A Course in Mad Sociology Lecture 5

Chapter 2: The Sociological Perspectives

Section 2: The Conflict Perspective

In the last chapter about functionalism we ended with a bit of a problem. Functionalism does a great job in elaborating on social structures, the functions of structures and how these structures create a cohesive society. However, our own experiences with society and with history call into question functionalism’s basic premise that societies tend to be stable and orderly and seek harmony and consensus. There are an awful lot of contradictions. 

Does this look functional to you?

Societies are all too often dysfunctional. There’s crime and riots and protests. We have violence and wars. What’s more, in every society we see people who are better served by the structures and functions of that society than are others. Some benefit while others struggle. There are those who are able to use their position within society to exploit others. Those who elaborated on the functionalist perspective were among those who benefited from the very societies they were studying, so of course they would see consensus and harmony. But what about those who are not so fortunate? What does society look like from the point of view of a child laborer, the homeless, the dispossessed, even the criminal? Might it also be important to understand society from the point of view of those who do not benefit?

This is where the conflict perspective kicks in. Unlike the functionalist perspective, the conflict perspective sees society as composed of groups that are in a state of conflict. Some groups dominate while other groups are subordinate. Overall, those that dominate are able to set up the rules of society in such a way as to benefit themselves, often at the expense of everyone else. Consequently, what functionalists refer to as harmony and consensus the conflict perspective understands as nothing more than a time when the power of the dominant group is uncontested. 

The Conflict Perspective tries to understand the darker side of society and to give voice to those who have little influence in how the society works. Because of this, the conflict perspective is often a favorite for social and political activists. This is a significant challenge for sociology as a scientific discipline. To what extent should a scholar be actively involved in changing the very society she is trying to study, and to what extent does her social activism influence her objective analysis? We’ll talk about this a little more later on. 

Karl Marx

All theories within the Conflict Perspective are responses to Marx’s social and economic theories.

To understand the Conflict Perspective we have to start with Karl Marx.

Karl Marx!?

Yes, Karl Marx. Calm Down. 

American students have issues with Marx that we can delve into in a later chapter. We can debate the ins and outs of Marx’s politics and some of the historical consequences of his political activism. For purposes of studying sociology, however, we are interested in his social theories and models, which are illuminating and informative for analyzing the social world.  In fact, you will be surprised just how common Marxist Theory is in everyday discourse. 

Karl Marx, and his friend, Friedrich Engels who often wrote with him, postulated an understanding of history called Dialectical Materialism. This is one of those cool terms that makes you sound really smart. It’s actually pretty simple. “Dialectical” simply refers to two opposing forces. “Materialism,” at least for Marx, means physical resources. 

According to Marx, the driving force of history is the conflict between those who control access to resources, or factors of production, and act to preserve that access, and those who must trade their labor for resources in order to survive. This conflict is the dialectic. The resources are the materials. See. Dialectical Materialism. Simple.

The physical constructs of wealth are called “factors of production.” In the nineteenth century this mostly referred to things like factories and other forms of production and the capital necessary for investment. This wealth was controlled by a group Marx called the Bourgeoisie, a small minority of owners who controlled the capital that they can then invest for the sake of accumulating even more capital. In other words, capitalists.

The vast majority of people, however, were part of what Marx called the Proletariat. That is, they were the people who actually did the work. They held no wealth capital of their own. All they had was their bodies and their labor. This dialectic between the holders of capital, and those who perform the labor is a system called capitalism. In capitalism, the Proletariat sells its labor in exchange for some of the wealth held by the Bourgeoisie, which they receive in the form of wages. Now Marx acknowledged that this capitalist arrangement was the most efficient mechanism in history for generating vast stores of wealth. This wealth, however, was increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few well placed capitalists. While economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo lauded capitalism for this capacity to create wealth, Marx saw capitalism as inherently exploitative and destined to failure. 


Right now, all of you are reading this chapter on some kind of electronic device. Look at that device closely and you will find a logo that represents the company that sold the product and received the profit in order for you to have the necessary equipment to read this post. That’s great. But where did your device come from? If you trace the history of your device back you will find that at one time it was nothing more than raw materials that were pulled out of the ground and subject to a string of manufacturing processes that would eventually become your device. And guess what, the owners behind that logo didn’t actually do any of the work to make the device you are using. They hired people to do it. 

Without this labor, no matter how much capital Bill Gates holds, your device doesn’t happen. Marx and others refer to this as the labor theory of value. All goods are the product of material resources plus the labor put into turning those materials into usable goods that the capitalist then sells to make a profit. It sounds good until you really look into it. You see, in order for the capitalist to make a profit he must find a way to create surplus value. Surplus value is the what’s left over after the costs of producing the product are subtracted from the price of the product on the market. Without surplus value, he will not invest in that product.

The total value of the product can be defined as the value of the materials plus the value of the labor. Well, the value of materials is out of the capitalist’s control. That’s based on supply and demand. That means that the only way for the capitalist to make a profit, to gain surplus value, is if he pays his workers less than the value of their labor. Let’s face it, if he pays his workers the value of their labor, the best he can do is break even on the product. But a capitalist will not invest just to break even. Furthermore, the less the capitalist pays his workers, the more surplus value he can derive from his products, the more profit he makes. He has an incentive to be exploitative.

Now it’s important to understand that, according to Marx, capitalism is inherently exploitative. You can’t change capitalism to make it fair. This isn’t just a matter of some miserly owners exploiting their workers. No. Even if a capitalist is a nice guy, he must make a profit, therefore, he must underpay his employees. Period. 

Capitalist societies are, therefore, set up to maximise the exploitation of workers in the interests of the capitalist class. But if the vast majority of the people in a capitalist economy are workers and they are always exploited, why don’t they do something about it. Well, according to Marx, the only thing that can be done is to end capitalism. The problem is that capitalists also influence every other aspect of the society. The state, the family, the churches are all supported by the wealth created by capitalists. So they turn around and teach everyone in the society that capitalism is the right and natural way to run a society and there’s no alternative. In other words, they create an ideology, or an idea that is accepted as true, that justifies the exploitation of capitalism as perfectly fine. Because everyone is echoing this same ideology the proletariat end up with what Marx called a false consciousness that more or less keeps the workers in line. They’re stuck. They won’t fight for an alternative to capitalism because they are taught to believe that there is no alternative.

fig 1. This graph shows that until 1973, hourly compensation grew with productivity. After 1973, however, despite increased productivity from workers, compensation has remained stagnant. Why? What would Marx say? Click the image for the source

This is powerful stuff, but Marx goes further. He points out that capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. Production requires the proletariat to interact with each other regularly. As the workers become increasingly alienated from their own labor, doing repetitive and mindless work often to create products they cannot even afford to own, they start to talk to each other and share their anger and eventually develop a class consciousness, a unifying identity as a class rather than the divisive identities of nationality, ethnicity, religion or gender.

At that point, all it takes is a crisis to spark a revolution. And that crisis will happen because capitalism tends to overproduce and collapse causing tremendous hardship and suffering that mostly impacts the proletariat. According to Marx, once capitalism collapses, the proletariat will rise up in a global revolution, overthrow the capitalists (kill?) and, through some innate goodness on their part, usher in a stateless and classless society in which everyone contributes to according to their ability and benefits from according to their need. 

fig 2. This is a weird graph. It looks at who is benefiting from economic growth since 1980. According to the graph the bottom 90% of the people in the United States (x-axis) experienced less than 1.5% growth (y-axis). The bottom 20% actually saw their pre-tax economic growth decline. That means social safety nets like foodstamps and welfare brought them to zero economic growth. The top one percent experienced more than 2% economic growth. The top .001%, that’s the top 1/1000th of the top 1 percent, enjoyed 6% economic growth. Wow! Does that mean they worked more than five times harder than the bottom 90%? Click the image for the source.

Yes, this last part is a bit of an empirical leap, but an analysis of class interest and the nature of class conflict has some important consequences as our society continues to debate the extent and nature of a fair distribution of wealth and economic justice.

Research into social class today shows some startling inequities. Economic productivity continues to increase while wages have remained stagnant for decades (fig 1.) and more and more wealth is concentrated in fewer hands (fig 2.). This inescapable fact has inspired resistance movements like the Occupy Movement and Fight For Fifteen. After years of organizing, economic inequality has returned to the political debate. This debate on economic inequality and economic justice is Marx’s legacy. 

Max Weber

Now it’s important to understand that, though he inspired a great deal of sociological analysis, Marx himself was not a sociologist. He was a philosopher and an activist. He was presenting an agenda, and when doing that it’s a good idea to have a theory justifying your activism that is relatively simple for everyone else to get. A simple analysis of the haves and have nots fits the bill. 

Max Weber really was a sociologist. That means he went and complicated everything!

Max Weber, however, was a sociologists and as sociologists are wont to do, he examined Marx’s theory and then complicated the heck out of it. 

Marx understood that class was more complicated than just Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.1 Weber, on the other hand, saw class as based on three different dimensions. According to Weber’s Multidimensional Theory of Social Stratification, one’s position in society is based not just on Class, or the ability to gain material goods and increase life chances and satisfaction, but also Status, based on lifestyle, education, heredity and/or occupation as well as Power or the ability to get what you want despite opposition, which usually involved forming relationships with others, or Parties. (fig 3.)

fig 3. Weber’s Multidimensional Approach to Social Stratification

Instead of seeing a simple division of Upper Class, Middle Class and Lower Class based on income, Weber is suggesting that it’s more complicated than that. A plumber may make more money than a teacher, which would have to do with class, but a teacher’s education and leadership position vouches a status that the plumber does not have. But race and ethnicity also play a role. Consequently, class conflict is much more complicated than simply pursuing material resources like wealth. Yes, we want wealth, but we also compete for status, and group membership that enhances our power. Instead of a big picture understanding of class conflict, Weber sees conflict as more individualistic, as a personal endeavor to control the elements of one’s life. 

Weber advanced an understanding of sociology called Verstehen, or an examination of individual motives, so it wasn’t enough to just elaborate a simple understanding of power and dominance as something imposed on the individual. Why is it that so many people can be controlled by so few? Marx tries to explain this by suggesting a false consciousness, but Weber really doesn’t like this. How can this false consciousness be perpetuated for so long? Marx isn’t clear. Weber has a different, and probably more effective theory. Weber said, “…every genuine form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance, that is, an interest…in obedience.” 

But why would we voluntarily comply with being dominated? Weber says it’s not because we’re the mindless victims of a false consciousness. Instead, Weber theorizes that we are willing to submit to a certain amount of domination if we see the authority of that domination as legitimate. Weber identified three sources of Legitimate Authority. First is Traditional Authority. That is, authority that has always been around, that we submit to because that’s what we’ve always done. Throughout much of history, rule was based on the traditional authority of kings and lords whom we obeyed because they were kings and lords and that’s what subjects have always done. The vestiges of traditional authority survive, however, in traditions like the two party system in the United States. Second is Rational/Legal Authority. The modern age is marked by the rise of nation states with citizens subject to the law rather than kingdoms in which subjects are answerable to a sovereign. Everyone knows what the laws are. They are written down and credentialed officials are elected, appointed and recognized as legitimate enforcers of the laws. If we accept the process by which the laws are made, and enforced, then this form of dominance is legitimate. The third type is Charismatic Authority. In this case, authority is vested in an individual who is perceived to have special characteristics or attributes that people accept as authoritative. 

According to Weber, Traditional and Rational/Legal authority are the most stable and resistant to social change. Charismatic authority often rises in response to a breakdown in legitimacy among Traditional or Rational structures. A Charismatic leader, like Martin Luther King, or George Washington, or for that matter Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini rise to challenge the legitimacy of existing authority. Charismatic authority then becomes the engine of social change while Traditional and Rational/Legal authority tend to be more conservative. However, Charismatic authority is also the least stable. After all, the charismatic leader is really just a human being with human failings, the discovery of which tarnishes the given charisma. Or, if successful, what used to be Charismatic authority becomes structured and established as a Traditional or Rational/Legal institution. 

fig 4. Weber’s model of social change is cyclical

This ties in with Weber’s model of social change (fig 4.) in which growing differences between between the strata, becoming more and more binary (or in Marxist terms “dialectic”) leads to a loss of legitimacy of the ruling authority. Parties are organized often based on Charismatic leadership, and demand social change. If those changes are implemented, they then become routinized, in the society and remain so until the process starts over again. 

[Aside: Geez, Max! There’s so much! Didn’t he have a life!]

I know! Weber was a prolific writer and thinker, that’s why I’m spending so much time on him. And I’m not even done. Weber did an historical analysis on the development of Capitalism that contradicted Marx’s concept of historical evolution and, most importantly, Weber did very important work on the increasing rationality of society and the growing power of bureaucracies and its resulting dehumanizing consequences. But I’m going to keep that for a later lecture. Instead I want to turn to some other ideas in the Conflict Perspective. 

W. E. B. Dubois

W. E. B. Dubois

Across the Atlantic, the United States was starting to experiment with some new forms of Conflict Thinking. W.E.B Dubois was one of the most innovative writers and thinkers in all of sociology. Dubois, the first African American Ph.d from Harvard University dedicated his research to an understanding of the consequences of racism on African Americans. His writings, often written in first person, are not only poignant sociology, but exemplary literary works. 

In many ways, Dubois is expanding on Marx’s concept of the Dialectic. However, instead of focusing on economic conflicts between classes, Dubois elaborates on the cultural conflict of race and, by extension, all marginalized populations within a dominant culture.

According to Dubois, there is a cultural process through which African Americans are oppressed, despite their incredible contributions to U.S. expansion and culture. First, the oppressed group is largely erased from history as written by the dominant group. Secondly, all representations of the oppressed, that is the symbols we use to understand the oppressed, are defined by the dominant group. Consequently, the oppressed group is defined as a problem, and stereotypes and default assumptions are made by the dominant group that reinforce this notion. Finally, the oppressed develop a Double Consciousness. That is, the oppressed individual, in this case the black man, learns to see himself not only as an autonomous person, but also through the eyes of his oppressor. For example, a black man man walking down the street at the turn of the 20th century had an understanding of who he was, but if a white woman was present, he better be able to evaluate himself from the perspective of any white man who may be present, because any misinterpretation of his motives could get him killed. This Double Consciousness most often leads to contradictory viewpoints on oneself that become part of the oppressed person’s sense of self. In this way, the oppressed internalize the cultural impressions of the oppressor.  

In Dubois’ words, “between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: …They approach me in a half- hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or…, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.”

Dubois’ theories are not only influential in the Civil Rights Movement, but also lay the groundwork for feminist theory, and other theories of the oppressed. 

The Frankfurt School

In the 1920’s a group of Marxist scholars got together at the University of Frankfurt in Germany. Under the academic leadership of Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse this group of scholars was in a perfect, though precarious position to challenge some of the core assumptions of Marxism itself and to extend the debate with some very innovative thinking that has influenced social science throughout the world.

Known as the Frankfurt School, these Marxist scholars were interested in elaborating on his concepts of ideology. According to Marx, economic forces guide society, but they build around itself what he called a “superstructure” that organized non-economic social, political and intellectual elements to support the goals of the economic elite. They do this by creating ideologies that impose a false consciousness on the working class. According to Marx, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

But this created a problem for the Frankfurt School, for if this statement were true for every epoch, then why should we assume that the revolution of the proletariat will do something different when it overthrows the capitalist class? Won’t the victorious proletariat simply create their own ideologies? And, consistent with the ideas of the philosopher Friedrich Hegel, a countervailing ideology will then develop to challenge the dominant, proletariat ideology. In which case, conflict continues and history does not end as Marx predicted. 

[Aside: Friedrich Hegel created the model of the dialectic to explain social changes as a clash between ideas. Marx was a student of Hegelian philosophy, one of the Young Hegelians, but he eventually repudiated Hegel’s ideas by insisting that the essential conflict in history was not between ideas, but between economic classes. The Frankfurt School will rediscover Hegel and Hegel’s influences on Marx]

The historical context of this first generation of the Frankfurt School was also really important. A collaboration of mostly Jewish Marxists in a German university during the interwar and postwar years was as close to a fateful combination if there ever was one.

On the one hand, the slaughter fields of World War I largely destroyed European faith in the Enlightenment mission of reason, science and human liberation. Existentialism, and philosophical nihilism, fatalism and cynicism spread throughout Europe and the United States.

The economic crises of the 1920’s and 30’s led not to the Revolution of the Proletariat did not lead to the rise of the Proletariat and the overthrow a capitalism as predicted by Marx. Rather, the proletariat willingly abandoned their hope for freedom by embracing the patronage and glory promised by the Fascists in Italy, Spain and Germany.

In the meantime, in Russia, the one place that one could argue did experience a communist revolution, the proletariat ended up oppressed under a totalitarian state. Instead of liberation from their chains, working people under communism were placed under strict subjugation.

Meanwhile, the allied victory of World War II ultimately entrenched capitalism into a global economic system and ushered in a Cold War in which everyone in the world lived under the perpetual threat of nuclear annihilation. What the heck happened!

It was under these conditions that the Frankfurt School began its ongoing mission of trying to liberate humanity using what they called Critical Theory

According to the Critical Theory, the fundamental means of oppression is not economics, as Marx argued, but rather our own ideas, or our ideologies. Our very concepts of what is real, and right and rational were the very forces that kept us from being free. Of which, the most dastardly ideology of all was that of science and rationality2

What? How can science and rationality be oppressive? 

According to the Critical Theorist, that which we consider to be rational is, in fact, nothing more than an ideology designed to perpetuate those in power, those in a position to define the ideology. When you look at it, by the 1920’s and 30’s it was clear that rationality, including concepts of scientific progress were not what they were cracked up to be. After all, nobody wanted World War I. Rational systems  were created in order to keep such a war from happening. In the end, however, it was those very systems that created the most devastating war in human history up to that time. Fascism was premised on the same ideas of efficiency and rationality as was capitalism. The Holocaust was committed using industrial principles of efficiency and scientific methods. Even the rationality behind Marx’s revolutionary theories had irrational outcomes. Probably the best example of the irrationality of rationality was the development of the atomic bomb, what Manhattan Project scientist Ernico Fermi is said to have described as “superb physics” was, in fact, an apocalyptic nightmare waiting to happen.

So, yeah, not a good track record for rationality and science. 

Look, we’re all familiar with the basics of Critical Theory. Many of our greatest science fiction stories are premised on this idea. Take a look at this unwitting explanation of critical theory from the Movie Jurassic Park. 

Here we see actor Jeff Goldblum making a pointed critique of, in this case cloning dinosaurs, by pointing out that the scientists were so focused on their scientific ideology of progress, can they do something, that they ignored the ethical and reasonable question of should they. And, of course, the underlying ideology driving this entire enterprise was that of capitalism. The ultimate ends was merchandising, “slapping it on a lunchbox” and consumerism, not the advancement of science, certainly not human liberation. 

First we have to understand where ideologies come from. According to the Critical Theorists, all societies generate ideologies through institutions responsible for culture, this includes educational and academic institutions, the arts, religion, the press and print media. In the modern world, Critical Theorists identify a Culture Industry. The Frankfurt School was among the first to take into account the new institutional structure of mass media. In the 1920’s radio made it possible to reach millions of people simultaneously and movies defined culture all over the world. After World War II, television became a tool for nationwide news and storytelling. Today we have the internet and cyberspace.

Critical Theorists observe that in the modern world, with modern mass media, ideologies are no longer focused on self-discipline and personal philosophy, but rather on entertainment and escape from reality. This is a really pleasant form of oppression, when you think about it. A comfortable cage. Because you can’t escape reality. All you can do is participate in self delusion. When you do so, you are not inclined to challenge the status quo. 

These Culture Industries, however, are not just forms of entertainment. They are influential in shaping our opinions, our personal development, our knowledge of the world, our viewpoints on each other. They influence our very consciousness, in the Freudian sense. 

So let’s try to put all of this into comprehensive terms. In the western world, the dominant ideology is that of capitalism.  That’s because, in our society, those who control capital wield a great deal of power over our market and our government. They use their capital to invest in Culture Industries. Television stations, movie studios, major print publication, internet providers. These are large corporations. What is the likelihood that, say, NBC will run a documentary that is critical of Comcast, the company that as of this writing owns NBCUniversal? In fact, what is the likelihood of NBC running a documentary critical of any communications company? Instead, these corporate owned Culture Industries, through advertising and storytelling, promote ideas like individualism, consumerism and materialism. These ideas support and reinforce the legitimate position of the corporate elite at the expense of the rest of us who end up becoming slaves to debt and to a lifetime of labor in order to satisfy the perceived individual need to consume. 

This may be an indictment of capitalism, but Critical Theory suggests that this kind of model is universal, no matter the society. A communist society will have a communist elite that will control the Cultural Industries and develop oppressive ideologies that perpetuate the communist elite. A theocratic society will have a religious elite that controls the Cultural Industries and…

…you get the picture. 

Now the goal of the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory is, like Marxism, utopian. The Frankfurt School created a method of questioning based on Marx, Weber, Hegel and Freud that, if used, can liberate human reason from oppressive ideologies. Once this is accomplished, human beings can enjoy true freedom. So Critical Theorists also tend to be activists. This is a notion Marx called Praxis, or the process by which theory is used to effect social change. 

Obviously, a bunch of Marxist Jews living in Nazi Germany were in a bad situation. Many of them packed their bags and came to the United States where they became influential in American Sociology. At a time when American Sociology was dominated by Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton, sociologist like C. Wright Mills, Randall Collins and G. William Domhoff emerged, all of whom we’ll talk about in later chapters


Finally, I want to touch upon another branch of the Conflict Perspective, but I’ll do this briefly because I will elaborate more in another chapter. That is the Feminist Theory. Feminist theory is really complex to the point where many sociology texts will deal with Feminist theory as a perspective in and of itself. I don’t see it that way. I see Feminist Theory as drawing from all three basic perspectives as well as contributing to each. The foundations of Feminist Theory, however, is solidly grounded in Conflict Analysis, in this case, the conflicts and inequities associated with gender. 

Simone de Beauvior

In 1949, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in which she observed that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” However, the process by which she becomes a woman is largely defined by men for men’s interests. Womanhood is, therefore, a comparison to manhood, femininity referenced against masculinity, but evaluated according to male standards. The status of a woman is predicated on that of her husband or patron. The woman has no independent identity distinct from the significant male in her life. Women are, therefore, in de Beauvoir’s words, “… the incidental, the inessential, as opposed to the essential. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute-she is the Other.” Men, therefore, are subjects in and of themselves, free to pursue their own projects of self-realization. Women, on the other hand, must be satisfied with being the objects of male standards and demands. 

[Aside: The best example of this can be found, ironically, in any biographical description of Simone de Beauvoir, who is almost always introduced to the reader in conjunction with her famous male companion…whom I will not name…break the cycle!]

De Beauvoir recommended that women refuse to be “the other,” to pursue their own subjective ends, even to eschew marriage as a form of oppression. However, she recognized that this can cause significant anxiety and even alienation, as doing so will require the woman to abandon a femininity that has for thousands of years been defined by men.

Betty Friedan

Over a decade later, American author Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. In her book, Friedan revealed the surprising results of her research. She found that women were largely dissatisfied with their lives. They had dreams and aspirations that transcended their socially prescribed roles as wives, mothers and homemakers. When these dreams went unfulfilled it left the women feeling empty. This flew in the face of America’s cultural understanding of women finding happiness in domesticity, taking care of their children, loving their husbands, baking cookies. Furthermore, it also left women feeling guilty for their dreams and aspirations. After all, marriage and children were supposed to make them happy. Everybody from the Ladies Home Journal to television sitcoms like Father Knows Best, to…oh, I don’t know, sociologist Talcott Parsons…said so. So it had to be true, but it wasn’t, and women often blamed themselves.

The Feminine Mystique became a clarion call for women all over the world to re-evaluate their lives. According to Friedan, “If I am right, the problem that has no name stirring in the minds of so many American women today is not a matter of loss of femininity or too much education, or the demands of domesticity. It is far more important than anyone recognizes. …We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: ‘I want something more than my husband and my children and my home.’”

Dorothy Smith

Sociologist Dorothy Smith helped bring feminism to the discipline as one of the founders of Standpoint Theory. Standpoint Theory states that what one knows depends on where one stands in society. Smith postulated that no one can have complete, objective knowledge of anything. Nor did any two people have exactly the same standpoint, and therefore no one had the same understanding of the world, even in academia. With this in mind, one must not take their particular standpoint for granted. However, Smith noticed something that, hopefully, those watching these videos may have noticed. Sociology was almost exclusively investigated from the standpoint of white, Euro-American males. Thus, the potential standpoints of over fifty percent of any given society were ignored in the very discipline tasked with understanding society!

[Aside: Ooops!]

Because of Smith’s work, sociological feminism has dedicated itself to re-evaluating sociology from the standpoint of women. This concept has also been expanded by feminist scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins to include the particular standpoints of women of color Judith Butler exploring our very concepts of gender to include the points of view from the gay and lesbian community, transgendered people and other variations of gender and sexuality that are often marginalized. Feminism has also been instrumental in re-evaluating masculinity and the impacts of patriarchal culture on men, including often being alienated and emotionally isolated from their own children. 

Feminism is a lot more that bra burning. It’s a diverse perspective that deserves its own attention. But I hope that the brief introduction here is adequate for our purposes. 


As you can see, the Conflict Perspective, like the functionalist perspective before, is a very flexible and useful way of looking at society. The conflict perspective forces us to look beyond the accepted reality and to take a critical look at those things that we might consider normal and harmless and, instead, try to identify the beneficiaries as well as the victims. This is a powerful tool in helping us develop a more complete understanding of society.The conflict perspective gives us the tools we need to understand society through the lens of the oppressed and marginalized, a perspective that has a long history of neglect. The Conflict Perspective also calls us to action in ways that the functionalist perspective doesn’t. After all, when we see oppression, are we not morally obliged to act? 

And here we run into a problem. What is the line between research and personal activism? Are conflict analysts trying to analyze society as it is, or are they trying to incite us into action with regard to their own personal missions? It’s hard to say for sure as even the researcher may not be clear on where that line begins and ends. 

The conflict Perspective also lends itself to abuse. Sometimes there’s a fine line between Conflict Theory and Conspiracy Theory and it’s really easy to start off with a valuable analytic tool and end up with fatuous and ridiculous conclusions about the Bilderberg Group slipping microscopic tracking devices into our breakfast cereal…or whatever.

Also, it’s important to remember that, for the most part, people within a society, even those of different classes tend to get along. Those of the dominant group, or the upper classes may not be intentionally trying to oppress you. They are probably just folks who happen to find themselves at an advantage. Many people in elite circles really do care about their societies and participate in endeavors like charities and foundations to try to help solve some of our most pressing problems. Billions of dollars have been dedicated to such endeavors that really have benefited millions of people. It might not be entirely fair to judge these measures cynically. 

So there’s the conflict perspective in a nutshell. Next chapter we will step away from trying to get a big picture understanding of society and try to look at the countless interactions that happen within any given society using the Interactionist Perspective. 


  1. Marx also talked about a Petty Bourgeoisie, or a middle class and a Lumpenproletariat, or underclass of unemployed, but they really weren’t a significant part of his analysis.
  2. It’s important to note that sociologists use the term “rational” differently than most people. By rational, we are not talking about stuff that simply “makes sense”. We are talking about systems that are organized in such a way as to make the most efficient use of labor. This usually involves experts, some kind of hierarchy, and standardized rules and practices.

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