The Conflict Tradition

Neo-Marxist and Interest Group Theory

Karl Marx Joseph R. Gusfield

Neo-Marxist and interest group conflict theory

To understand some important differences between the theories falling within the conflict tradition, it is helpful to distinguish between neo-Marxist and interest group versions of conflict theory (see Akers, 1977: 13-20; Taylor, Walton, and Young, 1973: 237-267). Theories in the former category, which are based on the ideas of Karl Marx, have been primarily responsible for the critical thrust of macro-level inquiry into deviance and social control in recent decades. Although Marx, himself, did not develop a systematic theory of deviance or crime, the neo-Marxists have attempted to extend his view that the legal and political systems of capitalist societies are products of an underlying, historical process of conflict between opposing economic classes. Therefore, neo-Marxist theories focus particular attention on the economic structure of society and on the relationship of societal definitions of deviance to the process of class conflict.

Neo-Marxist Model of Class Conflict

Theories of interest group conflict, on the other hand, tend to be based on the pluralistic assumption that all modem societies contain a number of groups with conflicting or competing interests and values. Working with a more diversified conception of the political process than the neo-Marxists, interest group theorists contend that changes in the law or in systems of social control may be generated by conflicts between various cultural, religious, or ethnic groups as well as by conflict between groups with divergent economic interests. In general, interest group theorists fit more in the mold of conventional scientific investigators and manifest less concern with social criticism and political activism than do the neo-Marxists. Nonetheless, all conflict theorists share a sociological interest in the large-scale, political processes through which societal definitions of deviance are created and maintained.

Pluralistic Model of Interest Group Conflict


First, we will look briefly at early work on conflict that preceded and facilitated the emergence of relativistic versions of conflict theory in the 1960s. In addition to Marx, a number of other early European and American theorists have had an impact on the contemporary conflict tradition. Second, we will discuss interest group versions of conflict theory, focusing particularly on the work of Joseph Gusfield (1963; 1967) as a prime example of a non-Marxist analysis of historical changes in the law produced by conflict processes.

Marx and class conflict

Even though most of Karl Marx’s major works were written prior to the American Civil War, his ideas continue to have a profound impact on contemporary social and political thought.  Marx wrote extensively, but relatively clear and concise statements of his sociological position can be found in two works he coauthored with Friedrich Engels in the 1840s, the Manifesto of the Communist Party (1955) and The German Ideology (1947; also see 1969-1970). In this brief review, we will focus selectively on those aspects of Marx’s analytical framework that have figured most heavily into recent neo-Marxist theories of deviance.

The single most important element in Marx’s sociological theorizing is the concept of class. Whereas contemporary sociologists sometimes use the term social class loosely to refer to the relative ranking of individuals on such dimensions as education or income, class for Marx referred to basic structural components of society as a whole. The class structure of a particular society is determined by the system of economic production that exists in that society at a given point in history. That is, the division of different segments of the population into classes ultimately depends on their respective relationships of ownership versus nonownership of the existing means of production. In the case of capitalist economies, the means of production are the factories, machines, and financial resources used in the manufacture of material goods to be sold for profit. As capitalist society develops historically, Marx argued that it “is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—bourgeoisie and proletariat” (Marx & Engels, 1955: 10). The bourgeoisie or capitalist class are the owners of the manufacturing system who reap the profits from the sale of material goods. The proletariat or working class are nonowners of capital who are forced to exchange their labor for wages paid by capitalist employers.

Class conflict originates from the opposing interests of these two major classes. On the one hand, it is in the interest of the capitalist class to expand its control over the economic apparatus of society, to maximize profits, and, therefore, to keep the wages of laborers as low as possible. On the other hand, the working class, denied ownership and control of the products of its own labor, becomes alienated from the entire productive process. As the dominant, bourgeois class pursues its interests and strengthens its monopolistic control over the economic order, it becomes increasingly in the interest of the working class to overthrow the capitalist system that holds it captive and exploits its labor.

However, before the proletariat can exercise its historical role in the abolition of the capitalist system, workers must develop a class consciousness or collective awareness of their objective interests as a revolutionary class. Not only is the working class internally divided by competition for the meager wages paid by capitalist employers, but workers are also subject to the false consciousness of bourgeois ideology. Based on its control of the economic foundation of social life, the bourgeoisie also dominates the cultural and political superstructure of capitalist society. Marx held that the “ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” (1947: 39). Thus, all segments of society, including workers, fall under the cultural influence of an ideology that justifies and supports the interests of the capitalist class. Furthermore, the political superstructure of capitalist society—the state—”is nothing more than the form of organization which the bourgeois necessarily adopt . . . for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests” (1947: 59). The laws and armies of the capitalist state are political tools that protect the interests of the ruling class and suppress the efforts of workers to rise up against it.

Marx argued that the historical process of class conflict would be advanced by critical theorists, such as himself, who identified with the proletariat and who attempted to make workers conscious of their true class interests. By exposing the economic underpinnings of bourgeois ideology and by bringing the working class to a realization of who its real enemy was, Marx worked to hasten the inevitable fall of the capitalist system through a revolution by the working class. Only then, after ownership of private property was abolished, could a communist society emerge—a society free of classes and, therefore, free of oppression and conflict.

Throughout all of his writings, Marx had little to say specifically about deviance (Taylor, Walton, & Young, 1973: 209-221). He commented on the criminal tendencies of the lumpenproletariat—the social scum at the very bottom of capitalist society beneath the organized working class. He also made ironic reference to the functions of crime, pointing out that such occupational groups as the police, judges, and professors of criminal law would not exist were it not for criminals. Far more significant for the conflict tradition are the powerful analytical tools and the macro-level frame of reference that Marx developed in his general critique of capitalist society. Even though Western capitalism has developed in some directions not anticipated by Marx, contemporary neo-Marxist theories have found his conceptions of class, structural conflict, and ideology to be readily applicable to analyses of the definition and control of deviance by the advanced capitalist state (see Quinney, 1977).

Above all, Marx stands out in the history of sociology as the foremost advocate and example of how the critical social analyst can actively influence the course of human events. Like many contemporary neo-Marxists, Marx would have evaluated the success of his theorizing not according to its ability to explain social phenomena—the criterion of bourgeois science—but according to the practical criterion of its actual impact on historical developments. By Marx’s own standards, then, his theoretical work must indeed be judged a success.

Other sources of the conflict tradition

Another early German theorist, Georg Simmel, also viewed conflict as a ubiquitous feature of social life (1955; also see Coser, 1956; Wolff, 1950). As opposed to Marx’s singular focus on class conflict as a structural characteristic of capitalist society as a whole, Simmel analyzed conflict as a general form of social relationship that is manifested in a variety of group or societal contexts. Simmel contributed some keen insights into how the conflicts and hostilities that inevitably arise between various groups in organized societies can have such positive functions as strengthening group boundaries and uniting group members together in a common cause.

Simmel’s work on group conflict had an important impact on American sociologists during the early 20th century. Conflict and competition were among the four basic social processes specified in an influential textbook by Park and Burgess (1921), leading theorists of the Chicago School who were greatly indebted to Simmel.  The concept of conflict became especially prominent in analyses of crime and delinquency by sociologists during the 1930s. For example, high rates of crime among immigrant populations in urban areas were thought to be caused by cultural conflict between the legal rules of American society and the traditional conduct norms of the immigrants’ native cultures (Sellin, 1938). Decades later, VoId’s (1958) attempt to explain criminal behavior as an outcome of various forms of group conflict continued to draw explicitly from the early perspectives of Simmel and the Chicago sociologists.

During the same time that group or cultural conflicts were being studied as causes of deviant behavior in complex urban societies, a few American theorists began to suggest that social definitions of crime and social problems could also be understood as products of conflict processes. One of the clearest statements of this relativistic idea was presented in 1929 by Sutherland in a paper titled “Crime and the Conflict Process” (1956c). As the following passages from this paper indicate, Sutherland anticipated many of the basic themes of interest group conflict theory (1956c: 99—100, 103):

In opposition to . . . many scientific explanations (of criminal behavior) it seems to be desirable to attempt to describe crime as part of a process, and that process seems to be essentially a process of conflict.…This process seems to go on somewhat as follows: A certain group of people feel that one of their values—life, property, beauty of landscape, theological doctrine—is endangered by the behavior of others. If the group is politically influential, the value important, and the danger serious, the members of the group secure the enactment of a law and thus win the co-operation of the State in the effort to protect their value. The law is a device of one party in conflict with another party.

In contrast to Marx’s singular focus on economic factors in class conflict, Sutherland argued that “all kinds of interests and ... conflicting ideals” exist as points of possible opposition between groups in modern, heterogeneous societies (1956c: 107).

An approach similar to Sutherland’s was developed by other sociologists who treated the public definition of social problems as a process of value conflict (WaIler, 1936; Fuller and Myers, 1941a; 1941b; also see Spector and Kitsuse, 1977). These theorists pointed out that objective conditions or behaviors that some groups define as social problems—such as abortion, for example—are often accepted and encouraged by the values of other groups. Even when groups agree that a certain condition is a problem, value conflicts may lead to disagreement over the appropriate solution to the problem. Therefore, the particular ways that communities define and react to social problems depend on the relative ability of various interest groups to translate their respective values into public policy.

Developing more or less independently of Marxist theory, this early work on conflict in American sociology devoted relatively little attention to economic issues and class divisions. Much greater stress was placed on cultural interests—the distinctive norms, values, and lifestyles of various groups in a complex, pluralistic society—as primary sources of conflict, deviant behavior, and political action. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, little additional progress was made beyond this early work, as American sociology turned away from the concept of conflict and became dominated by consensus models of society. However, by the late 1950s, several important theoretical works in general sociology (Coser, 1956; Dahrendorf, 1959) and in the field of deviance (Vold, 1958; Miller, 1958) signaled a renewed interest in conflict theory, an interest which mushroomed during the relativistic period.

Given the early importance of the Chicago School in American work on conflict, it is not surprising that the initial macro-level analysis of deviance and conflict during the relativistic period was presented by a sociologist trained at the University of Chicago, Joseph Gusfield (1963). Gusfield’s work has provided new insights into the old idea of cultural conflict and has become a classic example of the non-Marxist, interest group conflict approach to deviance.

Gusfield and status politics

In American society, no body of law is so exalted and so final as is the Constitution of the United States.  In January 1919, the following statement was formally added to this body of law as part of the 18th Amendment:

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

In short, the distribution and sale of alcoholic beverages was constitutionally defined as deviant. The Prohibition Amendment, focusing as it does on the rather mundane question of alcohol use, today seems curiously out of place in a legal document concerned with such fundamental issues as human rights and the basic structure of American government. How and why was this remarkable definition of deviance created?

Gusfield attempts to answer this question in Symbolic Crusade (1963), a relativistic analysis of the Temperance or Prohibition movement that climaxed with the passage of the 18th Amendment.  According to Gusfield, the driving force behind the Temperance movement was cultural conflict between rural, Protestant, native Americans, and a newer population in the United States around the turn of the century—urban, Catholic immigrants from Europe. The parties to this conflict were not sharply divided by class distinctions, i.e., by the ownership and nonownership of property. Far from being an economic elite, the native Americans who supported the Temperance movement were members of the old middle class whose economic position was not too far above that of the immigrant groups they opposed. Neither were class interests or economic issues at the center of the political struggle over Prohibition. Rather, Gusfield interprets the Temperance movement as an effort of native Americans to preserve their status interests—their position as a highly prestigious and respected cultural group in American society—against the growing threat of alien cultures introduced by a vast wave of European immigrants.

Gusfield develops a theory of status politics as a framework for understanding these aspects of the Temperance movement and other “symbolic crusades” aimed at the moral reform of public policy (1963:12-35, 166-188). Gusfield points out that complex societies, in addition to being divided into various classes in an economic order, are also stratified according to a status order, in which the values, norms and lifestyles of some groups have greater prestige than do those of other groups. Prestige is symbolically conferred upon a given group when its moral viewpoint is reflected in the policies and actions of government, schools, and other societal institutions. The law is a particularly useful instrument for maintaining status dominance. A group whose cultural norms and values are backed by the authority of the law can command the respect or, at least, the obedience of other groups. Thus, moral issues, such as Prohibition, civil liberties, or abortion, are the arena of status politics, where conflicting cultural groups struggle for public recognition and legal endorsement of their respective ways of life. The ultimate goal of status politics is clear:  “Victory in issues of status is the symbolic conferral of respect upon the norms of the victor and disrespect upon the norms of the vanquished” (1963: 174).

Gusfield applies this theoretical framework in a historical analysis of the development of the Temperance movement based on documents and records of various Temperance organizations. He found that reformers in the early and middle 1800s viewed drinkers as repentant deviants who could be encouraged to change their errant ways through moral persuasion. Although drunkenness was an offense against the value placed on sobriety and hard work by rural, middle-class Americans, neither drinkers nor their behavior posed a significant threat to the dominance of that group in the status order of small-town American society.

However, this situation changed markedly toward the end of the 19th century. A massive influx of European immigrants swelled the populations of major cities in the United States. This rapid urbanization of American society “threatened the social position of those (native groups) who strongly identified their social status with dominance m the small-town image of the community” (1963: 80). Furthermore, the adherence of most immigrants to the Catholic religion was a direct affront to the traditional dominance and prestige of Protestantism in American life. Superimposed upon one another, these dramatic social changes represented a substantial threat to the old status order of American society.

According to Gusfield, the political issue of Prohibition became symbolic of the struggle between immigrant and native groups for cultural dominance in the early 20th century. Drinking was an accepted part of everyday life for many immigrants. Therefore, through the creation of laws that prohibited this practice, native Americans could publicly reassert their moral superiority over the immigrants. During this period, Temperance organizations that represented middle-class status interests defined drinkers as “enemy deviants” who must be coerced rather than persuaded to stop the use of alcohol. Consistent with Gusfield’s thesis, rural sections of the country—the stronghold of the native, middle-class culture—led the way with local and state laws banning the sale of alcohol. Not only did Temperance forces have a solid power base in rural areas but they were also far better organized for their war against demon rum than were the opponents of Prohibition. The regional strength and organizational superiority of the Temperance movement were decisive factors in its eventual success on a national level. As viewed from the context of Gusfield’s theory of status politics, the Prohibition Amendment “was the high point of the struggle to assert the public dominance of old middle-class values. It established the victory of Protestant over Catholic, rural over urban, tradition over modernity” (1963: 7). 

In focusing on conflicting status interests of different cultural groups as a central element in the Temperance movement, Gusfield does not deny the possible relevance of class conflict and economic issues for understanding other historical changes in the definition of deviance. In fact, he argues that the repeal of the Prohibition Amendment during the Depression of the 1930s was precipitated by the economic demand “for increased employment and tax revenues which a reopened beer and liquor industry would bring” (1963:127). However, Gusfield contends that in American society, where class lines are not so sharply drawn as in many European societies, status interests are an especially important source of political conflicts. According to Gusfield (1963: 166-188; also see 1967), a purely Marxist approach fails to appreciate the significance of cultural prestige and other symbolic goals in the efforts of some groups to impose their moral definitions of deviance on other segments of American society.

Adapted from pp. 312-319 of James D. Orcutt, Analyzing Deviance, Dorsey Press, 1983.