Sociological Theory
Department of Sociology and Anthropology


(From Randall Collins, Conflict Sociology. New York: Academic Press, 1974, pp.56-61.


The level of interpersonal interaction is all-inclusive; by the same token, it is highly abstract. To reduce its myriad complexities to causal order requires theory on another level of analysis. The most fruitful tradition of explanatory theory is the conflict tradition, running from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Marx and Weber. If we abstract out its main causal propositions from extraneous political and philosophical doctrines, it looks like the following.

Machiavelli and Hobbes initiated the basic stance of cynical realism about human society. Individuals' behavior is explained in terms of their self-interests in a material world of threat and violence. Social order is seen as being founded on organized coercion. There is an ideological realm of belief (religion, law), and an underlying world of struggles over power; ideas and morals are not prior to interaction but are socially created, and serve the interests of parties to the conflict.

Marx added more specific determinants of the lines of division among conflicting interests, and indicated the material conditions that mobilize particular interests into action and that make it possible for them to articulate their ideas. He also added a theory of economic evolution which turns the wheels of this system toward a desired political outcome; but that is a part of Marx's work that lies largely outside his contributions to conflict sociology, and hence will receive no attention here. Put schematically, Marx's sociology states:


In all of these spheres, Marx was primarily interested in the determinants of political power, and only indirectly in what may be called a "theory of stratification." The same principles imply, however:

These Marxian principles, with certain modifications, provide the basis for a conflict theory of stratification. Weber may be seen as developing this line of analysis: adding complexity to Marx's view of conflict, showing that the conditions involved in mobilization and "mental production" are analytically distinct from property, revising the fundamentals of conflict, and adding another major set of resources. Again making principles more explicit than they are in the original presentation, we may summarize Weber as showing several different forms of property conflict coexisting in the same society, and hence, by implication, the existence of multiple class divisions; elaborating the principles of organizational intercommunication and control in their own right, thereby adding a theory of organization and yet another sphere of interest conflict, this time intraorganizational factions; emphasizing that the violent coercion of the state analytically prior to the economy, and thus transferring the center of attention to the control of the material means of violence.

Weber also opens up yet another area of resources in these struggles for control, what might be called the "means of emotional production." It is these that underlie the power of religion and make it an important ally of the state; that transform classes into status groups, and do the same to territorial communities under particular circumstances (ethnicity); and that make "legitimacy" a crucial focus for efforts at domination. Here, Weber comes to an insight parallel to those of Durkheim, Freud, and Nietzsche: not only that man is an animal with strong emotional desires and susceptibilities, but that particular forms of social interaction designed to arouse emotions operate to create strongly held beliefs and a sense of solidarity within the community constituted by participation in these rituals. I have put this formulation in a much more Durkheimian fashion than Weber himself, for Durkheim's analysis of rituals can be incorporated at this point to show the mechanisms by which emotional bonds are created. There involves especially the emotional contagion that results from physical copresense, the focusing of attention on a common object, and the coordination of common actions or gestures. To invoke Durkheim also enables me to bring in the work of Goffman (1956, 1967), which carries on his microlevel analysis of social rituals, with an emphasis on the materials and techniques of stage-setting that determine the effectiveness of appeals for emotional solidarity.

Durkheim and Goffman are to be seen as amplifying our knowledge of the mechanisms of emotional production, but within the framework of Weber's conflict theory. For Weber retains a crucial emphasis: The creation of emotional solidarity does not supplant conflict, but is one of the main weapons used in conflict. Emotional rituals can be used for domination within a group or organization; they are a vehicle by which alliances are formed in the struggle against other groups; and they can be used to impose a hierarchy of status prestige in which some groups dominate others by providing an ideal to emulate under inferior conditions. Weber's theory of religion incorporates all of these aspects of domination through the manipulation of emotional solidarity, and thereby provides an archetype for the various forms of community stratification. Caste, ethnic group, feudal Estate (Stand), educational-cultural group, or class "respectability" lines are all forms of stratified solidarities, depending on varying distributions of the resources for emotional production. The basic dynamics are captured in the hierarchy implicit in any religion between ritual leaders, ritual followers, and nonmembers of the community.

From this analytical version of Weber, incorporating the relevant principles of Marx, Durkheim, and Goffman, we can move into an explicit theory of stratification. It should be apparent that there are innumerable possible types of stratified societies; our aim is not to classify them, but to state the set of causal principles that go into various empirical combinations. Our emphasis is on the cutting tools of a theory, whatever the complexity of their application in the historical world.

For conflict theory, the basic insight is that human beings are sociable but conflict-prone animals. Why is there conflict? Above all else, there is conflict because violent coercion is always a potential resource, and it is zero-sum sort. This does not imply anything about the inherence of drives to dominate; what we do know firmly is that being coerced is an intrinsically unpleasant experience, and hence that any use of coercion, even by a small minority, calls forth conflict in the form of antagonism to being dominated. Add to this the fact that coercive power, especially as represented in the state, can be used to bring one economic goods and emotional gratification and to deny them to others and we can see that the availability of coercion as a resource ramifies conflicts throughout the entire society. The simultaneous existence of emotional bases for solidarity--which may well be the basis of cooperation, as Durkheim emphasized--only adds group divisions and tactical resources to be used in these conflicts.

The same argument may be transposed into the realm of social phenomenology. Every individual maximizes his subjective status according to the resources available to him and to his rivals. This is a general principle that will make sense out of the variety of evidence. By this I mean that one's subjective experience of reality is the nexus of social motivation; that everyone constructs his own world with himself in it; but this reality construction is done primarily by communication, real or imaginary, with other people; and hence people hold the keys to each other's identities. These propositions will come as no surprise to readers of George Herbert Mead or Erving Goffman. Add to this an emphasis from conflict theories: that each individual is basically pursuing his own interests and that there are many situations, notably ones where power is involved, in which those interests are inherently antagonistic. The basic argument, then, has three strands that men live in self-constructed subjective worlds; that others pull many of the strings that control one's subjective experience; and that there are frequent conflicts over control. Life is basically a struggle for status in which no one can afford to be oblivious to the power of others around him. If we assume that everyone uses what resources are available to have others aid him in putting on the best possible face under the circumstances, we have a guiding principle to make sense out of the myriad variations of stratification.*

The general principles of conflict analysis may be applied to any empirical area. (1) Think through abstract formulations to a sample of the typical real-life interactions involved. Think of people as animals maneuvering for advantage, susceptible to emotional appeals, but steering a self-interested course toward satisfactions and away from dissatisfactions. (2) Look for the material arrangements that affect interaction: the physical places, the modes of communication, the supply of weapons, devices for staging one's public impression, tools, and goods. Assess the relative resources available to each individual: their potential for physical coercion, their access to other persons with whom to negotiate, their sexual attractiveness, their store of cultural devices for invoking emotional solidarity, as well as the physical arrangements just mentioned. (3) Apply the general hypothesis that inequalities in resources result in efforts by the dominant party to take advantage of the situation; this need not involve conscious calculation but a basic propensity of feeling one's way toward the areas of greatest immediate reward, like flowers turning to the light. Social structures are to be explained in terms of the behavior following from various lineups of resources, social change from shifts in resources resulting from previous conflicts. (4) Ideals and beliefs likewise are to be explained in terms of the interests which have the resources to make their viewpoint prevail. (5) Compare empirical cases; test hypotheses by looking for the conditions under which certain things occur versus the conditions under which other things occur. Think causally, look for generalizations. Be awake to multiple causes--the resources for conflict are complex.

Nowhere can these principles be better exemplified than on the materials of stratification. Especially in modern societies, we must separate out multiple spheres of social interaction and multiple causes in each one. These influences may be reduced to order through the principles of conflict theory. We can make a fair prediction of what sort of status shell each individual constructs around himself if we know how he deals with people in earning a living; how he gets along in the household in which he lives; how he relates to the population of the larger community, especially as determined by its political structures; and the ways in which he associates with friends and recreational companions. The conventional variables of survey research are all reflected in this list: occupation, parental occupation, education, ethnicity, age, and sex are cryptic references to how one's associations are structured at work, in the household, and in community and recreational groups. In each sphere, we look for the actual pattern of personal interaction, the resources available to persons in different positions, and how these affect the line of attack they take for furthering their personal status. The ideals and beliefs of persons in different positions thus emerge as personal ideologies, furthering their dominance or serving for their psychological protection.

I begin with occupational situations, as the most pervasively influential of all stratification variables. They are analyzed into several causal dimensions, elaborating a modified version of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. Other stratified milieux are treated in terms of other resources for organizing social communities; here we find parallel applications of conflict principles as well as interaction with the occupational realm. The sum of these stratified milieux makes up the concrete social position of any individual.


* The proposition that individuals maximize their subjective status appears to contradict March and Simon's (1958) organizational principle that men operate by satisficing--setting minimal levels of payoff in each area of concern, and then troubleshooting where crises arise. The contradiction is only apparent. Satisficing refers to a strategy for dealing with the cognitive problem produced by inherent limits on the human capacity for processing information. The principle of maximizing subjective status is a motivational principle, telling us what are the goals of behavior. Any analysis of cognitive strategies is incomplete without some motivational principle such as the latter to tell us what are the purposes of action, and what areas of concern are most emphasized. In other words, it is one thing to predict what goals someone will pursue, another to predict what strategies he will use in pursuing them, given the inability to see very far into the future or deal with very many things at once.

Return to Sociology 2111 Page.

Return John Hamlin's Home Page.

The University of Minnesota is a equal opportunity educator and employer.

Copyright: © 2001, John Hamlin
Last Modified: Wednesday, 29-Aug-2001
Page Coordinator: John Hamlin