Conflict Theory and Education: A Case Study at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work

Cameron Brown


This article presents the need for graduate schools of social work to provide new pedagogical models that will help to address the growing disparity between the small number of Spanish©\speaking social workers and the growing number of Spanish©\speaking clients in the United States. From the standpoint of conflict theory, social workers are called upon to resist the social reproduction of an elite class of social workers who cannot communicate effectively with the Spanish©\speaking population of this country. Recruiting bilingual individuals into social work programs has not proved sufficient in meeting this great need for bilingual workers. Graduate schools of social work must apply conflict theory in innovative ways in order to produce social workers who can resist the systemic oppression and subordination of Spanish©\speaking Latinos into perpetual lower©\ status in society. A case study of a certificate program at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work which includes Spanish language and cultural competency training for social work students is analyzed and put forth as a positive development in the resistance of social work educators to the perpetuation of social hierarchies by social workers themselves.


The educational system in the United States is a complex bureaucracy that is more successfully navigated by some than others, and various theories on education have been developed in an effort to further analyze and understand the purpose, outcomes, and stratification which exist in education today. For social workers who are committed to achieving social justice for disadvantaged populations, conflict theory proves the most applicable theory for understanding the implications of education in contemporary American society. An understanding of conflict theory is essential to best serving oppressed communities whose opportunities in the educational system have been limited due to the discriminatory practices of the dominant culture. An analysis of conflict theory and its application to the current issue of immigration and language in American education and society reveals the need for social work advocacy in the educational system at large as well as in graduate schools of social work. A case study at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work provides a model of reform that schools of social work may utilize in order to train new social workers to work competently with disadvantaged immigrant populations, particularly Spanish©\speaking immigrants from Central and South America.

Conflict theorists in education argue that schools create and sustain inequity in society by creating a ¡°false consciousness¡± that causes students to internalize their lower status and buy into the myth that they have failed through a lack of merit rather than a lack of opportunity (Ballantine & Spade, 2008). Conflict theorists argue that teaching this false consciousness, a concept which stems from the literature and in©\ sights of Karl Marx, is the primary aim of the institution of school. By inserting a false consciousness into their student bodies, schools guide each student to an understanding of his or her ¡°place¡± or ¡°status culture¡± in society, which in turn becomes a self©\fulfilling prophecy. Although Marx¡¯s idea of status culture was originally based on the socioeconomic oppression of the poor, Max Weber later adapted this idea beyond the conflict of economic status to apply more generally to the power statuses of and conflicting interests between different groups in society (Ballantine & Spade, 2008). Collins (1971) argues that there is more support for conflict theory in education than functional theory because, ¡°beyond the provisions of mass literacy… shifts in the proportions of more skilled and less skilled jobs do not account for the observed increase in the education of the American labor force¡± (p. 1007). In other words, the skills needed for employment have not grown consistently with the increased amount of education acquired by the American public over time, and thus the relationship between education and employment is not one of functional necessity, but is a strategic relationship set up by the dominant culture in order for its members to maintain their elite status in society. Although conflict theory is criticized for its macro©\level focus and lack of attention to individual interactions that create this inequity, its breadth takes into account large©\scale problems that would be missed if one were only to examine the daily social interactions of individuals, as micro©\level interaction theorists do (Ballantine & Spade, 2008).

After Marx and Weber¡¯s earlier work established the basic criterion for conflict theory in society and education, conflict theory branched out into several other areas of theory, including the concepts of social reproduction and social and cultural capital, as well as theories of resistance and credentialism. Credentialism is consistent with Collins¡¯ aforementioned argument that higher education is a tool for the elite class to maintain their higher status, and social reproduction is the way the school system socializes lower©\status groups to learn their position as part of the working class, thus upholding the hierarchical, capitalist system that the elites depend upon (Collins, 1971). Central to social reproduction theory are Bourdieu¡¯s concepts of social and cultural capital, referring to the ¡°social resources students bring to their education and future engagement in school or community¡± and the ¡°cultural practices, including Lanaguage patterns and experiences. . . that provide knowledge of middle and upper©\class culture¡± (Ballantine & Spade, 2008, p. 15). Through social and cultural capital, middle and upper©\class students are able to maintain and reproduce their elite status for the next generation, and lower©\class groups are continuously subordinated to the position of working class. As social and cultural capital is transmitted, lower©\status groups have little opportunity to change the stratification of the educational system. However, resistance theorists argue that ¡°teachers and students are not passive participants in the school process, and . . . they do not always follow the expectations that result in social reproduction¡± (Ballantine & Spade, 2008, p. 16). Resistance theory implies more hope for changing the educational system, suggesting that students can resist their socialization into lower©\status groups and that teachers and other school staff can empower students to do so.

A theoretical framework focusing on resistance theory with a foundation in conflict and social reproduction theories provides the most salient basis for explaining the functions of the educational system today and the prospects of changing it so that lower©\status groups have equal opportunity for mobility. One particular problem in the mobility of lower©\status groups in education today is that of language. This applies to both immigrant English Learners as well as to native speakers of English who do not conform to the pattern or dialect of the dominant culture. Because status groups generally have a common culture in terms of ¡°styles of language,¡± lower©\status groups¡¯ use of language is deemed inferior and therefore is incongruent with social mobility (Collins, 1971, p. 1009). Specifically, the use of language as an indicator of a group¡¯s status is particularly harmful to the increasing number of English Language Learner students and monolingual Spanish©\speaking immigrant families who come to the United States in search of upward mobility. In this country, ¡°other languages¡± are positioned in relation to English,¡± and therefore a lack of English proficiency is commonly viewed as a ¡°barrier . . . [and] as a personal deficit¡± (Harrison, 2007, p. 6). This Anglo©\centric view promotes the maintenance of a dominant, monolingual, English©\speaking culture and minimizes the social and cultural capital that Spanish©\speaking students carry with them into the school setting, thus situating them up to be socioeconomically oppressed. English©\language dominance imposes numerous difficulties upon minority and immigrant cultures and ultimately results in a lesser accumulation of social and cultural capital for students and families in these lower©\status groups. According to Dornbusch and Stanton©\ Salazar¡¯s (1995) study of social and cultural capital for Mexican©\origin high school students, ¡°because of language and cultural barriers, many immigrants are denied opportunities to acquire valued institutional support¡ªeven when their consciousness and their efforts may reflect and pay tribute to American ideals of hard work and material success¡± (p. 131).

In American society today, this devaluation of the ¡°other¡± is a discriminatory practice that cannot be ignored, especially as the number of Spanish©\speaking residents in the United States continues to grow. In 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated 38.8 million or 13.4 percent of the population to be Hispanic, and within that population, about 4.4 million households or 11.9 individuals were considered linguistically isolated, which refers to families that have no members over the age of fourteen that are English proficient (Kilty & Vidal de Haymes, 2007). A large proportion of these families live in poverty due to racial oppression and discriminatory immigration laws that negatively affect their opportunities for upward mobility. Additionally, their lack of ¡°weak ties¡± or networking capacity with middle and upper©\class resources denotes minimal social and cultural capital and limits their progress in relation to the dominant group (Dornbusch & Stanton©\Salazar, 1995).

With a Latino population this large, it is negligent for the educational system and its teachers, administrators, and social workers to ignore the fact that many families do not receive equitable services due to their linguistic isolation. This difficult circumstance is exacerbated in school situations where students need special services, such as special education evaluations and placements. When special education professionals encounter monolingual Spanish©\ speaking families, the stress of an already©\ difficult situation is exacerbated and there is a greater likelihood that the outcome of such meetings will be inadequate or incomplete (Nystrom et. al., 1991). The implication is that social workers ¡°need to understand the inherent conflict that exists between educational institutions and monolingual Spanish©\speaking families . . . [to] make these initial interactions more efficacious¡± (Nystrom et. al., 1991, p. 1). An understanding of conflict theory and social reproduction theory will enable a social worker to resist participation in this pattern of inequality in schools and to help families resist the race©\based discrimination and social reproduction that immobilizes them and their children.

For social workers to work from a stance of resistance theory while aiding in the interactions of monolingual Spanish©\speaking families and educational institutions, two main criteria must be achieved: First, social workers must be culturally competent and sensitive towards their Spanish©\speaking clients, and second, they must be able to communicate with them. Although some might argue that translators can accomplish this second task, it is also important to consider how authentically one can relate to a client through an interpreter (Alter & Sisneros, 2009). It is also imperative that a child not be asked to serve as interpreter, as this may upset the family balance or established familial roles. This suggests that for a social worker, ¡°fluency in Spanish enhances the development of a stronger connection between the social worker and the family . . . [and] is a form of empowerment and institutional reciprocity¡± (Nystrom et. al., 1991, p. 4). A main function of social work is to connect clients to resources, and as gatekeepers to social and educational services, social workers with the ability to communicate in Spanish will help resist the oppression of lower©\status groups, especially monolingual Spanish©\ speaking clients. Clients are disempowered when they are linguistically marginalized, so they tend to have less trust in institutions, and this further limits their ¡°weak ties¡± and ability to connect with networks and resources. Conversely, monolingual Spanish©\speaking clients can be empowered by social workers who can effectively communicate with them and encourage their trust and connection to institutions.

A case study of the Social Work with Latinos Certificate program at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) provides an exemplary model for social workers seeking to work from a resistance theory perspective. In response to the need for social work programs to develop greater bilingual manpower, the University of Denver GSSW created a specialized 36©\quarter©\hour certificate program that prepares social work students for work with Latino communities and can be completed within the traditional two©\year time frame for Masters of Social Work (MSW) students. According to Alter and Sisneros (2009), this is one of three bilingual social work programs available in the United States, yet similar programs in the country have historically recruited only students, ¡°who were already fully bilingual . . . [which] today does not provide sufficient numbers of bilingual social workers needed by our schools, medical and mental health facilities, and family service agencies¡± (p. 12). The five central goals of the program are to teach students to develop historical and cultural understanding of Latinos, to advocate for Latinos at the policy level, to develop social welfare programs for Latinos, to provide direct service to Latino immigrants, and to be fluent in the Spanish language; fluency in Spanish is the most important aim of the program according to its designers. They accept students who have an intermediate or advanced level of Spanish to build upon during their two years in the program, and introductory level students outside of the certificate program also have the opportunity to take elementary level Spanish classes. The curriculum entails a basic Multicultural Social Work Practice course in the first year, followed by a summer of intensive language study and a month in Mexico to complete the Social Development in Mexico course. All summer study is subsidized by GSSW so students are not precluded from participating in the summer program due to issues of cost. In the second year, which is considered the concentration year, the certificate program students take their advanced practice courses in Spanish, participate in brown©\bag lunches with discussions in Spanish, and are placed in a field practicum with Spanish©\speaking clients that enable them to utilize and develop their Spanish skills at least fifty percent of the time (Alter & Sisneros, 2009).

The program for the Social Work with Latinos Certificate seeks to defy social reproduction through the application of resistance theory on two levels. First, as an educational institution, the GSSW at the University of Denver attempts to produce a new group of social workers who are both culturally and linguistically competent in working with Latinos, rather than reproducing the status quo of social work students, which would uphold an Anglo©\centric, monolingual English©\speaking culture. As opposed to viewing Latino clients as linguistically deficient, this program labels the norms of social work education put forth by the CSWE as deficient, thus actively resisting social reproduction by refusing to produce an elite group of social workers that are inaccessible to Spanish©\speakers. On a second level, the creation of a new class of Spanish©\speaking social workers attempts to defy social reproduction of their Spanish©\speaking clients in lower©\status groups by creating greater institutional connections that translate into social and cultural capital for these clients. In public schools, this institutional reciprocity will enhance institutional resources and connections for Latino students and their families, thus transforming the educational system into one that resists social reproduction of lower©\status minority groups.

The program creators at the GSSW purposefully operate in a critical theory framework in order to fight the prevalence of essentialism, or the attribution of a list of traits to all Latinos. They assert that, ¡°critical theory is based on the premise that, since the Latino population is actually composed of many groups linked together by oppression, they cannot be characterized by a list of individual traits . . . [which] moves the discussion from one based on race and culture to one based on oppression¡± (Alter & Sisneros, 2009, p. 5). In contrast to a positivist paradigm in which one would use rules and logic to assess the Latino population so that it could be objectively known, the critical theory framework implies that an objective assessment of Latinos would be based upon the inherent inequality and oppression built into their social relations with the dominant culture. In other words, a critical theorist paradigm would be more accurate in viewing the Latino population because it would view Latinos as, ¡°not only influenced by culture, but also by the interaction of culture with the oppressive societal structures of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability¡± (Alter & Sisneros, 2009, p. 6).

Unfortunately, as resistance theory implies, the program at the University of Denver GSSW faces some adversity in its endeavor to challenge the status quo of social work education and educational institutions that interact with Spanish©\ speaking Latino families. One complication they faced was the need to add courses beyond the number of credits required for the MSW program, resulting in a higher cost and potentially lower number of students willing or able to participate. Also, finding field placements where the students could speak Spanish with both clients and supervisors who were fluent in Spanish were minimal, so the program directors had to be flexible and seek Spanish©\speaking supervision that could be implemented outside of the agency. Third, garnering support of the provost and the faculty partners in the Spanish Department took much groundwork, and the school had to forgo revenue for the program¡¯s summer courses and settle on a ¡°break©\even budget.¡± According to Alter and Sisneros (2009), ¡°without the continued support of the provost and the personal dedication of Spanish Department faculty, our certificate program would not be possible¡± (p. 19). By choosing to resist social reproduction at the GSSW, the school faces greater challenges than other MSW programs, but also achieves greater influence in the fight for social justice for Latinos in the United States through building up a large base of bilingual social workers. Sadly, the seemingly rigid CSWE accreditation process and its simplistic focus on only cultural competence rather than language acquisition does not necessarily inspire more universities to attempt such brave resistance in their curriculum design (Alter & Sisneros, 2009).

The implications for social work education and practice are clear. For universities that truly espouse social justice and seek to defy social reproduction, programs like the Social Work with Latinos Certificate at the University of Denver GSSW provide an exemplary model of how to produce social workers that can authentically work with the large, growing Latino population and connect them to institutional resources. The University of Denver GSSW states that across all programs, their students serve a Latino population of about 31.8 percent (Alter & Sisneros, 2009); certainly Hunter College School of Social Work students work with at least this proportion of Latino clients, if not more¡ªthis student author currently has 33 Hispanic clients out of a total of 42 clients, or 78.5 percent. New trends in Latino settlement patterns also show an increase in Latinos living in suburban communities rather than the urban areas that they have historically inhabited; this points to the need for a cross©\national effort to increase the number of bilingual social workers available to serve in many areas of the country (Kilty & Vidal de Haymes, 2007, p. 107). With this goal in mind, schools of social work must begin to resist the process of social reproduction that is currently reinforced within their curriculum. MSW students who graduate with the ability to work bilingually and be culturally competent will function as an additional link for Latino youth and families, rather than as a barrier that preclude them from accessing the services that they deserve. If social justice for disadvantaged populations is truly a primary goal of MSW programs, reform will be necessary across the nation.


Ballantine, J. H., & Spade, J. Z. (2007). Getting started: Understanding education through sociological theory. In Ballantine, J. H., & Spade, J. Z. (Eds.). Schools and society: A sociological approach to education, third edition. California: SAGE Publications. Adapted from Social science theories on teachers, teaching, and educational systems. The new international handbook of teachers and teaching. New York: Springer.

Collins, R. (1971). Functional and conflict theories of educational stratification. American Sociological Review, 36(6), 1002©\1019.

De Haymes, M. V., & Kilty, K. M. (2007). Latino population growth, characteristics, and settlement trends: Implications for social work education in a dynamic political climate. Journal of Social Work Education, 43(1), 101©\116.

Harrison, G. (2007). Language as a problem, a right or a resource? A study of how bilingual practitioners see language policy being enacted in social work. Journal of Social Work, 7(1), 71©\92.

Martinez©\Brawley, E., & Zorita, P. M. (2007). Language, identity and empowerment: The case of Spanish in the southwest. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work: Innovation in Theory, Research & Practice, 15(1), 81©\95.

Nystrom, J. F., Medina©\Gutierrez, B., & Acosta, V. (1991). Spanish©\speaking families and the special education system: Analysis and guidelines for practitioners. Social Work in Education, 13(5), 328©\ 335.

Sisneros, J., & Alter, C. F. (2009). Educating social work students to practice in the Latino©\ immigrant community. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 18(1),1©\23.

Stanton©\Salazar, R., & Dornbusch, S. M. (1995). Social capital and the reproduction of inequality: Information networks among Mexican©\origin high school students. Sociology of Education, 68(2), 116©\135.


About the Author

Cameron Brown is a graduate of NYU, where she majored in Journalism and Art History. She received a Masters in Teaching from Pace University. For her first©\year placement she worked at Big Brother/Big Sister facilitating after©\school peer©\mentoring for adolescents. For her second©\ year placement she will participate in the Child Trauma Program. Her major method at HCSSW is Clinical Practice with Individuals and Families. Ms. Brown can be reached at

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