Until the mid 1800s, sociology was dominated by a group of scholars advocating conformity and content. No sociologist dare defy the powers that be; in fact, they embraced and encouraged it. Funtionalists presented elitist ideas that endorsed the government, no matter how flawed. Even symbolic interactionists, who acknowledged stratification, diagnosed it as the vital organ of society. Sociology, in itself, seemed to be nothing more than a set of ideas condemning equality and accepting stratification. Out of the ashes of poverty and oppression rose a new group of scholars, great minds speaking on behalf of the masses and minorities. These sociologists recognized the corruption of the system, as well as its true intent. The conflict theorists not only recognized stratification and inequality, they condemned it and the system responsible for it. Each scholar contributed his own observations and constructed his own solution to the problem that “plagues” the people, capitalism. Three economic systems exist in the known world. An economic system is the social institution through which goods and services are produced, distributed, and consumed. Capitalism, the economic system executed by the United States, places the means of production into private hands. The defining incentive for economic activity in capitalism is the pursuit of maximum profit, and private companies determine the price(s) of their goods/services.
The goods and/or services attainable by an individual relies on his/her income. In other words, if one does not have the money to buy something one wants or needs, one cannot obtain it. The more an individual can pay, the better the quality of the good or service. In capitalism, the saying, “you get what you pay for” holds its greatest truth. The pursuit of profit being the only interest of our economy creates a world of problems which Karl Marx was first to publicly acknowledge. Exploitation, getting more from the labor than what is paid for, is the tool used for the pursuit of profit. Surplus value is the tool used to exploit. Any amount earned by the company that is not paid to the worker constitutes surplus value. Low wages and high unemployment are enforced to maximize exploitation, and thus profit. The lower the payment to the employees, the more money left over for the owner; and the progression of technology has proven to hurt as much as it helps society when machines often replace human jobs. The low wages and unemployment in turn create poor living conditions among the majority of the population.
The poor have no money to buy goods/services, and companies hardly, if ever, give them away even though they have much to spare. Literally tons of food is discarded each day by restaurants and supermarkets while millions of people starve. Capitalism has created an economy of businesses that would rather throw its food away than give it away. According to Marx, only two classes exist in capitalism, the capitalist class (bourgeoisie) and the working class (proletariat). The bourgeoisie is the small elite class of people who own the means of production, also known as the “haves”. The proletariat consists of everyone else regardless of income because they sell their labor for wages, and are also known as the “have nots”. Socialism requires a minimum standard of living, and the means of production are distributed collectively rather than privately owned. Communism (heavily endorsed by Marx) is the system in which economic property is communally owned, and no social distinctions are made on the basis of people’s ability to produce. In both communism and socialism, there is never a scarcity of goods. Unfortunately, when human beings are responsible for enforcing and executing these ideas, they are often selfish and create a corrupt government. Many communist countries, such as Cuba, have resulted in dictatorship. However, when correctly performed, either serves as an excellent solution to providing all people with the resources they need to survive and thrive in society. Marx is known as the father of communism, for he endorses communism and condemns capitalism in his famous piece, Communist Manifesto. He introduces the concept of class consciousness, which calls for the awareness of common vested interest and the need for collective political action to bring about social change. He stressed the importance of remaining focused on the interest of the common good rather than be distracted by “wedge issues” such as gay marriage and abortion. All proletarians should maintain class consciousness. No matter how much money an individual makes, it is in all best interest of the proletariat to come together as one. Marx condemned the institution of religion, referring to it as “the opiate of the masses”.
He gave two implications to this claim, the first being that people’s ideas can be controlled by coercion. His second implication argued that consciousness depends on the material resources people have for formulating and communicating ideas. The dominant social classes have the most resources. As a result, the elite continue to be the most educated and politically informed, using ideologies (such as those in religion) to sedate the masses. Christianity, for example, embraces conformity and content in life and focuses more on the afterlife to distract the masses. Over time, two new classes were introduced to Marxism. The petty bourgeoisie own businesses that distribute goods and services, but do not produce the goods themselves. Those in the petty bourgeoisie still have to pay the bourgeoisie in order to have the right to sell their products. The lumpenproletariat consists of the poorest of people who are “living hand to mouth” i, and have been completely removed and disregarded by the economic system. Undocumented immigrants and the homeless are contained in this underclass. Marx did not ignore politics in his argument, claiming “the state is the instrument of organized violence” i . Politics is simply defined as the effort to control the state. Political battles occur because each party is trying to control the government to exercise power in their own interest. Republicans are generally for privatization of health care and retirement, so a congress dominated by republicans could lead to the elimination of social security. The elite tend to win the struggle of politics because they often have the resources to struggle successfully. However, the historical situation of a class whose time has come can also be a contributing factor.
The Great Depression sparked a movement of the masses demanding rights at work and help with retirement, health care, and education. The class interests coincided due to the stock market crash which hindered even the richest of the rich. Perhaps Marx’s only flaw in his argument is that of the fall of capitalism, for so far it has yet to come. According to Marx, the declining capitalist class will empower the proletariat with its larger numbers. The capitalist class will eventually be acknowledged as the root of inequality and “squeezed out” of the system. Though capitalism still thrives in many nations, the bourgeoisie class undoubtedly continues to shrink. Perhaps the fall of the economic system is in our near future, and Marxism will be there to say “I told you so”. In the words of Marx, “the last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope”. While Marx served to voice all of the “have nots”, a particular group oppressed for hundreds of years emerged to create their own contribution to sociology. William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) Du Bois could very well be accredited as the first African-American sociologist. Born in Massachusetts three years after the Civil War (1868), he would earn a scholarship to Fisk University, and continue on to become the first black to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Du Bois admired Max Weber’s model of stratification (class, status, power) and idea of social action (defining a situation).
However, Du Bois seems to be more heavily influence by fellow conflict theorist, Marx, embracing his understanding of exploitation in capitalism. His 1899 piece, The Philadelphia Negro, was the first empirical work of sociology. His works were made distinctive by his demographic mapping, particularly of the black community. He borrows from Marxism in his critical power-conflict perspective, except this concept focuses more on race and gender inequality. The perspective blames capitalism for inequality based on race and gender, and argues that the pursuit of maximum profit thrives on exploitation. Slavery has been dubbed the epitome of capitalism, because the profits are reaped from free, forced labor. According to Du Bois, any large social problem has its roots in racism, sexism, and/or capitalism. Racism, unlike any other form of discrimination, is based solely on skin color and hair texture. Du Bois’ mapping led him to categorize blacks into four classes; well-to-do, laborers, poor, and criminals. Despite his many contributions to the young science, his most famous will probably remain The Talented Tenth. Du Bois argued that “the Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men”ii. In short, the document advocated, “developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races” ii. Du Bois’ concept of The Talented Tenth bares a striking similarity to Henri de Saint-Simon’s idea of the Industrial Elite. Du Bois encouraged the black community to pursue education in order to better understand the world, thus having the knowledge to be able to make conditions better for themselves. Du Bois paved the way for a host of other African-American sociologists. E. Franklin Frazier, a graduate of the Chicago School, would become “the most famous black sociologist and eventually president of the American Sociological Association. His dissertation on The Negro Family in Chicago, published in 1932, launched a controversy within sociology over the question of lower-class black family structure as an obstacle to black social advancement” i. Most lower-class black families have one or both absent parents, turning the heads of the youth to the street for guidance and belonging. The youth can become involved with the “wrong crowd” and thus prevent the overall advancement of blacks due to factors such as low college enrollment rates.
Frazier was the first to study the black middle class (aka black bourgeoisie), and recognized it as a distinct group of blacks with more freedom than the poor, but less freedom than middle class whites. Like Du Bois, Frazier broke down the black community into classes, the Negro elite (fraternities, old families, etc.), the black bourgeoisie (also called “brown middle class”), and the black proletariat. The Negro elite consists of descendants of blacks who bought their freedom before the Civil War, and are characterized by snobbish behavior along with favoring light skin and white ancestry rather than black. Frazier claimed the new Negro middle class is hypnotized by conspicuous consumption, a concept introduced by Thorstein Veblen. Conspicuous consumption constitutes consuming goods out of desire rather than need. Thus, “Frazier saw conspicuous consumption in the Negro’s attempt to compete with the dominant white culture by the display of status symbols such as college degrees, the amount of money spent by fraternities and sororities on entertainment, and by the black bourgeoisie’s lavish expenditures on expensive homes, fine furniture and household appliances, luxury automobiles, and costly clothes” i. The black middle class has become more concerned with economic security rather than economic justice. The concept of conspicuous consumption is evident in Prince Georges County, Maryland, a predominantly black county known across the country for the unusually high income among the blacks.
Full of lavish homes, expensive cars, and high-end shops, the public school system is nearly in shambles with low resources and the worst truancy rate in the state next to Baltimore City. Frazier’s ideology of the black community is indeed evident before our eyes. Chicago was not limited to Frazier as a field to study. St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton would create a force to be reckoned with in sociology. Like Frazier, they conducted a study focusing on the black middle class, creating the 1945 “masterpiece of social research, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City…It is an in-depth sociological investigation conducted by tough-minded scholars who believed that the presentation of social facts in a scientific and artful manner would lead to the policy reforms of conditions in the black ghetto” i. “Bronzeville” was the term used to describe the black community of Chicago, and it “constituted the folkways and mores of the community and consumed their time and money…The class structure of Black Metropolis was based on a value system, which Drake and Cayton defined as having five dominating interests around which community and individual life revolved: (1) Staying Alive; (2) Having a Good Time; (3) Praising God; (4) Getting Ahead; and (5) Advancing the Race” i. Despite the institutional oppression of the day (1920s-1940s), blacks persisted in having fun at athletic events, cabarets, and so forth. Church attendance was high among the black community, as it played an important role in social organization and common traditional ceremonies such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. The “Who’s Who in Bronzeville included the wealthiest and best-educated families and the most political powerful personages” i.
This group also included successful athletes breaking the color barrier, dubbed by Drake and Cayton as “Race Heroes”. The lower-class blacks were subject to social and mental illnesses of racism including alcoholism, unemployment, prostitution, and crime. These illnesses continue to plague lower-class blacks today. The unemployment rate of African-Americans with a college degree is equal to the unemployment rate among whites with a high school diploma. Drake and Cayton added a valuable piece to the puzzle of the oppression of blacks in America and around the world. Most major black sociologists emerged prior to the Modern Civil Rights Movement, a movement that would finally earn blacks legal liberties and public integration among whites. Yet racism still haunts the black community and continues to keep the race from moving forward. The problem no longer lies in the laws themselves, but in the lack of enforcement of those laws via corruption and neglect by the government. Elijah Anderson rose as a contemporary black sociologist placing his focus on the black inner city, “the poorest and most desperate parts of the African-American ghettos. He spends months and years at his sites, hanging around, getting to know people and becoming known by them, seeing things from the inside. The main fact of life in the black inner city, Anderson Argues, is that formal law and order is far away. The police do not provide reliable protection. And when they do come, they often seem just as likely to arrest the person who called for help as the person who was threatening them in the first place. The police are not trusted to provide justice when they do intervene in local conflicts. Accordingly, each individual tries to demonstrate his ability to take care of himself, to provide his own protection by displaying his willingness to use violence…The black ghetto is cut off from the law and order of middle class America, by longstanding conditions of poverty and a history of racial discrimination which foster an alienated and distrustful attitude toward mainstream white society” i. The vigilantism and anti-mainstream behavior dominating the inner city has been dubbed by Anderson as the “code of the street”. Anderson stresses that the majority of the people in the inner city wish to lead normal lives with regular jobs, respectability, and family responsibilities. Most people are “descent”; only a minority of the population is “street”. The code of the street is very similar to Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical approach (staged presentation of self). It “is especially theatrical, stagey, because it is the appearance of violence that is most important in getting by, rather than the actual violence itself”i. The first element of the code is appearance, which includes dressing in a fashion deemed unconventional, such as pants below the hips. The second element of the code is the “style of talk. Part of this is a specialized vocabulary and idiom, found in any group which marks itself off as distinctive. Equally important is the paralinguistic style, not what is said but how one talks. The street style is generally loud and accompanied by exaggerated gestures. The emphasis is on vocally taking the initiative and thus taking command of the situation” i.
The third aspect of the code is to present oneself as explicitly willing to use violence. This tactic is, in actuality, a tool used to avoid violence when used correctly. However, in some instances violence is often ceremonial or a result of the misuse of street code. There are five types of fights in street code, ranging from relatively limited and controlled to serious and out of control. Gang fights are chronic but limited in several aspects. They are usually directed toward rival gangs, or members of the same age and sex as the gang members who are regarded as an intruder to the neighborhood of territory. Fighting can also occur within the gang, such as during initiation or battles over rank. With the exception of initiations, intra-gang fights are set up as one-on-one. Rules such as “no hitting in the face or groin” are also placed before the fight begins. Individual fights
over respect occur when the usage of the street code leads to the escalation of a situation rather than equilibrium. If one feels dishonored by another person’s taunting, or by the flaunting of financial success (such as wearing a suit, etc.), that individual is a potential target. Sometimes people will fight even if they are not encouraged to, because they are “not just going for street but feel they are street— they want all situations to be street situations, because these are situations in which they shine” i. Fights as entertainment stretch across class lines, the difference is that entertaining fights within the middle and elite classes are those of professional sports such as boxing. In the inner city, the fighting is underground, but just as in professional fighting gambling often accompanies the event as people place bets on the fighter they believe has the best chance of winning.
The fighters thus become local celebrities, just as professional fighters can become worldwide celebrities. Drug business violence arises because the business itself is illegal, and thus cannot be protected or regulated by the law. Drug “violence occurs in several forms of self-regulation of business: turf wars, competition for customers in a particular location; deals gone bad, which is to say transactions in which one party or the other was dissatisfied with the quality or delivery of goods or payment; enforcement of discipline in a business hierarchy, such as higher level distributors making sure that lower level dealers pass along the money they have collected, or they do not steal consigned drugs…Drug violence occurs in a quasi-predictable way, as part of the operation of an organization; if certain things happen, deadly violence aimed at particular offenders is predictable” i. Finally, stickups are often the most unpredictable of the five types of violence. The best way to avoid falling victim would be to avoid wearing expensive clothing or otherwise giving any other impression that one is in possession of a lot of money. Stickups usually involve no more than a few people, mostly because they involve deception and planning and the loot must be shared among the participants. Stickups are condemned even within the black inner city because it is arguably the most invasive form of theft and/or violence.
The street code is a primary tool used to deter violence, but “there are occasions in which the staging is done badly, or done too well, and what starts as a dramatic show becomes the real thing” i. Perhaps the only flaw in conflict theory is that the people who need to know about it the most are often uneducated. Capitalist society has condemned conflict theory and communism so much that the masses avoid learning about it in an attempt to assimilate with the elite class. Only by informing the masses of the conspiracy that is exploitation will the masses be able to take responsible action toward making society truly better for all people. When the people recognize conflict theory, the flaws of conflict theory will be diminished. As Du Bois stated, education is the key to uplifting the oppressed. Perhaps Marx’s prediction will come true, and the proletariat’s time will come.