No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Toward a Theory of Social Conflict

Dahrendorf, R. (1958), Toward a Theory of Social Conflict, in: The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Jun., 1958), pp. 170-183.


Dahrendorf discusses the resurgence of the theme of social conflict in sociology after a fifty-year interval. From Marx and Comte to more recent sociologists, social conflict, especially revolutions, has been a central theme in social research. There is a shift in focus from studying what drives societies forward to understanding what holds them together, influenced by Talcott Parsons' work. Recent decades saw a revival of the study of social conflict. Dahrendorf introduces the idea of a systematic study of social conflict and attempts to classify different types of social conflict, such as wars, conflicts among political parties, and conflicts brought from outside or generated within a society.


Dahrendorf next discusses the need to focus on endogenous conflicts, specifically those arising within a society. The examples given include conflicts like slaves versus freemen in Rome, African Americans versus Caucasians in the United States, Protestants versus Catholics in the Netherlands, Flemings versus Walloons in Belgium, Conservatives versus Laborites in England, and unions versus employers in many countries. These diverse conflicts cannot be subsumed under a single type of social conflict. Conflicts should be classified based on criteria such as the objects of contention, structural origin of conflicting groups, and forms of conflict.


Dahrendorf then discusses the limits and goals of a theory of social conflict, highlighting the importance of sociological analysis in explaining conflicts by deriving them from specific social structures. He proposes that conflicts can be considered explained if they are shown to arise from the structure of social positions independently of psychological or historical factors. Dahrendorf suggests excluding exogenous conflicts (those originating outside a society) from the theory for the time being, as their explanation through sociological structure analysis is seen as metaphorical. Endogenous conflicts, on the other hand, are seen as more amenable to sociological analysis, with an emphasis on deriving conflicts from the structure of societies. He concludes by noting that conflicts can be expressions of general structural features of societies or societies in the same stage of development.


Dahrendorf critiques the structural-functional theory of society, emphasizing the limitations of analyzing social structures solely based on their functioning and integration. He argues that while the structural-functional approach focuses on how elements within a society are combined into a stable whole, it fails to provide a sufficient point of departure for understanding conflict and social change. His critique suggests that the analysis should go beyond describing how elements are integrated into a functioning system and should address the intentional or unintentional consequences of associations, institutions, or processes for the functioning and preservation of the system.


Dahrendorf points out the difficulties that arise when trying to understand the function of certain groups or events, such as trade unions during the General Strike of 1926 or the role of construction workers in Stalin Allee on June 17, 1953. He argues that simply attributing functions to oppositional groups may not adequately capture their role, and intentional or unintentional effects should be considered in contributing toward either the preservation or the abolition and transformation of the existing system.


Dahrendorf scrutinizes the structural-functional theory's model of society and its limitations in explaining social conflict and change. The term "dysfunction" is criticized for being a comfortable label that fails to provide meaningful explanations. This term, used within the structural-functional framework, does not contribute to understanding the role of elements that do not fit neatly into the functioning of a society. A careful analysis of the problems hidden by the term "dysfunction" within the structural-functional theory could lead to the development of a more meaningful sociological theory of conflict. The critique focuses on the need to move beyond the comfortable categories provided by the theory and delve into the complexities of social dynamics, particularly those related to oppositional groups and elements challenging the status quo.


Furthermore, Dahrendorf explores two contrasting models of society. The first model aligns with the structural-functional theory, emphasizing stability, integration, and consensus. The second model, in opposition, emphasizes change, conflict, and constraints on some members by others. Dahrendorf argues that both models have validity and analytical usefulness, and their juxtaposition reveals the dual nature of social reality, which involves both stability and change, integration and conflict. The conclusion is that a more comprehensive understanding of society requires consideration of both models.

Society has a dual nature: consensus and constraint are equally valid aspects of any conceivable society. The coexistence of these aspects, described as dialectically separated, provides a comprehensive understanding of social problems only when considered together. A more general theory of society might reconcile the validity of both models, acknowledging the inherent tension between them.


His critique against the structural-functional theory is not aimed at the theory's competence in addressing issues of integration but rather challenges its claim of generality, specifically in analyzing conflicts. While the structural-functional theory is competent in understanding integration, it falls short in providing a general theory applicable to conflict and change.


Dahrendorf draws an analogy between the sociological situation and the physicists' handling of the theory of light. Just as physicists use different theories (wave or corpuscular) depending on the problem at hand, sociologists may need different theories (integration or conflict) depending on the aspects they seek to analyze.


Dahrendorf then shifts to the tasks of a theory of social conflict. The author proposes that such a theory should be scientific, avoiding contradictions with the conflict model of society, using categories consistent with integration theory where possible, and enabling the systematic generation of social conflicts from structural arrangements. Additionally, it should account for the diversity and intensity of forms of conflict. The ultimate goal of a social theory is to explain social change, and a theory of conflict should develop a model that elucidates the structural origin of social conflicts, particularly as struggles among social groups.


Dahrendorf outlines three crucial questions that a theory of social conflict needs to address:

  1. How do conflicting groups emerge from the structure of society?
  2. What forms can the struggles among these groups take?
  3. How does conflict among these groups bring about a change in social structures?


Regarding the analysis of authority and authority structures, Dahrendorf acknowledges the complexity of these concepts. The discussion revolves around Max Weber's concept of authority, emphasizing its elements:

  • Authority denotes a relation of supra- and subordination.
  • The supra-ordinated side prescribes certain behavior to the subordinated one in the form of a command or prohibition.
  • The supra-ordinated side has the right to make such prescriptions, and authority is a legitimate relation based on an expectation associated with social position.
  • The right of authority is limited to certain contents and specific persons.
  • Failure to obey the prescriptions is sanctioned, and a legal system or system of quasi-legal customs guards the effectiveness of authority.

Dahrendorf uses this determination of authority to identify occupants of authority positions, such as a cabinet minister, an employer, or a party secretary. This definition is not intended to solve all analytical and empirical problems related to authority but serves as a starting point for the subsequent analysis. The concept of legitimacy distinguishes authority from power, and the treatment of authority in this context is deliberate and unilateral, focusing on its conflict-generating aspect.

The conflict-theory model in sociology suggests that social conflicts arise from the opposition of positive dominance roles (associated with preserving the status quo) and negative dominance roles (associated with changing the status quo) within these groups. The conflict unfolds in several steps, including the formation of quasi-groups, the organization of interest groups, and constant conflict leading to changes in social relations. The model aims to delimit the problem area, identify relevant factors (conditions of organization, conflict, and change), and determine their respective weights, ideally through quantitative measures.

What conditions influence the organization, conflict, and structural changes within interest groups?

  • Effective social conditions, such as communication among quasi-group members and recruitment methods.
  • Political conditions, particularly the importance of freedom of coalition for the emergence of interest groups.
  • Technical conditions, including material means, a founder, a leader, and an ideology for the organization.

The degree of social mobility and the effectiveness of mechanisms for regulating social conflicts influence the intensity and nature of conflicts among interest groups. A continuum of conflict intensity, ranging from democratic debate to civil war, is envisioned based on the presence or absence of social mobility and regulating mechanisms. Factors determining the form and extent of social structural changes resulting from conflict among interest groups.


The sociology of revolutions and the sociology of uncompleted revolutions are expected to contribute to understanding factors like rulers' capacity to stay in power and the pressure potential of dominated interest groups. Dahrendorf acknowledges the tentative nature of these observations and emphasizes the need for empirical investigation to determine the exact weights of these conditions. Theoretical questions and meaningful inquiries into empirical problems are encouraged based on this framework.


The application of this conflict theory is discussed in the context of differentiated social organizations, considering all forms as imperatively co-ordinated groups. The analysis focuses on two specific groups - the state and the industrial enterprise. This application aligns closely with traditional class-based theories, revealing that the theory of classes is a special case within the broader theory of conflict.


The industrial enterprise is an imperatively co-ordinated group with various positions associated with expectations and rights of authority, including managers and workers. The authority of managers is institutionalized and legitimate, leading to a structural conflict of (latent) interests between managers and workers. The structural conflict implies the emergence of interest groups, such as employers' associations and trade unions, based on certain conditions of organization, including communication, recruitment, freedom of coalition, leadership, ideologies, and technical means. The conflict intensity between interest groups varies based on conditions like social mobility, the presence of effective conflict-regulating mechanisms, and the degree of mobility between groups. Mechanisms for regulating conflicts (e.g., negotiation, strikes) lead to changes in the structure of industrial organizations and the positions of involved groups. The analysis implies that conflict theory is applicable regardless of ownership relationships within the industrial enterprise. The existence and intensity of industrial conflicts are not affected by whether managers are owners, elected agents, or government officials. Even with a complete regulatory system, conflicts persist, and no mechanism can eliminate conflicts altogether. Co-determination, as seen in the German coal and steel industry, has not abolished or alleviated industrial conflict. The elevation of workers' representatives into management positions (co-determination) changes certain dominance positions but does not eliminate the contrast between those in authority and those subjected to authority. Co-determination lacks effective regulation of social contradictions and does not contribute to the annihilation or regulation of industrial conflict. Conflict theory suggests that co-determination is not only ineffective in regulating conflicts but may, in the long run, lead to a sharpening of conflicts within industrial enterprises.

The main argument is that co-determination not only fails to regulate industrial conflicts but may exacerbate them by creating new groups of authority that do not represent the entire workforce. In industries affected by co-determination, the rise of workers' representatives to responsible positions can intensify conflicts rather than mitigate them.


The discussion then shifts to totalitarian states, emphasizing that social conflict and change persist in these systems. Political conflict is inherent in any society, even in totalitarian states, which attempt to suppress opposition. The intensity of social conflicts in such states depends on factors like social mobility, mechanisms for conflict regulation, and the ability of the ruling class to resist pressures for change. There is a lack of conditions for the organization of opposing interest groups in totalitarian states, leading to a constant potential for revolutionary conflict. The events in Hungary and Poland in the fifties illustrate how opportunities for organization among latent conflict groups can lead to the collapse of the totalitarian state. The danger of social upheaval in totalitarian societies is ever-present, and events like the Hungarian uprising and the June 1953 protests in Berlin serve as examples of moments when latent conflicts became overt and threatened the stability of the totalitarian system.


Dahrendorf concludes the discussion by acknowledging that the presented conflict theory is not exhaustive and still poses a challenge to sociologists. The goal of the discussion was not to comprehensively address empirical problems but to highlight that conflict theory provides a framework for formulating urgent empirical questions, understanding unexplained events, considering different perspectives, and transforming tentative queries into a systematic research agenda. Conflict theory, as presented, is incomplete, and despite progress, the study of social conflict remains more of a challenge than a fully developed result in sociological research.