The Ideology of Conflict Theory

July 27, 2023
Conflict theory is centered around the conflict of social groupings for limited resources. According to conflict theory, social and economic institutions are means of the struggle between groups or classes employed to sustain inequality and the ruling class's control. According to Marxist conflict theory, society is split along economic class lines, with the proletariat working class and the ruling bourgeoisie. The subsequent versions of conflict theory investigate other aspects of conflict among capitalist factions and religious, various social, and other groups.

What is conflict theory?

Initially articulated by Karl Marx, conflict theory holds that society is perpetually in conflict due to the struggle for finite resources. According to conflict theory, domination, and power preserve social order rather than consensus and compliance. According to conflict theory, people with wealth and power want to keep it by whatever means necessary, most notably through oppressing the poor and helpless. According to a core principle of conflict theory, individuals and organizations will attempt to increase their money and power.

Perceiving the concept of conflict theory

War, revolution, poverty, prejudice, and domestic violence are all examples of social processes that conflict theory has attempted to explain. It attributes much of human history's fundamental advances, such as capitalistic attempts, civil rights, and democracy, to control the people (rather than a desire for social order). The principles of social inequality, resource division, and disputes between various socioeconomic strata are central aspects of conflict theory.

Conflict theory's fundamental ideas may explain many different forms of social conflicts throughout history. Some scholars, like Marx, believe conflict drives societal change and growth.

Marx's conflict theory was centered on the struggle between two basic classes. Each class comprises a group with shared interests and some degree of property ownership. Marx hypothesized about the bourgeoisie, a group of individuals with a preponderance of money and resources. The other group is the proletariat, which comprises persons who are deemed working-class or impoverished.

Marx predicted that with the emergence of capitalism, the bourgeoisie, a minority within the growing population, would utilize their power to subjugate the proletariat, the majority class. This method of thinking is linked to a frequent picture connected with conflict theory-based social models; followers of this ideology tend to believe in a pyramid structure regarding how commodities and services are allocated in society. A tiny minority of elites at the top of the pyramid impose terms and conditions on most of society because they have disproportionate control over power and resources.

Unequal distribution within the community was projected to be perpetuated by intellectual compulsion; the bourgeoisie would push the proletariat to accept the prevailing conditions. According to conflict theory, the elite would establish laws, customs, and other societal institutions to enhance their domination while deterring others from entering their ranks.

Marx predicted that when the working class and poor faced deteriorating conditions, an integrated consciousness would raise awareness of inequality, potentially leading to insurrection. If conditions were changed after the rebellion to favor the proletariat's interests, the conflict loop would ultimately recur, but in the other direction. The bourgeoisie would later become the aggressor and revolter, seeking to restore the systems that had previously preserved their power.

The ideology of conflict theory

The core principles of conflict theory are based on historical materialism, which holds that economic output shapes a society's social structure and growth. Marx maintained that throughout history, the allocation of wealth caused class splits, which led to social inequality and, eventually, revolutions.

Marx perceived that economic output in a capitalist society consisted of two components:

·       Means of production (raw materials, factories, among others) that were privately held by the manufacturers rather than collectively owned by workers.

·       Labor was given by the masses and paid in the form of wages.

Marx contended that the tools of production and labor were inextricably linked, with the value of a product precisely proportional to the amount of work required to produce it. A day of labor had to pay for the laborer's food and lodging, as well as replace the capital spent by the producer on the techniques of production (raw materials, factories). According to this argument, gains were generated if accumulated work was excess. This included exploiting the working class because extra labor generated value exclusively for those who possessed the means of production.

Uses of conflict theory in Finance

Governments attempt to control conflict by shifting resources between the affluent and those in need. Governments use various techniques to influence resource distribution, such as progressive taxation, incentives, special programs, social aid, and restrictions.

According to the notion, civil unrest will occur if the wealth difference grows too large. If the government does not assist in lessening the disparity, the conflict will spiral out of control, resulting in protests or civil conflicts.

Government, Politics, and Bailouts

According to conflict theory, the government bailouts and the financial crisis in 2008 were unavoidable. The argument would be that the wealth disparity had gotten too large, and resource rivalry had become so intense that some form of redistribution and crisis management was necessary.

After about a decade, the income disparity has expanded, and societal unrest is rising as populist populism takes center stage. According to conflict theory, tensions increase when the wealth gap widens, politics polarises, and the stage prepares for war.

Assumptions about Conflict Theory

Competition, revolution, structural inequity, and war are four key assumptions in contemporary conflict theory.

·       Competition

According to conflict theorists, competition is a persistent and occasionally overpowering aspect of every human connection and encounter. Competition arises due to the shortage of resources, including cash, assets, commodities, etc. Individuals and groups within a community struggle for intangible and material resources. These include leisure time, dominance, social status, sexual partners, etc. Conflict theorists argue that competition (rather than cooperation) is the default.

·       Revolution

Given the assumption of conflict theorists that conflict arises between social classes, one conclusion of this conflict is a revolutionary event. The premise is that group power dynamics do not alter due to progressive adaptation. Instead, it arises as a result of conflict between these two groups. Therefore, changes to a dynamic of power are frequently rapid and enormous in scale rather than gradual and progressive.

·       Inequality at the structural level

An essential premise of conflict theory is that power disparities exist in all human relationships and societal organizations. As a result, specific individuals and groups gain greater power and reward than others. Considering this, individuals and groups that take advantage of a particular social structure tend to work to sustain those structures to retain and enhance their power.

·       War

According to conflict theorists, war is either a unifying force or a "cleanser" of cultures. According to conflict theory, war results from a cumulative and increasing conflict between people, organizations, and society. In the setting of war, a civilization may grow more cohesive in certain respects while fighting between diverse communities continues. On the contrary, war may culminate in a civilization's destruction.

Particular considerations

Marx regarded capitalism as a stage in the evolution of economic systems. He felt that commodities, or items that could be bought and sold, were capitalism's foundation. For example, he considered labor to be a form of commodity. Laborers' worth might be depreciated over time since they have no influence or authority in the financial system (since they do not own companies or resources). This might create a disparity between entrepreneurs and their employees, leading to social tensions. He felt that a social and economic revolution would resolve these issues. 

Developments of Marx's theory of conflict

Max Weber, a German sociologist, political economist, jurist, and philosopher, adopted many aspects of Marx's conflict theory, subsequently improving some of Marx's concepts. Weber argued that property dispute was not restricted to a single case. Instead, he thought that various levels of conflict existed every time and in all communities.

While Marx defined conflict as between proprietors and laborers, Weber added an emotional component to his conflict ideas. He remarked that it was these that underpinned the authority of religion and made it a significant partner of the sovereign; that morphed classes into status groups, and did the same to territorial communities under certain conditions making 'legitimacy' an essential priority for attempts at domination

Weber's views on conflict go beyond Marx's, implying that certain types of social interaction, even conflict, develop beliefs and solidarity among individuals and groups within a community. As a result, an individual's attitudes to inequality may vary based on the organizations with which they are affiliated, whether they believe people in power are genuine, and so on.

Conflict analysts in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have continued to broaden conflict theory beyond Marx's rigid economic classes. However, economic links remain a crucial element of disparities between groups in the many schools of conflict theory. Conflict theory has significantly impacted contemporary and postmodern ideas regarding sexual and racial disparity, peace and conflict studies, and the several forms of identity studies that have emerged in Western academia during the last several decades.

Typical instances of conflict theory

Conflict scholars see the relationship between a housing complex owner and a renter primarily based on conflict rather than balance or harmony, even if there is more harmony than conflict. They think they identify themselves by obtaining whatever assets they can from one another.

A number of the restricted resources that may lead to disputes between tenants and the complex owner in the preceding instance are the limited space inside the complex, the limited number of units, the money that renters pay to the complex owner for rent, and so on. Conflict strategists ultimately perceive this pattern as one of struggle over these resources.

No matter how courteous, the complex owner is ultimately focused on filling as many apartment units as possible to generate as much money in rent as possible, particularly if costs like mortgages and utilities must be handled. This might lead to tension between housing complexes, among tenant applicants seeking an apartment, and so on. On the opposite side of the issue, tenants are seeking the best apartment for the least amount of money in rent.

According to writers Alan Sears and James Cairns in their book, A Good Book, in theory, the 2008 financial crisis and accompanying bank bailouts are exemplary instances of real-life conflict theory. They see the financial crisis as an unavoidable result of the worldwide financial system's disparities and instabilities, which allow the largest banks and institutions to bypass government scrutiny and take tremendous risks that only benefit the selected few.

According to Sears and Cairns, large corporations and financial institutions received bailout monies from the same governments claiming inadequate funds for large-scale social projects such as universal healthcare. This distinction supports a core tenet of conflict theory, dominant groups, and individuals benefit from mainstream political institutions and cultural practices.

The above instance demonstrates that conflict may exist in all sorts of relationships, including ones that do not appear to be adversarial. It also demonstrates how even the most essential issue may result in numerous levels of conflict.

What are some of the most prevalent critiques leveled about conflict theory?

One prominent critique of conflict theory is that it cannot illustrate how economic relationships might benefit the various classes involved. Conflict theory, for instance, characterizes the relationship between employers and staff as one of conflict, with businesses wishing to pay as little as possible for the employees' labor and employees wishing to maximize their income. In actuality, though, employees and bosses frequently get along. Furthermore, institutions such as pension plans and stock-based compensation can further blur the line between workers and corporations by providing workers with a vested interest in their employer's success.


Conflict Theory, created by Karl Marx, asserts that society is bound to remain in a state of conflict owing to society's never-ending fight for finite resources. This idea's consequence is that individuals with wealth and resources would preserve and hoard them, while those without will do whatever it takes to gain them. This dynamic implies that the affluent and poor are constantly at odds.