The perspective of conflict theory, contrary to the structural functionalist perspective, believes that society is full of social groups with different aspirations, different access to life chances and gain different social rewards. Relations in society, in this view, are mainly based on exploitation, oppression, domination and subordination.
The several social theories that emphasize social conflict have roots in the ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883), the great German theorist and political activist. The Marxist conflict approach emphasizes a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical method of analysis, a critical stance toward existing social arrangements, and a political program of revolution or, at least, reform.
Conflict theories draw attention to power differentials, such as class conflict, and generally contrast traditional or historically-dominant ideologies. Conflict theory is most commonly associated with Marxism, but as a reaction to functionalism and positivist methods may also be associated with critical theory, feminist theory, queer theory, postmodern theory, post-structural theory, postcolonial theory, and a variety of other perspectives.
Some conflict theorists like Max Weber (1864-1920) believe education is controlled by the state which is controlled by the powerful, and its purpose is to reproduce existing inequalities, as well as legitimize ‘acceptable‘ ideas which actually work to reinforce the privileged positions of the dominant group. Connell and White state that the education system is as much an arbiter of social privilege as a transmitter of knowledge.
- Education achieves its purpose by maintaining the status quo, where lower-class children become lower class adults, and middle and upper class children become middle and upper-class adults.
- McLeod argues that teachers treat lower-class kids like less competent students, placing them in lower “tracks” because they have generally had fewer opportunities to develop language, critical thinking, and social skills prior to entering school than middle and upper class kids.
- When placed in lower tracks, lower-class kids are trained for blue- collar jobs by an emphasis on obedience and following rules rather than autonomy, higher-order thinking, and self-expression.
- They point out that while private schools are expensive and generally reserved for the upper classes, public schools- like Municipal schools, especially those that serve the poor, are under - funded, understaffed, and growing worse.
- Schools are also powerful agents of socialization that can be used as tools for one group to exert power over others – for example, by demanding that all students learn English, schools are ensuring that English-speakers dominate students from non-English speaking backgrounds
- This cycle occurs because the dominant group has, over time, closely aligned education with middle class values and aims, thus alienating people of other classes.
- Many teachers assume that students will have particular middle class experiences at home, and for some children this assumption isn‘t necessarily true. Some children are expected to help their parents after school and carry considerable domestic responsibilities in their often single-parent home.
- The demands of this domestic labour often make it difficult for them to find time to do all their homework and this affects their academic performance.
- Where teachers have softened the formality of regular study and integrated student‘s preferred working methods into the curriculum, they noted that particular students displayed strengths they had not been aware of before.
- However few teacher deviate from the traditional curriculum and the curriculum conveys what constitutes knowledge as determined by the state - and those in power. This knowledge isn‘t very meaningful to many of the students, who see it as pointless.
- Wilson & Wyn state that the students realise there is little or no direct link between the subjects they are doing and their perceived future in the labour market.
- Anti-school values displayed by these children are often derived from their consciousness of their real interests.
- Sargent believes that for working class students, striving to succeed and absorbing the school's middle class values, is accepting their inferior social position as much as if they were determined to fail.
- Fitzgerald states that “irrespective of their academic ability or desire to learn, students from poor families have relatively little chance of securing success”.
- On the other hand, for middle and especially upper-class children, maintaining their superior position in society requires little effort. The federal government subsidises ‘independent‘ private schools enabling the rich to obtain ‘good education‘ by paying for it.
- With this ‘good education‘, rich children perform better, achieve higher and obtain greater rewards. In this way, the continuation of privilege and wealth for the elite is made possible.
- Conflict theorists believe this social reproduction continues to occur because the whole education system is overlain with ideology provided by the dominant group.
- In effect, they perpetuate the myth that education is available to all to provide a means of achieving wealth and status. Anyone who fails to achieve this goal, according to the myth, has only themselves to blame.
- Wright agrees, stating that “the effect of the myth is to…stop them from seeing that their personal troubles are part of major social issues”. The duplicity is so successful that many parents endure appalling jobs for many years, believing that this sacrifice will enable their children to have opportunities in life that they did not have themselves.
- These people who are poor and disadvantaged are victims of a societal confidence trick. They have been encouraged to believe that a major goal of schooling is to strengthen equality while, in reality, schools reflect society‘s intention to maintain the previous unequal distribution of status and power
Drawback of Conflict Theory
This perspective has been criticized as deterministic, pessimistic and allowing no room for the agency of individuals to improve their situation.
It should be recognized however that it is a model, an aspect of reality which is an important part of the picture.