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
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
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.
"It is in the interests of those who have wealth to keep and
extend what they own, whereas it is in the interests of those who
have little or no wealth to try to improve their lot in life." 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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
These theorists would argue that the conflict over limited
natural resources is what led men to relegate women to
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
Societies are defined by inequality that produces conflict, rather than which
produces order and consensus. This conflict based on inequality can only be
overcome through a fundamental transformation of the existing relations in the
society, and is productive of new social relations.
The disadvantaged have structural interests that run counter to the status quo,
which, once they are assumed, will lead to social change. Thus, they are viewed as
agents of change rather than objects one should feel sympathy for.
Human potential (e.g., capacity for creativity) is suppressed by conditions of
exploitation and oppression, which are necessary in any society with an unequal
division of labour. These and other qualities do not necessarily have to be stunted
due to the requirements of the so-called "civilizing process," or "functional
necessity": creativity is actually an engine for economic development and change.
The role of theory is in realizing human potential and transforming society, rather
than maintaining the power structure. The opposite aim of theory would be the
objectivity and detachment associated with positivism, where theory is a neutral,
Consensus is a euphemism for ideology. Genuine consensus is
not achieved, rather the more powerful in societies are able
to impose their conceptions on others and have them accept
their discourses. Consensus does not preserve social order, it
entrenches stratification, a tool of the current social order.
The State serves the particular interests of the most
powerful while claiming to represent the interests of all.
Representation of disadvantaged groups in State processes
may cultivate the notion of full participation, but this is an
Inequality on a global level is characterized by the
purposeful underdevelopment of Third World countries, both
during colonization and after national independence. The
global system (i.e., development agencies such as World
Bank and International Monetary Fund) benefits the most
powerful countries and multi-national corporations, rather
than the subjects of development, through economic,
political, and military actions.