As family units are inevitable complex, so too do varying sociological theories apply. Social Action, Symbolic Interaction, and Exchange Theories each provide perspectives on how and why family members negotiate their relationships, just as they also overlap because the family, large or small, inherently involves a range of strategies and behaviors reliant upon one another. At the same time, however, it may be argued that Conflict Theory most effectively clarifies family dynamics, and because the expansive nature of the theory incorporates elements of the others, and focuses on both the negative and beneficial aspects of conflict as innate within virtually all families. In the typical family, conflict is inevitable in a variety of forms, from the intergenerational to the marital, and it powerfully influences how family members both interact and address issues relevant to all. As the following supports, the multifaceted nature of the family is most clarified through the application of Conflict Theory.
Conflict Theory, to begin with, is applicable to virtually all groups and organizations, as well as all societal interactions. This is theory largely centered on competition for resources and how differing degrees of power enable or deny access to resources (Allen, Henderson, 2016, p. 43). As is evident, then, conflict ensues within the competitive processes. It must be recognized, however, that such processes are by no means restricted to organizations, commercial or otherwise. Resources encompass an inestimable number of elements, as emotional support, pragmatic means of assisting others, and providing of protection are resources as well. This then reinforces how conflict invariably exists within a family, just as any denial of, or dissatisfaction with, those resources must generate conflict between family members. There is no escaping the reality that any family is defined by the relationships within it; these dictate how interactions play out, and how individual roles are created and promoted as correct. Human beings, however, are often prone to resistance. More to the point, it is usual that children, entering into adolescence and developing new senses of autonomy, will be in conflict with parents reliant upon their own, established authority. This reality is so typically in place, in fact, it has led to an extension of the primary theory as Generational Conflict Theory. Interestingly, this dimension of conflict goes beyond the personal, as financial resources greatly influence the relationships between parents and maturing children, and parents as addressing realities of their own, elderly parents (Elmelech, 2008, p. 90). In these situations, conflict is exacerbated because of control factors. For example, the parent objecting to the child’s increasingly independent behaviors is usually empowered to curtail these by means of withholding resources of money and usage of the family’s vehicles. Similarly, elderly parents may seek to maintain power through negotiating financial legacies with their adult children.

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There are as well rivalries and behaviors within the family removed from pragmatic resource control and access. It often happens, for example, that siblings compete for parental favor, which in turn generates conflict within the parents’ relationship. The mother may favor one child, which promotes compensatory behavior from the father to the less favored child. Then, sibling rivalry is by no means the only conflict within the parent/child interaction. Extensive evidence exists supporting that the individual child with a difficult temperament is likely to generate negative parenting styles (Yu, Gamble, 2008, p. 762). Without question, the nature of any familial relationship is exponential, in that action and reaction combine to create shifting – or sometimes stable – understandings and roles. It is easy to neglect the importance of how the family member is both an individual with their own needs and perspectives, and one reliant to an extent on the various forms of support within the family, which also encourages a sense of personal identity. Problems within the single family member, then, impact on the whole, and usually in the context of conflict.

At the same time, however, Conflict Theory also emphasizes how the interactions of conflict may generate positive change. Conflict, no matter the degree, is still an interactive process. As the family members engage in it, then, they have opportunities to perceive thinking and feeling they may have not considered, and consequently be motivated to alter the relationships and dynamics in advantageous ways (Allen, Henderson, 2016, p. 51). As may be obvious, any such progress in the family relies upon some receptivity in those conflicted, and genuine ambitions to enhance the quality of the family as a whole. Conflict Theory then encompasses opportunities, just as these opportunities pertain to structural changes, symbolic interactions, and exchanges of resources based on negotiation efforts. In plain terms, families consistently evolve, negatively or positively. When the family members perceive that conflict need not be adverse, they are then equipped to employ conflict as an instrument enabling growth.

The inherent nature of the family as inevitably complex reinforces how any single theory is not fully adequate in addressing the dynamics and variables. The family is both collective and individual, and the latter component influence, and is influenced by, the former. Conflict then typically exists to some degree, but this may be turned to the family’s advantage. Provided those interacting invest in an authentic dialogue, the conflict enables progress for all concerned. This being the case, Conflict Theory strongly applies, as it also incorporates aspects of other sociological theories regarding exchange, symbolic interaction, and structure. Ultimately, as has been discussed, the complicate nature of the family is best clarified and enhanced through the application of Conflict Theory.

  • Allen, K. R., & Henderson, A. C. (2016). Family Theories: Foundations and Applications.
    Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Elmelech, Y. (2008). Transmitting Inequality: Wealth and the American Family. Lanham, MD:
    Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Yu, J. J., & Gamble, W. C. (2008). Pathways of influence: Marital relationships and their
    association with parenting styles and sibling relationship quality. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 17(6), 757-778.