American thought is largely based on liberal enlightenment ideals, which portray society as a group of individuals who work together to promote rational thought and preserve individual liberties. Over time, this leads to a more egalitarian, humane and advanced society. Conversely, conflict theorists view society as an amalgamation of discrete groups who promote certain interests at the expense of other members of society. This leads to inequality that results in poverty, crime and other problems.
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Conflict theorists believe that education furthers social inequality. Basically, because community tax bases fund schools, students attending schools in wealthier areas have access to better quality teachers, newer textbooks and top-notch facilities. This prepares wealthier students for admission into elite colleges and top paying professions. On the other hand, students from poorer communities don't receive the same quality education. Expectations are lower and these students are often pushed into trade or vocational professions. According to conflict theorists, this educational inequality between social classes perpetuates poverty and a classist system.
Criminology is a branch of conflict theory that attempts to look at crime through the perspective of social class. Conflict theorists look at factors such as different ways punishment is meted out to the rich and poor, pointing out that white collar crimes including theft involving millions of dollars often get far lighter sentences than blue collar crimes such as the theft of food or electronics. Thus, economically disadvantaged people are punished far more severely for their crimes than the wealthier members of society. Taken to an extreme, radical criminologists view theft and revolt as positive forces toward societal change. Robbery and protest are viewed as a means of the poor regaining some of their rights and power from the wealthy.
Another branch of conflict theory is radical feminism. This view of conflict theory examines the differences in the way men and women are treated in a capitalistic society such as the one found in the United States. Radical feminists believe that male domination puts women at a social and economic disadvantage. They also suggest that women as a group are victimised by men, and must live under the constant threat of attacks and unwanted advances by male perpetrators. Further, women are often severely punished for any behaviour that disrupts the status quo.
Conflict theorists developed a new theoretical in the 1980s, called left realism. Left realists contend that the criminal justice system is skewed. Because both the victims and perpetrators of crime tend to come from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds, the crimes are largely ignored. Further, as crimes often occur between neighbours and relatives, the victims are often repeatedly preyed upon. However, left realists are not suggesting that crimes by the wealthy should be ignored, but rather that all crimes should be investigated and that justice should be equal regardless of the class of people involved.
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