Homelessness is a serious social issue facing both developed and developing economies. The central point of the current critical analysis is the acknowledgement that the problem needs effective socioeconomic policies in every country whether it is Australia or the United Kingdom or the United States. According to statistics, there were more than 500,000 homeless Americans (Henry, Shivji, de Sousa, & Cohen, 2015). According to the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to the Congress, 69% were living under residential programs, whereas 31% were found in unsheltered locations. The scenario is almost similar in Australia and the United Kingdom (Homelessness Australia, 2016). Inadequate affordable housing, couples with low pay, wages scale continue being cited as the drivers of homelessness in various cities. Social Conflict Theory considers social life as a competition. It centers on the distribution of power and resources, as well as social inequalities. Therefore, the social conflict reasoning characterizes social inequalities or class differences as consequence of the struggle for resources. In contrast to Functionalist Theory, Conflict Theory is suitable for explaining social change, but limited in the elucidation of social stability. For this reason, Conflict Theory is applicable in the understanding and formulation of policies and programs meant to mitigate social issues, particularly homelessness in the United States. The current paper critically analyses the concept of Social Conflict Theory and its application to understanding the homelessness social issues in the United States. The analysis divides the paper into two sections: review of the theory and application of the theory.
Social Conflict Theory Review
The ideas of the Conflict Theory are traced to Karl Marx, who perceived society as characterized by class conflict (Healy, 2005). The theory centers on the competition among social classes for resources. Typically, the upper class or capitalists are often in contention with those in lower classes, especially low-income workers, in an effort to maintain their wealth prestige and power. Such reasoning implies that the social class system is deep-rooted as people at the upper classes tend to control social institutions, including politics, education, the law, and religion (Payne, 2014). In the same context, they establish such social institutions to favor their values, positions, and heirs. The same reasoning applies to individuals or households belonging to the low classes, who have little to pass on to their heirs due to their disadvantaged positions. Instead of considering high prestige or high-income jobs as the main reward for an individual’s time and talents as Functionalist theorists consider (Healy, 2005), social conflict theorists note that majority of people in the unskilled jobs are pushed into low paying and highly dangerous forms of employment due to social inequality. The same applies to housing, where people are pushed to poor housing due to social inequality. In other words, poor educational and employment opportunities mark the homeless, which contrast the good opportunities afforded to the people in the high classes. In other words, if people in low wage jobs were given equal support and opportunity, many of them would perform in higher positions, translating into improved income, as well as the ability to pay for decent housing.
Sociologists critically analyze such social phenomenon as homelessness from different perspectives and at different levels. From solid interpretations to generalizations of the society, it is important to study the phenomenon from both micro- and macro-level perspective (Fawcett, 2013). As a pioneer, Karl Marx offered a wide-ranging conceptualization of the pillars of the society and its mechanization. However, his views still form the foundation of the modern day paradigms or theoretical perspectives, which offer an orienting framework for addressing certain questions or problems in the society. As per the interactionist perspective on homelessness, the homeless population comes from other socioeconomic groups due to transactions between the homeless and the individuals in economic classes that are financially more sound that the homeless individuals (Payne, 2014). In contrast, functionalist sociologists point that most of homeless individuals can actually support themselves or survive the hardships in their life. Therefore, homelessness is more of a social manifestation as it affects the entire society. For instance, homelessness forces government entities and other non-government entities to create jobs or opportunities that might improve the social conditions of everyone in the society. Besides the functionalist and the interactionist perspectives, modern day perspectives employ the conflict perspective, which provided a theoretical paradigm that is valuable in explaining the working of the society, as well as how the society affects people (Walsh, 2014). In contrast to the symbolic interactionism but similar to the functionalism sociological perspective, the conflict perspective analyzes social phenomena at the macro level.
The conflict perspective is linked to the work of Karl Marx regarding class struggles. Considering his work, Karl Marx highlighted that stratified societies have two key social groups: the ruling upper class and the lower class constituting subjects (Payne, 2014). Typically, the ruling upper class gains its power from the control and ownership of the forces of production. As the ruling class exploits the subjects, conflict of interest between the classes emerges. Some of the institutions in the society that are used as instruments of exerting dominance include the political and legal systems. As highlighted in the introduction, the perspective presents the society in more unique viewpoint than the interactionist and functionalist perspectives. While the other two perspectives emphasize the positive features of a society that contributed to its stability as one unit, conflict theorists focus on the dynamic and negative aspects of the society (Howe D. , 2009). In contrast to functionalist theorists who avoid social changes, defend status quo, and contend that members of a society should cooperate to induce change, conflict perspective encourages social change and challenges status quo. In the same context, the perspective requires change, which can be reached even by social revolution. Furthermore, conflict theorists contend that the few wealthy and powerful people in the society tend to force social order on the weak and poor (Beckett & Horner, 2016). For instance, conflict theorist may interpret the decision of a private college to raise tuition fee for new programs as self-serving, even if the owners defend their actions as a means of increasing the prestige of the college. The Conflict Theory gained popularity in the 1960s following the expansion of Karl Marx’s rationale that the main conflict in the society was economic in nature (Fawcett, 2013). In the present society, conflict theorists argue that social conflict virtually exists between groups with the potential for inequality, including gender, political, economic, and religious groups. In other words, unequal groups have conflicting agendas and values, leading to competition against each other. In that regard, the dynamic competition between groups creates the foundation for constantly changing aspect of society. Critics of the social Conflict Theory argue that it is a more negative perspective of the society than the other perspectives (Howe D. , 2009). However, conflict theory eventually attributes to altruism, civil rights, humanitarian efforts, democracy, and other desirable aspects of a free society to capitalistic practices to control the majority, and not to intrinsic interests in preserving social order.
Application of the Social Conflict Theory While Working with the Homelessness
Homelessness occurs when households or individuals are unable to maintain or acquire housing (Henry, Shivji, de Sousa, & Cohen, 2015). Understanding this problem requires an analysis of several social issues, including affordable housing, poverty, disabilities, and drug abuse among others. The application of various social theories is at the center of this analysis. However, the current section focuses on application of the social conflict theory. Homelessness is a global social problem that has forced sociologists, economists, and even politicians to probe the reasons behind its persistence, as well as the most effective approach towards solving it. While there may be various ways and perspectives regarding homelessness and the level at which it affects societies, there are a number of theoretical issues drawn from sociology that must be considered. According to sociologists, the possibility of an individual to become homeless is largely dependent on the conditions, including personal problems, and society-based causes (Teater, 2010). Personal problems, such as minimal education, mental instability, and substance abuse do not necessarily cause the problem of homelessness, as evident among individuals with similar problems have decent housing. There are three sociological viewpoints on homelessness: conflict, functionalist, and interactionist-based approaches.
From the Conflict Theory perspective, homelessness is a sign of imbalance of power in any capitalistic system (Lay & McGuire, 2010). In the present society, a small group of power elite individuals has created a society in a manner that gives them most of the advantages. Moreover, such advantages are largely motivated by the class driven choices and interests. For instance, a capitalistic firm would choose 5,000 employees instead of 10,000 as a measure of maximizing profits by reducing wage-based expenses. In this context, the decision to reduce jobs is largely influenced by the power elite’s desire to make profits irrespective of their actions on the society as a whole. Such impersonal decisions impact contributes to poverty and financial strain, as well as the resultant problems, such as unemployment and homelessness (Parrillo, 2008). The other argument that Conflict theorist may present while working with the homeless is that homelessness induces the creation of jobs. It is influenced by the functionalist mindset in the sense the whole social system is naturally configured to appease the disadvantaged members of the society by giving them support or aid for their development or empowerment (Neuman & Kreuger, 2006). Instead of changing the systems that contributes to such phenomenon as homelessness, people in power should strive to provide a power or status transition to the entities working in social welfare.
Undoubtedly, social inequality in the modern society is mold by growing social stratification (Howe, 1994). In other words, the inequality is mainly caused by the socially defined traits of an individual, including social class, ethnicity, age, and gender. Through the analysis of the impact of modern day social inequalities, the sociologists can have a deeper understanding of the experiences of homeless people. Alongside with critical analysis, social inequality can be quantified by the opportunities an individual has or the conditions people live in (Brookfield, 2009). It narrows to the social class as a metric of social inequality. For example, a social inequality, social classes in particular, can be a result of the housing conditions experienced by an individual. Actually, the homeless are at the bottom of such hierarchy. In such way, the given observation corresponds to the Critical Theory as it highlights that the homelessness and inequality are a result of the conditions induced by capitalistic practices. Logically, people can have good houses, if capitalistic entities develop decent and affordable housing units for their employees. To that extent, the pressure on the existing housing units would reduce. Instead, corporations focus on paying huge returns to few individuals owning the largest share of most companies. As of consequence, only few individuals are at the peak of this hierarchy. In case of most homeless peoples, they continues searching for employment in low-wage jobs due to minimal opportunities (Walsh, 2014). However, due to economic instability, majority of people is jobless, and they will continue sleeping in the streets only until they find meaningful jobs. For those individuals who have where to live, the condition of their houses is lower compared to the individuals above them in the social hierarchy. Furthermore, the social inequality created by the competing interests of the opposing social classes (uppers class and lower class) is directly linked to the nature of the available opportunities. For instance, an individual with a high level of education is much likely to be hired by capitalistic entities that an individual with little education and experience. As mentioned in the introduction, capitalistic individuals tend to ensure that their family members have the best possible education, thereby extending their advantages in terms of employment opportunities (Howe D. , 2009). In addition to the given analysis, the poor health status that characterizes most individuals in the lower social classes also limit their opportunities in life. Having bad hygiene or chronic medical conditions limits an individual’s opportunity to find a job, which, in its turn, contributes to homelessness. Expectedly, an ill man translates to reduced income in family. Consequently, it induces financial challenges that push people to the streets. In other words, capitalism limits resources that can be used to maintain health thus, increasing the difficulty of being hired. With house rents and prices rapidly rising, the unemployed are forced into more financial hardships, which eventually push them to the streets (Homelessness Australia, 2016).
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One of the strengths of social Conflict Theory is that it not only looks at homelessness as a social problem, but considers the causal factors as the problems. For instance, it coincides with the Conflict perspective to argue that the capitalistic motives are the problems that should be addressed to mitigate the problem of homelessness. Additionally, it is arguable that the persistence of the homeless problem is important not only due to the purported reluctance of the homeless individuals, but due to the existing capitalistic social classes, which have a tendency to oppress individuals who have limited opportunities to find good jobs and affordable housing. As of consequence, when the capitalists deny stable employment to the homeless or those vulnerable to homelessness, they maintain the social boundaries, which amplify the problem. In other words, the problem of homelessness becomes a product of conflict between social groups with different socioeconomic capabilities in the society.
Observably, the highlighted sociological perspectives regarding homelessness are limited in the context of explaining how various sociologists would consider homelessness due to its complexity and need for varied solutions. In other words, even the critical perspective fails to explain how individual’s situation causes homelessness. Additionally, the perspective considers the homeless as a single group, yet people undergo various stages. For example, homelessness can be transitional, episodic or chronic, with severity increasing in that order. Normally, individuals dealing with chronic and episodic occurrences of homelessness tend to be dealing with complex life issues. For these reasons, the Critical Theory would be more effective, if it draws a line between the different levels. Additionally, the theories should be used jointly to inform policies and programs meant to address homelessness as there is a need to focus on the structure of the society, as well as the connections between key social units. On the contrary, the conflict perspective focuses on the capitalistic group, which is a subset of groups that influence the organization of a society. Therefore, the perspective fails to consider major institutions, including religion, family, and education as important groups in the ostentatious logic. As a result, critical theory fails to acknowledge that the dynamics of the groups as compared to other societal groups, such as corporations and factories, are essential in the sociological analysis of a social problem.
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Homelessness is a social problem that affects even developed economies, including the UK, Australia, and the United Stated. However, the problem is best solved using local solutions. It follows that effective polies and programs must be informed by detailed socioeconomic and political understanding of the communities, in which the formulated policies and programs are implemented. Social Conflict Theory points that social life is challenging for distribution of power and resources, as well as an effort to address inequalities. Therefore, the Theory is not only effective in understanding social change and social issues, such as homelessness, but also applicable while working with homeless individuals. In summary, homeless individuals face many social inequalities that are largely induced by the capitalistic nature of the present day society. Therefore, an understanding of the Critical Theory is vital in the formulation of policies, programs, and approaches for addressing homelessness.