Conflict Theory Elite Theory

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Conflict Theory


  • “Conflict theories…seek to explain how the unequal distribution of resources leads to conflict between those who possess and control valuable resources, on the one side, and those who seek to increase their share of these resources, on the other…”

    • Turner et al (1998)

Intellectual Underpinnings

  • Marx was earliest and most important

    • Conflict inevitable in society
  • Weber – conflict not always inevitable

    • Would depend how bad exploitation was
  • Simmel – conflict not necessarily divisive

    • Could be beneficial force for social change

Elite Theory

  • Developed in Italy

  • Important influence on conflict theory

  • Most important elite theorists:

    • Robert Michels (1876-1936)
    • Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941
    • Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923)

Main Premise of Elite Theory

  • Only a small number of people in any society will be able to hold power and authority, and this fact automatically puts them in opposition with the rest of society who are subordinate to them.

Gaetano Mosca

Robert Michels

  • “iron law of oligarchy”

  • Small groups that gain authority in society will eventually use that power to run political parties for their own ends

Vilfredo Pareto

  • “circulation of elites”

  • Always a small number of elites who want to govern society

  • When one elite gains political power will have to contend with other elites who are struggling to dominate

  • “lions” – power becomes crystallized

  • “foxes” - waiting to step in

Contemporary Conflict Theory

  • Two traditions:

  • 1. Weberian - analytical, “scientific” form

    • Dahrendorf, Louis Coser, Randall Collins
  • 2. Critical

    • Concern with critique of society
    • C. Wright Mills (radical sociology)
    • Marxist and neo-Marxist theory
    • Frankfurt School


  • Idea of “conflict groups”

  • Smaller scale than Marx

  • Power struggles rather than violent revolution

Louis Coser

  • Drew on Simmel’s work

  • “greedy institutions”

  • Demand total involvement from workers

  • There is a “web of conflict” (many sources)

  • Conflict can lead to change and innovation

Randall Collins (1941 - ) Neo-conflict Theory

  • Neo-conflict perspective

  • Not a functionalist, but adds Durkheim’s idea that people held together by emotional and value bonds, not just interests

  • In all societies there are basic goods like wealth, power, and prestige desired by all

  • Therefore, always conflict

Collins (cont.)

  • “direct coercion” at heart of conflict

    • May use force if necessary
  • People have 4 types of resources:

    • Material and technical
    • Strength, physical attractiveness
    • Social networks (# of friends, associations)
    • Identity capital (can influence others to your point of view)

Collins (cont.)

  • Resources can be obtained from 3 areas:

  • 1. Occupational area

  • 2. Community realm

  • 3. Political arena

  • Therefore, many variations can occur

  • Collin’s ideas are a refinement of older conflict theory

C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) Radical Sociology

  • “libertarian socialist”

  • Key theme: bureaucracy and alienation in U.S. society

  • “Power elites” – centralization of power

  • Stressed relationship between biography and history

The Sociological Imagination

  • “enables its possessor to understand the large historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions…By such means, the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues” (Mills, 1959)

Bureaucracy and Alienation

  • Material hardships of past now replaced by psychological problems

  • Stems from alienation

  • We are manipulated bureaucracy

  • White collar employees make profits off labour which then give to owners

  • Because of bureaucracy, increasingly fewer people own means of production

Bureaucracy and Alienation (cont.)

  • Traditional values undermined (i.e. pride in one’s work) and loss of self-respect occurs

  • Develop low self-esteem and “status panic”

  • Personalities have become commodities

  • Turn to meaningless leisure activities and live fragmented lives

  • Society becomes prone to fascist or totalitarian takeover

The Power Elite (1958)

  • Power in hands of a few interconnected elite groups

  • “big three”: the political, military, economic institutions

  • Combination of Marxist and Elite theory

  • Saw small property ownership and small business as safeguard for freedom and democracy

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