Essay on Conflict Theory in "A Class Divided"

Paper Type:  Essay
Pages:  5
Wordcount:  1196 Words
Date:  2022-04-07


Modern societies are characterized by inequality in various dimensions. People have varied social, personal, and economic abilities, making the society a stratified block. This stratification can, however, be harnessed to reinforce unity in diversity. Unfortunately, the society does not value what diversity presents to the society. As a result, there is division and prejudice that stems from this inequality and diversity (Brief et al., 2005). Racism, for instance, is a construct of diversity that exists in the society. Some groups in the community feel privileged for possessing a certain eye or skin color and hence discriminate against the "OTHERS." Racism is a NEGATIVE SANCTION that usually places a certain community at a disadvantaged position to exploit their full potential. Racist supremacists often develop connotations with which they label the others. This LABELING creates a GENERALIZED OTHER CLASS that finds itself discriminated against on various social entitlements. Labeling begins with associating people of a certain class with inferior characteristics. The label then sticks to every individual possessing this characteristic thus creating a STEREOTYPE. The members of the generalized other INTERNALIZE the label and feel inferior due to the tag.

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In "A Class Divided," Mrs. Elliot, a third grade teacher labels children with brown eyes as inferior on the first day of her experiment, and those with blues eyes as inferior on the second. Suddenly, the children who were previously united begin discriminating against each other based on their tags. On the first day, the brown-eyed children miss all their entitled provisions like lunch, playtime, and playing resources. They feel gloom and disheartened especially because they have a blue ribbon around their necks. On the second day, the children exchange tags and the blue-eyed children tie the ribbons around their necks. They, too, miss an opportunity to use the playground and have less time for lunch and tea. Mrs. Elliot gives real-life examples to reinforce her label on each class of pupils. For example, she relates one of the boy's behaviors in class to his eye color, and all the other children find sense in this correlation. In the documentary, Mrs. Elliot is invited to a prison to conduct a similar experiment to adults - the prison employees. These adults behave the same way as the children did in an earlier exercise, sometimes exchanging derogatory sentiments among themselves and Mrs. Elliot. Here, too, Mrs. Elliot employs personal behavior to reinforce labeling (Frontline, 1985).

There are various social psychology concepts that come out clear from the experiments by Mrs. Elliot. One, negative sanction and stereotyping creates a SUBCULTURE with defined attributes, BELIEFS, and GROUP DYNAMICS. This subculture supersedes individual behaviors and attitude. The members of this subculture tend to behave commonly regardless of their economic and social backgrounds. For example, the second experiment bred sharply divided COHORTS. The prison workers were people from all races but only two eye color variants. In this exercise, the members of each group did not identify themselves based on skin tone but eye color. The brown eyed colored wanderers felt superior to their blue-eyed counterparts despite their skin color. On the other side, the blue-eyed prison wanderers felt inferior especially due to SELF-PRESENTATION of some members of their group.

A subculture that results from stereotyping is detrimental to the society. The development of the "MODEL MINORITY" concept exemplifies how labeling can affect academics and socialization. In the American culture, Asian minorities distinguish themselves as achievers in many fields that are historically reserved for the Whites. However, this assertion is a stereotype that does not apply to all Asian-Americans. Children born to Asian-Americans, therefore, find themselves struggling to keep up with the stereotype despite their individual challenges. Some of them explain how they struggle to keep up with the expectations of their parents and the cost they have to pay for that (Cheryan & Bodenhausen, 2000).. In "A Class Divided", this illustration is evident in the experiment with adults. Since the brown-eyes wanderers are stereotypically superior to their blue-eyed colleagues, they strain to maintain the positive characteristics associated with their group.

In addition to the creation of different subcultures, STEREOTYPING denies people their due rights and freedoms. In the first experiment, for example, all pupils were entitled to sufficient playtime and the use of playground facilities. When Mrs. Elliot denied some children their rights, none of them strived to reclaim them despite their group affiliation. In the same manner, PREJUDICE results in the denial of rights and the propagation of injustice. Due to societal inclination of the affected individuals, they lack the power and the will to ask for their rights. It, therefore, takes the efforts of activism groups to empower the prejudiced people to fight for their rights. The abolition of slavery, women suffrage, and social equality are the fruits of the long struggle by activists to entrench social justice and eliminate discrimination of some groups.

Conflict theory is the best sociological perspective to explain the observed effects of discrimination based on visible characteristics. In conflict theory, members of the society struggle to assert their influence, power, and might to the detriment of others. Typical conflict in the history of modern society is observable in the class struggle explained by Karl Mark in the Communist Manifesto. Marx gives an account of the acrimony that arises as various CLIQUES in the society struggle to outdo each other economically and politically (Marx and Engels, 2009). In one phase of the struggle, the lower class lives as subjects of laws dictated by the upper class. In both of Mrs. Elliot's experiments, the group that feels superior calls names and tags its counterpart with negative attributes. One blue-eyed third-grader insults his brown-eyed classmate who responds with a fight. Further, the brown-eyed prison wanderers generalize their blue-eyed collages as arrogant and indecent due to the behavior of a single blue-eyed prison wanderer. According to Karl Marx, conflict ensues when each class of the society fights to attain a higher STATUS than the other. The blue-eyed children, for instance, attempted insults and mockery to assert their supremacy in the class. They used both NON-VERBAL cues and BODY LANGUAGE for this purpose.


In conclusion, negative labeling of individuals or groups is an important social phenomenon that results in stereotypes and prejudice by extension. This was the finding of two experiments by a teacher cum sociologist Jane Elliot. The teacher used her position of influence to create a stereotype among two contrasting groups and observed the outcomes. Stereotyping creates a subculture, one of them being the model minority in the United States. The observed outcomes in Mrs. Elliot's experiments are an example of conflict theory of sociology that explains the cause and effect of prejudice.


Brief, A. P., Umphress, E. E., Dietz, J., Burrows, J. W., Butz, R. M., & Scholten, L. (2005). Community Matters: Realistic Group Conflict Theory and the Impact of Diversity. Academy of Management Journal, 48(5), 830-844.

Cheryan, S., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2000). When Positive Stereotypes Threaten Intellectual Performance: The Psychological Hazards Of "Model Minority" Status. Psychological Science, 11(5), 399-402.

Frontline. (1985). A Class Divided. Retrieved from:
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2009). The Economic And Philosophic Manuscripts Of 1844 And The Communist Manifesto. Prometheus Books.

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