Conflict theory is a general term coving several sociological approaches, which appose functionalism, and which share the idea that the basic feature of all societies was the struggle between different groups for access to limited resources.

conflict theory

Conflict theory holds that social order is maintained by domination and power, rather than by consensus and conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, chiefly by suppressing the poor and powerless. A basic premise of conflict theory is that individuals and groups within society will work to try to maximize their own wealth and power.


  • Conflict theory focuses on the competition among groups within society over limited resources.
  • Conflict theory views social and economic institutions as tools of the struggle among groups or classes, used to maintain inequality and the dominance of the ruling class.
  • Marxist conflict theory sees society as divided along economic class lines between the proletarian working class and the bourgeois ruling class.
  • Later versions of conflict theory look at other dimensions of conflict among capitalist factions and among various social, religious, and other types of groups.

Understanding Conflict Theory

Conflict theory has sought to explain various social phenomena, including wars, revolutions, poverty, discrimination, and domestic violence. It ascribes most of the fundamental developments in human history, such as democracy and civil rights, to capitalistic attempts to control the masses (as opposed to a desire for social order). Central tenets of conflict theory are the concepts of social inequality, the division of resources, and the conflicts among different socioeconomic classes.

Conflict Theory Assumptions

Current conflict theory has four primary assumptions that are helpful to understand: competition, revolution, structural inequality, and war.


Conflict theorists believe that competition is constantly and, at times, an overwhelming factor in nearly every human relationship and interaction. Competition exists due to the scarcity of resources, including material resources—money, property, commodities, and more. Beyond material resources, individuals and groups within a society compete for intangible resources as well. These include leisure time, dominance, social status, sexual partners, etc. Conflict theorists assume that competition is the default (rather than cooperation).


Given conflict theorists’ assumption that conflict occurs between social classes, one outcome of this conflict is a revolutionary event. The idea is that change in a power dynamic between groups does not happen due to a gradual adaptation. Rather, it comes about as the symptom of conflict between these groups. This way, changes to a power dynamic are often abrupt and large in scale, rather than gradual and evolutionary.

Structural inequality

An important assumption of conflict theory is that human relationships and social structures all experience power inequalities. In this way, some individuals and groups inherently develop more power and reward than others. Following this, those individuals and groups that benefit from a particular structure of society tend to work to maintain those structures as a way of retaining and enhancing their power.


Conflict theorists see war as either a unifier or a “cleanser” of societies. In conflict theory, war results from a cumulative and growing conflict between individuals and groups and between entire societies. In the context of war, a society may become unified in some ways, but the conflict remains between multiple societies. On the other hand, war may also result in the wholesale end of society.

Special Considerations

Marx viewed capitalism as part of a historical progression of economic systems. He believed capitalism was rooted in commodities, or things that are purchased and sold. For example, he believed that labor is a type of commodity. Because laborers have little control or power in the economic system (because they don’t own factories or materials), their worth can be devalued over time. This can create an imbalance between business owners and workers, eventually leading to social conflicts. He believed these problems would eventually be fixed through a social and economic revolution.

Adaptations of Marx’s conflict theory

Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist, adopted many aspects of Marx’s conflict theory and later further refined some of Marx’s ideas. Weber believed that conflict over property was not limited to one specific scenario. Rather, he believed that multiple layers of conflict existed at any given moment and in every society.

Whereas Marx framed his view of conflict as between owners and workers, Weber added an emotional component to his ideas about conflict. Weber said: “It is these that underlie the power of religion and make it an important ally of the state; that transform classes into status groups, and do the same to territorial communities under particular circumstances…and that make ‘legitimacy’ a crucial focus for efforts at domination.

Conflict, Micro-functionalism and Applied Sociology

Micro-functionalism, in short, is a form of functionalism that stresses the separateness of social institutions. Micro-functionalism and applied sociology see conflict as mundane and exceptional.

Like functionalism, to micro functionalists, conflict is unusual and pathological, and events such as strikes, divorces, crime and violence are seen as indicators of malfunctioning, but mundane malfunctioning.

Applied sociology, in its study of social problems such as marriage, poverty, and social movements, similarly sees conflict in these domains as pathological but unlikely to cause a great upheaval in greater society.