conflict theory

Conflict Theory: Definition, Key Concepts, Contributors, and More

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is also called “Marxism”. Conflict theory developed in the 1960s as a reaction to the weaknesses of functionalism theory which could not address rapid social change during the 1960s and 1970s. Conflict is also a macro-level theoretical perspective.

Conflict theory views society as an arena of perpetual class conflict due to inequality among elements or parts of the society. This theory focuses on social inequality that arises due to uneven distribution of resources, status, and power that ultimately divide the society into two conflicting classes (which Marx calls the ‘haves’ or Bourgeoise and ‘have nots’ or proletariats in capitalist society) and the clash (class conflict) between these two classes trigger social change. So, conflict theorists view class conflict as all engines of social change.

Karl Marx Father of conflict theory

Karl Marx is considered the father of social conflict theory. Marx told that every society existing today has a history of class conflict (class struggle) and it is the conflict that always drives human society to change. Marx attempted to understand the human society in terms of conflict between two social classes; the bourgeoisie who owned the means of economic production (factory or farm owners) and proletariats who did not (the workers).

The knowledge of this theory has been used to explain varied social problems such as social revolutions, social discrimination, domestic violence, gender issues, etc. Karl Marx, Max Weber, Ralph Dahrendorf Collins, Lewis Coser, etc. are the main contributors to this theory.

Note The Key Terms:

Key concepts developed in this conflict perspective include:

  • Class Struggle: The contradictory class relations based on ownership of means of production lead to conflict and instability called the class struggle.
  • Class consciousness: The realization and understanding of their exploited position by the working class are called class consciousness.
  • Conflict: The competition or contradiction that arises between the different social elements (such as social groups, races, ethnic groups, etc.) because of opposite interests or any reason is known as conflict.
  • False consciousness: a person’s beliefs and ideology that are in conflict with her best interests.


or, Basic Tenets or Premises or Propositions or Bases or Notion or Key Aspects of Conflict Theory

The main assumptions of conflict theory are:

  • Society is composed of groups having competing/ different interests which means that society is not a system of equilibrium.
  • The groups/ classes have different amounts of resources.
  • There are seeds of conflict embedded in every society which means that conflict is a universal phenomenon.
  • Society itself is dynamic. The social universe and its components are in a state of flux.
  • The class conflict ultimately produces positive social change.
  • Although conflict is inherent in every society, it’s not always violent or manifest.
  • Conflict in society can be temporarily suppressed, controlled but cannot be abolished.
  • The theory is based on a macro-level theoretical orientation.


  • Conflict theory is criticized for its concentration only on the negative aspect of the social world i.e. overemphasis on inequality and division and for neglecting the fact of how shared values and interdependence generate unity among members of society.
  • Many societies are extremely stable over time rather than changing abruptly as conflict theory would suggest.
  • Marx’s vision did not come true. As societies modernized, the working classes became more educated, acquiring specific job skills and achieving the kind of financial well-being that Marx never thought possible.
  • Instead of increased exploitation of the working class, they came under the protection of unions and labor laws.
  • It has been accused of its weakness of only considering the larger part (macro-parts) of the society thus dwelling on macro-social realities and neglecting micro-level social realities.
  • Many schools of thought criticize Marx for involving his emotions rather than a clean mind to study society and how it functions.

Contributors of Conflict Theory

Or, Conflict Theories

Conflict Theory of Karl Marx

The German philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx is the founder of conflict theory. His ‘theory of class conflict’ claims that due to society’s never-ending competition for limited resources, it will always be in a state of conflict. He 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).

It means that in every historical period there are two social classes; the ‘haves’ i.e. oppressor or ruling class and the ‘have nots’ i.e. oppressed or ruled class which come into conflict that takes the revolutionary form triggering social change with the establishment of communist society (a society where the means of production is communally owned and controlled rather than just by few elites and powerful ones). Hence, Marx argued that social class is economically determined and this economic inequality is the source of class conflict.

Conflict theory of Max Weber

Like Karl Marx, Weber agreed that there is a perpetual conflict between groups in the society over limited resources but Unlike Marx, who focused on conflict due to economic inequality among the groups (classes) in the society, the German philosopher and sociologist Weber argued that conflict can occur over many aspects of society such as status (social) and party (political).

Weber further suggested that society not only has two classes; the bourgeoisie (i.e. capitalist who are owners of means of production) and proletariats (working-class or poor who sell their labor) but also the rise of the middle class who holds a high position and are not poor.

Functionalism Vs. Conflict Theory

Q. How functionalist perspective differs from the conflict perspective in understanding and explaining society?

Ans: Both functionalism and conflict theory are macro-level approaches to the study and understanding of society. However, there is a striking difference between these two sociological perspectives (theories).

Differences are:

  • Pioneer of functionalism is Emile Durkheim. And, the Pioneer of conflict theory is Karl Marx.
  • Functionalists look for stability and consensus. Whereas Conflict theorists are primarily concerned with the kinds of changes in society.
  • Functionalism states that each aspect of society serves a function and is necessary for the survival of that society. Whereas the conflict theory states that a society is in perpetual class conflict due to unequal distribution of resources.
  • The approach used in functionalism is that all the elements (parts) of the society are interdependent and they serve the function for the stability of the society. Whereas conflict theory focuses on the concept of social inequality in the division of resources, therefore, the conflict that exists between classes will trigger social change.
  • The functionalist perspective, because of its focus on stability, is generally seen as more “conservation”. Whereas conflict perspective is viewed as more “radical” and “activist” because of its emphasis on social change and the need for redistribution of resources to eliminate existing social inequality.

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