Conflict Theory explained: the definition, assumptions and an example

Conflict Theory - Toolshero

Conflict Theory: this article explains Conflict Theory in a practical way. Next to the definition, this article also reflects some assumptions and two practical examples to explain this theory. After reading it you will understand the basics of this sociology theory. Enjoy reading!

What is the Conflict Theory?

Conflict Theory is a theory that states that every society is in a perpetual state of conflict because it competes over scarce resources. It is also known as the social conflict theory.

According to the theory, order is maintained through domination and power, rather than through conformity and consensus. The wealthy people try to hold on to that power in every possible way.

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The theory states that they (power elite) succeed because they oppress the poor and the powerless within the working class. A basic tenet of the theory is that groups in society will do everything they can to gather their own power and wealth.

The definition of the Conflict theory

Conflict theory is a general term that encompasses a number of different views of sociology and is diametrically opposed to the views of functionalism. The premise is that the constant struggle between rich and poor is caused by the rich protecting and increasing their wealth and resources.


Karl Marx is considered the father of the theory of social conflict, another term for conflict theory. Of the classical founders of the social sciences, conflict theory is most closely associated with Karl Marx.

Marxism argues that capitalism would inevitably create internal tensions that would lead to self-destruction. Karl Marx therefore ushered in radical change. He advocated a proletarian revolution and an end to the domination of the upper classes towards the working class.

He was aware that most people in a capitalist society did not see how the system and the social structures worked. Most people think that rich people have earned their money through hard work. Karl Marx rejected this idea, arguing that this was – what Friedrich Engels refers to as – false consciousness. He argued that this argument was used to cover up that the proletariat was being exploited by the ruling class.

Karl Marx wanted to remove this false consciousness and replace it with something called class consciousness. He argued that workers should unite in opposition to the capitalists and overthrow the capitalist system.

Assumptions in conflict theory

Current conflict theory is based on four main assumptions about: competition, revolution, structural inequality, and war.


Theorists dealing with conflict theory believe that competition is a constant and important factor in almost every human interaction and relationship. Competition results from scarcity of resources, including material resources (money, property, goods, etc.). Intangible resources also play a role, such as time, dominance, partners, social status, etc.


If there are constant conflicts in human relations, the only outcome is a large-scale revolution. The idea is that a change in the dynamics of the world will not be the result of slow change, but of a large-scale event. Revolutionary instead of evolutionary.

Structural inequality

The third important assumption is that human relationships all experience inequality. Some individuals develop more power in this way than others.

The groups that take advantage of the benefits of this power and structure tend to work to preserve it and see the structures as a way of expanding their power.


Theorists tend to see war as a renewing influence in society, or a purifier of society. In this theory, war is the result of mounting tension and growing conflict between individuals and groups.

Realistic Group Conflict Theory

Realistic conflict theory states that conflict, stereotypes, beliefs and discrimination will inevitably arise when two groups seek the same limited resources. This can lead to increasing hostility towards groups and cause a feud.

The reverse is also true, according to the theory. Negative stereotypes, discrimination and beliefs can be reduced when two or more groups are able to achieve superior goals together.

Development of the conflict theory

Many theorists in sociology have built on Karl Marx’s conflict theory. The theory has been strengthened, grown and refined over the years. For example, Italian activist Antonio Gramsci explained why the theory did not manifest itself during Marx’s lifetime. He claimed that the power of capitalist ideology was stronger than foreseen by Marx.

Many others have used conflict theory to develop other types of theories within sociology, including feminist theory, critical race theory, theories of globalization and theories of world systems.

Conflict theory example

Relationship between homeowners and tenants

Conflict theorists see the relationship between, for example, an apartment building owner and the tenants as one based on conflict rather than balance or harmony. Even though the relationship is more harmonious than characterized by conflict, it is clear that both sides are trying to get scarce resources from each other.

These limited resources include the apartments, the spaces within the complex, the money that tenants pay, and so on. Theorists see this dynamic as a resource conflict. The owner of the apartment complex can be very nice, but is in fact out to fill as many apartments as possible so that the whole brings as much money as possible. This is even more crucial when bills such as mortgages and energy have to be paid.

This relationship can get disrupted and conflicts can arise.

2008 financial crisis

Another well-known example concerns the crisis of 2008. Alan Sears and James Cairns write about this in their book A Good Book, in Theory. They see the crisis as an inevitable consequence of the inequalities and instability of the global economic system. The largest banks and institutions can avoid government supervision and take excessive risks.

The authors note that the same institutions then receive resources from the same governments. They are disappointed that these governments first indicated that they had insufficient resources for, for example, free health care.

This contradiction reflects the fundamental view within conflict theory that government and other political institutions primarily favor the dominant groups and individuals within a society.

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about conflict theory? Do you recognize the conflict theory in everyday life? Do you think the consequences of using a capitalist system will be as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels described? What tips and comments would you like to add?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Sears, A., & Cairns, J. (2015). A good book, in theory: Making sense through inquiry. University of Toronto Press.
  2. Coser, L. A. (1967). Continuities in the study of social conflict.
  3. Turner, J. H. (1975). Marx and Simmel revisited: Reassessing the foundations of conflict theory. Social Forces, 53(4), 618-627.
  4. Hirshleifer, J. (2001). The dark side of the force: Economic foundations of conflict theory. Cambridge University Press.
  5. Bartos, O. J., & Wehr, P. (2002). Using conflict theory. Cambridge University Press.
  6. Baron, R. S. (1986). Distraction-conflict theory: Progress and problems. Advances in experimental social psychology, 19, 1-40.

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Published on: 07/13/2022 | Last update: 03/02/2023

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