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The term “conflict theory” came into wide use in sociology during the 1960s, when it was seen as an alternative to and rival of functionalism. Initially, the term seemed merely to identify a more politically neutral Marxian perspective, but for some it meant something much broader. The strongest contemporary advocate of conflict theory is Randall Collins. For him, conflict theory includes not only Marx and the Marxists, but also Weber and a number of other social theorists extending back to earlier times. He sees as early forerunners of modern conflict theory such thinkers as Machiavelli and Pareto. Collins (1974; 1975) has done more than any sociologist to develop a synthesized conflict theory that owes more to Weber than to any other sociologist. Sociologists have often regarded Lewis Coser’s The Functions of Social Conflict (1956) as a version of conflict theory, but it is more a functionalist analysis of the role of conflict in social life than a use of conflict propositions to explain various social phenomena.
Conflict theory presupposes the following: (1) conflict or struggle between individuals and groups who have opposing interests or who are competing for scarce resources is the essence of social life; (2) competition and conflict occur over many types of resources in many settings, but power and economic resources are the principal sources of conflict and competition; (3) conflict and struggle typically result in some individuals and groups dominating and controlling others, and patterns of domination and subordination tend to be self-perpetuating; (4) dominant social groups have a disproportionate influence on the allocation of resources and on the structure of society.
Marxian conflict theory is the more prominent of two major lines of work. For Marxists, social class is the source of conflict in all societies above the level of primitive egalitarian communities. Class conflict — between masters and slaves or landlords and peasants, for example — pervades history and is the engine of historical change. Marxists have focused most of their attention, though, on the class structure of modern capitalist society. The most prominent feature of capitalist society is the class struggle between capitalists and workers. Marx assumed, and nearly all later Marxists have assumed as well, that to understand the structure, functioning, and evolution of capitalist society you had to start from the fact that capitalists have as their main objective maximizing profits and accumulating capital. They do this by exploiting the working class, i.e., by paying them wages that are less than the full value of the goods they produce. Workers are motivated to resist capitalist exploitation as much as they can, and thus there is an inherent antagonism between capitalists and workers. This class struggle is the foundation of capitalism and the root cause of all other forms of struggle or conflict within capitalism.
In the 1970s some sociologists began to rethink the traditional interpretation of Weber handed down by Talcott Parsons, viewing Weber as offering a kind of conflict theory that was similar to Marxian theory in certain ways, but different in crucial respects. Collins (1975; 1986) developed this idea most thoroughly. He argued that Weber was a complex and multidimensional thinker who later in life evolved into a conflict theorist. Like Marx, Weber emphasized the role of conflict, struggle, and discord in social life, viewing them as pervasive features of society and the keys to understanding it.
Conflict theory is alive and well in modern sociology and many sociologists work within that framework, broadly conceived. It has contributed much to sociological understanding and is being extended in new ways through linkage with perspectives normally thought far removed from it, such as socio-biology (Sanderson 2001) and Durkheimian social theory (Collins 2004).
- Collins, R. (1974) Reassessments of sociological history: the empirical validity of the conflict tradition. Theory and Society 1: 147—78.
- Collins, R. (1975) Conflict Sociology: Toward an Explanatory Science. Academic Press, New York.
- Collins, R. (1986) Max Weber: A Skeleton Key. Sage, Beverly Hills, CA.
- Collins, R. (2004) Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
- Sanderson, S. (2001) The Evolution ofHuman Sociality. Rowman & Littlefield, Boulder, CO.