One of the main Conflict perspectives you will meet from time to time during the course is better known as Marxism, after the founder of this particular way of looking at the social world, Karl Marx (1818 - 1883). There are, however, other forms of Conflict Structuralism at which we will look, the most important of these being Weberian sociology, named after its founder Max Weber (1864 - 1920).
Like its Functionalist counterpart, Conflict theories agree that society and culture influences individual behaviour, almost but not quite to the point of determining it, by the way it structures the way people are able to think and act.
The emphasis on the importance of structure and its influence on the individual does not, however, lead writers in this perspective to stress consensus as the basis of social organisation. In fact, the reverse is true. Conflict theorists stress the extent to which individuals, groups and classes within society are in competition with each other for whatever people in society consider to be important or worthwhile.
This does, of course, seem to raise a fundamental problem. On the one hand, Conflict theorists, by definition, argue that groups in society are always fighting each other. On the other, their Structuralist perspective leads them to suggest that the structure of a society produces social order and, in many respects, consensus. We need to examine how this apparent contradiction can be resolved.
The defining characteristic of any society, from a Conflict perspective, is inequality. Marxists, for example, argue that economic inequality is at the heart of all societies. In basic terms, some people will have more than their fair share of a society's economic resources (money) and others will consequently have less than their fair share.
It is in the interests of those who have wealth to keep and extend what they own, whereas it is in the interests of those who have little or no wealth to try to improve their lot in life.
Consensus theorists do, of course, recognise social inequality, but they argue that inequality is functional for society (for a variety of reasons - giving people incentives, encouraging people to find new ways of creating wealth, making sure that the best-qualified people perform the most important jobs and so on). Thus, these theorists start from the fact of culture and then use it to explain inequality in society. This leads them to stress things like competition as being a core social value.
Conflict theorists, on the other hand, reverse this idea. They start with the idea that every society will be economically unequal (although you should note that Marxist Conflict theorists argue that a Communist society is possible where economic inequality is eliminated). From this fact, those who are most powerful in society try to socialise the least powerful into accepting inequality in any way they can.
What we see here, therefore, is two different interpretations of the same thing:
The way this is carried-out is through cultural socialisation. The rich and the powerful occupy the most important and influential positions in society and they use their positions to advance their own interests. This socialisation takes two main forms:
a. It is desirable to convince people that their lack of power, influence, status, wealth and so forth is basically their own fault. If you can encourage people to compete against each other, then some will win and others will lose. If losers can be convinced that the competition is free and fair then their inability to achieve the good things in life can be rationalised as being their own individual fault.
This is where cultural institutions such as religion, education and the media are important, since their role is basically to encourage people to see the world in this way.
b. However, if for whatever reason people fail to be socialised completely into these values, then force (coercion) is available to make them see the error of their ways.
This is the least desirable socialisation option, mainly because if you force someone to do something against their will you are setting up the conditions for conflict and resistance - something you avoid through the first form of socialisation where people do your bidding because they see it as in their interests to do so.
We can complete this section on Conflict theory and culture by outlining an example (drawn from education and focuses on an idealised relationship between teacher and student) of the way it is possible to show the relationship between cultural socialisation, inequality, values and norms.
In the example we can see the idea that even where an apparent consensus exists (the teacher and student co-operate in the classroom) this is built on a potential conflict (one person or group controlling access to what another person or group needs).
Thus, whoever controls resources considered culturally valuable will always have an economic advantage over those who desire access to these resources.
As the example, suggests, however, in order to occupy a dominant social position it is necessary to control a resource that other people want - and this is where we can look at other aspects of culture from a Conflict perspective.