Focus: on the conflict of interests that is inherent in all groups and between all members of groups.
            This principle extends to the larger society in all its forms.
 Origin:  There are two schools of thought that concentrate on the analysis of conflict in social groups: arl Marx's dialectical change theory & Simmel's analysis of dyadic conflict and its management.

1. The Dialectical Change Theories (grand theories) include  Dialectic Philosophies of  Hegel (1820),  the economic models of Karl Marx (1844), and Ralf Dahrendorf  (1950s).  The first two citations comprise the ideas that provided the basic tenets of communism as an economic form.
2. The Conflict Management Approaches include Georg Simmel (1920),  Lewis Coser (1964), and  Jetse Sprey (1970s).  These are the ideas that provided the basis for prescriptions for conflict resolution at the micro-level of social interaction (i.e., communication between husband and wife.).
Historical Perspective on Conflict Theory
Popularly seen as a 1960s reaction to Structural Functionalism, the manuscripts of Marx predate systems theory of any kind by many years, as does the work of Simmel.  However, conflict theories were rediscovered after social scientists became somewhat disenchanted with Parsons.  While it seems quite an intellectual stretch to include both aspects of conflict (i.e., enormous economic pressures on social structure and  individual personality conflicts), the two actually fit quite well.
They are ends of a continuum.  Marxist approaches to explaining the routines of social life are attractive, especially to younger intellectuals who search for simplistic answers to complex questions.  Likewise, Simmel's ideas dealing with the fragility of dyadic (two-person) relationships and the inevitability of conflict are really a call for a sort of two-person form of communism.  In the mid-1960s, with the bulk of western culture under fire for the social strain of that decade, social thinkers were searching for candidate theories to replace the functionalist perspective.

Where Structural Functionalism describes a teleological (i.e., explains the past & present in terms of the future) utopia in steady state equilibrium, Conflict theory describes a social structure prone to constant  erosion and change. Here, social change is pervasive through inherent conflicts built into the system itself.  Similarly, Conflict Management Approaches view the conflict that arises among members of small groups as inevitable and inherent in the small group itself.  Sooner or later, two people will disagree, perhaps to the point of changing their personal relationship system.  Conflict arises because of the differential distribution of social power, the powerful garnering the lion's share of all scarce resources for themselves.

 We readily observe the differences in social power between the rich and the poor, men and women, or any given pair of individuals attempting to resolve problems particular to their relationship. Conflict theories make many assumptions about the social world.

Whether Marxist or not, conflict theories paint a picture of the self-interested individual operating to maximize his own rewards in a highly competitive world.

Basic Assumptions about Human Nature:

Basic Assumptions about Human Societies: Basic Assumptions About Understanding Human Relationships: The importance of studying conflict lies in its value as a change agent.  Every time conflict is resolved, the social system within which the conflict arose is forever changed.  Changes and adaptations to the social system occur over time (just as the growth and change seen in dyadic relationships take time).  Thus, an Evolutionary or Dialectic perspective is taken.

Conflict can be either resolved, or it can be managed.
Management only eases tension for the time being, while resolution removes a particular point of conflict from the system.  Conflict is normal, even inevitable, in every social relationship.

The family is not necessarily a group characterized by consensus.  It may be held together by constraint or coercion.  Harmony is not necessary for continuation of order in the family.   Conflict may even strengthen relationships, making them rewarding in the final analysis.

Whether or not they know it, people enter most relationships as real or potential competitors because resources are always perceived as limited.  For example, in our discussion of love, isn't it apparent to the average love struck adolescent that love is in short supply and hardly ever rewarded?  Thus there is always keen competition among boys and girls to impress each other with feats of strength and attributes of beauty and charm respectively.  Later on, in marriages between high school sweethearts, other resources (e.g., money, decision-making power, time, and so on) become more salient and in short supply.

Disagreements result when one's feelings of being short-changed collide with the other's unwillingness to pay up. (i.e., "I think you love that job more than you love me!", "Why don't you ever take the time to romance me anymore?").

The processes of marriage and family development are viewed as part of the social system within which members are facing the perpetual problem of coming to terms with each other's conflicting interests.  It is through negotiation and compromise that change in the family occurs, allowing it to adapt to changing demands being made on it.

Marxian Conflict Theory

From Marx's writing, (see particularly The Elements of  MarxianConflict Theory-1844), conflict is seen as a product of social living.  It is almost a mechanistic view in which conflict is manufactured out of the competing interests of the capitalists and their workers.

In order to make sense of Marxian concepts, one must adopt a certain style of thinking.  The statement that each person's relation to production in the economy decides his or her social class, and thus, his or her social privilege, is a case in point.  Marxists believe that one's social class position, under a capitalistic economy, determines the very thoughts that creep into one's mind.  This is known as Material Determinism, and is a fundamental belief among Marxists.

Thus, factory workers share a set of cultural symbols in all aspects of life.  The factory worker thinks different things compared to the owner of the factory - unless the worker and the owner are the same person.  Get it?  Workers possess the knowledge of  production, very little property, and all the labor,  but do not possess the means of production (e.g., the hardware, real estate, and capital necessary to operate the economy).  The rub comes when  the defined value of labor is dependent on the ruling class' perception of it.  Realistically, is there any corporate executive who's labor is actually worth the millions of dollars they receive as salary?   In order to maintain a capitalistic system, owners of production must justify their privileged position by "cheapening" the perceived value of labor, thereby devaluing its cost to the capitalist.

Economic scarcity keeps workers preoccupied with survival, while belief  systems are in place for workers that actually serve the ruling class.  For example, the capitalistic value that leadership ability is "worth" more than the ability to operate a lathe or shape wood or steel serves the interest of the owners of production and keeps the cost of labor down.  Management skills, on the other hand,  are talents possessed by a select few who are bound by their gift to perform at higher levels of functioning, and deserve to be rewarded handsomely for their efforts.

The very conception of  Family as an institution is seen by Marxists as a middle/upper class idea  designed to "conservatize" the worker,  and is a concept objectively found only in the upper class.  The only social stratum in which the "traditional family ideal" can exist is in the relatively rich middle to upper class.  Here, rigid rules of socialization and gender roles are created, performed, and  held up for the rest of society to emulate.  The male is the upper class - the one family member upon whom all family security rests, and the one who performs the really important work. While women are told that their "work" is equally important to the welfare of the family, it is in moments such as divorce, that women find that men (the ruling class) were not expressing their true values.  Workers are always told how valuable they are to the company until such moments as lay-offs, plant closings and relocations reveal the true values of management regarding employees.

Social Change
Any change that occurs within social organization (or family organization - the manifestation of society), happens because of the system's proness towards Dialectical Change:


Thesis  --------------------><------------------Antithesis

According to dialecticians, any existing notion (thesis) always has an opposing notion (antithesis).  These two ideas will come into conflict sooner or later in the minds of thinking individuals, resulting in a third option - Synthesis.   On a societal level, the conflicting interests of the capitalists and the working class will periodically clash, forming iterations of modified capitalism - each one leading closer to the abolition of all capitalistic ideas about ownership of property.  Thus, history shows world economies to have evolved from Feudal systems to shop keeper capitalism to modern capitalism, and on to communist revolution and stabilization in some cases. In modern capitalism, the manufacturer cannot pay his workers enough for them to buy the products they make and still make a profit for the company.  Mass production must be supported by mass consumption in order to sell all products.

Therefore, capitalists have to rely on foreign markets or foreign labor pools to invite larger buying markets and expand resources (i.e., colonialism, imperialism).  But even these new markets will become saturated eventually, and capitalists tend to eliminate each other in all markets anyway.

 You should be getting the idea that Marxian Conflict Theory poses determination of the individual's mind set as a result of their position on the social class continuum.  Rich folks not only behave differently than working folks, they actually think differently.  One group has different ideas compared to the other.   The key here is that Marxists believe that the kind of work one does is what makes up hisr/her mind.    Marxists would suggest that workers and capitalists REALLY do have
conflicting interests.

The big difference here is also what Marxists would term the basic fallacy in Capitalism.  It is this: The only way to raise the profits from selling of commodities is to lower the production costs (e.g., layoffs, wage cuts, longer working time, lowering the cost of raw materials).

When profit rises by lowering the production costs of the wages of the labor force, the potential buying power of the population is lowered.  Wages are again cut to lower prices and raise profits, resulting in smaller disposable income for workers ... which is the beginning a deflationary spiral.  The government's response might be to print more money to cover expenses which increase because there hasn't been a concomitant rise in general wealth (and increase in taxes). Workers are likely to revolt under deflation of their buying power, feeling generally deprived, except for the fact of their acceptance of the Ruling Class' religion, moral values, and family values.

Instead of revolting against an unfair social system which rewards those with the most wealth, members of the working classes compete with each other for a chance to become wealthy.  Make no mistake, Marxists believe that for continued success of capitalism to occur, there must be a large group of underpaid, uninsured, uneducated workers.
Capitalism has always relied on free, or nearly free, labor, and it cannot continue without it.

Husbands and wives, men and women, boys and girls all have real conflict of interests, just as workers and capitalists do.  In society, when the mounting conflict between the classes reaches intolerable levels, as the disparity between the social rewards of participation in the economy become too great, a revolutionary "synthesis"  will occur to bring the group differences back into parity (or EQUITY). It works the same way for smaller groups, like families.

When a person uses objects in exercising his or her creative drives, objects become extensions of the person.  When a person merely exchanges objects or vies to accumulate them, however,  he or she becomes a slave to fortune and the accumulation of capital, thus objectifying their own existence. This is Marx's notion of  Alienation , and it is fundamental to Marxist philosophy.  It is also, as it turns out, a major tenet in many religious philosophies, including good old Christianity.
Because of the vast opportunity for alienation in a capitalist economy of any size, Marx was able to delineate four classifications, or types, of alienation.

 1. Alienation from other  people occurs when conflict between individuals results from  competition for scarce jobs (workers).  People in need of work for pay are placed in unnatural
competition for those resources.  What happens is that one's competition is perceived as subhuman, or of less valuable stuff.   Interestingly, this is the fundamental opposing interest of workers and capitalists. One logical consequence of having workers compete is that it lowers wages, so it is of benefit to employers.  Another consequence has been mass extermination (e.g.,  Jews in Nazi Germany, or the recent "ethnic cleansing" visited on former Iron Curtain countries).

 2.. Alienation from the process of  production occurs as assembly line workers, or assembly workers, fit their tiny effort into the larger whole product.  Prior to capitalism,  artisans and workers had their own tools and could control their work in terms of pace, wage, and form of the product.  Put another way, if you had the choice and money was not a consideration, would you rather have a pair of hand made, and personally fitted, shoes, or a pair of mass produced ones bought at the local Cheap Zapatos outlet?  By enlisting in the mass assembly line, workers could no longer identify their work.  Imagine the auto worker of today, taking great pride in the knowledge that he (and several others like him) screw in tailgate bolts on pickup trucks for a living.  What are the chances that this worker identifies with Henry Ford?  Capitalism buys labor only, and it rewards labor with only money.  For Marx, this is a form of prostitution.

 3. Alienation from products of labor occurs because the capitalist owns the product after its completion. This weakens pride in work and quality of product.  In fact, it was a principle of 19th century economics that workers were paid too much money if they could purchase the goods they produced.  Workers often cannot afford to buy the very products they produce, nor can they produce products for themselves since the raw materials do not belong to them.

 4. Alienation from one's self.  Everyone has potential, and all should have the opportunity, to develop his or her talent.  By replacing potential talent with a job dictated by capitalistic  economy, an individual becomes estranged from a part of himself.  When many are forced into roles that are not of their own choosing, or of their own true nature, there exists a condition of widespread self-estrangement.  The worker is his true self only when away from work.  Marxian theorists assume that humans work better without coercion.

 To sum up--Marxist Conflict Theory maintain that the basic financial inequities between the owners of production and the workers (workers are part of the forces of production, along with the machines, the coal, and the steam engines) results in two different value systems existing in the same society.  Because of disparities in the reward structure, working class people naturally (and most righteously) will feel that the society has used them up.  Religion, family values, the work ethic are all devices used by the ruling class to blind working people to the reality of their situation. Working people become alienated from each other and their families until they realize, as a group, the truth and rise up in revolt (synthesis).

Simmel and the New Conflict Theorists

Simmel (1920) opposed the view that conflict was destructive of old views, choosing to see conflict as positive, with the ability to strengthen social relations.  Simmel follows an organismic world view, rather than the Marxian material determinism  (mechanistic view).  For Simmel, any social system, or social grouping, is designed to create and resolve dualisms (conflicting interests).  He compares his notions of conflict and its positive outcome to disease in the human body.  Just as disease is the first step in correcting one's health, so conflict is functionally positive to correcting problems in society.  This is analogous to the biological building up of antibodies in the human system in order to fight off new diseases.
Antibodies are present because we've been sick before.
When a social system, such as the family,  is threatened, three steps occur:
 1. Boundaries are maintained.
 2. Values and morals are defined.
 3. Group ties are strengthened as conflict is resolved through a dialect of conversation and argument.

Simmel's presupposition is that humans have an innate disposition to be hostile mixed with a need for love and a rational mind. The differences between Marx and Simmel aren't that great, philosophically.  In fact, both thinkers are wrestling with a good versus evil kind of mentality, with conflict being the evil that must be tamed.  In practical terms, however, conflict ultimately results in violent revolution leading to structural social change for Marx.  For Simmel, less intense, less violent conflicts promote solidarity, integration and orderly change of the system.
For Marx, conflict is materially determined.
For Simmel, it isn't the imbalance of resources but Man's hostile nature & lack of boundaries of relationships that are the source of conflict.

Lewis Coser - Conflict Functionalism

Conflict serves many functions in normal society.  Now get this--Coser was the first sociologist to conceptually remove the diametrical opposition of Marxist Conflict theory to good ole Structural Functionalism.  Both approaches fundamentally agree on the structure of social life, rights and obligations in social relationships, and the very real way in which persons are forced to live their lives.  As it turns out, according to Lewis Coser, the only difference between the two, aside from minor corollaries, is that Conflict theorists hold a value that S-F Theorists do not.  According to Conflict theorists, the way things are working out is morally wrong, unfair, and bad for everybody except the very rich.  Functionalists feel that the way things are working out is natural, and probably good for everybody.

Coser's  Functions of Conflict in Society

The Maintenance Function (previous chapter) defines violence and unrest in society as symptomatic of social illness. It is a warning to society to readjust itself  before things blow wide open.  Thus, society is a dynamic system, not a static one. The Causal Chain suggests that imbalances in the integration of constituent parts of a whole (society or family) lead to the outbreak of varying types of conflict among constituent parts.  Think of a system of checks and balances, such as the stock market, or Eisenhower/Nixonian Domino Theory in Southeast Asia.  Conflict anywhere in the system causes temporary system wide recruitment of solutions which, under certain conditions, cause increased flexibility and cooperation in structure, which increases the potential for conflict resolution.

The basic premise of  all Conflict theories comes down to this:
All social processes (including marriage and family processes) are viewed as systemic ones in which
members and member categories (Moms & Dads) are facing the perpetual problem of coming to terms with each other's CONFLICTING INTERESTS.

Conflict in a system is intensified in three ways. First, when there is intensification of deprivation, or the perception of deprivation, between subsystems (i.e., "His is bigger than mine!", "You can't cut funding in my district!", and so on) relations between system units (people) are strained.  Second, when legitimacy of existing distribution of power and wealth is withdrawn or changed, as in a divorce, remarriage, a new governmental administration, system units tend to grab as much of the available wealth as possible.  The third way is a mediator: increased conflict is dependent on the degree of emotional involvement of the system units.  If emotional involvement is low, conflict will not escalate.

Jetse Sprey and Marital Conflict Theory

 Taking from Coser and Simmel's notions of the positive effects of some kinds of conflict, Sprey has calculated the nature of conflict in individual marriages.  The terms below are part of a vocabulary of conflict based in part on the idea of the Causal Chain.

A third approach, not to consensus, but to uneasy peace, is through the use of Negotiation and Bargaining.  This is an exchange process designed to reach a collective agreement (see Exchange theory).  The style of negotiation depends on family rules.  Power and Influence are attributes of either individuals or relationships, and are very much a part of the bargaining process.  Identification of powerful individuals in a relationship identifies only the potential for the exercise of power.  The actual use of power is dependent on an actor's ability to manipulate resources at hand. These can be absolute (i.e., money, physical strength), or relative to the relationship (i.e., value of interaction between partners, which is symbolic in nature).

Types of Marriage and Family Conflicts
 Differences in a marital system's characteristics will influence the type of conflict that may occur.  Endogenous conflicts are those in which the situation is defined as a conflict by agreement between the people involved.  These are also known as Structural Conflicts,  or relationship oriented conflict.  A divorce concludes the awareness of sexual infidelity and disagreement about its relevance because we have laws and norms regarding the sexually exclusive nature of marriage.  This is the "You've hurt me by your actions, but we can work things out by talking." type of conflict. Exogenous conflicts are those in which there is no pre-existing system for the resolution of this type of conflict.  With this, the "I hate your guts" kind of conflict, there is little to be discussed.  Exogenous conflicts are also known as Instrumental Conflicts.

Symmetrical structures are those in which  members of the marital dyad have the same resources and perceive their power base as equal.  Escalation of conflict here might result in rapid coming to blows and violence because each believes he or she can win.  Asymmetrical structures are those in which members of the marital dyad do not have the same resources, which results in some variation of a dominant/submissive relationship. Escalation of conflict is not as likely because one member is perceived as more powerful.

Within either symmetrical or asymmetrical marital structures, Issues Oriented Conflict will reside.  This is conflict over specific situations or events--conflict over the disposition of family resources, for example.  The autonomy issue--distance regulation in systems language--is one.  The "privilege" issue--money, power, resources--is another.  Both autonomy and privilege issues are accounted for by Dahrendorf, who simultaneously sees all conflict and the social order as resulting from the Unequal Distribution of Authority in society.  Just as the authority structure of bureaucracies serves as the principle basis for conflict in the larger society, so is the authority structure of "normal" marriages and families (patriarchy in our society). Unlike the secondary, bureaucratic, relationships of inter-institutional  interaction, primary relationships (i.e., husband/wife, parent/child) are characterized by level of intimacy.

Intimacy presents a superficial contradiction.  The more self-disclosure of  one member to another, the stronger the feelings of investment and concern.  Strong feelings can easily turn from strong feelings of love to strong feelings of hate.  Additionally, the intimate relationship is characterized by members' frequently being in close proximity to each other.  Repeated interaction facilitates the maladaptation of communication patterns.

Another aspect of primary relationships is that their conception is mutually negotiated between members, as is described in W.I. Thomas's Definition of the Situation: "Things perceived as real will  be real  in their consequences." Perception defines the consequences of our actions.  The difference between primary conflicts, and conflicts between secondary relations is the difference between Games (intimates at play) and War (persons unknown to each other engaged in mortal combat).  The inherent instability of dyadic relationships is evident:  It takes two to maintain a marriage - only one to end it.

The Conflictual Process is  the process whereby two or more members of the family negotiate a solution to conflicting beliefs that what one desires is incompatible with what the other wants.  Conflict develops over a difference in attitudes or values. He wants more freedom, she wants to be closer.  Conflict develops when a person's self-esteem is threatened.  Conflict is inevitable because the family system  experiences some constant level of friction due to continually changing circumstances and continually maturing family members.

Stages of the Conflictual Process

 Other factors in family conflict include a family's patterns of conflict, such as  fighting styles.  A family may fight using reciprocal conflict , in which opponents trade "licks". A family  may use convergence on solutions, in which the couple work together to find solutions to their differences.  In either case, the introduction of hurtful remarks further complicates the possibility of conflict resolution.  Further, the  human need for intimacy is often powerfully conciliatory.  This need to be loved may  invite the danger of  momentary "make ups" which fend off the possibility of  real conflict resolution.  Making up too soon will almost guarantee a later fight or disagreement.

Roles and Rules in Family Conflict

 Position oriented families require service to the roles each conflicting member occupies (e.g.,"I'm your Mother - Don't Talk Back!").    Person-oriented families tend toward consensus and understanding of each family member as an individual, and family rules are more flexible.  There are also socioeconomic factors, such as the adequacy of income versus the amount of money a given family  earns.

 Despite personal inclinations to avoid conflict, Sprey and others see conflict between intimates as having positive outcomes.  Differences between family members can be aired, and resolution tends to make for a stronger family unit.  Here's a listing of elements of positive conflict, or fair fighting:

  1.  A sequential communication exchange in which each participant has equal time to express his or her point of view.
  2. Feelings are brought out and not suppressed.
  3. People listen to each other with empathy and without constant interruption.
  4. Conflict remains focused on the issue and doesn't get sidetracked into other previously unsolved areas.
  5. Family members respect differences in opinions, values, and wishes of one another.
  6. Members believe that solutions are possible and that growth and development will take place.
  7. Some semblance of rules has evolved from past conflicts.
  8. Members have experience with problem solving as a process to settle differences.
  9. Little power or control is exercised by one or more family members over the actions of others.
These positive outcomes can occur only if fair fighting rules are obeyed, and if both partners are interested in resolving their differences.  Of course, these two elements are not always present in the disagreeing family's inter-relationships.

We don't always see the problem in the same way.

Sometimes we just don't want to!

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