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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: June 2012

3 - Conflict Theories in Political Sociology


Once upon a time, Parsons's structural functionalism, depicting society as a community founded on a value consensus, was thought, at least in the United States, to be the dominant theoretical paradigm in the discipline. To be sure, there was always a fair amount of resistance to this view (e.g., C. Wright Mills, Ralf Dahrendorf, Dennis Wrong, and others). But it was not until some time during the 1960s, in part no doubt encouraged by the turmoil resulting from the civil rights, antiwar, and gender protests of the era, that a strong reaction set in against the value consensus approach under the label of conflict theory. Although different approaches have come under this label, they have one main feature in common: conflict theories emphasize the importance of social cleavages generating social conflict that in turn account for political outcomes, including momentary political events, more enduring policies, and long-lasting political institutions.

It is useful to distinguish two major strands of conflict theory according to the kinds of social cleavages they emphasize as well as the historical role that conflict plays in them. First, there are the conflict theories more or less directly hailing from the Marxist tradition. These theories focus on the fundamental material interests of different groups as they become intertwined with political forces. These conflicting interests are ultimately based in the mode of production, which creates two main classes, in the case of capitalism, labor and capital.

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