In Marx’s view of society, conflict was inherent between social groups because resources were limited. Those who had access to these scarce resources had every incentive to deny them to those who did not.
This, in a nutshell, is the conflict theory in sociology.
Conflict theory is most commonly associated with the philosophy of Karl Marx (1818-1883), who is sometimes referred to as the father of sociological conflict theory – one of the three sociological paradigms.
Marx famously summed up conflict theory like this:
“The history of all hitherto existing society, is the history of class struggles”. (Marx & Engels, 1998)
Definitions of Conflict Theory
Some scholarly definitions of conflict theory include:
- “Conflict between groups arises at least in part from competition for limited resources or conflicting goals” (McKenzie & Gabriel, 2017)
- “Conflict theory posits that conflict is a fundamental part of the social order” (Chernoff, 2013)
- “people develop negative attitudes towards others as a result of competition with those others over limited resources” (Major, 2006)
Three Conflict Theory Assumptions
Conflict theory is not a single unified theory, but rather an umbrella term used for a variety of perspectives, all of which share three underlying assumptions in common:
- Humans are rational beings acting to maximize their self-interest.
- The resources which humans seek are limited.
- The pursuit of scarce resources by rational self-interested actors will necessarily lead to conflict.
Conflict theories stand in contrast to consensus theories in sociology, which, while agreeing with the first two propositions stated above, differ from the third.
This is to say, consensus theorists believe that a division of scarce resources among rational, self-interested actors can also be arrived at through a mutually beneficial agreement, rather than through conflict alone.
Related: Conflict Theory Examples
Conflict Theory vs Consensus Theory
Consensus theory is the main competing theory to conflict theory (see: conflict theory vs consensus theory). According to this theory, societies can reach an equilibrium whereby groups can cooperate and live peacefully alongside one another.
The theory does not hold that society is fundamentally fair and equal. However, it does posit that social change needs to take place through incremental institutional change rather than conflict (as opposed to the structural-functionalist perspective of social change).
For example, in a democracy, people can achieve change not by overthrowing a government but by convincing enough electors to vote for their perspective.
The struggle between conflict and consensus approaches is evident within left-of-center politics. Center-left groups tend to embrace consensus theory whereby social change is achieved through incrementalism. Farther-left groups, such as communists, embrace a view of the world that is based on a power struggle, oppression, and revolution.
Evolution of Conflict Theory Since Marx
1. Ludwig Gumplowicz
The Polish – Austrian sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz ( 1838 – 1909) provided a more comprehensive formulation of conflict theory, transcending Marx’s narrow focus on economic factors for conflict.
For Gumplowicz, conflict was the basis of civilization, state formation, and the legal system. The laws in any society, according to Gumplowicz, were not based on any idea of social welfare but were rather written by victorious groups in social conflict to serve their own self-interest.
2. C. Wright Mills
The American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) used conflict theory to explain the formation of power elites in society.
The power elites, according to Mills, were the people in a society who had near unlimited access to the state and its resources, such as the government and large corporations.
By contrast, the ordinary citizen is powerless as the power elites can manipulate state power to their end.
Strengths of Conflict Theory
1. Explains the Oppressive Nature of Capitalism
Marx was, primarily, focused on capitalism and class struggle. According to Marx, capitalism inherently involves the oppression of the workers by the capitalist class that controls the resources.
Thus, whenever there are fights between unions and employers, or internal social conflicts between the popular masses and corrupt oligarchs, Marx’s theorization that the world is defined by conflict over resources re-plays itself in real life.
In other words, this theory has stood for over 150 years as an example of man’s tendency to oppress his potential competitor for access to resources. Over and again, the theory’s predictions seem to come to fruition.
2. Explains Social Stratification
Conflict theory explains why societies tend to be stratified into groups of people with power and those without power.
For example, societies have achieved social stratification by creating caste systems, the patriarchy, apartheid, and other institutional and social measures that sustain the power of the dominant groups to access and control resources and deny access to those resources to the subjugated groups.
3. No Society has Achieved Peaceful Equality
Conflict theory can explain why no society has successfully achieved peaceful equality. All societies have, historically, faced moments of revolution and violence.
For example, ancient Rome was overcome with the gluttony of the few which led to its collapse. Similarly, even historically peaceful societies like the United States have bloodied histories of violent struggles between black slaves and white slave owners and even women versus men.
These examples demonstrate how conflict theory goes beyond just class struggle and into other intersectional areas of group identity, such as race and gender.
Conflict theory helps to explain these regular outbreaks of conflict within societies by highlighting that it’s a result of conflict between social groups.
Criticisms of Conflict Theory
1. The Consensus Theory Critique
The consensus theory in sociology is the logical antithesis of the conflict theory. It states that human beings are almost as likely, if not more, to cooperate with each other to distribute scarce resources justly, rather than engage in conflict and attempt to subjugate the other.
2. Conflict Theory Ignores Stability
History is made up of both periods of upheaval and periods of stability. By focusing only on conflict and strife, and ignoring the long stretches of peace and stability, the conflict theory takes a partial view of history and human society, akin to focusing only on the troughs of a waveform and ignoring the crests.
Conflict Theory and Dialectic Materialism
The conflict theory is an example of dialectic materialism.
Dialectic simply means something that results from the action of two or more opposing forces.
The German philosopher Hegel (1770 – 1831) expanded the meaning of the term to mean a contradiction inherent in all material phenomena.
We can see this dialectical nature of the material world all around us – that the world is complex and full of contradictions is a statement most of us would agree with.
In Hegelian dialectics, this inner contradiction of all material beings is capable of being resolved through analysis and synthesis.
A very simple formulation of Hegelian dialectic can be presented as:
- Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis
Marx, while agreeing with Hegel that the material world is full of inner contradictions, disagreed that they could be peacefully resolved.
In the Marxian view, such inner contradictions could only be successfully resolved through a complete social and structural reorganization.
Thus, for Marx, the inner contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, which brought the ruling and the working classes in conflict with each other, could only be resolved through a class struggle and a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Despite his comprehensive statement of the conflict theory, Marx’s account remained limited in its scope due to its exclusive focus on class as the only faultline of social conflict.
Related: Role Conflict Examples
The conflict theory has near-universal application to a wide variety of phenomena.
This stems from its roots in dialectical materialism, or the observation that all things are made up of contradictions, much like Biblical juxtapositions of good vs evil, light vs dark, and so on.
The junctures at which these contradictions meet represent faultlines from which conflicts erupt.
However, for critics of the theory, contradictions do not need violent resolution. Sometimes, they can also be resolved through analysis, reflection, and cooperation.
Just as human nature is not always base and self-interested. History is replete with examples of humans – both individually and collectively – acting out of a complete disregard for self-interest, solely for altruistic purposes.
Thus, the conflict theory, despite its seeping explanatory powers, comes with its limitations.
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McKenzie, J., & Gabriel, T. (2017). Applications and extensions of realistic conflict theory: moral development and conflict prevention. In Norms, groups, conflict, and social change (pp. 307-324). Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]