What Is Conflict Theory?

The conflict theory, suggested by Karl Marx, claims society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of 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. A basic premise of conflict theory is that individuals and groups within a society work to maximize their own benefits.

Key Takeaways

  • Conflict theory focuses on competition between groups within society over limited resources.
  • Conflict theory views social and economic institutions as tools of struggle between 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 between various social, religious, and other types of groups.

Understanding Conflict Theory

The 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.

Many types of conflicts can be described using conflict theory. Some theorists, including Marx, believe that inherent societal conflict drives change and development in society.

Class Conflicts

Marx’s conflict theory focused on the conflict between two primary classes. Each class consists of a group of people bound by mutual interests and a degree of property ownership, often supported by the state. 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. 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 which a small group of elites dictate terms and conditions to the larger portion of society, as a result of outsized control over resources and power.

Uneven distribution within society was predicted to be maintained through ideological coercion where the bourgeoisie would force acceptance of the current conditions by the proletariat. The thinking goes that the elite would 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 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.

Conflict Theory Assumptions

In current conflict theory, there are four primary assumptions which are helpful to understand: competition, revolution, structural inequality, and war.

Competition

Conflict theorists believe that competition is a constant and, at times, 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 many other factors as well. Conflict theorists assume that competition is the default, rather than cooperation.

Revolution

Given conflict theorists' assumption that conflict occurs between social classes, one outcome of this conflict is revolution. The idea is that change in a power dynamic between groups does not happen as the result of adaptation. Rather, it comes about as the effect 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.

Structural Inequality

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 from this, those individuals and groups that benefit from a particular structure of society tend to work to maintain those structures so as to retain and enhance their power.

War

Conflict theorists tend to see war as either a unifier or as a cleanser of societies. In conflict theory, war is the result of cumulative and growing conflict between individuals and groups and between whole 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’s Views on Capitalism

Marx viewed capitalism as part of the historical progress of economic systems, and believed that it was rooted in commodities, meaning 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 lead to social conflicts. He believed these problems would eventually be fixed through a social and economic revolution. 

Weber's Take

Max Weber adopted many aspects of Marx's conflict theory and further refined the 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. He stated: "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."

Weber's beliefs about conflict extend beyond Marx's in that 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.

Later Conflict Theorists

Conflict theorists of the later 20th and 21st centuries have continued to extend conflict theory beyond the strict economic classes posited by Marx, though 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, anticolonialism, peace and conflict studies, and the many varieties of identity studies that have arisen across Western academia in the past several decades.

Economic Applications

For example, 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 which may contribute to conflicts between tenants and the complex owner include the limited space within the complex, the limited number of units, the money which 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 a landlord he or she may be, is fundamentally focused on getting as many apartment units filled as possible so that he or she can make as much money in rent as possible. 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.

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.

These 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.