In contrast to functionalists’ emphasis on stability and consensus, conflict sociologists see the social world in continual struggle. The conflict perspective assumes that social behavior is best understood in terms of conflict or tension between competing groups. Such conflict need not be violent; it can take the form of labor negotiations, party politics, competition between religious groups for members, or disputes over the federal budget.
Throughout most of the 1900s, the functionalist perspective
had the upper hand in sociology in the
The conflict perspective views our social world as a continual struggle between competing groups. This Native American is protesting the use of the word "Indians" by a National Football League team. By making up other team names that other groups might find offensive, he invites you to put yourself in his shoes.
The Marxist View
As we saw earlier, Karl Marx viewed struggle between social classes as inevitable, given the exploitation of workers under capitalism. Expanding on Marx’s work, sociologists and other social scientists have come to see conflict not merely as a class phenomenon but as a part of everyday life in all societies. Thus, in studying any culture, organization, or social group, sociologists want to know who benefits, who suffers, and who dominates at the expense of others. They are concerned with the conflicts between women and men, parents and children, cities and suburbs, and Whites and Blacks, to name only a few. Conflict theorists are interested in how society’s institutions—including the family, government, religion, education, and the media—may help to maintain the privileges of some groups and keep others in a subservient position. Their emphasis on social change and redistribution of resources makes conflict theorists more "radical" and "activist" than functionalists (Dahrendorf 1958).
A Racial View: W. E. B. Du Bois
One important contribution of conflict theory is that it has
encouraged sociologists to view society through the eyes of those segments of
the population that rarely influence decision making. Early
Black sociologists such as W. E. B. Du Bois
(1868–1963) conducted research that they hoped would assist the struggle for a
racially egalitarian society. Du
Bois believed that knowledge was essential in combating prejudice and achieving
tolerance and justice. Sociology, Du
Bois contended, had to draw on scientific principles to study social problems
such as those experienced by Blacks in the
The ideas of W. E. B. Du Bois
challenged the status quo in both academic and political circles. The first Black person to receive a doctorate from
Du Bois had little patience for
theorists such as Herbert Spencer who seemed content with the status quo. He advocated basic research on the lives of Blacks that
would separate opinion from fact, and he documented their relatively low status
The addition of diverse views within sociology in recent years has led to some helpful research, especially for African Americans. For many years, African Americans were understandably wary of participating in medical research studies, because those studies had been used for such purposes as justifying slavery or determining the impact of untreated syphilis. Now, however, African American sociologists and other social scientists are working to involve Blacks in useful ethnic medical research in such areas as diabetes and sickle cell anemia, two disorders that strike Black populations especially hard (St. John 1997).