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Conflict Perspective

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A third important sociological framework is the conflict theory. Unlike the structural functional theory, which views society as a peaceful unit, conflict theory interprets society as a struggle for power between groups engaging in conflict for limited resources. Karl Marx is the founder of conflict theory. Conflict theorists like Marx posit that there are two general categories of people in industrialized societies: the capitalist class and the working class.

The capitalist class, or elite, consists of those in positions of wealth and power who own the means of production or control access to the means of production. The working class consists of relatively powerless individuals who sell their labor to the capitalist class. It is advantageous to the elite to keep the working class in a relatively disadvantaged position so that they can maintain the status quo and their own privileged positions.

Conflict Theory and Crime

Conflict theorists believe that the broad division of people into these two categories is inherently unequal. They cite the criminal justice system to support their claim. The capitalist class passes laws designed to benefit themselves. These same laws are detrimental to the working class. Both groups commit acts of deviance, but the system the capitalists created defines deviance differently for each group. The criminal justice system judges and punishes each group differently.

In addition, the elite can often afford expensive lawyers and are sometimes on a first-name basis with the individuals in charge of making and enforcing laws. Members of the working class generally do not have these advantages.

White-Collar Crimes

Conflict theorists also look at the types of crimes committed by members of the two classes. The working class is more likely to commit so-called street crime, such as robbery, assault, or murder. Members of the elite are less likely to commit acts of violence but more likely to engage in white-collar crime, or nonviolent crime committed by the capitalist class during the course of their occupations.

Example: White-collar criminal acts include embezzlement, insider stock trading, price fixing, and breaking regulatory laws.