Conflict Theory – Definition

Cite this article as:"Conflict Theory – Definition," in The Business Professor, updated September 24, 2019, last accessed October 28, 2020,

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Conflict Theory Definition

The conflict theory is a theory that argues that the society, individuals and groups within the social confines interact with one another not on the basis of consensus but on conflict. It claims that the society is consistently in  a state of conflict, especially when there is unequal distribution of resources or competition for the available resources. Also, the domination of a majority by powerful minority can breed conflict, given the fact that the powerful groups often oppress and exploit the less powerful ones. Karl Marx suggested the conflict theory, according to him, the quest by every group within a society to maximise benefits lead to conflicts.

A Little More on What is Conflict Theory

The conflict theory is an important theory that borders on a wide range of discussions. There are various forms of conflicts which stem from the bid of different groups in a society to gratify their desires. For example, all groups in society have different goals and levels of resources they want to attain, thereby causing conflict among the groups. Different areas and discussions where the conflict theory is used include wealth and poverty, distribution and non-distribution of resources (material and non-material), power, revolutions and others.

Karl Marx and some other theorists believe that conflict is a driving force for change, revolution improvement and development in the society.

Class Conflicts

Primarily, Karl Marx believe that conflict occurs between two socioeconomic classes; the upper class and the lower class. The upper class is called the bourgeoisie which comprises of individuals that hold the majority of wealth in the society. The lower class, called the proletariat comprises of individuals who make up the working class or have little access to wealth and are thereby poor.

In a bid to retain their wealth and level of influence, the bourgeoisie which is the minority group oppress the proletariat, the majority group. The oppression thereby causes conflicts between these two groups. While the minority group sets up policies that favor their dominance and wealth amassment, the majority group suffer the grunt, being the working class. Unequal distribution of wealth between these two classes also cause conflict.

Primary Assumptions of Conflict Theory

The conflict theory rests its tenets on four assumptions which are revolution, competition, structural inequality and war. According to theorists, every conflict can be caused by any of these factors and also have any of them as an outcome. For better understanding, the four basic assumptions are explained below;  

Competition: Competition is an important concept in conflict theory, in fact, conflict often occur as a result of competition. For instance, if resources are not sufficient for individuals living in a community, it leads to scarcity, therefore competition for the available resources. People can compete for real estate properties, lands, money, material resources, among others. For proponents of the conflict theory, societies operate based on competition and not cooperation.

Structural Inequality: Inequality occur in diverse layers of the economy, even at the structural level. Structural inequality occurs when some set of people are placed higher than the others. When the structure of a society benefits specific individuals at the detriment of other people in the society, it is structural inequality. When some individuals in a society have more power, wealth and influence than others, structural inequality occurs.

Revolution: It is assumed that a conflict can result to revolution, it is one of the effects when conflicts occur between two groups. In most situations, the revolution is not gradual, rather eruptive and occurs abruptly.

War: When talking about war, conflict theories are of the opinion that sustained or prolonged conflicts between social classes or groups in a society lead to war. When war happens, it cleanses the society and acts as a unifier. Despite that war cleanses a society, some fragments of conflicts still exist. Another effect of war is that it can create division in the society.

Conflict Theory: Marx’s Views on Capitalism

Karl Marx’s perspective of capitalism is one that views capitalism as an economic system that favors one socioeconomic class over the other. In capitalism, the means of production and distribution are controlled by private individuals, hence, they are enriched at the detriment of laborers or workers. An imbalance is created in the society between business owners and workers create conflict. In capitalism, business owners have much control and power over the economy while workers continue to render labor as a form of commodity. According to Marx, conflicts in capitalist settings can be resolved through revolution, either social or economic.

Weber’s Take

Max Weber, a prominent theorist refined the conflict theory. Building on Marx’ existing idea on conflict theory, Weber opined that there are multiple layers of conflict and conflict is not limited to one between business owners and their workers. Weber believes that conflict is beyond the scope at which Marx discussed it, according to him, conflict can occur due to religion, status groups, territorial regions and others.

Later Conflict Theorists

Aside from theorists like Karl Marx and Max Weber, there are other conflict theorists that emerged. The theorists extended the conflict theory beyond the tenets of Karl Marx. More conflict theorists were seen in the 20th and 21st centuries, these theorists have made the conflict theory more significant in the modern era. However, for many branches of conflict and conflict theorists, economic relations and distribution of wealth remains a major cause of conflict in many countries.

Economic Applications of Conflict Theory

Imbalance in the distribution of power, whether at the structural, cultural or socioeconomic level can create conflict. When a group perceives that the other group has higher access to resources or has more power, conflict can occur. Real life situations of conflict theory was the financial crisis in 2008 and bank bailouts that followed suit. Conflict theorists viewed the financial crisis as on outcome of imbalances and inequalities in the economy.

Alan Sears and James Cairns were two economic authors that discussed the real-life conflict theory in their book. While talking about the financial crisis and subsequent bank bailouts, Sears and Cairns believed that the crisis emanated from inequality in the structure of financial institutions and general imbalances and instabilities whereby governments give bailout to largest banks and institutions at the expense of basic social programs. Hence, when a few are selected for certain benefits, there is a tendency of conflict between other groups in the society.

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