What is Conflict Theory?
Conflict theory holds that different groups within a society are perpetually competing for limited resources and power — resulting in the powerful dominating the powerless.
Conflict theory explores the power dynamics that create social and economic inequality in different contexts — Everything from poverty and social conflict, to revolutions and war. German philosopher Karl Marx first proposed the theory in the 19th century, arguing that competition over limited resources was inherent in society. Marx used the theory to explain the exploitation of the working class in capitalist societies. In his view, there are two classes: a ruling bourgeoisie and an oppressed proletariat (aka working class). The bourgeoisie maintains social order through domination rather than agreement. Modern sociologists have since used conflict theory to explain class and power struggles between different genders, races, political groups, religions, and professions.
The 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, in which numerous major banks collapsed and thousands lost jobs, resulted in a major federal government bailout. Conflict theorists have raised questions about why the government chose to bail out the large banks and institutions that played a role in the crisis, rather than support a large-scale social program like universal health care or a living wage. Sociologists Alan Sears and James Cairns argue that this dichotomy supports conflict theory in that the prominent political institutions and cultural behaviors indulge the more powerful actors in a society.
Conflict theory is like a pecking order…
The dominant chicken gets to eat first, while the lowest-ranking chicken is the least likely to survive. Conflict theory describes humans in a continuous power struggle for limited resources. The oppressors acquire more of the resources by exploiting the oppressed.
Conflict theory is the idea that society consists of different classes competing over finite power and resources. It was first proposed by German philosopher Karl Marx and grew out of his theory on history, notably historical materialism — The idea that a society's institutions spring from its economic structure.
In Marx's view of capitalist societies, the minority ruling class (aka the bourgeoisie) owned the means of production, such as raw materials and factories, while the majority lower class (aka the proletariat) provided the labor.
Marx's conflict theory explained that the economic relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat was at the core of all class struggles. For social change to occur, the economic relationship between the owners and the laborers had to change first.
Modern sociologists have since used conflict theory to explain a broader range of power struggles between different genders, races, religions, nationalities, political beliefs, and income.
The main ideas of conflict theory are rooted in historical materialism — the idea that a society’s social structure and development is shaped by its economic production. Marx argued that the distribution of wealth created class divides throughout history, and that social inequality and eventual revolutions stemmed from these divides.
Marx believed that, in a capitalist society, economic production was made up of two things:
Means of production (aka raw materials, factories, etc.), which was privately owned by the producers rather than owned collectively by the laborers.
Labor, which was provided by the masses, and compensated in wages.
Marx argued that the means of production and labor were connected in that a product's value was directly related to how much labor it took to make it. At minimum, a day of labor had to pay for the laborer’s food and shelter and replace the producer’s capital spent on the means of production (raw materials, factories, etc.). By this logic, profit was generated if there was a surplus of accumulated labor. This meant exploiting the working class, because surplus labor only produced value for the people who owned the means of production.
Marx believed that the continued exploitation of a working class would eventually lead to an uprising against the ruling class. He argued that this was capitalism’s fatal flaw, and that such an uprising would result in the society’s shift to socialism and communism.
Conflict theory views humans as inherently competitive and self-interested beings fighting over limited resources. The power of one dominant group over another creates and maintains social order. Conflict theory holds four assumptions:
All social interactions between humans boil down to competition over limited resources, which results in conflict. Competition, not consensus, creates classes or groups and the overall structure of society. When there are shifts in power, these social structures change.
Competing groups will always struggle with each other, which creates hierarchies of domination and oppression. The powerful actors in a society reinforce structural inequality by clinging to their power and control.
Change and conflict are inevitable in a society of competing classes in a hierarchical structure. Social conflict could result in a revolution involving a radical overthrow of an oppressive group. Marxism sees revolution, not evolution, as the only way for a society to improve.
Like revolution, war is another possible outcome of the conflict between groups and societies. War can create a sense of solidarity within societies, but it also can eliminate societies. In this sense, war is a force for creative destruction in that new social structures might arise from those demolished by it.
German economist and sociologist Max Weber (1864 -1920) agreed with Karl Marx that conflicts in society existed because of competition over resources. But unlike Marx, Weber believed that conflict theory also applied to power dynamics beyond the inequalities of the rich and the poor.
To Weber, power is the ability to get your way in the face of resistance from others. But power isn't limited to owning the means of production. Weber acknowledged that different classes of people had different life circumstances or advantages related to their economic or social status — such as education, health, and access to food — that allowed them to achieve higher skill sets in the marketplace than others. Weber called this inequality the "market situation" of individuals.
While Marx's idea of class inequality was rooted in economics, Weber broadened power to mean social status or prestige as well. For Weber, the relationship between economic class and status wasn’t always clear. For example, a drug dealer may have a lot of money, but not much social status, whereas a scientist may have less money but more prestige.
In Karl Marx’s view, society was divided into two broad segments:
The economic base: The means of production and the relationships between the classes — the bourgeoisie and the proletariat — that maintain the production.
The superstructure: The ideological framework of social institutions, education, religion, politics, etc. — designed to sustain the relationships of the economic base to the advantage of the bourgeoisie. The superstructure maintained the economic relationships required for capitalism to function; there had to be an exploited class for capitalists to continue making a profit.
Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), however, believed that there must be something stronger than just a superstructure holding the inequality of class structure in place. Gramsci proposed that the key to power wasn’t controlling someone by force, but by controlling their consent.
This gave rise to Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony — The idea that political, economic, religious, and cultural forces around us govern our beliefs and values throughout the government, schools, and churches. According to Gramsci’s theory, the ruling group exercises hegemony over other groups through civil society and the state. Overthrowing the ruling class requires a complete uprooting and destruction of a society's ideology and the institutions that support it.
Later, two scholars at the Frankfurt School of critical theorists, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, argued that mass entertainment — Art, music, and media — was a product of capitalism that served to sustain its unequal power structure. Because money and power controlled entertainment, all entertainment was a product for profit. Whoever owned the means of producing the mass entertainment also controlled the cultural dialogue.
C. Wright Mills (1916-1962), the founder of modern conflict theory, was aware of the Frankfurt School’s ideas. Mills called the ruling class by another name — The power elite, which dominates a society’s politics, military, and economy, and makes decisions to protect their status.
The study of conflict theory has evolved over the years. Modern conflict theorists have continued to describe the power dynamics and class conflicts throughout society based on the factors and ideologies that distinguish different groups of people. Here are a few worth noting:
One major criticism against conflict theory is that it ignores how different social institutions — family, education, politics, religion, etc. — provide essential functions in society and can work together to create a balance. This alternate view is known as functionalism. For example, a functionalist might argue that as more women enter the workplace, more companies are driven to establish anti-discrimination and sexual harassment policies.
Functionalists also view inequality as something inevitable but also useful to society. Take an astronaut and a plumber, for example. Being an astronaut requires a specialized skill set and extended training. A plumber, on the other hand, provides a necessary service that does not require the same level of training. A functionalist would argue that an astronaut would rightly be rewarded with prestige and status, whereas a plumber may not be so highly rewarded.
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