Conflict Theory

Conflict theorists are quick to point out that U.S. families have been defined as private entities, the consequence of which has been to leave family matters to only those within the family. Many people in the United States are resistant to government intervention in the family: parents do not want the government to tell them how to raise their children or to become involved in domestic issues. Conflict theory highlights the role of power in family life and contends that the family is often not a haven but rather an arena where power struggles can occur. This exercise of power often entails the performance of family status roles. Conflict theorists may study conflicts as simple as the enforcement of rules from parent to child, or they may examine more serious issues such as domestic violence (spousal and child), sexual assault, marital rape, and incest.

The conflict perspective views the family as a vehicle to maintain patriarchy (gender inequality) and social inequality in society. According to conflict theorists, the family works toward the continuance of social inequality within a society by maintaining and reinforcing the status quo. Because inheritance, education and social capital are transmitted through the family structure, wealthy families are able to keep their privileged social position for their members, while individuals from poor families are denied similar status.

Case Study D

Image of a family of three enjoy a breakfast of cereal, waffles, and muffins.

Conflict theorists have also seen the family as a social arrangement benefiting men more than women, allowing men to maintain a position of power. The traditional family form in most cultures is patriarchal, contributing to inequality between the sexes. Males tend to have more power and females tend to have less. Traditional male roles and responsibilities are valued more than the traditional roles done by their wives (i.e., housekeeping, child rearing). The traditional family is also an inequitable structure for women and children.

What might this young child be learning about household responsibilities of the mother and the father?

The first study of marital power was performed in 1960. Researchers found that the person with the most access to valued resources held the most power. As money is one of the most valuable resources, men who worked in paid labor outside of the home held more power than women who worked inside the home (Blood and Wolfe 1960). Even today, with more fluid family roles, conflict theorists find disputes over the division of household labor to be a common source of marital discord. Household labor offers no wages and, therefore, no power. Studies indicate that when men do more housework, women experience more satisfaction in their marriages, reducing the incidence of conflict (Coltrane 2000). In general, conflict theorists tend to study areas of marriage and life that involve inequalities or discrepancies in power and authority, as they are reflective of the larger social structure.

Pause to Reflect!

Discuss the following questions.

  1. How does the division of chores impact your household?
  2. How does the traditional household division impact a family’s relationships with schools or communities?

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