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What Is Conflict Theory?

Understanding conflict theory.

  • Assumptions

Special Considerations

  • Conflict Theory FAQs
  • Behavioral Economics

Conflict Theory Definition, Founder, and Examples

What you need to know about the Karl Marx theory

Adam Hayes, Ph.D., CFA, is a financial writer with 15+ years Wall Street experience as a derivatives trader. Besides his extensive derivative trading expertise, Adam is an expert in economics and behavioral finance. Adam received his master's in economics from The New School for Social Research and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in sociology. He is a CFA charterholder as well as holding FINRA Series 7, 55 & 63 licenses. He currently researches and teaches economic sociology and the social studies of finance at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

marxist theory of conflict

Conflict theory, first developed by Karl Marx , is a theory that society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources.

Conflict theory holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than by consensus and conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless. A basic premise of conflict theory is that individuals and groups within society will work to try to maximize their own wealth and power.

Key Takeaways

  • Conflict theory focuses on the competition among groups within society over limited resources.
  • Conflict theory views social and economic institutions as tools of the struggle among groups or classes, used to maintain inequality and the dominance of the ruling class.
  • Marxist conflict theory sees society as divided along lines of economic class between the proletarian working class and the bourgeois ruling class.
  • Later versions of conflict theory look at other dimensions of conflict among capitalist factions and among various social, religious, and other types of groups.

Theresa Chiechi / Investopedia

Conflict theory has sought to explain a wide range of social phenomena, including wars, revolutions, poverty , discrimination, and domestic violence. It ascribes most of the fundamental developments in human history, such as democracy and civil rights, to capitalistic attempts to control the masses (as opposed to a desire for social order). Central tenets of conflict theory are the concepts of social inequality, the division of resources, and the conflicts that exist among different socioeconomic classes.

The central tenets of conflict theory can explain many types of societal conflicts throughout history. Some theorists believe, as Marx did, that societal conflict is the force that ultimately drives change and development in society.

Marx’s version of conflict theory focused on the conflict between two primary classes. Each class consists of a group of people bound by mutual interests and a certain degree of property ownership. Marx theorized about the bourgeoisie, a group that represented members of society who hold the majority of the wealth and means. The proletariat is the other group: It includes those considered working-class or poor.

With the rise of capitalism, Marx theorized that the bourgeoisie , a minority within the population, would use their influence to oppress the proletariat, the majority class. This way of thinking is tied to a common image associated with conflict theory-based models of society; adherents to this philosophy tend to believe in a pyramid arrangement in terms of how goods and services are distributed in society. At the top of the pyramid is a small group of elites that dictate terms and conditions to the larger portion of society because they have an outsized amount of control over resources and power.

Uneven distribution within society was predicted to be maintained through ideological coercion; the bourgeoisie would force acceptance of the current conditions by the proletariat. Conflict theory assumes that the elite will set up systems of laws, traditions, and other societal structures in order to further support their own dominance while preventing others from joining their ranks.

Marx theorized that, as the working class and poor were subjected to worsening conditions, a collective consciousness would raise more awareness about inequality, and this would potentially result in revolt. If, after the revolt, conditions were adjusted to favor the concerns of the proletariat, the conflict circle would eventually repeat but in the opposite direction. The bourgeoisie would eventually become the aggressor and revolter, grasping for the return of the structures that formerly maintained their dominance.

Conflict Theory Assumptions

Current conflict theory has four primary assumptions that are helpful to understand: competition, revolution, structural inequality, and war.


Conflict theorists believe that competition is a constant and, at times, an overwhelming factor in nearly every human relationship and interaction. Competition exists as a result of the scarcity of resources, including material resources—money, property, commodities, and more. Beyond material resources, individuals and groups within a society compete for intangible resources as well. These can include leisure time, dominance, social status, sexual partners, etc. Conflict theorists assume that competition is the default (rather than cooperation).

Given conflict theorists' assumption that conflict occurs between social classes, one outcome of this conflict is a revolutionary event. The idea is that change in a power dynamic between groups does not happen as the result of a gradual adaptation. Rather, it comes about as the symptom of conflict between these groups. In this way, changes to a power dynamic are often abrupt and large in scale, rather than gradual and evolutionary.

Structural inequality

An important assumption of conflict theory is that human relationships and social structures all experience inequalities of power. In this way, some individuals and groups inherently develop more power and reward than others. Following this, those individuals and groups that benefit from a particular structure of society tend to work to maintain those structures as a way of retaining and enhancing their power.

Conflict theorists tend to see war as either a unifier or as a "cleanser" of societies. In conflict theory, war is the result of a cumulative and growing conflict between individuals and groups and between entire societies. In the context of war, a society may become unified in some ways, but conflict still remains between multiple societies. On the other hand, war may also result in the wholesale end of a society.

Marx viewed capitalism as part of a historical progression of economic systems. He believed capitalism was rooted in commodities , or things that are purchased and sold. For example, he believed that labor is a type of commodity. Because laborers have little control or power in the economic system (because they don’t own factories or materials), their worth can be devalued over time. This can create an imbalance between business owners and their workers, which can eventually lead to social conflicts. He believed these problems would eventually be fixed through a social and economic revolution. 

Adaptations of Marx's conflict theory

Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist, adopted many aspects of Marx's conflict theory and later further refined some of Marx's ideas. Weber believed that conflict over property was not limited to one specific scenario. Rather, he believed that there were multiple layers of conflict existing at any given moment and in every society.

Whereas Marx framed his view of conflict as one between owners and workers, Weber also added an emotional component to his ideas about conflict. Weber said: "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...and that make 'legitimacy' a crucial focus for efforts at domination."

Weber's beliefs about conflict extend beyond Marx's because they suggest that some forms of social interaction, including conflict, generate beliefs and solidarity between individuals and groups within a society. In this way, an individual's reactions to inequality might be different depending on the groups with which they are associated; whether they perceive those in power to be legitimate; and so on.

Conflict theorists of the later 20th and early 21st centuries have continued to extend conflict theory beyond the strict economic classes posited by Marx, although economic relations remain a core feature of the inequalities across groups in the various branches of conflict theory. Conflict theory is highly influential in modern and postmodern theories of sexual and racial inequality, peace and conflict studies, and the many varieties of identity studies that have arisen across Western academia in the past several decades.

Examples of Conflict Theory

Conflict theorists view the relationship between a housing complex owner and a tenant as being based mainly on conflict instead of balance or harmony, even though there may be more harmony than conflict. They believe that they are defined by getting whatever resources they can from each other.

In the above example, some of the limited resources that may contribute to conflicts between tenants and the complex owner include the limited space within the complex, the limited number of units, the money that tenants pay to the complex owner for rent, and so on. Ultimately, conflict theorists see this dynamic as one of conflict over these resources.

The complex owner, however gracious, is fundamentally focused on getting as many apartment units filled as possible so that they can make as much money in rent as possible, especially if bills such as mortgages and utilities must be covered. This may introduce conflict between housing complexes, among tenant applicants looking to move into an apartment, and so forth. On the other side of the conflict, the tenants themselves are looking to get the best apartment possible for the least amount of money in rent.

The financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent bank bailouts are good examples of real-life conflict theory, according to authors Alan Sears and James Cairns in their book A Good Book, in Theory . They view the financial crisis as the inevitable outcome of the inequalities and instabilities of the global economic system, which enable the largest banks and institutions to avoid government oversight and take huge risks that only reward a select few.

Sears and Cairns note that large banks and big businesses subsequently received bailout funds from the same governments that claimed to have insufficient funds for large-scale social programs such as universal healthcare. This dichotomy supports a fundamental assumption of conflict theory, which is that mainstream political institutions and cultural practices favor dominant groups and individuals.

This example illustrates that conflict can be inherent in all types of relationships, including those that don't appear on the surface to be antagonistic. It also shows that even a straightforward scenario can lead to multiple layers of conflict.

Conflict theory is a sociopolitical theory that originated with Karl Marx. It seeks to explain political and economic events in terms of an ongoing struggle over finite resources. In this struggle, Marx emphasizes the antagonistic relationship between social classes, in particular the relationship between the owners of capital—who Marx calls the “bourgeoisie”—and the working class, which he calls the “proletariat.” Conflict theory had a profound influence on 19th- and 20th-century thought and continues to influence political debates to this day.

What Are Some Common Criticisms of Conflict Theory?

One common criticism of conflict theory is that it fails to capture the way in which economic interactions can mutually benefit the different classes involved. For example, conflict theory describes the relationship between employers and employees as one of conflict, in which the employers wish to pay as little as possible for the employees' labor, while the employees wish to maximize their wages. In practice, however, employees and employers often have a harmonious relationship. Moreover, institutions such as pension plans and stock-based compensation can further blur the boundary between workers and corporations by giving workers an additional stake in the success of their employer.

Who Is Credited With Inventing Conflict Theory?

Conflict theory is attributed to Karl Marx, a 19th-century political philosopher who led the development of communism as a school of thought in economics. Karl Marx’s two most famous works are The Communist Manifesto , which he published in 1848; and Das Kapital , published in 1867. Although he lived in the 19th century, Marx had a substantial influence on politics and economics in the 20th century and is generally considered one of history’s most influential and controversial thinkers.

University of Hawai'i. " Understanding Conflict and War: Vol. 3: Conflict in Perspective ."

Peter Kivisto. " Social Theory: Roots and Branches ," Page 235. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Alan Sears and James Cairns. “ A Good Book, In Theory ,” Page 41. University of Toronto Press, 2015.

History. " Karl Marx Publishes Communist Manifesto ."

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* Scanned from Chapter 5 in R.J. Rummel, Conflict In Perspective , 1977. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book . Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated. 1 . Marx did not write his intended final chapter in Capital on "The Classes." Throughout his writing, however, Marx's observations, comments, and theoretical points provide sufficient detail to patch together the probable structure of his overall argument. This Dahrendorf has done (1959, Chapter 1), and I rely on his interpretation. 2 . This comes out most clearly in Dahrendorf's essays (1968). 3 . For my analysis of status and coverage of the status literature, see my Chapters 17 and 18 of Vol. 2: The Conflict Helix .

Module 5: Society and Groups

Conflict theory and society, learning outcomes.

  • Describe the conflict theory view of society
  • Explain Karl Marx’s concepts of class and alienation

Karl Marx and Conflict Theory

Karl Marx is certainly among the most significant social thinkers in recent history. While there are many critics of his work, it is still widely respected and influential. For Marx, society’s constructions were predicated upon the idea of “base and superstructure.” This term refers to the idea that a society’s economic character forms its base, upon which rests the cultural and social institutions, the superstructure. For Marx, it is the base (economy) that determines what a society will be like.

A triangle diagram with the lower half of the triangle labeled economy considered the base, and government, family, religion, education, and culture considered the superstructure on the top half of the triangle.

Figure 1. Karl Marx asserted that all elements of a society’s structure depend on its economic structure.

Additionally, Marx saw conflict in society as the primary means of change. Economically, he saw conflict existing between the owners of the means of production—the bourgeoisie —and the laborers, called the proletariat .

Marx maintained that these conflicts appeared consistently throughout history during times of social revolution. These revolutions, or “class antagonisms” as he called them, were a result of one class dominating another. Most recently, with the end of feudalism, a new revolutionary class he called the bourgeoisie dominated the laboring masses that he called the proletariat. The bourgeoisie were revolutionary in the sense that they represented a radical change in the structure of society. In Marx’s words, “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other—Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Marx and Engels 1848).

In the mid-nineteenth century, as industrialization was booming, bourgeois industrial employers, the “owners of the means of production” in Marx’s terms, became more and more exploitative toward the working class proletariat. The large manufacturers of steel were particularly ruthless, and their facilities were popularly dubbed “dark satanic mills” based on a poem by William Blake. Marx’s frequent co-author and friend, Friedrich Engels, wrote The Condition of the Working-Class in England  (1844), which described the horrid conditions.

Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants. And such a district exists in the heart of the second city of England, the first manufacturing city of the world.

Add to that the long hours, the use of child labor, and exposure to extreme temperatures and toxic chemicals, and it is no wonder that Marx and Engels referred to capitalism, which is a way of organizing an economy so that the things that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) are owned by profit-seeking individuals and companies rather than by the government, as the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”

Black and white portraits are shown side by side. Portrait (a) is of Karl Marx, and Portrait (b) is of Friedrich Engels.

Figure 2. Karl Marx (left) and Friedrich Engels (right) analyzed differences in social power between “have” and “have-not” groups. (Photo (a) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Photo (b) courtesy of George Lester/Wikimedia Commons)

For Marx, how we labor defines who we are. Historically, and in spite of the persistent efforts of one class to dominate another, Marx argued that some element of common humanity still existed in pre-industrial, smaller-scale modes of productions such as guild communities and workshops. In these workplaces, there was at least some connection between the worker and the product, whose creation was partially governed by seasonal cycles and by the the rise and fall of the sun, just as in earlier agricultural societies. But with the bourgeois revolution and the rise of industrialization and capitalism, the worker now labored for wages alone. His relationship to his labor was no longer of a human nature, but was instead based on artificial, inorganic conditions.

Marx described modern society in terms of alienation. Alienation refers to the condition in which the individual is isolated and divorced from his or her society, work, or sense of self. Marx defined four specific types of alienation.

  • Alienation from the product of one’s labor. An industrial worker does not have the opportunity to relate to the product he labors on. Instead of training for years as a watchmaker, an unskilled worker can get a job at a watch factory pressing buttons to seal watch pieces together. The worker does not care if he is making watches or cars, simply that the job exists. In the same way, a worker may not even know or care what product to which he is contributing. A worker on a Ford assembly line may spend all day installing windows on car doors without ever seeing the rest of the car.
  • Alienation from the process of one’s labor. A worker does not control the conditions of her job because she does not own the means of production (i.e., the factory and its tools and raw materials). If a person is hired to work in a fast food restaurant, she is expected to make the food the way she is taught. All ingredients must be combined in a particular order and in a particular quantity; there is no room for creativity or change. An employee at Burger King cannot decide to change the spices used on the fries in the same way that an employee on a Ford assembly line cannot decide to place a car’s headlights in a different position. Everything is decided by the factory-owning bourgeoisie who then dictate orders to the laborers.
  • Alienation from others. Workers compete, rather than cooperate. Employees vie for time slots, bonuses, and job security. Even when a worker clocks out at night and goes home, the competition does not end. As Marx and Engels described this dynamic in The Communist Manifesto (1848), “No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the manufacturer, so far at an end, that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portion of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker.”
  • Alienation from one’s self. A final outcome of industrialization is a loss of connectivity between a worker and her occupation. Because there is nothing that ties a worker to her labor, there is no longer a sense of self. Instead of being able to take pride in an identity such as being a watchmaker, automobile builder, or chef, a person is simply a cog in the machine.

A man is shown using a machine to install car parts on an assembly line.

Figure 3 . An assembly line worker installs car parts with the aid of complex machinery. Has technology made this type of labor more or less alienating? (Photo courtesy of Carol Highsmith/Wikimedia Commons)

Taken as a whole, then, alienation in modern society means that an individual has no control over his life. But why, then, does the modern working class not rise up and rebel? (Indeed, Marx predicted that this would be the ultimate outcome and would result in the collapse of capitalism.)

Another idea that Marx developed is the concept of false consciousness . False consciousness is a condition in which the beliefs, ideals, or ideology of a person are not in the person’s own best interest. In fact, it is the ideology of the dominant class (here, the bourgeois capitalists) that is imposed upon the proletariat. Ideas such as the emphasis of competition over cooperation, or of hard work being its own reward, clearly benefit the owners of the means of production. Therefore, workers are less likely to question their place in society or to assume individual responsibility for existing conditions.

In order for society to overcome false consciousness, Marx proposed that it be replaced with class consciousness , the awareness of one’s rank in society. He thought it was crucial that workers recognize their real relationship to, and political distance from, the means of production. Instead of existing as a “class in itself,” the proletariat must become a “class for itself” in order to effect social change, meaning that instead of just being an inert stratum of society, the class could advocate for social improvements (Marx and Engels 1848). Only once society entered this state of political consciousness would it be ready for a social revolution.

Review Marx’s ideas about alienation and the four types of alienation in the following video.

Further Research

One of the most influential pieces of political writing in modern history was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto (1848). Visit “Manifesto of the Communist Party” on Marxists.org  to read the original document that spurred revolutions around the world.

Think It Over

  • Think of the ways workers are alienated from the product and process of their jobs. How can these concepts be applied to students and their educations?
  • Use Marx’s argument to explain a current social event such as the Occupy movement. Does his theory hold up under modern scrutiny?


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marxist theory of conflict

Conflict Theory

June 15, 2023

Explore Conflict Theory - understand societal power dynamics, inequality roots, and how conflicts shape social change.

What Is Conflict Theory?

Conflict theory is a sociological perspective that views society as a system characterized by power dynamics and the inevitable presence of conflict. The theory emphasizes the role of social inequality, competition for resources, and class struggle in shaping the social order.

At its core, conflict theory posits that society is composed of different groups with competing interests. These groups are defined by their access to and control over resources, such as wealth, power, and social status. Social inequality arises from the unequal distribution of these resources, leading to the formation of social classes.

Competition for limited resources is seen as a driving force behind social conflict. Those in positions of power use their influence to maintain their advantages, while those with fewer resources strive for greater access to societal benefits. As a result, conflict arises between the dominant class and the subordinate classes.

Class struggle is considered a central aspect of conflict theory. It refers to the ongoing battle between social classes for control over resources and the pursuit of their interests. According to conflict theorists, social change occurs through this struggle, as subordinate classes challenge the status quo and strive for a more equitable society.

Conflict theory provides insights into the structural inequalities and power dynamics that shape society. By highlighting the competition for resources and class struggle, it helps us understand the social conflicts that exist within a capitalist society and offers a critical perspective on social arrangements and systems.

Historical Development of Conflict Theory

The historical development of conflict theory can be traced back to the mid-19th century with the contributions of German philosopher Karl Marx and sociologist Max Weber. Both Marx and Weber laid the foundation for understanding the dynamics of social conflict and power struggles within society.

Marx's work was centered on the class struggle in capitalist societies. He argued that social structures and relationships are largely shaped by the distribution of economic resources.

Marx emphasized that in capitalist societies, there exists a conflict between the bourgeoisie, the capitalist class that owns the means of production, and the proletariat, the working class that sells their labor. This class struggle forms the basis of societal change, as the proletariat seeks to overthrow the bourgeoisie and create a more equitable society.

Weber, on the other hand, expanded conflict theory to include power struggles that extend beyond economic class. He looked at how power dynamics are influenced by various social identities such as race, gender, and social status. Weber emphasized the significance of social institutions and their role in maintaining or challenging power structures.

In summary, the historical development of conflict theory emerged through the contributions of Marx and Weber. While Marx focused on the class struggle in capitalist societies, Weber broadened conflict theory to incorporate power struggles based on race, gender, and social identities.

These foundational ideas have significantly influenced the understanding of social conflict and inequality in modern society.

What is conflict

Conflict Theory in Social Structures

Conflict Theory is a sociological perspective that examines society through the lens of competition and inequality among different social groups. According to Conflict Theory, social structures are shaped by the power dynamics and conflicts that arise from the unequal distribution of resources and social status within society.

In this view, society is not harmonious, but rather characterized by struggle and conflict. Different groups compete for limited resources, privileges, and opportunities, leading to the creation and maintenance of social inequalities. These inequalities are not accidental but are instead an inherent feature of social structures.

Conflict arises from the unequal distribution of power, resources, and social status. Those in positions of power use their influence to maintain their advantage, while those with less power and resources struggle to gain access to these limited opportunities. These power dynamics create a system in which the dominant groups further exploit and oppress the marginalized groups.

Conflict Theory challenges the status quo by highlighting these power imbalances and advocating for social change. It emphasizes that societal progress and transformation occur through the resolution of these conflicts, as marginalized groups strive for equity and justice.

By examining social structures from a Conflict Theory perspective, we gain insight into the mechanisms that perpetuate inequality and the pathways for creating a more just and equitable society .

Summary of Conflict Theory

Causes of Conflict

Conflict theory identifies several key causes of conflict within society. Firstly, social structures and institutions play a significant role in the perpetuation of conflict.

These structures, such as economic and political institutions, create and maintain social inequalities, leading to competition for limited resources and privileges. Secondly, power dynamics contribute to conflict, as those in positions of power use their influence to retain their advantage while suppressing the marginalized groups.

The struggle for power and access to resources often results in conflict. Another cause of conflict is the class struggle within capitalist societies. Conflict theorists argue that capitalist societies inherently create and perpetuate social inequalities, leading to class conflict between the dominant class and the marginalized working class.

Additionally, social inequality and injustices can further fuel conflict as marginalized groups seek to challenge and change the status quo. Conflict theorists identify various causes of conflict, including social structures, power dynamics, class struggle, and social inequality, all of which contribute to ongoing conflicts within societies.

Social Structures and Power Dynamics

Conflict theory underscores the pivotal role of social structures and institutions in perpetuating conflict. Economic and political institutions, in particular, are instrumental in creating and sustaining social inequalities.

This leads to a fierce competition for limited resources and privileges, with those in positions of power leveraging their influence to maintain their advantageous position, while suppressing marginalized groups. The struggle for power and access to resources becomes a breeding ground for conflict.

  • Social structures create and maintain inequalities.
  • Power dynamics perpetuate conflict.
  • Competition for limited resources is a key driver of conflict.

Class Struggle and Social Inequality

The theory posits that capitalist societies inherently give rise to social inequalities, resulting in a class struggle between the dominant class and the marginalized working class.

This struggle is fueled by the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities, leading to social divisions and ongoing conflict. Social inequalities and injustices further intensify this conflict, as marginalized groups strive to challenge and alter the status quo.

  • Capitalist societies breed social inequalities.
  • Class struggle is a central theme in conflict theory.
  • Social injustices fuel ongoing conflict.

Role Differentiation and Power Imbalances

Conflict theory delves into the concept of role differentiation, highlighting how the division of labor and allocation of varied roles within social structures lead to power imbalances and conflicts.

Individuals are assigned different roles based on their skills , qualifications, and positions, resulting in varying levels of authority and access to resources. This unequal distribution of power sets the stage for conflicts, as individuals vie for resources and influence.

  • Role differentiation leads to power imbalances.
  • Unequal access to resources fosters conflict.
  • Incompatible roles within social structures intensify tensions.

Sociological Theories

Conflict and Individualism

The theory also explores the relationship between conflict and individualism, emphasizing how societal conflicts arise from the power struggle between individuals and groups with conflicting interests.

Individualism, with its focus on personal freedom and self-interest, contributes to this competitive environment, intensifying conflicts and perpetuating social inequality.

  • Conflict arises from power struggles and conflicting interests.
  • Individualism intensifies competition and conflict.
  • The pursuit of power and resources perpetuates social inequality.

Incompatible Roles and Social Tensions

Conflict theory sheds light on the concept of incompatible roles , illustrating how conflicting expectations within social structures can lead to tensions and conflicts. Whether in the workplace or on a societal level, these incompatible roles highlight the power dynamics and inequalities that pervade society, contributing to ongoing conflicts and class struggles.

  • Incompatible roles lead to tensions and conflicts.
  • Power dynamics and inequalities are highlighted.
  • Ongoing conflicts and class struggles are perpetuated.

Contested Resources and Class Conflict

The struggle for access to limited resources, termed as contested resources in conflict theory, results in competition and conflict among different social groups and classes. This struggle is a direct consequence of social structures and institutions that perpetuate inequality, leading to class conflict and the maintenance of the status quo.

  • Contested resources lead to competition and conflict.
  • Social structures perpetuate inequality.
  • Class conflict challenges existing power dynamics and arrangements.

By dissecting these causes of conflict, conflict theory provides a comprehensive understanding of the power dynamics, social inequalities, and struggles that characterize society. It offers a lens through which to examine and address the root causes of conflict, paving the way for a more equitable and just society.

Karl Marx Theory

Modern Day Examples of Conflict Theory

Modern day examples of conflict theory can be seen in various social issues that plague our society.

  • Economic Inequality : The Occupy Wall Street movement exemplifies conflict theory through its protest against the disproportionate wealth and power held by the top 1% of the population. This movement highlighted the stark economic disparities and limited opportunities available to the majority, showcasing the class struggle and power dynamics central to conflict theory.
  • Racial Inequality : The Black Lives Matter movement provides a modern context for conflict theory, as it addresses the systemic racism, police brutality, and social disadvantages faced by African American communities. The movement demands equal rights and opportunities, challenging the existing power imbalances and advocating for societal change.
  • Gender Inequality : The #MeToo movement illustrates conflict theory in its challenge against entrenched patriarchal power structures and the fight for gender equality. Women from various walks of life have come forward to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, highlighting the gender-based power imbalances and demanding accountability and change.
  • Political Conflict : The recent Capitol riot in the United States serves as an example of political conflict from a conflict theory perspective. Different social groups, fueled by divisive rhetoric and the competition for political power , clashed in a violent confrontation, showcasing the intense power struggles and social unrest characteristic of political conflict.
  • Environmental Conflict : The Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline highlight the conflict over natural resources and land rights. Indigenous communities, supported by environmental activists, stood against the corporate and governmental interests, showcasing the struggle for control over natural resources and the need for environmental justice.

By examining these modern examples, conflict theory’s relevance in understanding and addressing contemporary social issues becomes clear, offering pathways for societal reflection and potential transformation.

Conflict theory explained

Critiques and Limitations

While conflict theory provides valuable insights into power dynamics and social inequality, it is not without its critiques and limitations.

One critique is that conflict theory often neglects the importance of cooperation and consensus in social relations. While conflicts and power struggles do exist, social interactions are not solely driven by competition for resources. Cooperation and consensus play significant roles in shaping social relationships and maintaining stability within societies, yet these aspects are often overlooked or oversimplified in conflict theory.

Another criticism is that conflict theory can sometimes oversimplify the diverse experiences within social groups. It tends to view social groups as homogeneous entities, overlooking the internal dynamics and complexities that exist within them. This oversimplification can limit our understanding of the multitude of factors that contribute to social inequalities and can hinder efforts to address these issues effectively.

Furthermore, conflict theory has been criticized for its politicization, particularly due to its association with Karl Marx and its widespread use in various causes and movements. Some argue that this politicization can hinder objective analysis and understanding, as conflict theory is sometimes used as a tool to further specific ideological agendas rather than providing a nuanced understanding of social dynamics.

In light of these critiques, it is important to recognize that conflict theory offers valuable insights but should be complemented by other perspectives to provide a more comprehensive understanding of social phenomena.

By incorporating alternative perspectives such as functionalism, which emphasizes the balance created by different social institutions and the inevitability and usefulness of inequality in society, a more nuanced and holistic understanding can be achieved.

Functionalism and Conflict Theory

Comparative Analysis with Other Sociological Theories

How might the conflict theory be conceptually linked to the following?

  • Systems Theory : Both theories scrutinize societal structures, but conflict theory emphasizes the inherent inequalities and power struggles, especially in a capitalistic society, while systems theory tends to focus on maintaining stability and equilibrium.
  • Intrinsic Motivation : Conflict theory can help explain disparities in intrinsic motivation among different social groups, as it highlights how limited access to resources and opportunities can dampen an individual’s internal drive to learn and succeed.
  • Theory of Change : Conflict theory provides a critical lens for examining the social and power dynamics that can either facilitate or hinder transformative change, as outlined in a theory of change, particularly in contexts where resources are scarce or unequally distributed.
  • Sociocultural Theory : Both theories emphasize the impact of societal structures on individual behavior, but conflict theory specifically focuses on how social inequalities and power imbalances contribute to the shaping of cultural norms and values.
  • Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model : While Bronfenbrenner’s model highlights the influence of various environmental systems on individual development, conflict theory adds a layer of analysis by examining how inequalities within these systems can lead to disparate outcomes.
  • Social Identity Theory : Conflict theory complements social identity theory by exploring how societal conflicts and power dynamics contribute to the formation of group identities and intergroup tensions.
  • Social Constructionism : Both theories delve into the ways in which societal structures shape our perceptions of reality, but conflict theory places a particular emphasis on how these structures perpetuate inequalities and power imbalances.
  • Comparative analysis reveals the unique and interconnected aspects of various sociological theories.
  • These conceptual links enhance our ability to analyze and address complex social issues from multiple perspectives.

Conflict resolution techniques

Strategies for Addressing Social Inequalities

Addressing social inequalities requires a multifaceted approach that incorporates various strategies to promote social justice. By understanding and analyzing these inequalities through different sociological paradigms, it becomes possible to develop effective strategies to address them.

  • Understanding Social Inequalities : Grasp the depth and origins of social disparities by delving into different sociological paradigms. Educate and disseminate information to illuminate the structural factors perpetuating inequality, aiming for its eventual eradication. "To change something, you have to understand it. Social inequalities are no exception," asserts an expert in the field. A study by the American Sociological Association found that educational interventions can reduce prejudiced attitudes by 10%.
  • Promoting Virtuous Behaviors : Encourage the cultivation of empathy, compassion, and respect. Foster attitudes and behaviors that champion equality and fairness, contributing to a more balanced society. Karl Marx's original theory underscores the importance of altering individual consciousness to combat systemic inequalities.
  • Incentivizing Virtuous Actions : Implement policies and systems that reward behaviors contributing to equality. Encourage active participation in initiatives aimed at dismantling social disparities.
  • Facilitating Virtuous Acts : Create conducive environments for positive action. Remove barriers, provide necessary resources, and nurture spaces that support social change and the promotion of equity.
  • Strengthening Social Solidarity : Foster a sense of community and mutual support. Encourage collective action to address and reduce social inequalities, emphasizing the power of unity in driving change.
  • Applying Sociological Paradigms : Utilize insights from conflict theory, functionalist theory, and feminist theory to understand power dynamics, social structures, and resource distribution. These perspectives offer a comprehensive view, aiding in the development of effective strategies to combat social inequalities .
  • Embracing a Multifaceted Approach : Recognize the need for a diverse array of strategies in addressing social disparities. Combine awareness, virtue, incentives, facilitation, and solidarity to create a robust and effective response to social inequalities.
  • Strategies must be diverse and informed by sociological paradigms.
  • Education and awareness are foundational to understanding and addressing inequalities.
  • Collective action and virtuous behaviors play crucial roles in fostering social justice.

Understanding conflict resolution

Further Reading on Conflict Theory

These studies provide a diverse range of perspectives on conflict theory, its applications, and its implications for understanding social dynamics.

1. Jackson, J. (1993). Realistic group conflict theory: A review and evaluation of the theoretical and empirical literature. Psychological Record, 43, 395-413.

Summary : This paper provides a comprehensive review and evaluation of the Realistic Group Conflict Theory, highlighting its potential to offer valuable insights for contemporary social scientists. The theory is praised for its ability to fulfill theoretical functions and its scientific rigor.

2. Schmidt, J. R., Notebaert, W., & Bussche, E. (2015). Is conflict adaptation an illusion ? Frontiers in Psychology, 6.

Summary : This research raises questions about the validity of conflict adaptation theory , presenting diverse perspectives and encouraging further research for more definitive answers.

3. Böhm, R., Rusch, H., & Baron, J. (2018). The psychology of intergroup conflict: A review of theories and measures. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 178, 947-962.

Summary : This paper reviews various theories and measures related to the psychology of intergroup conflict, suggesting that an interdisciplinary approach could enhance future research in this field.

4. Midgley, G., & Pinzón, L. A. (2011). Boundary critique and its implications for conflict prevention . Journal of the Operational Research Society, 62, 1543-1554.

Summary : This study explores the theory of boundary critique and its utility in conflict prevention, emphasizing the importance of dialogue and fair decision-making processes.

5. Mikkelsen, E. N., & Clegg, S. (2019). Conceptions of Conflict in Organizational Conflict Research: Toward Critical Reflexivity. Journal of Management Inquiry, 28, 166-179.

Summary : This essay encourages a critical examination of the philosophical and political assumptions about conflict in organizational conflict research, proposing theoretical linkages and a future research agenda.

marxist theory of conflict

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Understanding Conflict Theory

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Conflict theory states that tensions and conflicts arise when resources, status, and power are unevenly distributed between groups in society and that these conflicts become the engine for social change. In this context, power can be understood as control of material resources and accumulated wealth, control of politics and the institutions that make up society, and one's social status relative to others (determined not just by class but by race, gender, sexuality, culture , and religion, among other things).

"A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirement for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut." Wage Labour and Capital (1847)

Marx's Conflict Theory

Conflict theory originated in the work of Karl Marx , who focused on the causes and consequences of class conflict between the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production and the capitalists) and the proletariat (the working class and the poor). Focusing on the economic, social, and political implications of the rise of capitalism in Europe , Marx theorized that this system, premised on the existence of a powerful minority class (the bourgeoisie) and an oppressed majority class (the proletariat), created class conflict because the interests of the two were at odds, and resources were unjustly distributed among them.

Within this system an unequal social order was maintained through ideological coercion which created consensus--and acceptance of the values, expectations, and conditions as determined by the bourgeoisie. Marx theorized that the work of producing consensus was done in the "superstructure" of society, which is composed of social institutions, political structures, and culture, and what it produced consensus for was the "base," the economic relations of production. 

Marx reasoned that as the socio-economic conditions worsened for the proletariat, they would develop a class consciousness that revealed their exploitation at the hands of the wealthy capitalist class of bourgeoisie, and then they would revolt, demanding changes to smooth the conflict. According to Marx, if the changes made to appease conflict maintained a capitalist system, then the cycle of conflict would repeat. However, if the changes made created a new system, like socialism , then peace and stability would be achieved.

Evolution of Conflict Theory

Many social theorists have built on Marx's conflict theory to bolster it, grow it, and refine it over the years. Explaining why Marx's theory of revolution did not manifest in his lifetime, Italian scholar and activist  Antonio Gramsci  argued that the power of ideology was stronger than Marx had realized and that more work needed to be done to overcome cultural hegemony, or  rule through common sense . Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, critical theorists who were part of The Frankfurt School , focused their work on how the rise of mass culture--mass produced art, music, and media--contributed to the maintenance of cultural hegemony. More recently, C. Wright Mills drew on conflict theory to describe the rise of a tiny "power elite" composed of military, economic, and political figures who have ruled America from the mid-twentieth century.

Many others have drawn on conflict theory to develop other types of theory within the social sciences, including feminist theory , critical race theory , postmodern and postcolonial theory, queer theory, post-structural theory, and theories of globalization and world systems . So, while initially conflict theory described class conflicts specifically, it has lent itself over the years to studies of how other kinds of conflicts, like those premised on race, gender, sexuality, religion, culture, and nationality, among others, are a part of contemporary social structures, and how they affect our lives.

Applying Conflict Theory

Conflict theory and its variants are used by many sociologists today to study a wide range of social problems. Examples include:

  • How today's global capitalism creates a global system of power and inequality.
  • How words play a role in reproducing and justifying conflict.
  • The causes and consequences of the gender pay gap between men and women.

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Conflict Theory in Sociology

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.

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Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

On This Page:

Conflict theory in sociology posits that society is characterized by various inequalities and conflicts that arise due to differences in power, resources, and social status. It emphasizes the competition between groups, often framing issues in terms of dominance and subordination. This theory challenges the status quo and highlights social change driven by these conflicts.

Key Takeaways

  • Conflict theories emphasize looking at the history and events in a society in terms of structural power divisions, such as social class.
  • Although few modern sociologists call themselves conflict theorists, scholars as notable as Karl Marx (1818–1883), Max Weber (1864–1920), Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), and Ralf Dahrendorf (1929–2009) have formulated theories as to what causes conflict, its normalcy, and the impact it has on societies.
  • A structural conflict approach, such as Marxism , believes that society is in a conflict between the classes. They believe that the Bourgeoisie oppress the Proletariat through various social institutions without their full knowledge.
  • Some sociologists, such as Crouch (2001), categorize conflict theories across two axes: momentous vs. mundane and exceptional vs. endemic. This categorization reflects when and the extent to which theorists believe that conflict is pathological in a society.
  • Sociologists have used conflict theory to frame and enhance discussions as far-ranging as historical events to individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures and gender discrimination in the workplace.

Marx conflict theory

What is Conflict Theory?

Conflict theory is a general term covering a number of sociological approaches, which appose functionalism and which share the idea that the basic feature of all societies was the struggle between different groups for access to limited resources.

Conflict theories assume that all societies have structural power divisions and resource inequalities that lead to groups having conflicting interests (Wells, 1979).

For example, Marxism emphasizes class conflict over economic resources, but Weber suggests that conflict and inequality can be caused by power and status independently of class structures.

Evolution of Conflict Theory

Large-scale civil unrest and large demographic dislocations, extreme poverty, and a wide gap between the interests and wealth of workers and owners led to the development of Marxist conflict theory, which emphasizes the omnipresence of the divides of social class.

Later, conflict theory manifested in World Wars and Civil Rights movements, empowerment movements, and rebuttals of colonial rule (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Although people have been spreading conflict from a folk knowledge context for millennia, the philosophy underlying conflict theory — and intentional thinking around how people understand conflict and how they can resolve it in constructive ways — stems from the thinking of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and George Simmel.

However, sociologists such as Bartos and Wehr (2002) propose the definition that conflict is any situation where actors use conflict action against each other in order to attain incompatible goals or to express their hostility.

When two or more individuals pursue incompatible interests, they are in a relationship of conflict. For example, if the workers in a factory wish to work as little as possible and be paid as much as possible, and the owners want the workers to work as much as possible with as little pay as possible, then the workers and owners have incompatible interests (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Conflict can also manifest when groups do not necessarily have incompatible goals but feel hostility toward each other.

Hostility arises out of non-rational decision-making, which is impulsive and often at odds with the actions rational analysis (such as prospect or utility theory) may suggest.

Because of this contradiction, conflict behavior heavily influenced by hostility can be damaging to the actor’s interest in the long term (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Finally, “conflict behavior” covers many types of behavior. Conflict behavior can consist of rational actions (actions that consider and accurately judge all possible outcomes) and the expression of hostility, as well as behavior that is either coercive (such as causing great physical harm to an opponent) or cooperative (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Understanding Conflict Theory

Functionalist approaches to conflict theory.

Functionalist theories, particularly those of structural functionalism, which dominated the US in the 1940s and 1950s, tend to see conflict as momentous and exceptional (i.e., unusual). When conflict is momentous, it is likely to result in major upheavals and potentially momentous change.

Functionalism, in sum, is a theory based on the premise that every aspect of society — such as institutions, roles, and norms — serves some purpose to society and that all of these systems work together with internal consistency (Wells, 1979).

Talcott Parsons (1964) is the most prominent structural functionalist who studied conflict. Parsons believed that conflict generally did not overwhelm social relations, and thus, that overwhelming, momentous conflict was exceptional.

When conflict does happen in a social situation, it is because there is something psychologically wrong with one of these essential institutions, and thus, conflict is a harbinger of potentially major change (Crouch, 2001).

Marxist Approach to Conflict Theory

Marx’s version of conflict theory focused on the conflict between two primary classes within capitalist society: the ruling capitalist class (or bourgeoisie), who own the means of production, and the working class (or proletariat), whose alienated labor the bourgeoisie exploit to produce a profit.

If the power of the ruling class is challenged by, say, strikes and protests, the ruling class can use the law to criminalize those posing a threat, and media reporting will be manipulated to give the impression that the ruling class’s interests are those of the whole nation.

For Marxists, the appearance of consensus is an illusion; it conceals the reality of one class imposing its will on the rest of society.

Coercion – the use of the army, police, and other government agencies to force other classes to accept the ruling class ideology.

In contrast to functionalist theories of conflict, Marxist theories of conflict see conflict as endemic and momentous (Marx, 2000). Endemic conflict theories see conflict as an inherent aspect of social relations and likely to occur at many points over the course of a relationship.

Conflict is endemic to social relations, according to Marxism, because of the belief that society is based upon class relations and that those from different class groups have opposing interests.

This conflict is implicit in every interaction, and conflict does not only exist when it overtly manifests itself in actions.

Indeed, according to Marxists, weaker parties in class conflict may be powerless or too fearful to express conflict openly (Rowthorn, 1980).

Radical criminology is an example of conflict theory applied to the study of crime and the criminal justice system.

It emphasizes the power disparities and structural inequalities present in society, suggesting that laws and the criminal justice system primarily serve the interests of the dominant or elite groups, often marginalizing or criminalizing the less powerful groups.

Marxist vs. Functionalist Approaches to Conflict

While a functionalist may view the conflict between a supervisor and their employees as a symptom of something being wrong in the organization, a Marxist sociologist may view this conflict as a reflection of the reality of the relationship between the supervisor and his workers.

An absence of conflict would deny the inherent and fundamental divides underlying every structural divide in a Marxist society (Crouch, 2001).

Although both functionalism and Marxism disagree as to whether or not conflict is inherent to social interactions, both approaches agree that conflict is likely to bring about disorder and potentially radical social change.

In the case of Marxism, a momentous class conflict will lead to a catastrophic dissolution of class relations.

Indeed, in a way, some sociologists have called it ironic (Couch, 2001) that the ongoing social order according to Marxism resembles that of the functionalist social order. All institutions tend to attempt to maintain the current social order.

Conflict as Mundane

Conflict can also be seen as mundane — unlikely to lead to an upheaval and radical social change. According to institutionalized conflict theory, for example, in cases where institutions are separated from each other, it is unlikely that conflict will spread between institutions.

This desire to separate institutions emerged in response to the fascism and extreme movements arising out of the early-mid 20th century. In particular, political sociologists were interested in how different identities in conflict could run together or cross-cut each other (Lipset, 1964; Crouch, 2001).

When groups tend to hold more identities in conflict with another group, the conflict is more widespread and more intense.

For example, one would expect a society where most blacks were working-class Catholics and most whites were bourgeois protestants to be in greater and more intense conflict than one where a significant proportion of whites were working-class Catholics and so on.

Conflict, Micro-functionalism, and Applied Sociology

Micro-functionalism, in short, is a form of functionalism that stresses the separateness of social institutions. Micro-functionalism and applied sociology see conflict as mundane and exceptional.

Like functionalism, to microfunctionalists, conflict is unusual and pathological, and events such as strikes, divorces, crime, and violence are seen as indicators of malfunctioning but mundane malfunctioning.

Applied sociology, in its study of social problems such as marriage, poverty, and social movements, similarly sees conflict in these domains as pathological but unlikely to cause a great upheaval in greater society.

Critical Sociology and the Normalization of Conflict

Critical sociologists, such as feminist sociologists, see conflict as both endemic and mundane.

Generally, modern sociologists have seen conflict as both endemic and mundane and thus regarded as normal, leading to the disappearance of distinctive conflict sociology in recent years (Crouch, 2001).

Some critical sociologists, such as Ralf Dahrendorf, see conflict as not only endemic and functional but also capable of sustaining the social order in itself.

People innovated and created institutions, in Dahrendof’s approach (1972), by openly expressing and working out differences, difficulties, and contradictions.

This provides a radical contrast to structural functionalism in contending that the endemicity and mundanity — as opposed to the momentousness and exceptionality — of conflict preserves social structures rather than destroying them (Crouch, 2001).

Dahrendorf wrote from the cultural context of the conflicted history of Germany in the early-to-mid 20th century (Dahrendorf 1966). Postwar German sociologists, such as Habermas (1981), tended to stress open dialogue and communication in the working out of conflicts.

The works of Max Weber led to an increasing view of conflict as normalized (Weber, 1978). Weber, unlike Marx, did not reduce social relations to material class interests.

For him, conflict could be about any number of factors, from idealistic beliefs to symbolic orders, and none were necessarily any more important than the others (Crouch, 2001).

Conflict, Hostility, and Rationality/Irrationality

One way that sociologists propose to reduce conflict is through rational decision-making.

Weber (1978) argued that there are two types of rationality involved in decision-making processes.

The first, instrumental rationality, is directed at carrying out a specific goal, such as buying the best car with the money one has or deciding which topics to revise in order to pass an exam the next day.

The other type of rationality that Weber proposes is value rationality, when the objective is to conform to a vaguely defined set of values, such as when a religious person is trying to determine which among various ways of practice is most appropriate (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Sociologists consider the implementation of so-called rational decision-making to be effused with difficulties. Different individuals in different contexts can differ greatly in what they consider to be a rational choice .

However, sociologists agree that an action is rational if they consider the set of all relevant alternatives and assess every outcome correctly. Of course, this is unlikely in practice, and thus, few actors make decisions completely rationally.

One form of non-rational decision-making that sociologists consider to drive conflict is hostility. Conflicts that start rationally may end non-rationally. For example, a demonstration planned to let a group’s point of view be known may turn into a riot with rock throwing, the burning of cars, and looting.

Conflict and hostility have a reciprocal relationship: hostility can add fuel to and intensify conflict behavior, and conflict can intensify hostility. As conflicts continue and actors inflict harm on each other, participants may become motivated by desires beyond reaching their original goals, such as inflicting as much harm on the perceived enemy as possible (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Causes of Conflict

Generally, sociologists agree that conflict occurs due to groups having incompatible goals. However, these incompatible goals generally arise from several factors: including contested resources, incompatible roles, and incompatible values.

Contested Resource

Contested Resources draws three main categories that contested resources fit into: wealth, power, and prestige. Generally, wealth involves tangibles, such as money or land (Weber, 1978)

For example, children hearing the reading of the will of a deceased parent may suddenly come into conflict as they each believe that they deserve more money than was allocated to them.

The land has also been the source of a number of historical and contemporary conflicts, such as the conflict over East Jerusalem and Golan Heights between Israel, Palestine, and Syria (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

An actor, according to Bartos and Wehr (2002), is powerful if they can coerce others into doing what they want by either promising to reward the action they desire or by threatening to punish them for failing to do so.

Power is generally unequally distributed, and parties in a power relationship can either dominate another or when one party has greater power potential than the other.

For example, after WWI, the Treaty of Versailles allowed the Allied powers to dominate Germany, requiring the country to pay heavy reparations to the Allied forces.

However, with the rise of Hitler, Germany was rearmed, increasing the country’s power potential. Thus, Germany was able to invade Austria and Czechoslovakia with impunity (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Prestige can also be a contested resource. Generally, those held in high respect (high prestige) have power, and those who have power are often held in high respect. Actors can have high prestige in certain situations and much lower prestige in others.

Incompatible Roles

Incompatible goals within an organization may arise out of incompatible roles. In the study of conflict, sociologists have emphasized vertical role differentiation, which assigns different roles to different positions within the power hierarchy.

Although many sociologists have studied the conflict arising from role differentiation, they have not generally agreed on whether role differentiation causes conflict.

In contrast, an organization can have role differentiation because members have partial and specific responsibilities, such as that of an engineer or a salesperson.

Although these roles are different in nature, those playing these rules do not refer to their relationships as those of superiors and subordinates (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Nonetheless, the roles of a horizontally integrated organization can still be incompatible.

For example, while an engineer may need to design a building that has beams visible from the atrium for structural stability reasons, this may contradict an architect or interior designer’s desire to have a clean, modern space without visible construction elements.

Incompatible Values

Groups separated from each other can also develop cultures that encourage incompatible values. This can happen due to separation, the values of communities and systems, or role differentiation.

Separation can occur on either the individual or group level. In either case, those separated from others develop unique sets of values, as their interactions with those in their ingroups are more intense than those in the outgroup.

One extreme example of isolation is cults. Cults can range from religious cults that may, for example, worship an ancient god to secular cults such as militias that oppose the government.

These organizations are generally small and have clearly defined beliefs, values, and norms that make them distinct from both other cults and mainstream cultures (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Those in groups also tend to form their own group identities, where they tend to value themselves more highly than others value them (Where, 2002).

This “ethnocentric” view — manifested today in the form of nationalism, for example (Chrristenson et al. 1975) — makes it easier for actions inflicted by other groups, however unintentional, to be seen as slights on the ethnocentric group (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Community and System Values

The American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1951) noted that in the creation of a social arrangement, actors have to decide whether the relationships among themselves are affective or affectively neutral; self or collectively oriented; universalistic or particularistic; specific or diffuse; ascription or achievement-oriented.

In making these decisions, societies adopt a set of cultural values.

Small tribal societies tend to adopt communal values, and large societies tend to adopt system values (Bartos and Wehr, 2002), which in themselves can lead to goal incompatibility (conflict) between societies.

Communal values emerge from face-to-face interactions and tend to be effective, collectivistic, particularistic, ascriptive, and diffuse, while system values tend to be the opposite.

Habermas (1987) considers these opposing communal and system values to be a potential source of social conflict. Advanced industrial societies, in Habermas’ view, tend to “colonize” and “deform” communal life.

Role Differentiation

Finally, role differentiation can directly create incompatible goals by means of nudging those with different goals to act in incompatible ways.

Roles can emphasize, as discussed previously, communal or system values.

For example, a pastor may emphasize love (an affective communal value) while a businessman may value efficiency — a system value — as more important than love in a business context (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Examples of Conflict

The cuban missile crisis.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union became close to nuclear war (Downing, 1992). The Soviet leader Kruschev installed medium-range missiles in Cuba.

The president of the United States had to negotiate the risks of reacting too strongly (nuclear war) with the drawbacks of responding weakly (increasing the influence of the Soviet Union).

That is to say, the United States and the Soviet Union had deeply conflicting interests: the Soviet Union wanted to increase its missile supremacy, and the United States wanted to curtail it (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Conflict and Individualism

Although some societies (such as Japan) can preserve some features of small groups, most wealthy, industrialized Western societies tend to encourage individualism, which encourages members of a society to formulate and develop their own values rather than accepting those of the larger groups (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Individual personality differences — such as extraversion, aggression, talkative, and problem-solving styles — may lead to the development of incompatible values.

One’s alignment with individualism or collectivism can also have a great impact on styles of decision-making in conflicts.

According to LeFebvre and Franke (2013), for example, participants with higher levels of individualism tended to favor rational approaches to decision-making, while those with higher levels of collectivism tended to value staying loyal to the interests of their ingroups.

A Conflict Theory of Sexual Stratification

Collins (1971) attempts to explain employment discrimination against women as the result of a sexual stratification system constructed from the perspectives of Freud and Weber.

In short, Weber argued that conflict emerges over a struggle for as much dominance over other groups as resources permit.

In the early 1970s, women tended to comprise a low number of professional and manual labor positions relative to men.

For example, in 1971, 18% of college professors were female, and 3.3% of lawyers and judges were. Historically, explanations for this imbalance involved a perceived lack of training and a low commitment to professional work in favor of child rearing (Collins, 1971).

However, as Collins demonstrates, neither of these is necessarily true.

Rather, Collins suggests that women belong to a lower class in a sexual stratification system. This is evidenced by how women in the 1970s who took on managerial roles tended to do so mostly in professions dominated by women (such as nursing).

Collins then goes on to theorize that men’s large size and high sexual and aggressive drives have led to the historical subjugation of women by men.

In this system, according to Collins (1971), women can be acquired as sexual property and thus subjugated to the role of “menial servants” (Levi-Strauss, 1949).

Bartos, O. J., & Wehr, P. (2002). Using conflict theory: Cambridge University Press.

Binns, D. (1977). Beyond the sociology of conflict. New York: St. Martin’s.

Collins, R. (2014). A Conflict Theory of Sexual Stratification1. Social Problems, 19(1), 3-21. doi:10.2307/799936

Crouch, C. J. (2001). Conflict Sociology. In N. J. Smelser & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 2554-2559). Oxford: Pergamon.

Downing, B. (1992). The military revolution and political change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

Habermas, J. (1987). 8. The Tasks of a Critical Theory of Society. In Modern German Sociology (pp. 187-212): Columbia University Press.

LeFebvre, R., & Franke, V. (2013). Culture Matters: Individualism vs. Collectivism in Conflict Decision-Making. Societies, 3(1), 128-146. Retrieved from https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4698/3/1/128

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1949). L”efficacité symbolique. Revue de l”histoire des religions, 5-27.

Marx, K. (2000). Selected writings (2 ed.). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Weber, M. (1978). Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology (Vol. 1). Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press.

Wells, A. (1979). Conflict theory and functionalism: Introductory sociology textbooks, 1928-1976. Teaching Sociology, 429-437.

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  4. Marxist Theory

  5. Marxist theory in literature #english #poststructuralism #books #postcolonialliterature #history

  6. Slavoj Zizek & Stephen Kotkin New York Public Library


  1. What Is Marxist Feminism?

    Marxist Feminism refers to a particular feminist theory focusing on the ways in which women are oppressed through capitalist economic practices and the system of private property. The gendered division of labor is one of the most important ...

  2. What Are the Types of Social Conflict Theories?

    Where the theory of social conflict applies, various examples include the disparity between the rich and the poor and other social class conflicts, like gender equality, that influence social structures.

  3. What Is the Definition of Conflict Theory?

    Conflict theory refers to a group of perspectives within sociology that explain society in terms of the discordance between social groups. These perspectives run contrary to structural functionalism, which defines society by its level of co...

  4. Conflict Theory Definition, Founder, and Examples

    Conflict theory, first developed by Karl Marx, is a theory that society is in a state of perpetual conflict because of competition for limited resources.


    For Marx, class conflict in conjunction with correlated processes (such as increasing worker poverty) leads to the intensification of the dominance of one class

  6. Social conflict theory

    Social conflict theory is a Marxist-based social theory which argues that individuals and groups (social classes) within society interact on the basis of

  7. Conflict Theory

    Social institutions like government, education, and religion reflect this competition

  8. Conflict Theory

    Conflict Theory, developed by Karl Marx, purports that due to society's never-ending competition for finite resources, it will always be in a state of conflict.

  9. Conflict Theory and Society

    Economically, he saw conflict existing between the owners of the means of production—the bourgeoisie—and the laborers, called the proletariat. Marx maintained

  10. Karl Marx's Class Conflict Theory

    Marx's theory of class struggle holds that history consists of different periods in which one class rules over other classes. The most recent era is of

  11. Conflict Theory

    Conflict theory is a sociological perspective that views society as a system characterized by power dynamics and the inevitable presence of

  12. Conflict Theory

    The conflict theory says that there is a continuous struggle and competition between the deprived and possessed in society to control its finite natural

  13. Understanding Conflict Theory

    Conflict theory originated in the work of Karl Marx, who focused on the causes and consequences of class conflict between the bourgeoisie (the

  14. Conflict Theory in Sociology

    A structural conflict approach, such as Marxism, believes that society is in a conflict between the classes. They believe that the Bourgeoisie