conflict vs. consensus theory: another bogus teaching distinction

In a lot of old textbooks, and a few newer ones as well, you get this argument that social theories can be divided up into theories of conflict vs. theories of consensus. Marx is a conflict guy because his theory revolves around class divisions. Durkheim is consensus guy because he talks about social solidarity.

Sad! Social theory is not built in this way. Usually, consensus and conflict are dependent variables that are explained by other independent variables. Let’s take Marx. Did he *always* claim that there would be class conflict? Nope! Example: the theory of false consciousness describes the conditions under which people do not resist capitalist institutions. So, for Marx, the degree of conflict is a variable that is driven by other things. Same for Durkheim. The degree of social solidarity varies in Durkheim’s theory and is affected by things like urbanization and the division of labor.

The conflict/consensus distinction is not a horrible idea, but it is not one that supported by further examination of sociology’s major theories. It conflates dependent and independent variables.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 8, 2017 at 12:02 am

6 Responses

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  1. Conflict (or consensus) is not a theory, it is what theory is trying to explain. There is no such thing as “conflict theory”, It’s fucking bullshit.



    June 8, 2017 at 12:55 am

  2. I agree!!! I wish intro textbook writers would just drop it.



    June 8, 2017 at 1:00 am

  3. See Randal Collins, Four Traditions. He sets out the distinction (between “Conflict Theory” and the “Durkheimian Tradition”). For Collins, there is a sense in which “conflict” and “consensus” are integral to certain social theories. Conflict and consensus are not only the explanantia or explananda of different theories, they are basic assumptions about the defining features of the social world. If you presume that conflict is the engine of history, and that class interests are always at odds, it follows that “consensus” is a product of domination rather than consent. The centrality of conflict to society and historical change is thus a theoretical assumption that informs the selection and interpretation of explanantia and explananda. If you take normative consensus to be the glue that holds society together, you will view conflict differently, i.e., as (something like) the struggle to re-establish normative consensus. This latter theoretical assumption informs how Jeffrey Alexander interprets historical change in the United States.

    Whether all textbooks explain the conflict/consensus distinction as well as Collins does is an open question. There are certainly bad textbooks out there. The takeaway? Where possible, use textbooks written by accomplished sociologists.


    Sam Gibson

    June 8, 2017 at 2:12 am

  4. Sam – you raise a good point, both about the origins of this distinction and the role of conflict/consensus in theory. I think my retort is this: “centrality” is a bit different than the chains of cause and effect that arise in either theory. Back then, people didn’t think that social theory should be framed in terms of causal factors, at least in the modern sense. If you reread these classics in the modern way (what is the “mechanism” that drives various “outcomes”/dependent variables) then it is fairly clear (a) these theorists do admit that conflict and consensus do exist in society and (b) the conflict/consensus variable is actually an outcome to something else. Exploitation for Marx and the division of labor for Durkheim.



    June 8, 2017 at 5:54 pm

  5. False consciousness is still an example of conflict – without the conflict between the interests of the capitalist class and the proletariat, there would be no need to develop false consciousness. That workers don’t perceive a conflict does not mean that no conflict exists, a point that seems pretty key to Marx’s thinking to me.

    I think you’re right that it’s helpful to also think of conflict and consensus as dependent variables, but there’s something useful about emphasizing the degree to which particular theorists focus on conflict versus consensus as their starting points.

    Liked by 1 person


    June 8, 2017 at 5:57 pm

  6. J: You conflate two concepts with your language – “conflict of interests” and “actual conflict” are two separate things. If you don’t perceive a conflict of interest, then conflict isn’t there, though it might be. Also, if you want to rely heavily on conflict of interests, then it becomes very tautological very fast, as any social situation is secretly in conflict unless everyone has the exact same desires.

    PS. For social theory teachers, this is a good reason why some functionalist language, like “latent” and “manifest” conflict, is a bit better than to label whole theories as “conflict” or “consensus.”



    June 8, 2017 at 6:14 pm

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