The ubiquitous nature of social conflict often leads to an intuitive understanding that human beings are inherently conflictive by nature. Typifying this view was Sigmund Freud. Although he noted the importance of social processes in its unfolding, Freud thought that the fundamental causes of social conflict existed in a priori drives. Human beings, according to him, are not “gentle creatures” who always prefer to be at peace with one another. Rather they are endowed with a death instinct, the instinctual capacity to be aggressive at best or self-destructive at worst. Sociological understanding, on the other hand, transcending a person-centered approach that gives undue emphasis to intrapsychic dynamics, assumes that the sources of social conflict reside in social relations.
The structure of these social relations render as inevitable the eventuation of conflict that ultimately leads to a major social change or alternatively, if the social mechanisms for properly managing it are available, the reproduction of the existing social order. In extreme cases, social conflict could be reduced to a benign level. By and large, human beings are not characteristically aggressive or amicable, for social structure has the capacity to enable or constrain members and groups of society to go either way.
Sources and Functions of Social Conflict
Although social scientists agree on the social nature of conflict, they differ on its source. Karl Marx was among the first modern social scientists who examined its causes, and according to him, social inequality, accompanied by social institutions that reinforce disproportionate distribution of resources, is the foun-tainhead of all conflicts. To the extent that processes reproducing social stratification are intact, social conflict remains steady and pervasive. However, conflicts between contending classes open only at critical historical moments. Insofar as superordinate groups do not exhaust their rulership role, social conflicts remain hidden until a legitimization crisis ensues. Such a crisis arises when a subordinate class turns itself from a “class-in-itself” into a “class-for-itself”; that is, a class aware of its interests that works toward attaining the historical mission of constructing an alternative social order.
Although not fully subscribing to Marx’s view, Max Weber, like his predecessor, was deeply interested in the social causes of conflict. Going beyond Marx’s economic theory of conflict, Weber added the dimensions of political and cultural factors to an understanding of social conflict, thereby suggesting a tripartite view of social stratification. From his perspective, social conflict arises when there is “status consistency.” Whereas status inconsistency refers to a condition wherein groups fare differentially in the multiple areas of social organization, thereby forestalling the feelings of powerlessness, status consistency is a condition in which certain groups have disproportionate power, wealth, and prestige simultaneously. Conflict reaches a critical stage when some members—denied access to the cultural, political, and economic capitals of their societies—become indignant at the existing system of social arrangements.
However, Weber did not, like Marx, assume that acute conflicts ultimately lead to a perfect social order. Societies are full of historical accidents that detract a linear development of society from unfolding.
By synthesizing these arguments, Ralf Dahrendorf provided an alternative approach that addressed the contemporary sources of social conflict. In his dialectical conflict perspective, Dahrendorf assumed that the grounds for conflict reside in what he called “imperatively coordinated associations” (ICAs), organizations within which two antithetical roles with an unequal power differential exist.
In the ICAs, power is legitimated when it is viewed as an authority relation; that is, when the ruling are endowed with a “normative right” to exercise their domination over the ruled. This authority relationship does not remain permanent, because power and authority are scarce resources that rival groups seek. Whereas the ruling groups are interested in maintaining the social order, the ruled seek to alter the existing power and authority relations. The normative right of the ruling is challenged when the ruled, due to the availability of technical, political, and social conditions, transform themselves from a quasi group into a conflict group, a group aware of its interests and committed to the redistribution of power and authority. The tug of war between the contending groups ultimately leads to successful social changes as a result of which the institutionalization of alternative ICAs becomes possible. This in turn sets the stage for another organizational setup prone to conflict and change.
In addition to examining the sources of social conflict, sociologists have addressed the social functions of social conflict as well. Georg Simmel and Lewis Coser are among the most important thinkers who dealt with this issue in some depth. Simmel was the first sociologist to insist that we should not perceive conflict as a source of discordance that causes social disruption alone. Rather, conflict can have an important impact on society, such as creating social solidarity among members of a group. In a conflict situation, wherein individuals see a clear distinction between themselves and “others,” cohesion among individuals who share the same perception is reinforced. Conflict also acts as a stabilizing mechanism by causing the centralization of authority and the management of disputes and deviance. Extending the insights of Simmel, Coser notes that, in addition to fostering collective identity among groups, in open societies the social functions of conflict lie in creating the condition for the emergence of safety valve institutions that allow the release of tensions. Most important, open societies, by permitting the expression of rival claims and through the constant adjustment of an existing system of social organization, are able to avoid catastrophic results that harm society. Moreover, through the process of revitalization of existing norms or by creating alternative ones, these societies deal with the demands of new social conditions.
Types of Social Conflict
Social conflict assumes various forms, ranging from micro- to macro-processes. The minutest type of micro-conflict takes place at an individual level, with role conflict (caused by the coexistence of multiple roles corresponding to different statuses) and role strain (caused by the contradictory expectations of the same status) among the most important ones. However, much sociological analysis has focused on middle-range as well as macro-conflicts that emerge as a result of the place groups occupy in the existing system of class, race, and gender relations. The system of social stratification related to these relations leads to collective reactions that focus on issues of economic justice and human, political, and cultural rights. The three social categories, however, do not operate disjointedly. Rather the social realm is an interlocking system in which the simultaneous functioning of all three takes place. In addition to this intersectional approach, a growing recent interest lies in the study of global conflict caused by processes that have far-ranging implications for economic, cultural, and geopolitical relations between nation-states.
There are diametrically opposite views on the nature of global conflict, with the perspectives of Immanuel Wallerstein and Samuel Huntington among the most notable ones. According to Huntington, the end of the cold war brought the movement of international conflict out of a Western context. The contending powers are now the West and “the Rest,” and the new fault lines are rival civilizations and not ideologies or economic paradigms. The “clash of civilizations” is the latest phase of conflict in the history of modernity, preceded by conflicts that took place between princes, nation-states, and adherents of different ideologies. Despite its cultural emphasis, critics note that the fundamental problem in Huntington’s argument lies in its mistaken assumption of civilizations as though they are compartmentalized cultural monads. On the other hand, Wallerstein provided a more nuanced approach to the understanding of global conflict through his world-systems analysis, an analysis that benefits from a historicist and eclectic approach yet centered on conflict theory. Wallerstein views the world-system as a modern historical construct that evolved into three major politico-economic zones: core, periphery, and semi-periphery. Core nations have the advantage over the other two because of their economic and military might. Peripheral nations rank the lowest in the world economy. Often they are appendages to the core because of their least-developed economies that put them at an ill-fated position in the world market transactions. The semi-periphery—mostly acting as a go-between among the two zones—are on a higher plane than peripheral nations, although lower in rank than core nations. Global conflict, accordingly, is nothing but a manifestation of the dynamics of opposing interests and capabilities and balance of power of the three zones. Core nations certainly have more power than others in maintaining their hegemonic status.
- Jayaram, Narayana and Satish Saberwal, eds. 1998. Social Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Klare, T. Michel. 2002. Resource Wars: The New Landscape of Global Conflict. New York: Holt.
- Tyagi, S. P. 2006. Sociology and Social Conflict. Jaipur, India: Sublime Publications.