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Conflict theory | Society and Culture | MCAT | Khan Academy

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.

About James Carlton

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