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Conflict theory

Related: authority - dialectics - hegemony - Marxism - opposition - oppression - power - resistance - theory - violence - war


In sociology and biology, conflict theory states that the society or organization functions so that each individual participant and its groups struggle to maximize their benefits, which inevitably contributes to social change such as changes in politics and revolutions. The theory is mostly applied to explain conflict between social classes in ideologies such as socialism and communism. The theory attempts to refute functionalism, which considers that societies and organization function so that each individual and group plays a specific role, like organs in the body. There are radical basic assumptions (it is only conflict, which might explain social change), or moderate ones (custom and conflict are always mixed). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_theory [Dec 2005]


Conflict is a state of opposition, disagreement or incompatibility between two or more people or groups of people, which is sometimes characterized by physical violence. Military conflict between states may constitute war. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict [Dec 2005]

There is no conflict

The perceived contradiction between high and low culture is a recurring theme on Jahsonic.com. I believe that both high culture and low culture are minority tastes and as such can be described as subcultures, both influencing mainstream culture. I also believe that both high and low culture have produced masterpieces and works of mediocrity. As George Walden puts it:

Three points appear self-evident.

  1. First, there is no conflict whatever between popular and more demanding culture, and no need to choose.
  2. Second, that the majority of popular culture is commercially produced ephemera of mostly lamentable quality which needs absolutely no help or encouragement from government, still less nauseous ingratiation.
  3. Third, that there is such a thing as high art, and that some things will always remain for the privileged few - privileged not in the tired old class-conscious meaning of the word, but in the sense that by hard work and/or natural ability they are able to appreciate, eg highly refined musical forms or classical literature that it is not given to everyone to understand, even if we are given every opportunity to do so.
-- George Walden, source unidentified (website offline), please mail me if you know the source

Culture and conflict theory

Conflict theorists, unlike their consensus counterparts, tend to argue that all modern societies consist of the appearance of a common culture, shared by everyone in society, which masks the reality of competing cultural forms. Marxist Conflict theorists in particular have argued that every society consists of social classes defined in terms of whether they own or do not own the means of economic production in society (in simple terms, society ultimately consists of two great classes:

In this sense, each of these two classes have very different interests and experiences in society. The bourgeoisie, for example, are the wealthiest (minority) in society whose interests lie in hanging-on to their privileged position. The proletariat, consisting of the least wealthy majority, have according to Marxists the common interest of taking away the wealth of the bourgeoisie. As can be imagined, the relationship between these two great classes is built upon a fundamental conflict of interest.

For Marxists, therefore, the bourgeoisie have two main problems in terms of their relations with other social classes:

One solution is to develop and enhance cultural artefacts (that is, the material things and non-material ideas that constitute a particular culture) relevant to the bourgeoisie for two main reasons:

a. Firstly, to give the members of this class a sense of having things in common (a common culture and hence class identity) and

b. Secondly, to try to impose the cultural ideas useful to this class on the rest of society. If this happens it makes it appear that everyone in society has much the same interests, making it less likely that the working class will see themselves as fundamentally different and opposed to the ruling class.

In this respect, many Marxist sociologists have tried to show how cultural artefacts can be used by a dominant economic class (the ruling class) to enhance their social status over other classes in society, This, therefore, is where a distinction between high culture and low culture can be an important one.

The status (or social standing) of a ruling class is enhanced through claims that their culture is superior to the culture of the rest of society ("the masses").

By its ability to spread its concept of superior (high) and inferior (low) cultural forms (through ownership and / or control of cultural institutions such as religion, education and the mass media), a ruling class is able to impose cultural ideas on the rest of society that reflect its interests.

High culture, therefore, refers to what are (supposedly) the greatest artistic and literary achievements of a society. Clearly, what counts as "the greatest" is going to ultimately be a matter of values - judgements about what should or should not count as high culture.

However, according to Marxists, the people who are in the most influential positions in society are able to impose their definitions of "great" - and these definitions invariably reflect the kinds of activities and ideas that are most relevant and useful to a ruling class. Cultural forms such as opera, classical music, the literary works of Shakespeare and so forth all fall under the heading of high culture.

Low culture, on the other hand, refers to a wide variety of cultural themes that are characterised by their production and consumption by "the masses". At various times, low cultural forms have included the cinema, certain forms of theatre, comics, television (especially soap operas, game shows and the like).

A simple example illustrates the difference between high and low culture:

A painting of a nude woman hanging on the wall of a gallery is "art" (part of high culture), whereas a picture of a naked woman published in a mass circulation newspaper is certainly not "art" (and may, under certain conditions, be labelled as pornography) but the very opposite of art, namely low culture.

The justification for the distinction is found not in the cultural form itself (a picture of a naked man or women is much the same whatever medium it is presented in) but in the theoretical elaboration of that form.

Thus, when a painting is hung in an art gallery what is being admired is the skill and composition, the cultural references and representations. When a picture appears in a newspaper, these are absent and all that is left is a titillation factor.

Whether or not you are convinced by these arguments is probably a matter of your perspective on culture (although Elite theorists would disagree with such a statement), since there can ultimately be no cultural absolutes on such matters, just cultural preferences - the argument being that one social class is able to impose its cultural preferences on other classes in society. --http://www.sociology.org.uk/p2t3a.htm


Within conflict theory, "authority" is used both in the same sense as Weber's functionalist definition above and in a rather different sense. The latter is based on the observation that power is almost never endorsed in a moral sense by those who do not have it, and therefore this school of thought defines "authority" as power which is so institutionalised that it is largely unquestioned.

Obedience to authority seems thoroughly ingrained in most of the population: the Milgram experiment showed that over 60% of a sample of Americans demonstrated willingness to torture another person to death when given orders from an appropriate authority figure. This experiment produced similar results when replicated in several other cultures. A similar effect was found in the Stanford prison experiment. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Authority#Conflict_Theory [Dec 2005]

The beginning of civilization was the beginning of oppression

Karl Marx "believed that the beginning of civilization was the beginning of oppression". As more food was produced and the society's material possessions increased, wealth became concentrated in the hands of the powerful. The communal way of life among tribal people gave way to aristocracy and hierarchy. As hierarchies are able to generate sufficient resources and food surpluses capable of supplying standing armies, civilizations were capable of conquering neighboring cultures that made their livings in different ways. In this manner, civilizations began to spread outward from Eurasia across the world some 10,000 years ago - and are finishing the job today in the remote jungles of the Amazon and New Guinea. In addition, some feminists believe that civilization is the source of men's domination over women. Together, these ideas make up modern conflict theory in the social sciences. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization#Negative_views_of_civilization [Dec 2005]

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