In terms of understanding human behavior and its constraints, nothing can be more opposite than consensus and conflict theory. Consensus theory stresses what social groups have in common, while conflict theory stresses the fact that different groups in have widely varying access to power and wealth. In fact, their primary stress is on completely opposite forms of human action, making these forms the center of all human society.
Most social theory has historically been based in notions of consensus. Not until the 18th-century revolutionary tradition did the essential idea of conflict take center stage. Writers such as Plato and Rousseau had stressed means of avoiding conflict by creating the ingredients for consensus. Only when Marxist, anarchist and racialist theories began to develop in the middle of the 19th century did notions of conflict replace those of consensus in social theory. According to such radical ideas, consensus was impossible unless differences in power and wealth were eliminated.
Consensus revolves around culture. Culture, in its most reductionist definition, is the norms by which the majority in a society have decided it is useful to operate. Defenders of culture hold that cultural norms exist because they have withstood the test of time and have proven themselves in the arena of history. Conflict theory attacks this approach by holding that culture itself is the creation of the privileged few.
Consensus theory seeks to determine what all people in a society have in common. This commonality becomes the center of the public persona of the society. The consensus approach stresses the fact that the reality of the consensus, that single public persona, must predate the actual articulation of that consensus. In other words, it is both a social reality and a means of understanding that reality. Conflict theory, on the other hand, seeks to determine who, why and how those with power have imposed specific aspects of culture on a society. According to conflict theory, culture is the means by which the powerful, who are those with wealth or social status, impose their will on society. Ultimately, the powerful hope to make “culture” seem like consensus, while in reality, it is the creation of the elite.
Both conflict and consensus theory have substantial difficulties. Conflict theory might be thought to lack an explanation for how consensus has been imposed on societies, and why it has been generally accepted sometimes for long periods. On the other hand, consensus writers can be accused of forgetting about how people in any given culture are divided from one another and have unequal access to the levers of power. The powerful have access to education, social prestige and wealth that gives them tremendous advantages in making sure their voice is heard above the rest.
Both consensus and conflict theories ultimately exist to promote a consensus. The real problem is what kind, and under what conditions. The conflict theorist, typically identified with some sort of socialism, believes in consensus as long as most people are equal. But it is also clear that only revolution and a revolutionary party can make this happen. Consensus theorists hold that history cannot be destroyed that easily, and that people's very identities derive from the traditional consensus that has existed for a long time. Revolution cannot change that.