Conflict theory is the theory that resources and power in society are limited and therefore conflict will take place between groups in society to obtain control over resources. It is one of three paradigms in sociology.
As a result of the conflicts between social groups who seek power and control, society becomes stratified into groups like the workers vs the capitalist, black vs white, various social castes, and nation vs nation.
The theory was designed by key sociologists like Karl Marx and C. Wright Mills.
Examples of conflict theory include worker-capitalist conflict, the clash of civilizations theory, and worker vs tenant disputes.
Conflict Theory Examples
1. Worker-Capitalist Conflict
Marx was primarily concerned with the conflict between workers and the owners of capital.
According to Marx, the owners of capital oppressed the workers in order to prevent them form obtaining access to resources.
For Marx, the solution was to enter conflict in the form of a revolution. If the workers gained political power, they could oppress the capitalist class and take the capital to be used for the good of the workers.
Thus, Marxism and communism are fundamentally based on the theory that societies are always in a state of class conflict where one class or the other denies access to economic resources.
2. Education and the Docile Workforce
For some education theorists, conflict theory can be seen in the modern-day education system (Chernoff, 2013).
Schools tend to teach people how to be good and docile workers. Very rarely do young people leave their compulsory schooling with the aspiration to be an entrepreneur or self-employed.
This focus in public schools on educating the ‘future workforce’ rather than future businesspeople keeps the masses more docile and focused on serving the capitalist class who will continue to control power through control of capital.
See also: Conflict Theory Criticisms
3. Clash of Civilizations
Clash of Civilizations is a hypothesis by the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008) in which he proposes that major global conflicts in the era of globalization would no longer be between nation-states but between civilizations competing for resources.
By civilizations Huntington implies an ethno-religious and cultural division of the world into 7 (sometimes 8) spheres – the Western ( Anglo-Saxon new world and Western Europe), the Orthodox ( eastern Europe and Russia), the Sinic ( China and South-East Asia), the Islamic, the Eastern (India and Japan), the African, and the “cleft” civilizations (Huntington, 1993).
Huntington believed that civilizations would clash because a burgeoning global population and a steady rise in the economic and military capabilities of non-western civilizations would lead to a contest over resources.
Such a contest would be exacerbated by the deep differences in global cultures, histories and value systems of the various civilizations, taking the form of conflict.
4. Wars over Land and Oil
Many wars throughout history have been fought over limited resources.
In fact, many people blame resource control for recent wars like the war in Iraq, whereby the United States may have wanted a friendly power to sell them cheap oil.
Similarly, Germany’s invasion of Austria in WWII was explained as “operation living space” – a war to enable Germans to gain valuable land for living, farming, and natural resource extraction.
Similarly, the Israel-Palestine war is an ongoing battle over scarce amounts of land that happen to have religious significance to both sides.
5. Landlords and Tenants
Landlords and tenants are participants in the housing market with opposing interests.
The landlord desires the highest rent possible with complete control over the rights to eviction from his/her property, whereas the tenant desires the lowest rent possible with the security of a long-term lease.
These opposing interests have brought the two sides into conflict with each other for many decades.
The result has been that nearly all countries have some form of legislation to satisfy the demands of each side. Property rights protect landlords, whereas rent control acts or tenant protection acts protect tenants.
Despite these, tenants and landlords continue to find themselves on opposing sides of the debate.
6. Military-Industrial Complex and the Garrison State
The military-industrial complex, also known as the military weapons industry, is sustained by a governmental belief that society needs to protect itself and its resources.
The term military-industrial complex was coined by the American president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961.
Although Eisenhower warned against the dangers of a militarized state in conjunction with the industry monopolizing polity, he also underlined the necessity of having a strong military for maintaining peace.
“Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction.”
In doing so, Eisenhower emphasized what, in his view, was the underlying essence of society: that conflict is always imminent and states must at all times be prepared for war.
The political scientist Harold Lasswell ( 1902 – 1978) built on Eiesenhower’s outline of the military-industrial complex to develop the concept of the garrison state that in his view best summarized the nature of modern polity.
The garrison state, according to Lasswell, is a state in which a significant share of the budget goes into military expenditure, and in which the elites are made up of class of what Lasswell described as “specialists in violence” (Lasswell, 1941).
7. Realism in International Relations
Realism is an approach to international relations which is premised on three essential principles:
- First, that the international order is characterized by anarchy such that each state must fend for itself.
- Second, that the actions of states relative to each other are guided by the same instincts that guide human behavior.
- Third, that human behavior is essentially self-interested and rational rather than ideal and moralistic.
Taken together, these three principles paint a picture of a world in which the relations between nation-states are defined only by the dynamic of power, the same as they do among humans in general.
The most prominent proponent of realism in international relations was the American theorist Hans Morgenthau (1904 – 1980) who accorded a limited role to morality in international politics, emphasizing instead the centrality of power in the struggle between nations.
Historically, realism is rooted in the thought of philosophers such as Machiavelli, Sun-Tzu, and Thomas Hobbes, all of whom, to various extents, emphasized the perenniality of conflict in human society, and the limited efficacy of morality in guiding human action.
Related Article: Role Conflict Examples
Emile Durkheim believed that crime in society was a manifestation of the denial of resources, the benefits of the status quo, and agency to the oppressed class.
These conflicts can arise either from social inequality or because of differing interpretations of morality by different individuals.
According to Durkheim, crime in society was, thus, not just inevitable, but also necessary. It performed several necessary functions such as constantly reinforcing the authority of the law, as well as constantly testing the boundaries of what is legitimate or acceptable in society.
It is only through the actions of “deviants” in society, constantly pushing against the authority of existing codes that legal and moral norms constantly evolve (Durkheim, 1938).
9. White Privilege
White privilege is a term used to describe how the dominance and power of white people is sustained in dominantly white societies.
Here, conflict based on race is sustained. White people maintain their privilege through media discourses that stereotype non-white people as less desirable, construct white people as natural leaders, and sustain whiteness as the desirable norm in society.
As a result, white people are more likely to obtain high-power jobs that can help them to keep control of the majority of economic resources in society.
Double consciousness is a state of internal conflict in which an individual views their social identity from two perspectives:
- Their own view of themselves in society, and
- Society’s view of them as an oppressed class.
Oppressed people are aware of society’s perspective (that they are unwanted or undesirable), and this leads to a state of internal conflict and heightened awareness of their own oppression by the dominant class who wants to withhold resources from them.
The concept of double-consciousness was formulated by W.E.B. Du Bois (1868 – 1963) , an American sociologist who became the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard.
Du Bois used the concept to describe the state of constant awareness of conflict that African-Americans lived in (Du Bois, 1903).
A related theme in social psychology is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is the conflict between a person’s perception of a situation, and their actions relative to it. It can be thought of as a form of the inner contradictions inherent to dialectical materialism.
11. The Banking and Financial System
The 2008 financial crisis was a classic example of how the global banking and financial system acts as a faultline for social conflict.
The crisis was mitigated by unethical lending practices of banks and hedge funds that led to several large banking and financial institutions going bankrupt.
This set off a domino effect due to the high degree of interconnectedness and interdependence of global financial institutions the world over, in which the effects of the actions of a few powerful institutions were felt by a large segment of the most vulnerable the world over.
Whereas governments the world over stepped in to protect banks and bankers, there was precious little in the form of a safety net for the poor working classes, highlighting the unequal distribution of power between financial institutions and the working classes.
Here, we can see how limited resources were distributed to the powerful while the powerless were given very little.
It was also as an aftereffect of the 2008 financial crisis that cryptocurrencies, as a means of bypassing the banking system were first introduced.
However, once again governments the world over are locked in a tussle to regulate cryptocurrencies as they believe their unregulated use could bring instability to the global financial system. This represents the next step in the struggle between the two sides.
12. American Student Debt Crisis
The American student debt crisis refers to the USD 1.6 Trillion in outstanding student loans owed to universities and banks collectively by some 44 million Americans with more than 10% of the debtors defaulting on their loans.
The debt is similarly high in several other developed nations including the UK, leading to widespread protests and urgent calls for policy reform (Hess, 2020).
A student loan is provided by a bank in anticipation of the student successfully graduating from the university and becoming gainfully employed.
However, this system breaks down when a university education can no longer guarantee employment or employment at incomes high enough to pay back the loan with interest.
Universities and banks however have an incentive to continue dispensing as many loans as possible without taking any guarantee for employment security.
They possess the resources to be able to creatively market and package their offerings so as to make them appear attractive to prospective students.
Most students on the other hand make their decisions in an environment of information asymmetry. It is difficult for them to be able to predict whether the course they are opting for would equip them to earn a decent living 5 years down the line.
Their decisions are also influenced by the prevailing ( albeit of recent origin) cultural environment which presents a university education as a prerequisite to a successful career, and the social and cultural capital commanded by several institutes of higher education, irrespective of their ability to guarantee stable and gainful employment.
Thus a situation of conflict arises in which students find themselves pitted against universities and loan dispersing institutions, with the latter having the resources to influence decision making in their favor.
13. Prisoner’s Dilemma
The prisoner’s dilemma is a hypothetical game theory set up which offers a psychological explanation for why actors prefer not to cooperate even when mutual cooperation seems to offer greater rewards.
Two prisoners accused of having jointly committed a crime are being held in isolation in two separate wards and being interrogated. The following are the possible outcomes:
- If each prisoner betrays the other, both will be convicted.
- If only one prisoner betrays the other, he/she will be set free while the other would be convicted.
- If both remain silent, both would be set free.
It is obvious from the above that the best possible outcome is the last – i.e. both prisoners mutually cooperate and refuse to betray the other.
However, according to game theory, the course most likely to be adopted by actors in such a situation is either the first or the second.
This is because rational, self-interested actors operate in an informational vacuum in which they can neither know the intentions of the other prisoner nor trust the other’s intention to do the right thing.
Therefore, the only course left to them is the one that offers the most immediate relief. In this case, it is to betray their partner and secure their own release.
The prisoner’s dilemma offers a mathematical model to back the sociological conflict theory, explaining why conflict is perennial in society despite the greater, and evident benefits of mutual cooperation.
14. Siege Mentality and Garrison Mentality
Siege mentality is the perception of a group that they are perennially under siege or threat from external forces, leading to collective actions that display urgency and belligerence even in the absence of any real threat.
While siege mentality may result from the experience of a group of people being persecuted in the past, it continues to manifest itself in their actions long after the real threat has passed (Christie, 2011) .
Siege mentality can most commonly be witnessed in the realm of international relations where certain states are predisposed to react with disproportionate force to even the slightest real or perceived threats, for instance Israel vs Palestine and Russia vs Ukraine.
A related concept found in the domain of literature and cinema is garrison mentality.
The phrase was specifically coined to describe the themes of survivalism commonly found in Canadian literature and cinema by the critic Northrop Frye and the novelist Margaret Atwood.
According to Frye and Atwood, this preoccupation with survivalism stems from a history of battling harsh forces of nature, and external enemies during the formative years of the modern Canadian nation (Atwood, 1972).
Marx’s belief that society involves endless conflict over limited resources can explain a wide range of conflicts – from workplace disputes to global wars. The above examples are just a shortlist of countless situations where conflict replays itself throughout history.
Atwood, M. (1972) Survival: A thematic guide to Canadian literature. Los Angeles: Anansi.
Chernoff, C. (2013). Conflict theory of education. In J. Ainsworth (Ed.), Sociology of education: An a-to-z guide (Vol. 1, pp. 146-147). SAGE Publications, Inc., https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452276151.n84
Christie, D.J. (2011) The encyclopedia of peace psychology. London: Wiley.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of Black folk. New York: Bantam Classic.
Durkheim, E. (1938). The rules of sociological method. The University of Chicago Press.
Hess, A.J. (June, 2020) How student debt became a $1.6 trillion crisis CNBC https://www.cnbc.com/2020/06/12/how-student-debt-became-a-1point6-trillion-crisis.html
Lasswell, H. D. (1941). The Garrison State. American Journal of Sociology, 46(4), 455–468. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2769918
Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1998) The communist manifesto: Introduction by Martin Malia. London: Penguin.
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.