Sociological Theory/Conflict Theory

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The basic premise of conflict theory is that individuals and groups in society struggle to maximize their share of the limited resources that exist and are desired by humans. Given that there are limited resources, the struggle inevitably leads to conflict and competition. These struggles can lead to changes in institutions and societies as different groups come into power.

Detailed Description[edit | edit source]

Theoretical Assumptions[edit | edit source]

Assumptions are taken for granted statements about reality that theories draw upon as their foundation. Following are some of assumptions of modern conflict theory:[1]

  • Interactions: Human interaction results in conflict.
  • Change: Conflict and change are normal and inevitable in society.
  • Competition: Competition over scarce resources (e.g., money, leisure, sexual partners, etc.) is part of all social groups. Competition rather than consensus is characteristic of human relationships. If everyone had the resources they needed, conflict would not exist.
  • Structural Inequality: Inequalities in power and rewards are built into all social structures. Resources are scarce and groups will always compete over these resources.
  • Degree of Inequality: Inequality exists in varying degrees with people having different amounts of resources; hierarchies exist.
  • Revolution: Macro changes occur as a result of conflict between competing interests rather than through adaptation. It is often abrupt and revolutionary rather than evolutionary.

Key Terms[edit | edit source]

Below are some of the key terms employed in social conflict theories.

  • Class conflict: The struggle between groups occupying different socioeconomic positions in the same society. These groups compete for control of economic, political and social resources. Class conflict can manifest as physical violence, propaganda (e.g., the spread of ideologies, such as "homeless people are lazy"), economic threats (e.g., the middle class boycotting "Big Business"), or legal battles (e.g., class action lawsuits by consumers against large corporations).
  • Ideology: the collection of beliefs that justify a social arrangement
  • Social class: an aspect of social location that is determined by either your relationship to the means of production (Marx) or your power, prestige and wealth (Weber).
  • Deviance: going against prevailing social norms
  • Proletariat: in Marx’s economic conflict theory, the proletariat are the working class who did not own the resources, land or tools they use to produce goods for the bourgeoisie
  • Bourgeoisie: in Marx’s economic conflict theory, the bourgeoisie are the capitalist class who own the resources, land and tools. They exploit the proletariat by paying them less than their work is worth.
  • Capitalism: an economic system with private ownership of the means of production and the creation of goods or services for profit.

Propositions[edit | edit source]

Propositions are relationships proposed between the conceptual components of a theory. Various proponents of conflict theory have delineated propositions based on the above assumptions. Below are some of these propositions.

  • Marx (1818-1883): The proletariat and bourgeoisie compete for control over scant resources.
  • Gumplowicz (1838-1909): Societies evolve out of war and conquest resulting in the development of nation-states and unequal systems with master and slave relationships. [2].
  • Weber (1864-1920): The Protestant Ethic promoted hard work, creating an environment in which a capitalistic struggle for resources would thrive.
  • Mills (1916-1962): Conflict exists between people of lower social statuses and the "Power Elite" (those at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy) resulting in a struggle for resources and unequal distribution of influence.
  • Feminine Conflict Theory: Historically oppressed, women struggle to gain equal access to power and resources from men.
  • Postcolonialism: In an effort to increase their wealth, more powerful countries spread around the world.
  • World Systems Theory: Countries compete with each other for status, wealth, and technology. Countries are divided into core countries, semi-periphery countries, and periphery countries, which are, respectively, arranged in a social hierarchy with the core countries at the top and the periphery countries at the bottom. Core countries extract resources from the semi-periphery and periphery countries and use their technology to turn those resources into consumer goods, which they can then sell back to people in the peripheral countries.

History of Conflict Theory[edit | edit source]

The ideas that make up the foundations of conflict theory can be traced back to early philosophy. Han Fei Tzu (280 - 233 BC) and other ancient Chinese philosophers taught that men are innately weak and lazy. This assumption leads to the obvious conclusion that the only way men can be controlled, then, is through punishment. Those who have the power to punish can control society, as the fear of the power of punishment keeps men in check.[3]

Polybius, a Greek philosopher (205-125 BC), focused his studies on the Roman Republic. He believed that people were like herds of animals. Weaknesses lead man to form communities in which the strongest and bravest person became the leader. He believed societies change and transition into a monarchy and that monarchies are based on justice and legitimate authority. Monarchies have an obligation to keep peace in society.[3] However, the same problems with men will be exhibited in their kings, leading to corrupt and unjust monarchies. The result: tyrants and tyranny. Tyranny is, however, self-limiting. Once it becomes unbearable, the elite in society will figure out ways to over throw the monarchy. Society will be in support of these new leaders because they give more liberty and equality. This cycle will repeat itself because the new leader will take some of the liberty and sense of equality away from the people. Polybius believed the only way to stop this cycle is to form a government that combines the best elements from monarchies, aristocracies, and democracy, like the Roman government during his time.[3]

Many philosophers had similar ideas about conflict and society.[citation needed] They believed that conflict was a necessary part of society.[citation needed] Conflict, as a sociological theory, was formalized in the 19th and 20th Centuries, building upon the ideas of people like those mentioned above. Many sociologists have contributed to the development of conflict theory, including Max Gluckman, John Rex, Lewis A. Coser, Randall Collins, Ralf Dahrendorf, Ludwig Gumplovicz, Vilfredo Pareto, and Georg Simmel. However, Karl Marx is often credited as being the father of conflict theory.

Karl Heinrich Marx (1818 – 1883) was a German philosopher, sociologist, historian, political economist, political theorist and revolutionary socialist, who developed the socio-political theory of Marxism. His ideas have since played a significant role in both the development of social science and also in the socialist political movement. He published various books during his lifetime, with the most notable being The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Capital (1867–1894), many of which were co-written with his friend, the fellow German revolutionary socialist Friedrich Engels. Marx’s dedication to social change led him to focus most of his work on revolutionary class conflicts in industrial societies. Karl Marx died a poor man but his work and ideas have influenced the modern world.[4]

Marx saw conflict as primarily resulting from class conflicts within industry and the economic segment of society. Max Weber (1864-1920) proposed that power, prestige and property also added to social conflict and that such conflict was found in all aspects of society (e.g., politics, gender, and religion).

C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) also contributed to modern conflict theory. According to Mills, one of the results of conflict between people with competing interests and resources is the creation of a social structure. Social structure refers to the relatively fixed institutions and norms of society that heavily influence, consciously or not, peoples' everyday behavior (e.g., getting your license at a department of motor vehicles reflects the fact that social structure dictates who gets to grant licenses, how, when, and to whom). However, control over the social structure is largely in the hands of the elite (wealthy), who generally oppose the interests of the non-elite.

Modern Examples[edit | edit source]

Social Stratification[edit | edit source]

As civilizations undergo change from agrarian, rural groups into industrialized, modern societies, a social hierarchy emerges that effectively creates distinct classes based on wealth, power and prestige.[5] According to conflict theory, it is this structure of social stratification that pits those in the upper class (i.e., those with the most power, wealth and prestige) against the lower classes.

Conflict theory also asserts that modern society and the "...criminal justice system and criminal law...operates on the behalf of the rich and powerful social elites, with the resulting policies aimed at controlling the poor,"[citation needed] thus perpetuating a system in which the upper class maintains power and all other classes remain economically disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and nearly powerless.[6] Marx foresaw such conflicts, asserting that "...every society has been based... on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes," with modernization and industrialization significantly increasing this conflict and the oppression of the lower classes by the upper class[7]

Modern society presents several examples of the main ideas and mechanisms of conflict theory in practice, showing the process by which the upper class power elites systematically work to disenfranchise and exploit the lower classes to maintain and increase their power.[8] Interestingly, conflict theory does not apply only to one type of government or society; it can be applied to democracies, socialist nations and dictatorships alike.

Wealth and Power Inequality[edit | edit source]

While the United States is purportedly a nation that values principles of equality, egalitarianism, meritocracy, hard work, and the pursuit of the "American Dream," the U.S. also has a very high level of economic and social inequality. Domhoff (2011) provides striking evidence of this inequality, finding that "as of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%."[9] He goes on to state that this means that the top 20% of Americans own 85% of the nation’s wealth as a whole, with the other 80% of Americans having only 15% of the wealth. This extreme inequality in the level of power and wealth that currently exist in the United States exemplifies the central themes of conflict theory, namely that there is a competition for power between classes. The implications of this large disparity in wealth between social classes in the United States includes many disadvantages for those in the lower classes, such as a lack of access to quality health care, increased risk of violent crime, fewer educational opportunities (especially post-secondary education), and the absence of a social network to provide opportunities for upward mobility.[10]

Drug Abuse and Crime[edit | edit source]

Proponents of conflict theory argue that crime and criminal justice in the modern world is designed to benefit the upper, powerful classes, while subjugating and disenfranchising the lower classes. Greek (2005) provides an excellent explanation of this phenomenon:

"Thus, street crimes, even minor monetary ones are routinely punished quite severely, while large scale financial and business crimes are treated much more leniently. Theft of a television might receive a longer sentence than stealing millions through illegal business practices."[6]

This example illustrates the manner in which conflict theory can be applied to deviance in society as the upper classes seek to maintain their position and power by ensuring that the lower classes remain poor and relatively powerless.

Conflict theory has also been applied to the current trends of drug abuse in the United States, finding that societal and social class position effect one's rate of drug abuse. More specifically, "Conflict theory holds that there are higher numbers of chronic drug abusers found in lower social classes, disorganized neighborhoods. lower income families, and relatively politically powerless places."[11][citation needed] Lo (2003) found that, in accordance with conflict theory, social environments negatively effect inequality "...widespread poverty and severe social disorganization, lacking legitimate opportunities as well as adequate education and training, have a [strong] association with opiate and cocaine use."[11][citation needed]

Additional Readings[edit | edit source]

  • Akers, R.L. (1998) "Social Learning and Social Structure: A General Theory of Crime and Deviance." Boston. MA: Northeastern University Press.
  • Changhwan, K., & Sakamoto, A. (2006). Does Inequality Increase Productivity? Revisiting the Debate Between Functionalism and Conflict Theory. Conference Papers -- American Sociological Association.
  • Domhoff, G.W. (2011). “Power in America: Wealth, Income and Power.” URL:
  • Collins, R., (1974). "Conflict Sociology" New York: Academic Press.
  • Schlee, G. (2004). "Taking Sides and Constructing Identities: Reflections on Conflict Theory." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 10(1), 135-156. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9655.2004.00183.x
  • Mills, C.W. (1956). “The Power Elite.”

Illustrative Video[edit | edit source]

Social Conflict Theory

References[edit | edit source]

  1. [Plunkett, Scott, and Scott Williams. n.d. “CONFLICT THEORY.” Retrieved April 19, 2011 (]
  2. Adamek, W., & Radwan-Pragłowski, J. (2006). Ludwik Gumplowicz. Journal of Classical Sociology, 6(3), 381-398.
  3. a b c Martindale, Don. 2010. The Nature and Types of Sociological Theory. Routledge.
  4. Wolff, Jonathan. n.d. “Karl Marx.” (Accessed April 29, 2011).
  5. Ferrante, J. (2005). "Sociology: A Global Perspective." Wadsworth Publishing; 6 edition.
  6. a b Greek, C. (2005). "Conflict Theory in Criminology." URL:
  7. Marx, K; Engels, F. (1948). “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Progress Publishers: Moscow 1969.
  8. Mills, C.W. (1956). “The Power Elite.” Oxford University Press, USA.
  9. Domhoff, G.W. (2011). “Power in America: Wealth, Income and Power.” URL:
  10. Lareau, A. (2003). "Unequal Childhoods." U. California Press. Los Angeles.
  11. a b Lo, C. C. (2003). An Application of Social Conflict Theory to Arrestees' Use of Cocaine and Opiates. Journal of Drug Issues, 33(1), 237-266.