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Conflict Theory

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 The initial thought that one can have about social conflict theory is how to tackle the task of defining it when it is such a broad theory and when it has influenced so many sociologists, philosophers, and other thinkers alike. One way to define it is to go to its source and to break it apart piece by piece. It all stemmed from the thought of one man, his name was Karl Marx (1818-1883). was a German philosopher; a political economist and some think he was also a revolutionary. Although he did not write extensively about crime he was credited with coming up with the basis for social conflict theory. Those that have studied his writings and his work and that have sided with him are often called Marxist criminologists or sometimes are simply referred as radical criminologists or critical criminologists. From this main theory have branched out some sub theories such as left realism, radical feminism, peacemaking and postmodernism which is also. I am going to tackle the main idea of social conflict theory while I may be touching upon the other sub theories without getting in depth about them. It is important to note that Marx as many great thinkers of another time, another era, has been helped financially and supported ideologically by someone. That someone was Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). He is even thought to have written in 1848 the communist manifesto, but would have, allegedly, let Marx take the credit for it because Marx has more the personality to handle the heat from it, where as Engels was more a behind the scenes kind of guy.

Social conflict theory is thought to have existed for the simple fact that people cannot be happy in a society that exploits them. For example, it is thought that, in the past few years, some six to ten million people in up to sixty countries could have marched against the current war in Iraq. Marx thought that as people are brought in society, some will rule and others will be ruled, which has always been a struggle among societies, historically, such as the relationship between masters and slaves, between lord and serf, between what Marx called the capitalist and the proletariat (or working class). Marx is thought to have identified all structures in the economic society that control human relations. He said that social violence is simply the reaction of the helpless expressing their rage against the unjust conditions in which they live than committing actual crimes. He said that if someone is ruled, as in the proletariat and as he struggles to survive he will come in conflict with the ruling class, the capitalists, and therefore that will create conflict, which will engender crime. Those same capitalists, which at times have been called the ruling bourgeoisie, control and influence every aspect of life. Marx thought that social conflict was inevitable as America (and he knew what he was talking about as he was at one time a reporter for the New York Tribune) went from an agrarian to a market economy, the working class was guided or misguided into proletariat and then turned into consumers. In the early 1920’s people were taught by massive advertising that making ends meet was considered to be a social failure and were pushed to consume, and became an over consuming society, therefore consuming the very goods that they were producing. So being thrifty was no longer acceptable and consuming excessively became the norm, as it is today. Conflict arises when people, who are thought to feel that they deserve a piece of this pie, cannot produce, or cannot come up with the means to consume like mainstream society, therefore engage in crime, in order to take what they feel is rightfully theirs, as they have been conditioned to feel that way. As Marx put it, so long as there are social inequities among societal people there will always be criminals.

Basically, social conflict theory stemmed because workers are demoralized in a capitalist society and they are caught up in a vicious cycle and a process that leads to crime and violence. More recently some criminologists, in the early 1990’s such as Messner and Rosenfeld have tried to argue against Marx and explain something a little different about the social conflict theory, but as Barbara Simms put it eloquently in her article “Crime, Punishment and the American Dream: toward a Marxist integration”, she mentions that Messner and Rosenfeld although came up with a decent theory failed to make the connection between Marx and their theory which is the reason their theory does take hold.

A critique of social conflict theory could say that it is defined mainly at the micro level but relates at the macro level of society with social disorganization. It is also a different in perception as the general public gets their crime related information from the media and the political biases during election campaigns. When someone adopts a position to lock up all criminal he/she fails to see the reasons that pushed someone to commit the crime in the first place. It is convenient to take away the problem and place it in the shadows of society where we can conveniently forget about it and not have to deal with it. Messner and Rosenfeld came up with six theoretical arguments to explain crime and said that a lot can also be explained by Durkheim and Merton’s theory of anomie. They claim that the answer to crime is to strengthen the American institutions such a family values, schools, and polity through social reorganization, but in the process the American society is going to have to reassess its values such as the exaggerated emphasis on monetary success because it has plagued its society so far. Messner and Rosenfeld came up with the term that American have the fetishism of money. They said as Marx put it that the distribution of means is more dependant on the conditions of production. Conflict is there between those who rule, that Marx defined as the haves and those who are dominated or producing the goods the have nots. So with the difference in distribution class differences appear and conflict, thus, becomes inevitable. It is said that materialism leads to greed, and we can see that the cause of crime is coming from forces that are outside the control of people in society. Messner and Rosenfeld speak of patterns of achievement, individualism, universalism and the fetishism of money they speak of capitalist values. Crime is nothing more than a new subculture that rejects the norms of mainstream society. The problem of that theory is that it can explain the reason why an individual might become deviant but cannot explain it at the macro level, because poverty and inequality are always associated with a socially disorganized community from which crime will arise, because as Messner and Rosenfeld put it when they speak of the fetishism of money, they say that the American Dream could never be achieved because people always want to accumulate more things.

One could say that the empirical analysis of the social conflict theory is everywhere and has been measured time and time again, but the reality of this theory and the power of this theory are such that it does not necessarily need empirical verification, as it is something that people can see and measure everyday around them. Measuring with precise numbers is not necessary when you live in this society and you witness everyday the inequities among people of different classes and among people, simply. One way that we could measure empirical validity is to see the logic of the process of social conflict theory. When someone put a small emphasis on legitimate means to achieve but an overemphasis on monetary success, it creates frustration when people are unable to accumulate the material goods that they feel they deserve and it leads to a relative deprivation which is to say that there is a discrepancy between the values of expectations and the values of capabilities to fulfill those expectations, but as Cloward and Ohlin put it, people engage in criminal activities to accumulate the goods that their culture has told them was their heritage.

One could argue on the weaknesses of the social conflict theory and that it does not measure nor explain all crimes, but the reality of it is that it does explain a lot of crimes; it can fit broadly in explaining a lot of violence and the root cause of a lot of crimes. Although crime is not always committed out of greed, some crimes are simply malicious, is does express a certain rejection of society, a way of expressing that rejection. Others have said that the social conflict theory has produce a lot of hot air and waves but simply always rules with the underdog and cannot really explain anything because it has been proven that most thefts are done out of need for luxury not for survival, and because this theory neglect to see the view that the capitalist society makes efforts to regulate itself, although everyone knows that the crimes of the ruling class are often non-violent, economically expensive and rarely prosecuted.

In concluding about the social conflict theory, I would like you to consider this thought: when you see a business man passing by a homeless man, without even a glance, without so much as a thought as to why this man became homeless, as to why he essentially gave up on the American Dream, and the business man keeps on walking to attend to his busy business life, without so much as trying to help or assist this homeless man, you know why conflict can arise. Ignorance of our people and ignorance of those around us is not going to make the crime go away, but acknowledging their presence, their existence and trying to figure out what happened will help. Marx said, very truly, I think that it is not the consciousness of man that determines his existence but his existence that determines the consciousness of man. If our society is to become viable in the future, it will have to shift its focus from crime ridden society to what can be done to even out the means of distribution so that we can all, live in an environmentally sustainable society. Crime may have to become secondary if we are to survive and ride the ecological wave that is about to hit us. If people do not step away from their materialistic mentality crime will not matter, social classes will not matter, survival of the fittest will matter, redistributing the means so that we can all have the minimum to survive will matter. But with this, will other types of crime appear, will another theory of crime appear, only the future will tell us. But as the lower classes have always had to be resourceful to survive in a materialist and capitalist society, the ruling class, may need to turn to the lower class for help, thus eliminating the power struggle, and we may see harmony in social classes for the survival of the human species, if our environment does not get better soon and even if we are to pull forces all together to make the environment a better place to live. IS naïve or realist, you will be the judge or our future will.


  • Sims, Barbara, Crime, Punishment, and the American Dream: Toward a Marxist Integration. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Vol.34 No.1, February 1997 5-24.
  • Bonger, William, Criminality and Economic Conditions, abridged ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969). [Originally published 1916]
  • Dahrendorf, Ralf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959).
  • Vold, George, Theoretical Criminology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958).
  • Chambliss, William and Seidman, Robert, Law, Order, and Power (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1971), p.503.
  • Quinney, Richard, The Social Reality of Crime (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970).

Messner, Steven F. and Rosenfeld, Marvin, Crime and The American Dream (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1994).

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