conflict theory

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conflict theory

  1. any theory or collection of theories which emphasizes the role of CONFLICT (especially between groups and classes) in human societies.
  2. more specifically, the relatively diffuse collection of theories that, in the 1960s, were ranged against, and contested the dominance of, Parsonian STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONALISM and its emphasis on societies as mainly governed by value consensus and the internalization of institutionalized shared values. The main feature of such conflict theories was that:
  1. they accused functionalist sociologies of disregarding conflicts of value and interest in human societies, or at best regarding these as a secondary phenomenon;
  2. as an alternative to functionalism, they offered an account of both the integration of society and of social change which emphasized the role of POWER and COERCION and the pursuit of economic and political interests in human affairs, as well as the more general role of conflict.
While some versions of conflict theory were Marxist or influenced by Marxism (e.g. GOULDNER), others were not, and were advanced on a more eclectic basis. One important approach, for example, was based on the work of SIMMEL (e.g. Lewis Coser, 1956) and emphasized the social functions as well as the disruptive effects of conflict. Still others (e.g. DAHRENDORF, REX) emphasized the significance of WEBER as well as of Marx in the study of conflict. In a highly influential article (‘Social integration and system integration’, 1964), David LOCKWOOD underlined the importance of an approach in which conflict was more central than in functionalism, when he drew attention once again to the existence of ‘social conflicts’ and ‘system contradictions’, as well as ‘social integration’ and ‘system integration’, as major elements in social life (see also SOCIAL INTEGRATION AND SYSTEM INTEGRATION). In the 1970s and subsequently with the reflourishing of a full range of conflict theories, simple distinctions between ‘functionalism’ and ‘conflict theory’ are no longer important, and with this the usage of ‘conflict theory’ in sense 2 has faded.
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