The theoretical foundation of the conflict perspective is the philosophy of Karl Marx and its expression in various schools of intellectual thought that include conflict theory, critical theory, historical Marxism, Marxist feminism, socialist feminism, and radical feminism. At the center of Marx’s analysis is an economic perspective of social life that conceptualizes people’s ownership of and control over the products and processes of their labor as the origin of social organization (society). In capitalist societies, the unequal distribution of property ownership and control and autonomy over one’s work underlies a social organization characterized by inequality, social conflict, subordination, and domination. Individuals similarly located and influenced by particular economic positions constitute a social class and act in their interests. The upper-income classes ensure their privilege over the lower-income classes by influencing and controlling significant components of society— namely, the political, ideological, and cultural spheres. Theorists of the conflict perspective critique these capitalist class relations of production and examine their influence on idea systems (i.e., ideologies), history, politics, gender, race, culture, and the nature of work.
Conflict Perspective and Women
Marxist feminism, socialist feminism, and radical feminism are theoretical strands that employ a conflict perspective in the study of the relations between men and women (gender). Marx and Friedrich Engels’s essay titled The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State serves as a theoretical basis for their work. Influenced by Marxism and feminism, these theoretical strands examine the interplay between capitalism and gender relations. Marxist and socialist feminists believe that patriarchy, defined as a system of power in which males have privilege and dominance over women, emerges as a result of the men’s ownership of and control over the economic resources of society. Radical feminists believe that patriarchy and a division of labor based on sex preceded, and is the origin of, capitalism. Therefore, Marxist and socialist feminists argue that the transition from capitalism to communism will ameliorate gender inequality, and radical feminists believe a challenge to patriarchy is the solution to women’s subjugation.
According to Marxist and socialist feminists, the identification of women with domestic life (e.g., reproduction, childrearing, cleaning, socialization) is a product of capitalist class relations. Marxist and socialist feminists conceptualize the emergence of the association of women with the domestic sphere in the transition from hunting and gathering societies to capitalist ones. During this transition, women’s role as the producers of goods and economic providers for the family and community diminished.
In hunting and gathering societies women collected for their social group the greatest portion of the daily sustenance by gathering berries, nuts, fruit, and so on. In agrarian societies women often farmed side by side with men. However, the development of agrarian societies coincided with men’s interactions away from home and the creation of a public life in which men controlled politics and the production and sale of goods and services. Consequently, the economic (productive) power of farming women was diminished, and women came to be increasingly associated with domestic life and work.
Capitalism exacerbated the split between private (domestic) and public life by shifting the production process completely away from farming, thereby relegating women completely to the domestic sphere. This split is referred as the separation of spheres. As women’s role and control over production diminished, so did their social power.
Because poor white women and many black and immigrant women always worked in the public domain, the theory of the separation of spheres has been criticized. Nonetheless, women’s public work mirrors, and is an extension of, this association of women with domestic work, for example, women employed as domestic workers, nurses, nannies, secretaries, and so on. Furthermore, Marxist and socialist feminists argue that because capitalism positions women into the private sector of domestic work, women reproduce capitalism by providing food, shelter, and the socialization necessary to maintain an able-bodied and willing workforce.
Conflict Perspective: Race and Ethnicity
Theorists who hold a conflict perspective attribute racial and ethnic prejudice to the operation and benefit of capitalism. According to historical Marxists, racism (and racial consciousness) emerged at the precise historical time in which capitalism developed—in the 15th century. They argue that before the capitalist period, social group differences were not based on race but rather on culture (language, values, and customs), religion, and citizenship/property ownership. Racism emerged as an ideology (i.e., a system of values members of a society believe) to justify the exploitation of African slaves. In other words, the cultural belief in the racial inferiority of black people (racism) enabled capitalists and slave traders in pursuit of economic profit to enslave and subjugate people of African descent. In the Marxian analysis, racism is a fabrication, mythology, and ploy to maintain capitalist power relations. Thus the ideology of racism results from the underlying conflict between capitalists and laborers.
According to the conflict perspective, racism and ethnic prejudice emerge as a result of economic conflict between lower-income groups competing for the same jobs. For example, during the early period of U.S. industrialization (the mid-19th century), Irish and African American conflict over socially desirable factory work resulted in conflict expressed in racial and ethnic terms. The Irish secured their positions in the working class by pointing to their “whiteness,” denouncing the abolitionist movement, and sometimes initiating violence against blacks. This racism supported capitalism by diverting potential conflict away from the Irish workers and capitalists and toward the Irish and African Americans. The intra-class conflict between the Irish and African Americans thwarted their development into a unified and class-conscious social group, thereby quelling a working-class rebellion. This competitive situation is called a split labor market.
This type of economic competition occurred during the period of U.S. industrialization and mass immigration. From the conflict perspective, ethnic and racial prejudice resulted as Chinese and Japanese immigrants competed with the native-born Americans over mining and laundry work, respectively, and as southern and eastern European immigrants competed with the native-born over factory work in the Northeast. In sum, according to the conflict perspective, racism and ethnic prejudice originated in economic capitalist relations.
- Collins, Randall and Scott Coltrane. 2000. Sociology of Marriage and the Family: Gender, Love, and Property. 5th ed. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
- hooks, bell. 2000. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. 2nd ed. Boston: South End Press.
- Ignatiev, Noel. 1995. How the Irish Became White. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Roediger, David R. 2003. Colored White: Transcending the Racial Past. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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