The Social Conflict Theory: A Constant Reminder Of America’s Moral Vision

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Similar to the Native American modules, the social conflict theory fits the course content present in the African American modules best. The social conflict theory is a sociological theory coined and founded by Karl Marx. In class, we discussed the five core ideas that encompass the social conflict theory. The core ideas of Marx’s theory fit the African American module best due to the module discussing the conflict between the African American people and others.


The first core idea of the social conflict theory—reject the functionalist idea that societies are problem solving entities. This is made apparent by the single most violent war in the history of the United States: the Civil War. If American society is a problem solving entity a “political storm over slavery” would not occur (Takaki 7). There is no greater example of a failure to solve problems within society than the Civil War. This is due to the fact that the war was fought within society, not against a foreign power. In a functionalist society, civil war would not be an issue because society would exist to solve problems. Instead, society chose to “institute a system of bonded black labor” (Takaki 7). It was American societies systematic oppression of black Americans that caused the Civil War. It is very easy to reject the functionalist viewpoint when looking at the Civil war from a sociological perspective.


The second core idea—conflict between groups (not the needs of the entire society) influences practices and institutions. This core idea can be described by the civil war as well. The conflict between the North and the South, the two opposing groups, is what led to the outlawing of slavery. It was not until prominent figures like Abraham Lincoln declared the conflict that institutions were changed “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not be extended” (Takaki 12). A look back through history tells us the Civil War was not about the needs of the entire society. This is emphasized by the tenet that “Since the Civil War and emancipation, race has continued to be largely defined in relation to African Americans – segregation, civil rights, the underclass, affirmative action” (Takaki 7). Another sociological perspective is stressed through the two conflicting groups of slaves and slave owners. Harriet Tubman worked as a spy to for the Union during the Civil War, and eventually led raids on slave owner’s plantations in South Carolina (Drunk). It was the conflict of the two groups that led to actual changes in practices and institution.

Structures of Domination

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The third core idea connects to the second core idea, being that the third core idea is that practices and institutions are structures of domination that benefit the powerful, elite, social groups. A historian could easily point to the civil war as a prime example of why this core idea fits with the African American module. While that is true, if one looks at what took place after the civil war, the Jim Crow laws, the third core idea is emergent too. The Jim Crow laws were the state laws that enacted racial segregation into American society.

The continuum that represents patterns of intergroup relations as a spectrum that ranges from inhumane to humane has segregation listed. In a segregated society “The dominant group structures the social institutions to maintain minimum contact with the minority” (African 3). Mass incarceration “operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs and institutions that operate to ensure the continuation of the racial hierarchy” (African 12). Mass incarceration to benefit the white race can be equated to the third core idea of an institution acting as a structure of domination that benefit the powerful.

Values vs Ideologies

The fourth core idea—what functionalists consider values, conflict theorists consider ideologies that benefit powerful, elite, social groups. This can be described by the Jim Crow segregation laws. What white Americans considered to be values, the different races should be kept separate, were actually ideologies that benefited the powerful, the white race. This ideology was built on the concept of separate but equal. The segregated facilities were anything but equal. From classrooms to neighborhoods, black Americans got the bitter end of the stick. The segregation laws were truly to keep the black community down. This is highlighted when Martin Luther King Jr. describes having to “sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you” (King 15). In totality, the ultimate goal of the segregation laws was not based on the value of separate but equal, but the ideology that blacks, the oppressed, need to be kept under whites, the powerful, in the racial hierarchy.

Group Mobilization

The fifth core idea—social change occurs through group mobilization against the interests of other groups. This concept is emergent in the civil rights movements in opposition of segregation. King explains “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (King 14). It was not until the group, black Americans, mobilized against the interest of the dominant group, white Americans, that social change occurred. The blacks were not without assistance “Jews stood shoulder to shoulder with blacks, in the Civil Rights Movement: two-thirds of the white volunteers who went south during the 1964 Freedom Summer were Jewish” (Takaki 9). It was the combination of multiple races that formed the true group, the anti-segregationists. The mobilization is what caused social change against the interests of the segregationists.

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