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What is the 'Conflict Theory'

Conflict theory is a theory propounded by Karl Marx that claims society is in a state of perpetual conflict due to competition for limited resources. It 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, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless.

BREAKING DOWN 'Conflict Theory'

Conflict theory has been used to explain a wide range of social phenomena, including wars and revolutions, wealth and 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 rather than to a desire for social order. The theory revolves around concepts of social inequality in the division of resources and focuses on the conflicts that exist between classes.

Class Conflicts

Marx’s conflict theory focused on the conflict between two primary classes. The bourgeoisie represents the members of society who hold the majority of the wealth and means. The proletariat 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.

The uneven distribution within conflict theory was predicted to be maintained through ideological coercion where the bourgeoisie would force acceptance of the current conditions by the proletariat. Marx further believed that as the working class and poor were subjected to worsening conditions, a collective consciousness would bring the inequality to light and potentially result in revolt. If conditions were subsequently adjusted to address the concerns of the proletariat, the conflict circle would eventually repeat.

"A Good Book, in Theory"

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the subsequent bank bailouts are good examples of real-life conflict theory, according to authors Alan Sears and James Cairns in their novel “A Good Book, in Theory.” Conflict theory proponents view the financial crisis as the inevitable outcome of the inequalities and instabilities that plague Western societies, since the present structure of the global economic system 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.

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