Professor Marshall

LESSON 3: Conflict Theory

Conflict Theory

By definition, using a conflict lens requires us to ask the main question: How is ________ NOT working? Conflict theories would also assert to us that if something is not functioning, groups whose needs aren't being met will compete with those in power to change the system. In other words, THE ONE WITH THE MOST TOYS WINS. The answers to the two key questions:

  1. How do we exist? Conflict rests on the notion that things are NOT working in a balanced state. This theory explains social reality in terms of unequal access to scarce social resources--whatever those resources are. We could be competing for power, status, employment, shelter, food, etc.
  2. How do we change? Conflict tells us that a revolutionary process will force changes to an imbalanced society--further, we must intervene to make these changes happen. This requires the disadvantaged to have an awareness of their standing and to band together to change society so that systems and structures are "fairer" to all members of society. This "revolution" will cause society to become a better place.

Remember that this is a MACRO theory, which means the focus is on the structure and systems of society and their impacts on the individual.

Now, let's review some of the historical concepts which lay the foundation for contemporary conflict theory. This Learning Plan is structured in three sections. The first part deals with the historical significance of conflict theory, the second deals with the emergence of critical theory, and the third introduces us to the main contemporary interpretations of conflict theory.

Historical Significance

For many years after Marx first arrived on the sociological scene, Conflict Theory was not a popular theory--consider that the West was rapidly changing:

While it might seem that these historical events were dangerous and less appealing than social stability, people saw the Industrial Revolution as an opportunity--a chance to have some control over their lives. They saw the French Revolution as a force to change society for the better.

THIS HANDOUT may be helpful to you as you work through this material.

Basic Components of Conflict Theory

There are three ideas that comprise the conflict orientation:

  1. People--individuals--have things that they want which are particular to them. This idea of "wanting things" is a very personal one. Unlike functionalists, this is about your personal desires and dreams (recall that functional theory says that you fit into the structure). Conflict theory says we attempt to make the structure fit us.
  2. Power is at the core of all social relationships. This means that whether you're in a personal relationship (partner and partner, father and child, mother and child, boss and worker, minister and congregant) or a superficial relationship (teacher to student, doctor to patient, etc.) all relationships exist with a regard to who has the power and who does not.
  3. Values and ideas are used as weapons. Powerful groups can use ideas and values as weapons to advance their own agendas. Again, counter to functional theory, which states that values and ideas are built under consensus, conflict theory states that the powerful groups in society will advance their messages via the use of values and ideas against others.

Two Traditions--Research and Action

The Action Group

Conflict theorists are divided with regard to the concept of action. And, it is likely that the concept of action is part of the reason why this theory was not popular for many years. "Action" speaks to one of the core issues that sociologists struggle with:


Let's use myself as an example. Prior to becoming a sociologist, I was a child abuse investigator for the state of Florida. I did this job for several years, and I was good at it. While I was working as an investigator, I also went back to school to earn my master's degree, and that's when I began to really enjoy the study of sociology. During my master's degree coursework, I concentrated on family violence as an area of specialty, taking courses on IPV (intimate partner violence), child abuse and elder abuse. As I began to learn more and more about these issues, my supervisor at the state began to assign more and more family violence cases to me. In essence, this became not only my academic area of expertise, it was also my professional area of expertise.

Once I decided to leave the state and become a full-time sociology professor, I decided that I wanted to do research in the area of family violence, and I continued my academic interests by enrolling in a PhD program. I concentrated on social inequality and family violence, earning certifications in domestic violence and in gender studies. When it came time to work on my dissertation, I decided to do a case study of a local private family safety agency. My research was a search to find out whether or not private agencies could be as effective as public agencies.

The question that this brings up is whether or not I could be OBJECTIVE with regard to my research. My work history AND the area in which I had a research interest were closely tied together. And, as a PERSON, I had definite ideas and thoughts about family safely programs in general. Could I set aside my personal ideas and let the research speak for itself?

Action research requires the sociologist to actively advocate for change, and some researchers would call this a "slippery slope." While I can't think of any sociological research which has crossed an ethical "line" with regard to improper research techniques, there could be problems if a researcher gets too close to their research--an unethical researcher might consider "guiding" the research participants a certain way, which influences the outcome of the project.

Action researchers believe that sociologists have a MORAL obligation to be critical of society and to report their criticisms to others. So, value judgments are a part of the work of an action-oriented sociologist--further, this group would say that it is impossible to separate our own values as human beings from the work we do as scientists who study society.

The Research Group

This groups asserts that it is not the job of science and scientists to be spokespersons for social ills. This group would also say that some objective reality exists and that it is the job of a sociologist to get at that objective reality without any sort of interference--meaning, when a sociologist becomes an action researcher, they are crossing a boundary which shouldn't be crossed.

"Pure" researchers, in general, advocate for there to be a distance between the researcher and action/advocacy. Researchers in this group would say that we can use the scientific process and the research methods which are available to sociologists to do our research and to stay away from the public arena. One question that this brings up:


I think that many contemporary sociologists would agree: it is difficult to uncover social problems in our research and do nothing about it. Most sociologists I know do their research in areas which are interesting to them--and most of the sociologists I know do that research because it is "near and dear" to their hearts. Perhaps they have a history (as do I having worked for a family safety agency) that gives them some insight into the issues they research. Perhaps they have a personal history (for example, studying gender, or age, or race) which lends itself to pursuing research in a particular area.

You can see how it might be difficult to separate the two realms. The question:


Karl Marx

Karl Marx would be considered a part of the "action" group. He advocated for change in society, and he spent his career trying to get society to change in a way that he felt was more egalitarian to most people. He had specific ideas about how that change needed to happen:

Economics and Society

To Marx, all forms of the economy caused problems between groups of people. He further explained his ideas about society in three ways:

  1. Birds of a feather flock together. That is to say, people who have the same economic interests tend to do things as a group.
  2. Money is everything. To Marx, the groups formed by economic means (essentially, think about this as access to money) formed the foundation of history.
  3. The ones with the most toys win. Societies develop when economic groups clash.

Marx's economic groups--called classes--were bound together by similar relationships to property--owners of property or non-owners of property would make up the major economic divisions. These two groups were the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

The Bourgeoisie were the property owners. This group had access to the "means of production--" essentially, the tools with which to use the proletariat (the worker).


So then, why do the proletariat continue to allow their oppression?

A Communist Utopia

Marx was so sure that property was the root of social evil that he advocated for its abolishment. He asserted that if there was no property, there would be no reason for classes and oppression. In this line of thinking, he argued for a classless state:

Max Weber

Weber was a contemporary of Marx, and while he also is considered a conflict theorist, as we shall see later his views can also be interpreted in the functional and interactionist realms. For the moment, we'll concentrate on his contributions to conflict theory.

Class, Status and Power

While Weber agreed somewhat with Marx that class issues divided society, he also considered the impacts of status and power. Another difference between Marx and Weber can be seen in their differing views of modernity (or, more simply, progress). While Marx saw the West as being on some linear path toward a perfect society, Weber viewed these advances as an "iron cage" of disenchantment.

Weber viewed two things as important considerations in how a society develops:

  1. Universal interests. This category is more in tune with the structure of society. For example, wealth and status are features of the structure of society.
  2. Goals and Values. Here, Weber sees the individual as having a clear role in the process, and this category would be more closely in tune with the concept of agency. For example, an individual must consider why they want to acquire wealth and status before they make any movement to do so.

Weber's concentration on the properties of status and power led him to theorize about how some people could be dominant over others. He further divided power into two categories: legitimate and illegitimate. He said that legitimate power was that of powerful people who had a right to claim that power due to authority (for example, we elect the President and by doing so, bestow on him legitimate power and authority). He further developed the idea of legitimate authority by coming up with three distinct types:

Marx and Weber came together in their thought that the economy and economic interests had a lot to do with people's chances in society. But Weber went farther than Marx in asserting that there were other forces at play. Together, both theorists laid out the foundations for many others to contemplate the individual and society.

The Chicago School

While Marx and Weber worked on theories that tried to identify the origins of conflict and order, Simmel and others from the Chicago School (so named because the work on this orientation of conflict first came to prominence at the University of Chicago with the work of Robert E. Park, who had studied under Simmel in Germany) worked on the idea of conflict being a quality of social life. Marx and Weber searched for where conflict began, while the sociologists of the Chicago School searched for how conflict was a feature of society which had always (and would always) existed.

Georg Simmel and Robert Park

Simmel thought that there were universal patterns of behavior that existed for every society. So, no matter the time, place or group, universal behaviors would be noted. Simmel also felt, unlike Marx, that people could not be separated into neat groups--he felt that there was a lot of overlap in the interests of people which would not allow them to neatly divide into opposing groups. He saw people as having opposing feelings AND behaviors: LOVE and HATE could exist at the same time in a person, and this made it difficult to classify people (as Marx did) into specific groups.

Simmel also believed that BALANCE and IMBALANCE existed together, and this was an important advance on the work of Marx and Weber. As Marx and Weber sought to find the origin of conflict, Simmel theorized that it was ALWAYS a part of group interactions. With this idea, he pushed the boundaries of conflict theory. In addition, if we think of conflict from Simmel's perspective, we see that conflict is NECESSARY for society--it helps us to become stable.

Park, who was a student of Simmel, created a set of "characteristics of social life" that he felt was a part of the fabric of society. He developed his theory based on observations of the city of Chicago when it was in the middle of an immigrant boom in the early 1900s. His central characteristics:

Emergence of Critical Conflict Theory and the Frankfurt School

Critical conflict theorists are a part of the Frankfurt School. Unlike the Chicago School (which was more concerned with the pursuit of research), the Frankfurt School of thought advocated for social change. Led by the work of Marx, this group of sociological theorists agreed that research about society was not enough--these theorists also felt that their work should be politicized. While they continued to stress that research on society was objective, they felt that their work should be a platform for changing society for the better.

Two general propositions are at the core of the Frankfurt School approach to doing sociology:

  1. People's ideas are a product of the society in which they live. This means that the structure of society has a tremendous impact on what we think and on our actions. It also implies that true objectivity is unobtainable--that is to say, we cannot be objective due to the influences of the time in which we live. All decisions and actions are bound by the social influences of that particular time, and so an objective truth OUTSIDE of social influence cannot be achieved.
  2. We should not try to be objective and we should not try to separate value judgments from our observations about society. Instead, we should be critical of social reality, always on the lookout for the problems present in society.

These two propositions, in general, line up nicely with the work of Marx. Where the critical theorists part ways however is related to the second proposition from above. While Marx held onto the notion that his view of society and social change was NOT subjective, the critical theorists agreed that their work was subjective. Marx felt his theory had reached some sort of objective place where his thoughts had not been influenced by the actions of the world around him. Critical conflict theorists are always aware of their own socialization and how that has influenced their theories.

Some of the most important work of the Frankfurt School was done in the early part of the 1900s by Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and Fromm.

Contemporary Interpretations

C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

C. Wright Mills was an American sociologist who did most of his work in the mid-1900s. He was heavily criticized for his conflict approach, but here we can use the ideas of the Frankfurt School to understand why Mills might have been criticized. The United States was in a prosperous time at the end of WWII. As a world power and a powerful ally to Britain and France during the war, the US had gained respect. In addition, the US was one of the only allied powers which had not been ravaged by the war, and so was in a solid position to help other countries to rebuild. This helped to stabilize and grow the US economy at a fast pace.

While Mills was disenchanted with the path of American society, others in American sociology were taking a less politicized approach to social research. While Mills agreed with Marx that sociologists have an obligation to "do something" about the social condition, most sociologists at that time (at least those in the US) were distancing themselves from activist sociology, and functional theory was starting to gain popularity as an explanation for social action. In other words, people believed, based on observations of a society which seemed to be working, that society WAS functioning--if they believed that society was functioning, then they would also have to place less importance on conflict.

Nonetheless, Mills has made several long-lasting contributions to sociology, and his work has in many ways, been prophetic of what is happening in the US today. Below you'll find information on two of his most important contributions: The Sociological Imagination and the Power Elite.

Pierre Bourdieu

Bourdieu was a French sociologist who was very well known in Western Europe, and achieved a sort of "rock star" status among the French. In the same tradition of the early critical theorists, Bourdieu was highly skeptical of the political climate of the West. He was direct in his approach to what he saw as the problems of contemporary society. Below find information on two of his most important contributions: The Neo-Liberal Scourge and Cultural Capital.

He also thought that the study of society should be reflexive:

Analytic Conflict Theory

Dahrendorf, Coser and Collins

These three theorists have each taken the foundations of conflict theory in a new and interesting direction which had direct applications to the world in which we live.

  • Ralf Dahrendorf developed his ideas about society centered on the issue of power and how groups become organized. He was concerned with the components of conflict and how conflict is generated in groups--and further, how that conflict helps a group to become active. Dahrendorf sees conflict as a force which helps to create society. He also sees the concept of power as a force which helps to shape the structure of society (including issues related to stratification):
    • Conflict is a force which helps to shape society.
    • Power is a force which helps to shape the structure of society.
    • Stratification is a product of actions and their desirability.
  • Lewis Coser developed his ideas about society centered on issues related to the workplace. He asserts that in today's society, the workplace is becoming a dominant (and dominating) force for people. He sees this as a problem as the workplace demands more and more from workers, and in turn, human freedom is in jeopardy. Unlike Dahrendorf, who concentrated on how conflict occurs, Coser concentrated on the consequences of conflict. He also took some time to develop ideas which centered around how the structure of society interactions with individual emotions. While Dahrendorf sees conflict as a unifying force, Coser sees unification as only one possible consequence of conflict. He also develops the characteristics and outcomes of external and internal conflicts:
    • Conflict exists beside consensus. Love exists beside hate. There is a duality in society (and in human emotion) that should not be overlooked.
    • External conflict (that is to say, conflict from outside a group) helps to solidify a group's identity and their level of cohesiveness by applying pressure to the group.
    • Internal conflict (that is to say, conflict from the members inside a group) is an important "safety valve" for group members and also helps to solidify group values--internal opposition gives members of the group a feeling of satisfaction, and eventually the group proceeds.
  • Randall Collins takes yet another approach to the study of conflict. He approaches conflict as an overarching action/feeling which is a force which explains much of social action. He asserts that conflict helps people to act. He asserts that people will essentially do anything to avoid others ordering them around. In that quest to avoid being ordered around, conflict occurs. Power plays a role in conflict in that some people have more than others and are therefore able to order others around. Collins goes on to outline the basic ways in which conflict are experienced in a society:
    • Material and technical resources are used to create structure and to create conflict. A person's or a group's access to resources impact how societies are structured.
    • Strength and physical attractiveness are used to create structure and to create conflict in personal relationships.
    • People with whom we come into contact affect our ability to gain material goods, which in turn affects our ability to gain emotional solidarity with others. We gain/lose resources through our occupations, our communities and in the political sphere.


To conclude, conflict theory developed as a response to the weaknesses of functional theory. The main premise of all conflict theories remains the same: there is an unequal distribution of scarce resources among groups of people in society. Conflict theory tends to be unpopular during times of social stability, but in today's turbulent economic world, conflict theories have experienced a revival. In addition, conflict theorists would agree that we must work together to change society--we cannot simply sit by and hope that things change for the better--we must be catalysts for change.

While there have been attempts to "fuse" the two theories into one (neofunctionalism), these attempts have fallen short of convincing most social theorists.