Thinking Sociologically II

Using theory to untangle complex realities

Thinking Sociologically

You may not use theory to understand your reality, but theory certainly uses you.

Whether you are a teacher, principal, lecturer, student or simply curious, in this short EDDi section Dr Stephen Whitehead answers common questions related to sociological theory.

All of the answers were originally published on Quora.

We offer them (in revised form) via EDDi in the hope that you will acquire some sociological insights into the 21st century.

Treat these articles as a healthy, and heavier, counter-point to all the lighter fluff which gets posted on social media.


What are the advantages of conflict theory in sociology?

One of the first books on sociological theory that I ever read (back in 1990) was titled ‘Conflict Theory’.

However, it didn’t make much of an impression on me at the time and that was because it seemed to me overly simplistic - an attempt at providing a macro-theory for ‘explaining’ human behaviour but ending up with no theory whatsoever - and no convincing explanations.

Which is why I’ve forgot the book’s details and never used it in any of my subsequent research and writings.

Conflict is, of course, endemic to human society and has been throughout history. But once we’ve made that obvious observation what else is there?

Well, quite a lot actually.

Which is where the theory comes in. Because discussion of conflict as an entity in itself is pointless unless you locate it in a specific context, e.g. class, race, or gender.

You can integrate discussions of conflict into any and all of the following macro-sociological theoretical paradigms:

Functionalism (and structural functionalism)

Symbolic Interactionism

Marxism and Neo-Marxism (and labour process theory)

Structuralism (and structuration theory)

Feminism (and the critical studies of men and masculinities)

Postmodernism (and cyber theory)

Post-colonial theory (and critical race theory, Third World theory)

Poststructuralism (and deconstructionalism)

The most obvious candidates for integrating discussions of conflict are Marxism, Neo-Marxism, Post-colonial and feminist theories. But the first question you need to answer is what model of power are you using?

If you are using a juridico-discursive model of power then these three major theories work well. However, if you are using a poststructuralist model of power then conflict becomes more complex and less based on material issues and more to do with identity.

So be aware that the theoretical basis and context for your discussion of conflict will largely determine the strengths and weaknesses which configure your analysis.

Do not go looking for ‘right or wrong’ answers and neither expect to develop a single ‘answer’ to all of humanity’s dilemmas regards conflict.

If you are studying sociology the pathway forward is via intellectual critical analysis, not simple but inevitably wrong-headed ‘solutions’.

Dr Stephen Whitehead

Since 2017, Dr Stephen Whitehead has answered over 10,500 Quora questions, mostly on relationships, education, sociology, life and living, and philosophy. To date, his answers have received approximately 3.2 million views increasing at the rate 60,000 views a month. He has nearly 1000 followers.

Stephen’s latest book (International Schooling: The Teacher’s Guide) is available via: