Conflict Theory

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Conflict theory explains social structure and changes in it by arguing that actors pursue their interests in conflict with others and according to their resources for social organization. Conflict theory builds upon Marxist analysis of class conflicts, but it is detached from any ideological commitment to socialism. Max Weber generalized conflict to the arenas of power and status as well as economic class, and this multidimensional approach has become widespread since the 1950s.


For Marx and Engels, a society's conflicting interests derive from the division between owners and nonowners of property. Dahrendorf (1959) proposed that conflicts are based on power, dividing order-givers, who have an interest in maintaining the status quo, from order-takers, who have an interest in changing it. Property is only one of the bases of power conflict, and conflicts can be expected inside any type of organization, including socialist ones. In the Weberian model there are even more types of conflict, since every cultural group (such as ethnic, religious, or intellectual groups) can also struggle for advantage. In addition, economic conflict takes place in three different types of market relations, pitting employers against workers, producers against consumers, and lenders against borrowers (Wiley 1967). Gender stratification produces yet another dimension of conflict.


Conflicting interests remain latent until a group becomes mobilized for active struggle. This occurs when its members are physically concentrated, have material resources for communicating among themselves, and share a similar culture. The higher social classes are typically more mobilized than lower classes, and most struggles over power take place among different factions of the higher classes. Lower classes tend to be fragmented into localized groups and are most easily mobilized when they are a homogeneous ethnic or religious group concentrated in a particular place. The better organized a conflict group is, the longer and more intensely it can struggle; such struggles become routinized, as in the case of entrenched labor unions or political parties. Less organized conflict groups that become temporarily mobilized are more likely to be violent but unable to sustain the conflict.

Overt conflict increases the solidarity of groups on both sides. Coser (1956), elaborating the theory of Georg Simmel, points out that conflict leads to a centralization of power within each group and motivates groups to seek allies. A conflict thus tends to polarize a society into two factions, or a world of warring states into two alliances. This process is limited when there are cross-cutting memberships among groups, for instance, if class, ethnic, and religious categories overlap. In these cases, mobilization of one line of conflict (e.g., class conflict) puts a strain on other dimensions of conflict (e.g., ethnic identity). Thus, cross-cutting conflicts tend to neutralize each other. Conversely, when multiple lines of group membership are superimposed, conflicts are more extreme.

Conflicts escalate as each group retaliates against offenses received from the other. How long this process of escalation continues depends on how much resources a group can draw upon: its numbers of supporters, its weapons, and its economic goods. If one group has many more resources than the other, the conflict ends when the mobilizing capacity of the weaker side is exhausted. When both sides have further resources they have not yet mobilized, escalation continues. This is especially likely when one or both sides have sustained enough damage to outrage and mobilize their supporters but not great enough damage to destroy their organizational resources for struggle.

Deescalation of conflict occurs in two very different ways. If one side has overwhelming superiority over the other, it can destroy opposition by breaking the other group's organizational capacity to fight. The result is not harmony but an uneasy peace, in which the defeated party has been turned back into an unmobilized latent interest. If neither side is able to break up the other's organization, conflict eventually deescalates when resources are eaten up and the prospects of winning become dimmer. Although wars usually arouse popular solidarity at first, costs and casualties reduce enthusiasm and bring most wars to an end within a few years. Civilian uprisings, strikes, and other small-scale conflicts typically have fewer resources to sustain them; these conflicts deescalate more quickly. During a deescalation, the points of contention among the opponents modulate from extreme demands toward compromises and piecemeal negotiation of smaller issues (Kriesberg 1982). Very destructive levels of conflict tend to end more rapidly than moderate conflicts in which resources are continuously replenished.


In a highly coercive state, such as a traditional aristocracy or a military dictatorship, power is organized as an enforcement coalition (Collins 1988; Schelling 1962). Members of the ruling organization monitor each other to ensure loyalty. A change in power is possible only when a majority of the enforcers disobey orders simultaneously. Revolts occur in a rapid "bandwagon effect," during which most members scramble to become part of the winning coalition. The more coercive the state, the more extreme the swings between long periods of tyrannical stability and brief moments of political upheaval.

Since the state claims a monopoly on the instruments of violence, revolutionary changes in power occur through the reorganization of coercive coalitions. Revolts from below are almost always unsuccessful as long as the state's military organization stays intact. For this reason, revolutions typically are preceded by a disintegration of the military, due to defeat in war, depletion of economic resources in previous conflicts, and splits within the ruling group (Skocpol 1979). These breakdowns of military power in turn are determined by geopolitical processes affecting the expansion or contraction of states in the surrounding world (Stinchcombe 1968; Collins 1986).


Conflict shapes the distribution of power, wealth, and prestige in a society. The victorious side is generally the group that is better mobilized to act in its collective interest. In many cases, the dominant group is well organized, while the opposing interest group remains latent. The result is a stable structure of stratification, in which overt conflict rarely occurs.

Lenski (1966) showed that concentration of wealth throughout world history is determined by the interaction of two factors. The higher the production of economic surplus (beyond what is necessary to keep people alive), the greater the potential for stratification. This surplus in turn is appropriated according to the distribution of power.

Turner (1984) theorizes that the concentration of power is unequal to the extent that there is external military threat to the society or there is a high level of internal conflict among social groups. Both external and internal conflict tend to centralize power, providing that the government wins these conflicts; hence, another condition must also be present, that the society is relatively productive and organizationally well integrated. If the state has high resources relative to its enemies, conflict is the route by which it concentrates power in its own hands.

Prestige is determined by the concentration of power and wealth. Groups that have these resources can invest them in material possessions that make them impressive in social encounters. In addition, they can invest their resources in culture-producing organizations such as education, entertainment, and art, which give them cultural domination. According to Pierre Bourdieu's research (1984), the realm of culture is stratified along the same lines as the stratification of the surrounding society.


The latent lines of conflict in a society divide people into distinctive styles of belief and emotion. Collins (1975) proposed that the differences among stratified groups are due to the microinteractions of daily experience, which can occur along the two dimensions of vertical power and horizontal solidarity. Persons who give orders take the initiative in the interaction rituals described by Goffman (1959). These persons who enact the rituals of power identify with their front-stage selves and with the official symbols of the organizations they control; whereas persons who take orders are alienated from official rituals and identify with their private, backstage selves. Individuals who belong to tightly enclosed, localized groups emphasize conformity to the group's traditions; persons in such positions are suspicious of outsiders and react violently and emotionally against insiders who are disrespectful of the group's symbols. Loosely organized networks have less solidarity and exert less pressure for conformity. Individuals build up emotional energy by microexperiences that give them power or solidarity, and they lose emotional energy when they are subordinated to power or lack experiences of solidarity (Collins 1988). Both emotions and beliefs reproduce the stratification of society in everyday life.

(see also: Coalitions; Game Theory and Strategic Interaction; Interpersonal Power)


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Randall Collins

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