Consensus and Conflict Theory in Education

In order for us to understand why sociological theories could be classified into ‘consensus’ and ‘conflict’ perspectives let us examine the definitions of consensus and conflict.

Dahrendorf (1959, 1968) as cited by Ritzer (2000) is the major exponent of the position that society has two faces (conflict and consensus) and that sociological theory therefore should be divided into two parts, conflict theory and consensus theory.

Consensus theories see shared norms and values as fundamental to society, focus on social order based on tacit agreements, and view social change as occurring in .a slow and orderly fashion. In contrast, conflict theories emphasize the dominance of some social groups by others, see social order as based on manipulation and control by dominant groups, and view social change as occurring rapidly and in a disorderly fashion as subordinate groups overthrow dominant groups (Ritzer, 2000).

Consensus theorists examine value integration in society, and conflict theorists examine conflicts of interest and the coercion that holds society together in the face of these stresses. Dahrendorf recognizes that, society can not exist without bo n th conflict and cosen-sus, which are prerequisites for each other. Thus, we cannot have conflict unless, there is some prior consensus.

Consensus is a concept of society in which the absence of conflict is seen as the equilibrium state of society based on a general or widespread agreement among all members of a particular society. Conflict is a disagreement or clash between opposing ideas, principles, or people — this can be a covert or overt conflict.

The conflict theory, according to Horton and Hunt (1984) focuses on the. heterogeneous nature of society and the differential distribution of political and social power. A struggle between social classes and class conflicts between the powerful and less powerful groups occur. Groups which have vested interest and power work for rules and laws, particularly those that serve their own interests, to be passed to the exclusion of others.

Conflict theorists ask how schools contribute to the unequal distribution of people into jobs in society so that more powerful members of society maintain the best positions and the less powerful groups (often women, racial and ethnic groups) often minority groups, are allocated to lower ranks in society. The larger issue for conflict theorists is the role that education plays in maintaining the prestige, power, and economic and social position of the dominant group in society (Ballantine and Spade, 2004).

The conflict perspective assumes that social behavior is best understood in terms of conflict or tensions between competing groups. Such conflict need not be violent; it can take the form of labor negotiations, party politics, competition between religious groups for members, or disputes over the budget.

Conflict theory grew out of the work of Karl Marx and focuses on the struggle of social classes to maintain dominance and power in social systems. It is a theory or collection of theories which places emphasis on conflict in human society (Jary and Jary, 2000:105).

The Conflict Model

The discourse of conflict theory is on the emergence of conflict and what causes conflict within a particular human society. Or we can say that conflict theory deals with ‘the incompatible aspects of society. Conflict theory emerged out of the sociology of conflict, crisis and social change.

The conflict theorists are interested in how society’s institutions —the family, government, religion, education, and the media — may help to maintain the privileges of some groups and keep others in a Subservient position. Their emphasis on social change and redistribution of .resources makes conflict theorists more “radical” and “activist” than functionalists (Schaefer, 2003).

Consensus theory, on the other hand, is a sociological perspective or collection of theories, in which social order and stability/social regulation form the base of emphasis. In other words, consensus theory is concerned with the maintenance or continuation of social order in society, in relation to accepted norms, values, rules and regulations as widely accepted or collectively by the society—or within a particular society itself. It emerged ‘out of the sociology of social order and social stability/social regulation.

The consensus and conflict sociological theories are reflected in the works of certain dominant social theorists such as Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Max Weber and other prominent social theorists such as Talcott Parsons & Robert Merton, Louis Althusser & Ralph Dahrendorf and Herbert Mead & Herbert Blumer.

The works of Marx in his early years was interpreted by some social theorists as emphasizing the role of human beings in social conflict. They explained change as emerging from the crisis between human beings and their society. They argued, that Marx’s theory was a theory characterized by class conflicts or the conflict between the bourgeoisie (rich owners) and the proletariat (poor workers).

Max Weber argues that schools teach and maintain particular “status cultures,” that is, groups in society with similar interests and positions in the status hierarchy. Located in neighborhoods, schools are often rather homogeneouS in their student bodies and teach to that constituency, thus perpetuating that status culture. Weber outlines types of education found in societies at different time periods, distinguishing between inborn “charisma” and training in *school, and the modern, rational method of education. Education systems may train individuals in specialties to fill needed positions or prepare “cultivated individuals,” those who stand above others because of their superior knowledge and reasoning abilities. Individuals who had access to this type of education in early China were from the educated elite, thus perpetuating their family status culture (Sadovnik et al, 1994).