Consensus vs Conflict Theory

When you think about the world and its history, do you imagine a state of harmony, or a state of general disagreement? 

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Table of contents

    While there are plenty of examples of both, certain sociologists take a much more black and white view - some stating that society is based on consensus and others stating that it is based on conflict. This is what is known as the consensus versus conflict debate.

    • In this explanation, we'll go through a brief introduction to the consensus versus conflict debate that informs many sociological theories.
    • We will also engage with the key concepts of 'consensus' and 'conflict', which can be applied to various sociological theories and explanations.
    • We'll identify the key examples of consensus and conflict theory that lend themselves to one perspective or the other.
    • We'll close with a brief consideration of the similarities between the consensus and conflict theory.

    What is the consensus vs conflict debate?

    There's a substantial amount of disagreement within the sociological discipline as to whether we live in a state of consensus or conflict. Most sociologists will take one perspective or the other, stating that their favoured approach is what informs the structures, processes and issues that we deal with over the course of our lives.

    Examples of consensus and conflict theory

    There are a few approaches that are used as key examples of consensus and conflict theories. The ones we will be looking at are:

    Let's dive into each of the approaches now.

    Consensus theory in sociology

    Consensus vs conflict theory, black and white photos of Black Lives Matter protests with signs, StudySmarterLarge-scale protests for particular causes are examples of a value consensus in society.

    Imagine you've stepped out for your weekly grocery shopping with your parents. It's a Saturday morning, so the grocery store is packed. Your parents ask you to go to the deli section to grab some meats and cheeses for lunch.

    You grab a ticket, wait in line for your turn, give your order and wait until it is ready before you grab it and go. You're relieved it went well - there were countless customers at the deli and your order could have easily been mixed up.

    This is an example of how established procedures and structures help foster an environment which runs effectively and with only a small margin of error. Sociologists who take the consensus approach apply similar analogies to wider society, stating that individuals, communities and broader systems cooperate to create the stability and order that characterises the society we live in.

    Those who take a consensus approach suggest that members of society get along and live in harmony because we believe we have shared goals and interests.

    Functionalism

    The main sociological theory that advocates for the consensus perspective is functionalism. Those who believe in the functionalist perspective (known as functionalists) state that society is based on a value consensus, in that there is a general agreement on what the norms and values of society are and should be.

    Norms and values are important phenomena in sociology, and they are often considered in tandem when discussing collective human behaviour. Norms are the unwritten rules of society. They are not necessarily 'laws' governed by formal punishment, but are simply behavioural expectations or conventions that are attached to particular social roles or situations in society. An example of a norm is letting people off an elevator before entering.

    In a similar vein, values are a judgement of worth or morality. For example, 'respect' and 'community' are important values that people hold in society. They set the standard for behaviour and interaction - in other words, they can inform the norms that are typical of certain societies.

    Based on society's agreement - or consensus - on our shared norms and values, individuals are happy to stick to the rules for the sake of the greater good. Ultimately, this helps us achieve social order and stability.

    Conflict theory in sociology

    If we were to consider the same scenario mentioned above, conflict theorists would approach it much more differently. They won't necessarily argue that there's chaos at the deli, but would instead say that the social order we see at the grocery store is obscuring the fact that some people are allowed to skip the line, or that others are getting more food than you are for the same price.

    Conflict theorists might use such an analogy to highlight the fact that different groups have conflicting interests in society. The main examples of conflict theories are Marxism and feminism.

    Marxism

    Consensus vs conflict theory, hundred dollar bills stacked in an open suitcase, StudySmarterConflict theories suggest that society is based on a system of conflicting interests and inequality.

    Marxist theorists see a major flaw in the capitalist system that characterises modern society. They argue that it fosters a conflict between the two main social classes:

    • the bourgeoisie (the ruling class), and

    • the proletariat (the working class).

    This conflict is known as the class struggle (or inequality) between the rich, powerful class and the poor, powerless class. It is based on the notion that the ruling class has disproportionate levels of access to wealth, while the working class can only offer their labour in exchange for a very small fraction of this wealth (for example, in the form of wages).

    This gives the bourgeoisie an edge over the proletariat, as they have the means (wealth and power) to control powerless classes and enforce social order in the way that they choose. This can be done by influencing laws which ensure that their interests are protected.

    Property ownership laws were first set up in the UK so that rich members of the state could ensure that their wealth could stay within their families, rather than being equally distributed in the community.

    Marxists argue that we can maintain social order despite this ongoing conflict because the proletariat is in a state of false class consciousness - they do not realise they are being exploited by the ruling class. While some theorists suggest that the working class is powerless against the influence of the ruling class, early Marxism theorised that they would eventually break out of their false class consciousness and revolutionise to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie.

    In the scenario of the deli, the bourgeoisie can skip the line and get their meats and cheeses before everybody else. They can also afford much more of them than others can.

    Feminism

    The feminist perspective also takes a conflict approach. It explores the dynamics of gender in society, suggesting that there is an ongoing conflict of interest between men and women in various social institutions and processes.

    Note here the difference between sex and gender. While 'sex' refers to the biological differences between males and females, the term 'gender' concerns differences in culture, expression and behaviours that are linked to masculinity and femininity.

    The gender-based conflict that feminists describe is similar to the class struggle which is theorised in Marxism, in that both conflicts are based on a fact of inequality. In this instance, feminists argue that society is patriarchal.

    A patriarchal society (or patriarchy) is one in which men take a position of dominance over women in various social structures throughout society - including the workplace, the family, the criminal justice system and beyond.

    A common reference point for feminists is the gender pay gap, which demonstrates that men receive higher pay even when they are doing the same work as their female colleagues. The UK's Office for National Statistics reports that, as of October 2021, the average gender pay gap among all employees is 15.4%.

    This statistic varies between occupations and industries. For instance, the largest gender pay gap is observed in among 'production managers and directors in mining and energy'. This profession has a 44.7% pay gap - men earn around £23.88 per hour, while women earn around £13.21 per hour.

    Other examples of gender inequality include the high rates of domestic violence and workplace discrimination against women.

    In the scenario of the deli, men can skip the line and get their meats and cheeses first. They have access to a wider selection of deli foods, which women aren't allowed to buy.

    Similarities between the consensus and conflict theory

    While the consensus theory and conflict theory often appear in opposition in sociology, we need to understand their similarities so that we can make a well-informed comparison.

    The key similarity between the consensus and conflict approaches is that they both discuss the source of social order in society. At face value, it may seem like the conflict approach is opposing the consensus approach for claiming that social order exists. However, in reality, the conflict approach also believes in the existence of social order - the difference is simply in how they believe it is brought about.

    As mentioned, consensus theories such as functionalism propose that social order exists because we all share the same norms and values that keep us working toward the common, greater good. For conflict theories such as Marxism and feminism, social order exists because dominant groups (the ruling class or men) can impose control over subordinate groups (the working class and women) who have no choice but to conform.

    The Consensus vs. Conflict Debate - Key takeaways

    • The consensus versus conflict debate concerns the perspectives which sociologists take when theorising society. These perspectives are taken depending on whether theorists believe that society functions on a system of general agreement and consensus, or one of conflicting interests and disagreement.
    • The consensus approach posits that society is based on a system of shared norms and values that create social order and solidarity.
    • Functionalism is the main consensus theory, which makes a case for the value consensus that underlies society's overall stability.
    • The conflict approach suggests that society is based on an ongoing conflict between social groups with differing interests.
    • Marxism and feminism are the main conflict perspectives. Marxists theorise a conflict between the rich and the poor, while feminists theorise a conflict between men and women. Both theories make a case for the existence of a system of inequality.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Consensus vs Conflict Theory

    What is an example of consensus theory?

    A key example of consensus theory is functionalism. Functionalists argue that society is based on a system of shared norms and values, which creates a sense of social order among its citizens. 

    Is society in consensus or conflict?

    Whether society is in consensus or conflict depends largely on who you ask! Functionalist theorists would tell you society is based on consensus, whilst Marxists and feminists will say that it is based on conflict. 

    What are the differences between the two faces of society, the consensus and conflict theory?

    While both approaches offer theories for how social order is brought about, they do so in different ways. The consensus theory suggests that social order in society is based on a system of shared norms and values, while conflict theory proposes that social order in society is based on a system of inequality.

    Why is the conflict versus consensus debate important?

    The conflict versus consensus debate is important to sociologists because it encourages us to question the structures, processes and people behind the social order that (arguably) exists in our society today. It opens our eyes up to systems of oppression and inequality, as well as the those which work well for society and its people.

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