C. Wright Mills has been called the founder of modern conflict theory. In Mills's view, social structures are created through conflict between people with differing interests and resources. Individuals and resources, in turn, are influenced by these structures and by the "unequal distribution of power and resources in the society." The power elite of American society, (i.e., the military–industrial complex) had "emerged from the fusion of the corporate elite, the Pentagon, and the executive branch of government." Mills argued that the interests of this elite were opposed to those of the people. He theorized that the policies of the power elite would result in "increased escalation of conflict, production of weapons of mass destruction, and possibly the annihilation of the human race."
Gene Sharp (born 21 January 1928) is a Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He is known for his extensive writings on nonviolent struggle, which have influenced numerous anti-government resistance movements around the world. In 1983 he founded the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organization devoted to studies and promotion of the use of nonviolent action in conflicts worldwide. Sharp's key theme is that power is not monolithic; that is, it does not derive from some intrinsic quality of those who are in power. For Sharp, political power, the power of any state—regardless of its particular structural organization—ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. His fundamental belief is that any power structure relies upon the subjects' obedience to the orders of the ruler(s). If subjects do not obey, leaders have no power. Sharp has been called both the "Machiavelli of nonviolence" and the "Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare." Sharp's scholarship has influenced resistance organizations around the world. Most recently the protest movement that toppled President Mubarak of Egypt drew extensively on his ideas, as well as the youth movement in Tunisia and the earlier ones in the Eastern European color revolutions that had previously been inspired by Sharp's work.
A recent articulation of conflict theory is found in Alan Sears' (Canadian sociologist) book A Good Book, in Theory: A Guide to Theoretical Thinking (2008):
- Societies are defined by inequality that produces conflict, rather than which produces order and consensus. This conflict based on inequality can only be overcome through a fundamental transformation of the existing relations in the society, and is productive of new social relations.
- The disadvantaged have structural interests that run counter to the status quo, which, once they are assumed, will lead to social change. Thus, they are viewed as agents of change rather than objects one should feel sympathy for.
- Human potential (e.g., capacity for creativity) is suppressed by conditions of exploitation and oppression, which are necessary in any society with an unequal division of labour. These and other qualities do not necessarily have to be stunted due to the requirements of the so-called "civilizing process," or "functional necessity": creativity is actually an engine for economic development and change.
- The role of theory is in realizing human potential and transforming society, rather than maintaining the power structure. The opposite aim of theory would be the objectivity and detachment associated with positivism, where theory is a neutral, explanatory tool.
- Consensus is a euphemism for ideology. Genuine consensus is not achieved, rather the more powerful in societies are able to impose their conceptions on others and have them accept their discourses. Consensus does not preserve social order, it entrenches stratification, e.g., the American dream.
- The State serves the particular interests of the most powerful while claiming to represent the interests of all. Representation of disadvantaged groups in State processes may cultivate the notion of full participation, but this is an illusion/ideology.
- Inequality on a global level is characterized by the purposeful underdevelopment of Third World countries, both during colonization and after national independence. The global system (i.e., development agencies such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund) benefits the most powerful countries and multi-national corporations, rather than the subjects of development, through economic, political, and military actions.
Although Sears associates the conflict theory approach with Marxism, he argues that it is the foundation for much "feminist, post-modernist, anti-racist, and lesbian-gay liberationist theories."
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