What Is Conflict Theory?


The term “Conflict Theory” is used to describe any model of human society that is based around a fundamental social conflict, usually expressed as some type of social inequality, such as political, economic, gender or racial differences.
Although the sociological principles of conflict theory do not apply directly to conflict resolution strategies, they do highlight how large-scale social conflicts can influence personal conflicts – and why it is important to be aware of social inequalities when attempting to resolve any conflict.

What is Conflict Theory? What you will learn on This Page about Conflict Theory

On this page you can read about some of the different types of conflict theory, and learn about the development of the grand-daddy of all conflict theories, the social conflict theory based on the writings of the 19th Century German philosopher Karl Marx.

You can also read how Marx’s conflict theory led to the development of Communism – a social movement that dominated the history of the world for much of the 20th Century.
Finally, you can learn about the modern applications of social conflict theory and what insights it can offer in the field of conflict resolution.

What is Conflict Theory? – Types of Conflict Theory

The most influential conflict theory is “Social Conflict Theory”, based on the writings of Karl Marx. Social Conflict Theory highlights economic inequalities between social classes as the central conflict in human society. But Marxian social conflict theory is not the only conflict theory.
Different conflict theories are based on different models of society, each based around a different central conflict. And not all the different types of conflict theory are always compatible with each other.

Other types of conflict theories include

• Feminist theory
which sees inequalities between men and women as the main conflict in society

• Postcolonial theory
which is concerned with inequalities that arise from the legacy of the European colonialism and imperialism.

• Criminological conflict theory
which attempts to explain crime as a product of social inequalities


What is Conflict Theory? – Marxian Social Conflict Theory

Although Social Conflict Theory is usually credited to Karl Marx, he built his theories on the work of earlier philosophers, economists and historians. Modern social conflict theory has also been influenced by the work of other figures, especially the German sociologist Max Weber (1864 – 1920).

In Marx’s social conflict theory, all political and real-world power comes from economic control – and all human societies are based on social conflict between various groups for economic control. Marx theorized that the “haves” and the “have-nots” in society are in a constant struggle for economic power, and that this conflict is the source of social struggle and social change.

Marxian Conflict Theory: The Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie

Marx wrote his conflict theory during the industrial age of the late 19th Century in a book he called “Das Kapital” (or “Capitalism”, in English). Marx saw the large – but poor – social group of factory workers, and the small – but wealthy – group of factory owners as the most important social classes during the late Industrial Age of the 19th Century.

He called factory workers the “proletariat” – a term based on a Latin word that referred to the “lower classes” in the Ancient Roman Republic. And he called the owners of factories the “bourgeoisie” – a French term that once meant “city dweller”, but since the time of the French Revolution had come to refer to wealthy landowners, merchants, bankers, and factory owners – the “ruling classes” of European society.

Factory workers were the “have-nots” of 19th Century European society. They were low paid and very few owned any property of any kind – not even the homes they lived in. Most importantly for Marx, they did not own the means to produce goods – and so the only way they could make a living was by working in factories owned by the wealthy, often in terrible working conditions and usually for appallingly low pay.

The “bourgeoisie”, on the other hand, were the “haves” in European society at the time. They owned almost all of the land, shops and factories, and they had become very wealthy during the Industrial Age because they controlled the production of goods such as textiles, food, and machinery. The wealth of the bourgeoisie meant they also had control of the police, the armed forces, the law courts, and the prisons – which they could use to enforce their control of the economy and the proletariat who worked for them. This effectively made the bourgeoisie the rulers European societies during the Industrial Age.

Marxian Conflict Theory and the Surplus Value of Hats

Marx believed that the fundamental divisions in 19th Century European society were the result of the exploitation of the “have-nots” by the “haves.” He argued that in order to make more money, a factory owner had to pay his workers less than they deserved – a principal he formulated as “the law of surplus value.”
So if a factory worker made a piece of clothing – a hat, for example – he might receive a few shillings a week in payment for his labor – the equivalent of a few dollars in today’s money. But the factory owner could then sell that hat for many times the price he had paid the worker.

Marx argued that the difference between what the factory owner paid the hat maker and the price that the hat was sold for was the “surplus value” of the hat. And just as the principle of surplus value applied to the making of hats, it could be applied to all goods that were produced – including food produced by tenant farmers, and even the money loaned out by bankers.

Karl Marx, by the way, was somewhat famed for his flowing mane of white hair and large bushy beard. There are no surviving photographs that show him ever wearing a hat.

What is Conflict Theory? Marxian Conflict Theory and Communism

Marx believed that surplus value was a measure of the economic exploitation of the “have-nots” by the “haves.” He saw this economic exploitation as a continuation of a conflict that had been going on throughout all human history – the rich and the powerful taking advantage of the poor and the weak. This type of economic exploitation lies at the heart of Marx’s social conflict theory.

Marx went on the develop the idea that if factory workers could be educated about their true place in the economy of society, they could unite and seize control of the means of economic production from the bourgeoisie – a “proletarian revolution” that would dismantle the exploitations of 19th Century capitalism and lead to a worker’s utopia.

Marx’s concept of a proletarian revolution was developed by later figures, notably the Russian politician Vladimir Lenin in the early 20th Century, as the basis for a new “communist” society that would be free of capitalist exploitation. The idea of communism was that after a revolution the workers themselves would own and control the factories and other means of production.

This idea was so powerful that it partly inspired the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the Maoist Revolution in China in 1949, which became the flag carriers for applied Marxist conflict theory. As a result, Marx’s social conflict theory directly influenced the governments of much of the world – and the lives of billons of people – for much of the 20th Century, not only in Russia and in China, but also in such countries as Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and many African states.

History has moved on, however. Most of the Communist states of the 20th Century proved to be poor economic performers, and were unable to compete economically with the more developed capitalist states of North America and Europe. Russian Communism collapsed in the 1980s and was replaced by a modern version of capitalism. And in China in the 1980s, the Communist party chairman Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms that effectively led to the reintroduction of capitalism – and now a new generation of Chinese bourgeoisie has become rich from the ownership of factories, while many factory workers remain poorly paid.

Yet a handful of few Communist states still profess to adhere to the conflict theory of Karl Marx, including Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam. In many cases, these states have also modified the original principles of Marx’s theories to permit at least some limited forms of capitalist ownership to improve their economic performance.

Many Marxist theorists now argue that true principles of Karl Marx were distorted by the Communist states of the 20th Century, and that no true Marxist state has yet existed. And although Marx’s conflict theory has yet to yield a worker’s utopia, it remains an important concept in modern sociology and politics.

What is Conflict Theory? Applications of Conflict Theory

So what can we learn from Marx’s conflict theory, and how can we apply it to conflict resolution strategies? As a type of sociological theory, a conflict theory appears to have little direct application to most common personal conflict or the process of resolving conflicts. At the same time, it is important to recognize that social conflicts – such as the economic conflict described by Marx – are real and can be seen in many modern societies.

Conflict Theory and Power Differentials

Since Marx wrote his social conflict theory, several different and sometimes competing conflict theories have been developed. Today there is no universal agreement among social scientists about the role of social conflict, and the term “conflict theory” is now used to refer to any model of human society concerned with what are called “power differentials” or “power imbalances.”

Power differentials or imbalances are inequalities between particular groups or communities within a society. In Marxian terms, these are the differences in income and political power between working-class people and their employers. But power differentials can also be seen in the differences in social and political power between men and women in a society, or between different ethnic groups in a society.

Conflict Theory in the Modern World

Power imbalances and other types of social inequality certainly do exist, and they can have a real influence on inter-personal conflicts. They are especially relevant to modern conflicts in the workplace, where an employer enjoys a “power differential” in any conflict with his employees.

Power differentials are also present in a conflict between a landlord and a tenant, for example, where the landlord has the power to deprive a tenant of his home. And even in conflicts where there is no formal or obvious power differential at play, social inequalities can have an effect on conflicts and conflict resolution.

If you are attempting to resolve an inter-personal conflict, it is important to be aware of social inequalities and how they can influence the people involved. Power differentials are especially important in conflicts in the workplace, for example, because any worker is likely to fear for their job if they become involved in a conflict with their employer.

As a result, many countries have implemented labor laws to address the inequality of power and protect workers from unfair dismissals. These can include the right to get independent arbitration in a workplace dispute, or the right to join a trade union that aims to protect the rights of workers.
Social inequalities between men and women, and between different social and ethnic groups, can also play a significant role in inter-personal conflicts. Many countries have implemented gender and racial equality laws that aim to protect people from unfair exploitation, although there can be no denying that these laws are not always effective.

Although much criticism has been leveled over the years at Marx and the Communist movement he inspired, modern efforts to improve the rights of workers, women, and the socially disadvantaged are recognition that in many ways he had a valid point: economic and social conflicts certainly do exist, and have the power to effect social change.

If Karl Marx were to come back today, it is unlikely he would be pleased with the outcome of the applications of his conflict theory – but he could be justified in thinking that that modern labor laws and equality laws are – at least in part – a vindication of his conflict theory.

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