Conflict theory

Conflict theory, originally proposed by Karl Marx, offers a fascinating and critical perspective on the structure of our society. According to Marx, we live in a constant state of conflict due to fierce competition for limited resources. The essence of this theory lies in the idea that the social order is sustained not by general consensus, but through the use of power and domination by those who possess wealth.

The powerful, according to Marx, go to great lengths to maintain their status, actively suppressing the less fortunate in order to maximise their own wealth and power. This conflict is not limited to economic struggles, but also manifests itself in our social and economic institutions, which are structured in ways that perpetuate inequality and maintain the dominance of the ruling classes.

Society, for Marx, is clearly divided into two: the bourgeoisie, which controls most of the wealth and the means of production, and the proletariat, made up of the workers and the poor. With the rise of capitalism, this division has sharpened, leading the bourgeoisie to use its influence to further oppress the proletariat.

Marx’s conflict theory has not only served to explain phenomena such as wars, revolutions and poverty, but has also provided a critical lens for understanding important historical developments, such as the evolution of democracy and civil rights. According to this theory, these developments are often the result of attempts by the capitalist classes to control the masses, rather than a genuine desire for social order.

This approach helps us understand that social conflicts and inequalities are critical drivers of change and development in our society. The theory predicts that without significant change in the power structure, cycles of conflict and inequality will continue to repeat themselves, which could eventually lead to revolts and possibly revolutionary change.

Keys to Conflict Theory

  • Competition for limited resources: Competition is inevitable because we all want access to resources that are scarce, whether material resources such as money and property, or intangible resources such as social status or leisure time.
  • Social control through power: Those at the top of the social pyramid use their power to maintain control, establishing laws and social norms that benefit their interests.
  • Class struggle: Marx especially highlighted the struggle between the bourgeoisie (the rich and powerful) and the proletariat (the workers and poor). He predicted that this tension could lead to revolutions and significant changes in society.
  • Revolution and change: Conflicts between different groups can trigger major changes, such as revolutions, which alter the existing power structure.
  • Structural inequality: Inequalities of power are intrinsic to our social structures, leading to some groups having more privileges than others.
  • War as social cleansing: Conflict theorists sometimes see war as a way of resolving accumulations of social tensions, although this can lead to the destruction or unification of societies.

Real-life applications

A practical example of conflict theory was seen in the 2008 financial crisis, where large corporations and banks, with the support of government policies, were able to take huge risks that benefited the few at the expense of the many. This demonstrated how the powerful can manipulate systems to their advantage, often exacerbating inequality and social conflict.

This theory helps us understand why, despite advances such as democracy and civil rights, we continue to face problems such as poverty, discrimination and domestic violence.

Hayes, A. (2021, August 21). Conflict Theory.