Sociology Index

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What Is Conflict Theory?

Conflict theory by Karl Marx is a theory that society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources. Conflict theory holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than consensus and conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, by suppressing the poor and powerless. A basic premise of conflict theory is that individuals and groups within society will work to maximize their own benefits. Conflict theory has been used to explain a range of social phenomena, including wars, revolutions, poverty, discrimination, and domestic violence. Conflict theory ascribes most of the fundamental developments in human history, such as democracy and civil rights, to capitalistic attempts to control the masses, not the desire for social order. Central tenets of conflict theory are the concepts of social inequality, the division of resources, and the conflicts that exist between different socioeconomic classes.


Societal conflicts throughout history can be explained using the central tenets of conflict theory. Some theorists, including Marx, believe that societal conflict is the force that ultimately drives change and development in society. Karl Marx’s version of conflict theory focused on the conflict between two primary classes. Each class consists of a group of people bound by mutual interests and a certain degree of property ownership. Marx theorized about the bourgeoisie, a group of people that represented members of society who hold the majority of the wealth and means. The proletariat is the other group, which includes those considered working class.


With the rise of capitalism, Karl Marx theorized that the bourgeoisie, a minority within the population, would use their influence to oppress the proletariat, the majority class. This way of thinking is tied to a common image associated with conflict theory models of society. People who subscribe to this philosophy believe in a pyramid arrangement in terms of how goods and services are distributed in society. At the top of the pyramid is a small group of elites that dictate the terms and conditions to the larger portion of society because they have outsized amount of control over resources and power.

Distribution within society was predicted to be maintained through ideological coercion, and the bourgeoisie would force acceptance of the current conditions by the proletariat. Conflict theory assumes that the elite will set up systems of laws, traditions, and other societal structures in order to further support their own dominance so that others don't join their ranks. Karl Marx theorized that, as the working class and poor were subjected to worsening conditions, a collective consciousness would raise more awareness about inequality, and this would potentially result in revolt. If conditions were adjusted to favor the concerns of the proletariat, the conflict circle would eventually repeat but in the opposite direction. The bourgeoise would eventually become the aggressor and revolter, craving for the return of the structures that formerly maintained their dominance. In the current conflict theory, there are four primary assumptions which are helpful to understand, which are competition, revolution, structural inequality, and war.

Conflict theorists believe that competition is a constant and an overwhelming factor in nearly every human relationship and interaction. Competition exists as a result of the scarcity of resources, including material resources like money, property, commodities, and more. Beyond material resources, individuals and groups within a society also compete for intangible resources as well. These can include leisure time, dominance, social status, sexual partners, and so on. Conflict theorists assume that competition is the default, rather than cooperation.

Given conflict theorists' assumption that conflict occurs between social classes, one outcome of this conflict is a revolution. The idea is that change in a power dynamic between groups does not happen as the result of a gradual adaptation. It comes about as the symptom of conflict between these groups. Changes to a power dynamic are often abrupt and large in scale, rather than gradual and evolutionary.

The assumption of conflict theory is that human relationships and social structures all experience inequalities of power. Some individuals and groups inherently develop more power and reward than others. Because of this, those individuals and groups that benefit from a particular structure of society work to maintain those structures as a way of retaining and enhancing their power.

Conflict theorists see war as either a unifier or as a "cleanser" of societies. In conflict theory, war is the result of a cumulative and growing conflict between individuals and groups, and between entire societies. In the context of war, a society may become unified in some ways, but conflict still remains between multiple societies. War may also result in the wholesale end of a society.

Karl Marx viewed capitalism as part of a historical progression of economic systems. He believed capitalism was rooted in commodities, or things that are purchased and sold. For example, he believed that labor is a type of commodity. Because laborers have little control or power in the economic system as they don’t own factories or materials, and their worth can be devalued over time. This can create an imbalance between business owners and their workers, eventually leading to social conflicts. Karl Marx believed these problems would eventually be fixed through a social and economic revolution.

Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist, adopted many aspects of Marx's conflict theory, and later, further refined some of Karl Marx's idea. Weber believed that conflict over property was not limited to one specific scenario. Rather, he believed that there were multiple layers of conflict existing at any given moment and in every society. Whereas Marx framed his view of conflict as one between owners and workers, Weber also added an emotional component to his ideas about conflict. Weber said: "It is these that underlie the power of religion and make it an important ally of the state; that transform classes into status groups, and do the same to territorial communities under particular circumstances...and that make 'legitimacy' a crucial focus for efforts at domination."

Max Weber's beliefs about conflict extend beyond Karl Marx's because they suggest that some forms of social interaction, including conflict, generate beliefs and solidarity between individuals and groups within a society. In this way, an individual's reactions to inequality might be different depending on the groups with which they are associated; whether they perceive those in power to be legitimate; and so on.

Conflict theorists of the later 20th and 21st centuries have continued to extend conflict theory beyond the strict economic classes posited by Marx, although economic relations remain a core feature of the inequalities across groups in the various branches of conflict theory. Conflict theory is highly influential in modern and post-modern theories of sexual and racial inequality, peace and conflict studies, and the many varieties of identity studies that have arisen across Western academia in the past several decades.

Conflict theorists point to the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent bank bailouts as good examples of real-life conflict theory, according to authors Alan Sears and James Cairns in their book A Good Book, in Theory. They view the financial crisis as the inevitable outcome of the inequalities and instabilities of the global economic system, which enables the largest banks and institutions to avoid government oversight and take huge risks that only reward a select few.

Sears and Cairns note that large banks and big businesses subsequently received bailout funds from the same governments that claimed to have insufficient funds for large-scale social programs such as universal health care. This dichotomy supports a fundamental assumption of conflict theory, which is that mainstream political institutions and cultural practices favor dominant groups and individuals.

This example illustrates that conflict can be inherent in all types of relationships, including those that don't appear on the surface to be antagonistic. It also shows that even a straightforward scenario can lead to multiple layers of conflict.