Conflict Theory

Updated on January 25, 2024
Article byKhalid Ahmed
Reviewed byDheeraj Vaidya, CFA, FRM

Conflict Theory Definition

Conflict theory is a social theory that discusses the ensuing conflict between the rich and the poor in society to control scarce resources. German philosopher Karl Marx propounded it. As per the theory, conflict exposes the inequalities prevalent in society and thus, becomes the agent of change.

Conflict Theory

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The conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed exists in every aspect of society. Thus, it explains the power and class struggles seen among different sexes, human races, political supporters, religious followers, and professionals. Karl Marx developed conflict theory in response to the exploitation of the poor working class by the rich capitalists. He advocated for the poor to rise against the rich for equality in society.

Key Takeaways

  • Conflict theory refers to the endless conflict between different classes of a society arising from inequalities and scarcity of resources.
  • Great philosopher and thinker Karl Marx advocated this theory.
  • The theory focuses on power struggles between the bourgeoisie or wealthy capitalist and the proletariat or poor working class.
  • The class conflict acts as a fuel to develop and evolve the society.
  • The theory applies to every area of a society where one group exploits the other group.

Conflict Theory Explained

The conflict theory reveals the ongoing conflict between different groups in society to gain dominance over the other. The approach divides society into two groups—the oppressor or the rich and the oppressed or the poor. The tension between these groups arises due to the scarcity of resources.

The affluent class tries to keep control over their wealthWealthWealth refers to the overall value of assets, including tangible, intangible, and financial, accumulated by an individual, business, organization, or more and power. Likewise, the poor working-class attempts to gain access to the resources and power of the rich. The diametrically opposite aspirations of these two groups lead to conflict between them. The dispute over time leads to revolution, which fuels change in society.

According to Marx, every society undergoes three major phases of transformation, namely, feudalism, capitalismCapitalismCapitalism is an economic system consisting of businesses, resources, capital goods, and labour. Private entities own it, and the income is derived by the level of production of these factors. Because of the private hands, these entities can be operated efficiently and maximize their production activity more, and socialism. Every society starts as feudal. It is characterized by nobles who hold rights to lands on which the peasants work. Due to the latter’s oppression, conflict arises between the state and the peasants, giving way to capitalism.

In capitalism, a few wealthy capitalists or bourgeoisie, rather than the state, control the means of production. The poor working class employed in their factories are the proletariats. Though they outnumber the bourgeoisie, they are overpowered and exploited by the powerful and wealthy capitalists.

Thus, on the one hand, the capitalistic society represents the bourgeoisie who are satisfied with their rich and powerful positions. While on the other hand, the proletariat work in poor conditions at low wages and are unhappy with their lower status in society. This disparity results in clashes between these two classes.

The conflict then leads to social unrest amongst the proletariat, and they start demanding better pay and social status. Thus, an uprising brings about a change in wages, improvement in working conditions, or even the elimination of the bourgeoisie. Thus, the status quo of the proletariat changes, and the socialist society emerges.

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Let’s discuss examples of conflict theory in sociology, education, and criminology.

Example #1

Here is an example of conflict theory in the context of gender. In the early days, men were the sole breadwinners of their families, while women’s roles were limited to cooking and looking after children. Thus, men were the dominant class who had more power and privilege than their counterparts, women.

Over time, women felt frustrated due to the lack of financial resources and freedom. As a result, conflicts arose between men and women. Consequently, the women broke free from the traditional family structure and made their presence felt in the corporate world. This changed the dynamics of gender in society.

Men assumed more responsibilities at home and even opted to be stay-at-home dads. At the same time, women gave more preference to their careers. Hence, conflict changed society and family structure for the better.

Example #2

In this illustration, one will explore conflict theory in education. Let’s assume two kids, Harry and Peter. Harry is from a wealthy family, while Peter is from a low-income family.

Harry has the resources to go to college, while Peter lacks the same. Peter doesn’t have good schooling to be able to even apply to a college. This places Peter in a conflicting situation.

Kids like Peter would argue that inequality exists in the education system, giving greater opportunities to kids from affluent families and leaving the poor kids to struggle. Thus, they would push for regulations that would provide free college education or significantly lower fees.

However, rich kids like Harry would contend that financially backward students should work hard and crack scholarships. This would result in a conflict between the two groups resulting in poor students getting access to a free college education or reservations in good colleges. In contrast, wealthy students would have to forgo their college seats to accommodate them.

As a result, the kids like Peter would be able to attend college and earn more, thus improving their living standards. This would positively affect society.

Example #3

This example briefs conflict theory in criminology. Let us assume that man A and another man B are using cocaine in their leisure. A is a poor African American, whereas B is a rich guy. A uses powder cocaine to satisfy his desires, while B consumes crack cocaine.

Before proceeding further, one should know that crack cocaine is impure and less expensive than powder cocaine and is used mostly by the poor and marginalized community. Moreover, powdered cocaine is pure and costly and is used for personal gratification by the rich.

Suppose police caught both for consuming illegal cocaine where A had 5 grams and B had 500 grams of cocaine. Under American law, the punishment for consuming crack cocaine is disproportionately more than that for using powder cocaine. Hence, A will get the same punishment as B despite using lower quality and lesser cocaine than B. Thus, this signals that the affluent use their influence to make laws in their favor and harass the poor people.

As per conflict theory, the above disparity in meting out criminal punishment has led to conflict between the poor and the rich.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is 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 resources, power, and wealth. Famous German philosopher Karl Marx is the proponent of this theory. The theory also emphasizes that the conflict would be resolved using authoritative power.

What is conflict theory in criminology?

The conflict theory in criminology states that the justice system is biased towards the affluent class and white race and is prejudiced against the poor and the other races. As a result, laws tilt the scales in favor of the dominant segment of the society, oppressing the marginal class even more.

What is conflict theory in education?

The conflict theory in education says that the educational system encourages social inequality in the society. Educational setup has become a hub of class conflict and discrimination based on race. Going further, schools don’t promote merit anymore and give preference to rich students.

What is conflict theory in social work?

Since conflict theory is based on the proposition that conflicts lead to societal changes, its relevance in social work is undeniable. The theory offers an explanation for numerous occurrences in society. Conflicts propel action against injustice and oppression and thus, protect the marginal sections of society from exploitation.

This article has been a guide to what is Conflict Theory & its Definition. We explain Karl Marx’s conflict theory with example in sociology, education, & criminology. You can learn more about accounting from the following articles –

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