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Conflict theory observes how the unrest in a society will cause it to change and evolve to relieve the tension. By Sydney Brown. . Created by Sydney Brown.
Video transcript
Conflict theory is a way of studying society that focuses on the inequalities of different groups in a society. It is based on the ideas of Karl Marx from the 19th century, who believed a society evolved through several stages, the most important of which were feudalism, capitalism, and finally socialism. 19th century Europe was a capitalist society where the rich upper class called the bourgeoisie were a minority of the population. And the poor lower class, called the proletariat, were the majority. Now you might think that the majority would have more sway over the society. But it was actually the bourgeoisie that had the power. They owned the factories that produced everything people needed. And they sold what they produced to earn a living. The proletariat only had their labor to sell to make a living, and they were dependent on the factory owners to get paid. But this wasn't just a one-sided dependence. The factory owners were also dependent on the workers to work in the factories, though they would never admit it because they would lose some of their power. There was a significant economic inequality between the factory owners and the workers. It was this economic inequality that Marx believed would fuel a change in society. As the working class realized they were being exploited, they would unite to create a class consciousness. This class consciousness is kind of like getting everyone on the same wavelength so they can be stronger and overthrow the capitalist status quo. Marx created a model which proposed that a society where one group exploited another group economically would actually contain the seeds of its own destruction. The existing generally accepted state, or thesis, of a society would cause the formation of a reaction or antithesis that opposed the accepted state. In a capitalist society, the accepted thesis was that the bourgeoisie ran the factories while the working class provided the labor. The desire of the working class to change the way things were was the antithesis. The thesis and antithesis can't exist together peacefully. One side is quite happy with the status quo and wants to leave things the way they are. The other side is looking for change because they really aren't so happy with the current state of things. The struggle between the two sides would eventually lead to a compromise or a synthesis of the two, resolving the tension between them by creating a new state. Perhaps the synthesis here is that members of the working class begin to take on managerial positions. The few workers who become managers might create a new middle class that has even more power than the factory owners themselves. This synthesis of thesis and antithesis would eventually become a new thesis in its own right and begin the process of creating its opposite once again. Perhaps the new middle class has become so powerful that the factory owners begin to feel threatened. The middle class is quite happy with their newfound status, but the bourgeoisie doesn't want to share. The strong influence of the middle class over everyone else has become the new thesis. And the bourgeoisie wants that to change, creating an antithesis. But maybe the bourgeoisie doesn't feel threatened, and instead, the workers are resentful of their former friends and their new power. Now, the workers want the status quo to change. The antithesis can arrive from any source of unrest to oppose the thesis. Even after this struggle is settled, there would eventually be unrest again, and an antithesis would spring from that new source of unrest and tension. The idea of two opposing sides has come up many times through history. WEB Du Bois was very influential in the struggle of African-Americans for equal rights. And the women's suffrage movement created tension and eventually changed society. Each of these conflicts between the status quo and its opposition resolved into a new thesis, which just waited for the next source of tension to come along. Conflict theory does a wonderful job of modeling the often drastic changes that occur in a society. But it doesn't take into account the stability that a society can experience. And it doesn't explain how a society is held together. And it really doesn't like the status quo. There is much to be said for the application of conflict theory and much that it leaves unanswered. All in all, it's another tool in our belt to understand the complexities of the society we live in.