supports single-parent families by providing grandparents, aunts, and even friends.

4. Most Black Families are Not Poor

Other problems with the Moynihan Report pertain to the implied image that the majority of Black families are typically broken homes. The poverty rate for Blacks is about 30 percent. That means that 70 percent of Black families are above the poverty line. Furthermore, while focusing on the characteristics of the Black family, the Moynihan Report does not attack aspects of the social structure that put one group at a disadvantage when compared to another. With the Black family, the disadvantage flows from historically based discrimination (which included forced breakups of families while under slavery), high levels of unemployment, and welfare laws that encourage one parent families.

5. Poor People Do Not Have Radically Different Lifestyles

Finally, the culture of poverty contains the assumption that families living in poverty have radically different outlooks than middle-class families. Elliot Liebow in Street Corner Man (as referenced in Eitzen and Baca-Zinn, 1994:173) suggests that most poor people, in fact, attempt to live by society’s values. Their struggle is frustrated by externally imposed failures. Most people who are poor would prefer to escape poverty via a good job. Good jobs that poor people are eligible for are rare. Liebow suggests that the characteristics associated with the culture of poverty are those that appear when individuals try to achieve goals defined by society, but who fail to achieve society’s goals because society has not provided means to achieve those goals. These are the proverbial blocked opportunities.

6. One-Way Adaptation?

Culture of Poverty proponents argue that the poor adapt to a lifestyle which allows them to deal with poverty. They tend to assume that one these lifestyles have been adopted, they become institutionalized with poor culture making it very difficult fort the poor to escape the culture of poverty. One might ask that if it is so easy to adopt to poverty lifestyles, that it might be just as easy to adopt to a middle class lifestyle one that lifestyle is provided. C. Concluding Observations Concerning the Culture of Poverty In short, rather than blaming the victim for his or her biology or for his or her culture, public policy planners might more appropriately focus their attention on the economic characteristics of society. The United States is one of the richest countries on earth. Simultaneously it has the greatest levels of inequality in the First World. Social structure, not genetics or culture causes poverty. Solutions to poverty are political. In 1973 after LBJ’s “War on Poverty” the poverty rate fell to an all-time low. One might look to other First-World counties for inspiration. Scandinavian counties, for example, have very low levels of poverty and they are culturally diverse.

IX. Culture of Poverty and Welfare Policy

Farley (2000:91-92) argues that this debate is directly relevant to welfare policy in the United States. [Remember: your perspective of the source of the problem influences how you perceive solutions]

A. The Functionalist Perspectives

From the functionalist court comes a positive and negative viewpoint. Both points of view see the existence of poverty as being related to family structure.

1. Moynihan

Moynihan argues that the existence of single parent is a major cause of poverty. He contends that government programs are necessary to alleviate poverty in these homes.

2. Murray

Murray, on the other hand believes that welfare makes it possible for people to survive poverty without working. He argues that welfare support reinforces the culture of poverty.

B. The Conflict Perspective

Conflict theorists are skeptical of both points of view. Rather than  structure being the source of poverty, structural problems, like the concentration of the poor in inner cities, is the source of poverty. While functionalist desire to rehabilitate the individual that is poor, conflict theory advocates structural solutions like job creation in inner city neighborhoods.


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