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Conflict Theory

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Conflict Theory

Do you feel like everyone out in the world is only trying to annoy you or cause conflict? Or no matter what you do, someone will always have an issue with it?

If you believe these things, you might believe in conflict theory.

  • What is conflict theory?
  • Is conflict theory a macro theory?
  • What is social conflict theory?
  • What are examples of conflict theory?
  • What are the four components of conflict theory?

Conflict Theory Definition

Conflict theory doesn't apply to all conflicts in general (such as you and your brother arguing over what show to watch).

Conflict theory looks at interpersonal conflict - why it happens and what happens after. Furthermore, it is centered around resources; who has resources and the opportunities to get more, and who doesn't. Conflict theory states that conflict happens because of competition for resources that are finite.

Often, conflict can happen when opportunities and access to these limited resources is unequal. This can include (but is not limited to) conflicts in social classes, gender, race, work, religion, politics, and culture. According to conflict theory, people are solely self-interested. Hence, conflict is inevitable.

The person who first noted this phenomenon and made it a theory was Karl Marx, a German philosopher from the 1800s who observed class differences based on resources. It is these class differences that led him to develop what is now known as conflict theory.

Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels. Marx was a huge supporter of communism.

Macro Theory

Since conflict theory falls heavily into the realm of sociology, we also need to take a closer look at another sociological concept, macro-level theories.

A macro theory is one that looks at the big picture of things. It includes problems that pertain to large groups of people, and theories that affect society as a whole.

Conflict theory is considered to be a macro theory because it looks closely at the conflict of power and how it creates different groups in society as a whole. If you were taking conflict theory and looking at the individual relationships between varying people or different groups, then it would fall into the category of micro theory.

Conflict Theory, Image of many people standing, StudySmarterTheories that relate to society as a whole are macro theories. pixabay.com.

Structural Conflict Theory

One of Karl Marx's central tenets was the development of two distinct social classes with structural inequality - the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. As you might be able to tell from the fancy name, the bourgeoisie was the ruling class.

The bourgeoisie were the small, top tier of society who held all the resources. They had all of society's capital and would employ labor in order to continue making capital and more resources.

Reports vary, but the bourgeoise consisted of anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent of all the people in society. It is this elite section of society that held all the power and wealth, despite only representing a fraction of the people in society. Sound familiar?

The proletariat were members of the working class. These people would sell their labor to the bourgeoisie in order to get resources to live. Members of the proletariat did not have their own means of production and no capital of their own so they had to rely on working to survive.

As you might guess, the bourgeoisie exploited the proletariat. The proletariat most often worked for minimum wage and lived in poverty, while the bourgeoisie enjoyed a splendid existence. Since the bourgeoisie had all the resources and power, they oppressed the proletariat.

Marx's Beliefs

Marx believed that these two social classes were constantly in conflict with one another. This conflict exists because resources are limited and one small subset of the population holds the power. The bourgeoisie wanted to not just hold on to their power, but also continually increase their personal power and resources. The bourgeoisie thrived and based their societal status on the oppression of the proletariat, therefore continuing the oppression for their benefit.

Unsurprisingly, the proletariat did not want to remain oppressed. The proletariat would then push back against the reign of the bourgeoisie, leading to class conflict. They pushed back not only against the labor they had to do, but all of the structural components of society (such as laws) that were implemented by those in power to stay in power. Even though the proletariat was in the majority, the bourgeoisie was the part of society that held the power. Oftentimes the proletariat's resistance efforts were futile.

Marx also believed that all of the change in the history of humans is a result of conflict between classes. Society won't change unless there is conflict resulting from the lower classes pushing back against the reign of the upper classes.

Social Conflict Theory

So now that we understand the basis of conflict theory through structural conflict theory, what is social conflict theory?

Social conflict theory stems from Karl Marx's beliefs.

Social conflict theory looks at the reasoning behind why people from different social classes interact. It states that the driving force behind social interactions is conflict.

People who subscribe to social conflict theory believe that conflict is the reason for many interactions, rather than agreement. Social conflict can arise from gender, race, work, religion, politics, and culture.

Conflict Theory, Image of a man and woman arguing, StudySmarterSocial conflict can arise from gender disputes. pixabay.com.

Max Weber

Max Weber, a philosopher and peer of Karl Marx, helped expand this theory. He agreed with Marx that economic disparities were a cause of conflict, but added that social structure and political power also played important roles.

Conflict Theory Perspectives

There are four key facets that help shape the conflict theory perspective.

Competition

Competition is the idea that people are constantly competing with one another for limited resources to provide for themselves (remember, people are selfish). These resources could be things such as materials, homes, money, or power. Having this type of competition results in a constant conflict between different social classes and levels.

Structural inequality is the idea that there are imbalances of power that lead to inequalities of resources. Although all members of society are competing for limited resources, structural inequality allows certain members of society to have an easier time accessing and controlling these resources.

Think of Marx's bourgeoisie and proletariat here. Both social classes are competing for limited resources, but the bourgeoisie has the power.

Revolution

Revolution is one of the key tenets of Marx's conflict theory. Revolution refers to the continual power struggle between those in power and those wanting power. According to Marx, it is (successful) revolution that causes all change in history since it results in a power shift.

Conflict theorists believe that war is the result of a large-scale conflict. It can result in a temporary unification of society, or follow a similar path to revolution and lead to a new social structure in society.

Conflict Theory Examples

Conflict theory can be applied to many different facets of life. One example of conflict theory in modern life is the education system. Those students who come from wealth are able to attend schools, whether they be private or preparatory, that adequately prepare them for college. Since these students have access to unlimited resources, they can excel in high school and therefore get admitted to the best colleges. These high-ranking colleges can then funnel these students to the most lucrative careers.

But what about the students who don't come from excess wealth and can't afford to pay for a private school? Or the students whose caregivers work full-time to provide for the family so the student gets no support at home? Students from those backgrounds are at a disadvantage compared to the other students. They are not exposed to the same high school education, are not prepared the same to apply for colleges, and because of that, oftentimes do not attend elite institutions. Some might have to start work right after high school to provide for their families. Is education equal for everyone of all social classes?

How do you think the SAT falls into this?

If you guessed something similar to education, you're right! People who come from affluent backgrounds (those with resources and money at their disposal), can take SAT prep classes (or even have their own private tutor). These SAT prep classes inform the student of what types of questions and content to expect. They help the student work through practice questions to ensure that the student does better on the SAT than if they hadn't taken the prep class.

But wait, what about those who can't afford it or don't have the time to do it? They, on average, won't score as high as those who paid for a class or tutor to prepare for the SAT. Higher SAT scores mean a better chance of attending a more prestigious college, setting up the student for a better future.

Conflict Theory - Key takeaways

  • In general, conflict theory looks at interpersonal conflict and why it happens.
  • More specifically, structural conflict theory refers to Karl Marx's belief that the ruling class (bourgeoisie) oppresses the lower class (proletariat) and forces them to labor, eventually resulting in a revolution.
  • Social conflict theory believes that social interactions happen because of conflict.
  • The four key tenets of conflict theory are competition, structural inequality, revolution, and war.

Frequently Asked Questions about Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is the idea that society is constantly battling with itself and fighting inevitable and exploitative social inequalities.

Conflict theory was created by Karl Marx in the mid-1800s. 

An example of conflict theory is the constant struggle in the workplace. This could be the struggle for power and money at work.

Conflict theory is considered to be a macro theory because it looks closely at the conflict of power and how it creates different groups in a society. This is an issue for everyone and needs to be examined at the highest level to include all in its scope.

Conflict theory is important because it examines inequalities among classes and the constant struggle for resources in society. 

Final Conflict Theory Quiz

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What is conflict theory?

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Conflict theory is the idea that society is constantly battling with itself and fighting inevitable and exploitative social inequalities.

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What is the goal of conflict theory?

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The goal of conflict theory is to explain class conflict. 

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Who was Karl Marx?

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Karl Marx was a German sociologist and philosopher that saw that society had different social classes in which people had to compete for different types of resources (such as food, jobs, materials, etc.).

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What is the bourgeoisie?

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The Bourgeoisie is the upper ruling capitalist class that was in charge of or owned the means of production.

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What is the proletariat?

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The Proletariat class is also known as the working class which had their labor alienated by the bourgeoisie in order to gain profit.

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What is a macro theory?

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A theory that looks at the big picture and affects entire societies or large groups 

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What is a micro theory?

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A theory that is much more specified and individualized, looking only at small groups or individuals. 

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How many key parts are there in conflict theory?

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Four!

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What are the four main assumptions in conflict theory?

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The four main assumptions in conflict theory are competition, structural inequality, revolution, and war.

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What is competition in relation to conflict theory?

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The idea that people are constantly competing with one another for resources that are limited in order to provide for themselves.

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What does structural inequality mean in relation to conflict theory?

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Structural inequality is when groups begin to compete for resources and inequalities arise

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What does revolution mean in relation to conflict theory?

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Revolution is the way that society changes through a power shift 

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What does war mean in relation to conflict theory?

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War can lead to a complete societal change or societal unification 

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When did Karl Marx create the conflict theory?

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Mid 1800s

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According to Karl Marx, what does he call the working class people that are oftentimes taken advantage of by having their labor alienated?


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Proletariat

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What does structural conflict theory focus on?

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The power struggle between the upper and lower classes (think Marx!)

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What does social conflict theory focus on?

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The reasoning behind why people from different social classes interact (which social conflict theorists believe to be conflict)

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True or False? Conflict theory applies to any and all conflicts.

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False. Only interpersonal conflicts.

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Conflict theory states that conflict happens because of _________ for resources that are finite.

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competition

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Which of the following is not a conflict addressed in conflict theory?

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family trauma

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According to conflict theory, people are solely ________.

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self-interested.

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A ________ is one that looks at the big picture of things. It includes problems that pertain to large groups of people, and theories that affect society as a whole.

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macro theory

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Conflict theory is considered to be a macro theory because it looks closely at the conflict of _______.

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power

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True or False? Conflict theory is considered a macro theory because it looks at conflicts of power between individuals.

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False

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What are the two social classes with structural inequality according to Marx?

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Bourgeoisie and proletariat

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True or false? The bourgeoisie often exploited the proletariat. 

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True

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True or False? According to Marx, society won't change unless there is conflict resulting from the lower classes pushing back against the upper class. 

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True

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True or False? The social conflict theory suggests that agreement is the reason for many social interactions, not conflict. 

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False

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The idea that there are imbalances of power that lead to inequalities of resources.

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Structural inequality

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___________ refers to the continual power struggle between those in power and those wanting power.

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Revolution

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