Conflict theory, first developed 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 by consensus and conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless. A basic premise of conflict theory is that individuals and groups within society will work to try to maximize their own wealth and power.
- Conflict theory focuses on the competition among groups within society over limited resources.
- Conflict theory views social and economic institutions as tools of the struggle among groups or classes, used to maintain inequality and the dominance of the ruling class.
- Marxist conflict theory sees society as divided along lines of economic class between the proletarian working class and the bourgeois ruling class.
- Later versions of conflict theory look at other dimensions of conflict among capitalist factions and among various social, religious, and other types of groups.
Understanding Conflict Theory
Conflict theory has sought to explain a wide range of social phenomena, including wars, revolutions, poverty, discrimination, and domestic violence. It ascribes most of the fundamental developments in human history, such as democracy and civil rights, to capitalistic attempts to control the masses (as opposed to a desire for social order). Central tenets of conflict theory are the concepts of social inequality, the division of resources, and the conflicts that exist among different socioeconomic classes.
The central tenets of conflict theory can explain many types of societal conflicts throughout history. Some theorists believe, as Marx did, that societal conflict is the force that ultimately drives change and development in society.
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 that represented members of society who hold the majority of the wealthand means. The proletariat is the other group: It includes those considered working-class or poor.
With the rise of capitalism, 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-based models of society; adherents to this philosophy tend to 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 terms and conditions to the larger portion of society because they have an outsized amount of control over resources and power.
Uneven distribution within society was predicted to be maintained through ideological coercion; 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 while preventing others from joining their ranks.
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, after the revolt, conditions were adjusted to favor the concerns of the proletariat, the conflict circle would eventually repeat but in the opposite direction. The bourgeoisie would eventually become the aggressor and revolter, grasping for the return of the structures that formerly maintained their dominance.1
Conflict Theory Assumptions
Current conflict theory has four primary assumptions that are helpful to understand: competition, revolution, structural inequality, and war.
Conflict theorists believe that competition is a constant and, at times, an overwhelming factor in nearly every human relationship and interaction. Competition exists as a result of the scarcity of resources, including material resources—money, property, commodities, and more. Beyond material resources, individuals and groups within a society compete for intangible resources as well. These can include leisure time, dominance, social status, sexual partners, etc. 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 revolutionary event. The idea is that change in a power dynamic between groups does not happen as the result of a gradual adaptation. Rather, it comes about as the symptom of conflict between these groups. In this way, changes to a power dynamic are often abrupt and large in scale, rather than gradual and evolutionary.
An important assumption of conflict theory is that human relationships and social structures all experience inequalities of power. In this way, some individuals and groups inherently develop more power and reward than others. Following this, those individuals and groups that benefit from a particular structure of society tend to work to maintain those structures as a way of retaining and enhancing their power.
Conflict theorists tend to 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. On the other hand, war may also result in the wholesale end of a society.
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 (because they don’t own factories or materials), their worth can be devalued over time. This can create an imbalance between business owners and their workers, which can eventually lead to social conflicts. He believed these problems would eventually be fixed through a social and economic revolution.
Adaptations of Marx’s conflict theory
Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist, adopted many aspects of Marx’s conflict theory and later further refined some of Marx’s ideas. 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.”2
Weber’s beliefs about conflict extend beyond 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 early 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 postmodern 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.
Examples of Conflict Theory
Conflict theorists view the relationship between a housing complex owner and a tenant as being based mainly on conflict instead of balance or harmony, even though there may be more harmony than conflict. They believe that they are defined by getting whatever resources they can from each other.
In the above example, some of the limited resources that may contribute to conflicts between tenants and the complex owner include the limited space within the complex, the limited number of units, the money that tenants pay to the complex owner for rent, and so on. Ultimately, conflict theorists see this dynamic as one of conflict over these resources.
The complex owner, however gracious, is fundamentally focused on getting as many apartment units filled as possible so that they can make as much money in rent as possible, especially if bills such as mortgages and utilities must be covered. This may introduce conflict between housing complexes, among tenant applicants looking to move into an apartment, and so forth. On the other side of the conflict, the tenants themselves are looking to get the best apartment possible for the least amount of money in rent.
The financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent bank bailouts are 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 enable the largest banks and institutions to avoid government oversight and take huge risks that only reward a select few.3
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 healthcare.3 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.
What Is Conflict Theory?
Conflict theory is a sociopolitical theory that originated with Karl Marx. It seeks to explain political and economic events in terms of an ongoing struggle over finite resources. In this struggle, Marx emphasizes the antagonistic relationship between social classes, in particular the relationship between the owners of capital—who Marx calls the “bourgeoisie”—and the working class, which he calls the “proletariat.” Conflict theory had a profound influence on 19th- and 20th-century thought and continues to influence political debates to this day.
What Are Some Common Criticisms of Conflict Theory?
One common criticism of conflict theory is that it fails to capture the way in which economic interactions can mutually benefit the different classes involved. For example, conflict theory describes the relationship between employers and employees as one of conflict, in which the employers wish to pay as little as possible for the employees’ labor, while the employees wish to maximize their wages. In practice, however, employees and employers often have a harmonious relationship. Moreover, institutions such as pension plans and stock-based compensation can further blur the boundary between workers and corporations by giving workers an additional stake in the success of their employer.