Conflict and integration

In Joseph Tainter’s description of complex societies (Tainter, 1988) he refers to a common dichotomy or distinction between two perspectives or schools of describing the development of our societies that I find very useful in many current debates. These perspectives are referred to as the conflict perspective and the integration or functionalist perspective and the distinction may be as old as the description of civil society itself.

“In essence, conflict theory asserts that the state emerged out of the needs and desires of individuals and subgroups of a society. The state, in this view, is based on divided interests, on domination and exploitation, on coercion, and is primarily a stage for power struggels. […] The state serves, thus, to maintain the privileged position of a ruling class that is largely based on the exploitation and economic degradation of the masses.”

Examples of proponents of the conflict school according to Tainter are Marx, Engels, and more contemporary examples are found in postmodern approaches such as post-colonial and feminism/gender studies. The conflict or struggle can today be seen in analysis of the relation between men vs women, upper class vs working class, ethnic Westerners vs immigrants, urban vs rural, politicians/state vs citizens/individuals.

In contrast we have the integrationist view:

“Integrationist or functional theories suggest that complexity, stratification, and the state arose, not out of the ambitions of individuals or subgroups, but out of the needs of society.” The major elements of this approach are: a) shared, rather than divided, social interests; b) common advantages instead of dominance and exploitation; c) consensus, not coercion; and d) societies as integrated systems rather than as stages for power struggles.”

From this perspective society and the development of all its aspects is mainly seen as a consequence of the outer conditions such as food production, competition and warfare with other societies, or as a way for achieving an optimal development as a whole. Proponents of the integrationist view are, according to Tainter, Spencer, Sumner, Durkheim, Moret, Davy, and Service. Please note that I’m not a sociologist so I can’t really verify Tainter’s examples here in detail. Nevertheless I would argue that “my field” of adult development psychology and also integral theory according to Ken Wilber lean towards the integrationist side. This since society and the culture provide support for the individual’s development in contrast to e.g. Freudian view where the individual is in conflict with the cultural demands.

Either schools or perspectives have strong and weak points and, needless to say, neither of them should be elevated to represent the true nature of a society. But instead of elaborating those, let’s give an example from the gender equality debate.

According to the conflict school (mainstream feminism and gender studies) we live in a patriarchy where gender roles were created in order for the male gender role to oppress the female. The main focus is on questions about power and inequality between the genders. From this perspective women traditionally have been kept at home so that men can dominate the public sphere and gaining all the politic and economic power.

The view on the creation of gender roles from the integrationist school gives at hand that they are fundamentally a result of the nature of reproduction, food production and war waging. Women are kept at home for the main reason that men are stronger and more expendable. It is for a society, as a whole, functional to sacrifice men and keep women safe, a view that is argued by e.g. Warren Farrell in the USA and Pelle Billing in Sweden where my experience is derived.

The dichotomy of the conflict and integrationist perspectives refers to views on society as a whole, but a reason I find it useful is that it can be applied to social interactions at various levels, such as analysis of economy and debt, organizations, families, relations, psychology etc. It can be useful to reveal blind spots, for example the case of gender studies in Swedish academia. As I said, I’m not a sociologist, so please correct me if I’m wrong.


Tainter, J. A. (1988) The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge university press, GB.

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5 Responses to Conflict and integration

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  5. Joakim Grundh says:

    Hi Kristian,

    I want to contest the description of the conflict theory, or at least that Marx/Engels are best described as having that position.
    And I think my reasoning for this will apply on some of the feminist/gender theory also.

    To begin with Marx propose a materialistic historicity, so the base explanation are not that of conflict. Our needs satisfaction, as seen in technology and contextual nature, on the material plane are founding the analytic position. So the competition only come in to the picture, i.e class struggle, when the surplus of society gives complexity and a state is developed. It is true that the state are defined as suppression of one class of another. But this should be seen as a structural suppression and not as an intentional suppression. This goes back to the master-slave dialectics of Hegel.

    Therefore what is said is not that class stand against class, as gender and feminist movements now often don’t say it is men vs women, but that every member of a class/gender gets defined by that social construct before creating themselves individually as part of the whole of the humankind.

    So in my view these analytic traditions are reduced, or reified, by a lack of understanding of the models and therefore are seen as “conflicting” perspectives. We should rather look at ideas like the “union of opposites” to understand these kind of reasoning’s. Because that is what is the ground for the dialectical approaches of Marx, and the tradition he might say be head of, and gives similarities in feminism/gender. And maybe we should ask for a more careful popularization of these quite complex models.