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Social Conflict Theory

Social Conflict Theory

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will explain, define and discuss the key ideas and the basic components of social conflict theory, identifying it as a macro-level orientation. Specific note will be made to discuss Karl Marx (The Communist Manifesto) and Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) as examples of theorists in the conflict tradition. C. Wright Mills' concept of the power elite will also be defined.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

Video Transcription

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Hello, and welcome to Sociological Studies. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society.

Today's lesson is on the social conflict approach. We're going to define it, and we're going to talk about some thinkers who have contributed to this approach. So right away, let's define the social conflict approach. The social conflict approach is an approach to social theory that argues that society is characterized by various inequalities and conflicts that cause people to act socially, producing change.

So right away I want to turn our attention to a quote I like from Marx, who's a practitioner working within the social conflict approach, and that is, "Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it." So right away, you see that this perspective is about change. This perspective bumps heads with the structural-functional perspective pretty clearly.

Society, according to the social conflict approach, is not harmonious. It's not stable. Society doesn't generate harmonious equilibrium. In fact, it's rife with inequality. So this approach is really all about analyzing inequalities of race, class, gender, and ethnicity, and the social conflicts which result. Primarily, these conflicts are going to result in change, changes that will move society.

Now since we're talking about how the social structure structures inequality in society, this is another example of a macro level approach, which is again just a broad look at how structures shape society. So let's get into some thinkers then who have worked with this approach.

Firstly, let's start with Karl Marx. The social conflict approach largely just grew out of Marx's thought about society. So Marx was a German economist and sociologist. He was living at the time capitalism was industrializing and developing so he got to see firsthand the atrocities of exploitation within capitalist production in factories in London.

A lot of his worldview and philosophy came from going to observe these really poor working conditions in the trenches. I mean, children were being overworked and exploited, working really long hours and things like that. So Marx's worldview and philosophy grew out of the time he was writing.

So for Marx then, class conflict is really the motor of history. And by that we mean, the motor of history, we mean the driving force causing change in society, class conflict. Marx in his time saw the fundamental class conflict as capitalists, those who owned the means of production, those who owned the factories, the equipment, the capital, versus those who didn't, the laborers. They had nothing. They owned nothing other than their own bodies, and they could sell their labor to the capitalist. So that is a fundamental inequality from the start, and that was very problematic for Marx.

I'm going to use Marx's theory of capitalism to show you why he thought class difference and class inequality was such a problem. So here's this formula for capitalism right here. This stands for money, M, and this is more money, money prime, and this is a commodity in the middle.

So to take an example, suppose Apple computers, it wants to produce computers and distribute them. Well, it starts with some money initially, and then with that money, it buys commodities. It buys the inputs that are used in the computers. It buys the factories to produce the computers. And critically for Marx, it buys the labor to produce, to tie everything together. Laborers, their only commodity to sell then is their labor because they don't own any property. So that's how we're calling labor a commodity.

So takes all the inputs with its initial money, puts them together in the factories, and out turns computers that everyone buys. But the capitalists are keeping the majority of it, and they're not giving the laborers their fair deal of the profits. So in that way, it could be fundamentally exploitative.

So you see in the news in 2012, for instance, about Apple getting in trouble for not paying its store employees enough and for exploiting its workers in China, in the factories. And recall from the '90s, Nike got in a lot of trouble for this, too, with their sweat shops. So this is how Marx saw class conflict and capitalism as fundamentally exploitative. And for him, such a corrosive, conflict-ridden society would inevitably come apart and lead to a revolution where the laborers would challenge the capitalists.

Next, we have Max Weber who was also a German sociologist, and he wrote a little bit after Marx. Marx was writing in the mid-19th century, around 1840 to 1870 or so, and Weber starts to write in the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

So he was able to look at capitalism in a longer perspective because Marx passed away so he didn't see what happened. And Weber's saying, look, Marx, there was no revolution. Your capitalism didn't come apart like you thought so class conflict and conflict in society must depend on more than just the ownership of property like Marx theorized.

And to this end, Weber was concerned more with power and social honor than he was with the ownership of property like Marx was. So of course you can achieve power and social honor by owning property, by being a capitalist, but Weber thought there were other means to achieve power than just this. So Weber focused on status groups, political parties, old boys' clubs, things like that.

So what Weber did was he gave us this idea that groups were constantly vying for social honor, prestige, and power, and once a group of people got that, they did it all they could to push everybody else away and sequester themselves, isolate themselves, and secure and hold on to that power. So again, although we moved beyond class conflict being defined by property like Marx had, this is still a very fundamentally conflict-based view of society. And that's why we're lumping in Max Weber into this approach.

Next, we have American sociologist C. Wright Mills. So C. Wright Mills, what he does, he comes along. He starts writing right about the time Weber passes away in the early 1900s. So Mills comes along and gives us this idea of the power elite, which he defines as a small group of people at the top of society composed of corporate, political, and military leaders.

So Mills theorized that this group of people, their interests run counter to the interests of the rest of society. So in this way they could potentially be dangerous for the masses. There's always an elite at the top of society, a 1%, whose interests run different to the rest of society, and that was what Mills was trying to get across.

Well, I really hope you enjoyed this tutorial. I hope you enjoyed learning about the social conflict approach and some of the thinkers working within that tradition, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and C. Wright Mills. Have a great rest of your day.

Notes on "Social Conflict Theory"


(00:00-00:25) Introduction

(00:26-01:22) Social Conflict Theory

(01:23-01:36) Macro-Level Orientation

(01:37-04:34) Karl Marx

(04:35-06:13) Max Weber

(06:14-07:07) C. Wright Mills

Terms to Know
  • C.Wright Mills

    An American sociologist famous for the "sociological imagination" and for the concept of the power elite.

  • Karl Marx

    ​An economist and sociologist who argued that class is the fundamental inequality in society.

  • Power Elite

    ​A small group composed of the top corporate, political, and military people.

  • Social Conflict Theory

    An approach to social theory that argues that society is characterized by various inequalities and conflicts that cause people to act socially, producing change.

  • ​Macro-Level Orientation

    ​A zoomed out look at the structures and institutions that shape society.

  • ​Max Weber

    ​Renowned sociologist who theorized that conflict in society was also about power and social prestige.