Conflict theory

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In sociology, conflict theory states that society or an organization functions so that each individual participant and its groups struggle to maximize their benefits, which inevitably contributes to social change such as political changes and revolutions. The theory is mostly applied to explain conflict between social classes, proletariat versus bourgeoisie; and in ideologies, such as capitalism versus socialism.

While conflict theory successfully describes instances where conflict occurs between groups of people, for a variety of reasons, it is questionable whether this represents the ideal human society. Although some theorists, such as Karl Marx, have claimed that growth and development occur through the conflict between opposing parties, cooperation is also a source of healthy growth. It needs to be determined under which situations, if any, conflict is necessary to produce change, as compared to those under which cooperation and harmony lead to the greatest advances.

Conflict theory

The history of conflict theory can be traced back to thinkers such as Machiavelli or Thomas Hobbes, both of whom viewed humanity cynically. In its current form, conflict theory attempts to refute the functionalist approach, which considers that societies and organizations function so that each individual and group plays a specific role, like organs in the body. There are radical basic assumptions (society is eternally in conflict, which might explain social change), or moderate ones (custom and conflict are always mixed). The moderate version allows for functionalism to operate as an equally acceptable theory since it would accept that even negative social institutions play a part in society's self-perpetuation.

The essence of conflict theory is best epitomized by the classic "pyramid structure" in which an elite dictates terms to the larger masses. All major social structures, laws, and traditions in the society are designed to support those who have traditionally been in power, or the groups that are perceived to be superior in the society according to this theory. Conflict theorists would argue that all groups in society are born from conflict. An example might be that of labor unions, which are developed to fight for the interests of workers, whereas trade organizations are made to fight for the interests of the moneyed classes. This theory of groups is opposed to functionalism in which each of these groups would play a specific, set role in society. In functionalism, these groups cooperate to benefit society whereas in conflict theory the groups are in opposition to one another as they seek to better their masters.

This can also be expanded to include any society's morality, and by extension their definition of deviance. Anything that challenges the control of the elite will likely be considered "deviant" or "morally reprehensible." The theory can be applied on both the macro level (like the U.S. government or Soviet Russia, historically) or the micro level (a church organization or school club). In summary, conflict theory seeks to catalog the ways in which those in power seek to stay in power.

In understanding conflict theory, competition between social classes plays a key part. The following are four primary assumptions of modern conflict theory:

  1. Competition: Competition over scarce resources (money, leisure, sexual partners, and so on) is at the heart of all social relationships. Competition rather than consensus is characteristic of human relationships.
  2. Structural inequality: Inequalities in power and reward are built into all social structures. Individuals and groups that benefit from any particular structure strive to see it maintained.
  3. Revolution: Change occurs as a result of conflict between social class's competing interests rather than through adaptation. It is often abrupt and revolutionary rather than evolutionary.
  4. War: Even war is a unifier of the societies involved, as well as war may set an end to whole societies.

Conflict theory was elaborated in the United Kingdom by Max Gluckman and John Rex, in the United States by Lewis A. Coser, and Randall Collins, and in Germany by Ralf Dahrendorf, all of them being less or more influenced by Karl Marx, Ludwig Gumplovicz, Vilfredo Pareto, Georg Simmel, and other founding fathers of European sociology.

Marx and conflict theory

Karl Marx argued that property is upheld by the state, making property struggles into political struggles between owners and renters, capitalists and workers, and other groups. Material conditions determine the ability of any of these groups to organize effectively politically. These material conditions are also what enable one group to propagate their views to others in society. Because the owners clearly have an advantage in material wealth, their views are spread more easily.[1]

For Marx, the conflict clearly arises because all things of value to man result from human labor. According to Marx, capitalists exploit workers for their labor and do not share the fruits of these labors equally. This exploitation is what allows the owning classes to dominate politically and to impose their ideology on the workers of the world.[2]

Weber and conflict theory

Max Weber refined Marx's conflict theory. Weber stated that more than one conflict over property existed at any given moment in any given society, which is more nuanced than Marx's theory that the only struggle of importance was that between owners and workers. Weber included an emotional aspect of conflict as well:

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 (ethnicity); and that make "legitimacy" a crucial focus for efforts at domination.[3]

Weber's conclusions on conflict theory are similar to those reached by thinkers such as Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, and Nietzsche, namely that beyond emotionality, some particular forms of social interaction create strongly held beliefs and solidarity among members of groups.

Modern approaches

C. Wright Mills has been called the founder of modern conflict theory.[4] In Mills' view, social structures are created through conflict between people with differing interests and resources. Individuals and resources, in turn, are influenced by these structures and by the "unequal distribution of power and resources in the society."[4] Mills argued that the interests of this "power elite" were opposed to those of the people. He theorized that the policies of the power elite would result in "increased escalation of conflict, production of weapons of mass destruction, and possibly the annihilation of the human race."[4]

Feminist conflict theory

Conflict theory has been used by feminists to explain the position of women in society. Feminist conflict theorists argue that women have traditionally been oppressed so that men can benefit from positions of power, wealth, and status. These theorists would argue that the conflict over limited natural resources is what led men to relegate women to domesticity. This interpretation of conflict theory also leads to the idea that men cannot be trusted to give power to women because this gift would conflict with their inherent nature.

Conflict theory applied to society

Conflict theory offers a useful lens with which to analyze society. One might use this theory to explain the enmity between rich and poor within any society. This enmity could be expressed emotionally, verbally, or physically. Applying the theory to notable class conflicts is possible. Events such as the "Battle in Seattle" over global trade or the French Revolution serve as two examples.

Conflict theory can also be used to explain non-economic conflicts within a society. One might look at the divide between Protestants and Catholics as a battle over spiritual resources. On a less macro level, the competition between students in a classroom serves as a useful example as well. In such ways, conflict theory is usefully ambiguous in its application to innumerable phenomena.


  1. Randall Collins, Conflict Sociology (New York: Academic Press, 1975).
  2. Kent McClelland, Conflict Theory.
  3. Randall Collins and Stephen K. Sanderson, Conflict Sociology: A Sociological Classic Updated (Routledge, 2009, ISBN 978-1594516009).
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Peter Knapp, One World – Many Worlds: Contemporary Sociological Theory (Harpercollins College Div, 1994, ISBN 978-0065012187).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Collins, Randall. Conflict Sociology. New York: Academic Press, 1975. ISBN 978-0121813505
  • Collins, Randall, and Stephen K. Sanderson. Conflict Sociology: A Sociological Classic Updated. Routledge, 2009. ISBN 978-1594516009
  • Coser, Lewis A. The Functions of Social Conflict. Free Press, 1964. ISBN 978-0029068106
  • Dahrendorf, Ralf. The Modern Social Conflict: The Politics of Liberty. Transaction Publishers, 2007. ISBN 978-0765803856
  • Knapp, Peter. One World – Many Worlds: Contemporary Sociological Theory. Harpercollins College Div, 1994. ISBN 978-0065012187


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