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In sociology and biology, conflict theory states that the society or organization functions so that each individual participant and its groups struggle to maximize their benefits, which inevitably contributes to social change such as changes in politics and revolutions. The theory is mostly applied to explain conflict between social classes in ideologies such as capitalism. The theory attempts to refute functionalism, which considers that societies and organization function so that each individual and group plays a specific role, like organs in the body. There are radical basic assumptions (society is eternally in conflict, which might explain social change), or moderate ones (custom and conflict are always mixed). The moderate version allows for functionalism to operate as an equally acceptable theory since it would accept that even negative social institutions play a part in society's self-perpetuation.
The essence of conflict theory is best epitomized by the classic 'pyramid structure' in which an elite dictates terms to the larger masses. All major institutions, laws, and traditions in the society are designed to support those who have traditionally been in power, or the groups that are perceived to be superior in the society according to this theory. This can also be expanded to include any society's 'morality' and by extension their definition of deviance. Anything that challenges the control of the elite will likely be considered 'deviant' or 'morally reprehensible.' The theory can be applied on both the macro level (like the US government or Soviet Russia, historically) or the micro level (a church organization or school club). In sum, conflict theory seeks to catalogue the ways in which those in power seek to stay in power.
In understanding conflict theory, competition plays a key part.
The following are four primary assumptions of modern conflict theory:
- Competition. Competition over scarce resources (money, leisure, sexual partners, and so on) is at the heart of all social relationships. Competition rather than consensus is characteristic of human relationships.
- Structural inequality. Inequalities in power and reward are built into all social structures. Individuals and groups that benefit from any particular structure strive to see it maintained.
- Revolution. Change occurs as a result of conflict between competing interests rather than through adaptation. It is often abrupt and revolutionary rather than evolutionary.
- War. Even war is a unifier of the societies involved, as well as war may set an end to whole societies.
Conflict theory was elaborated e. g. in the United Kingdom by Max Gluckman and John Rex, in the United States by Lewis A. Coser and Randall Collins, and in Germany by Ralf Dahrendorf, all of them being less or more influenced by Karl Marx, Ludwig Gumplovicz, Vilfredo Pareto, Georg Simmel, and other founding fathers of European sociology.
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