Conflict Theory explained including examples

Conflict Theory - Toolshero

Conflict Theory: this article explains Conflict Theory in a practical way. Next to the definition and information about its origin, this article also considers the assumptions in this theory, and two practical examples to explain this theory. After reading it you will understand the basics of this powerful sociology theory, which is very much relevant today. Enjoy reading!

What is the Conflict Theory?

Conflict Theory suggests that society is in a constant state of competition, fighting for limited resources. Have you ever wondered why some individuals or groups in society seem to have more power and privilege than others. Conflict theory offers a compelling explanation.

At the heart of conflict theory is the notion that groups in society will do everything they can to gather their own power and wealth. This can result in a power struggle that can play out in various ways, including economic, political, and social competition. Understanding this dynamic is essential to grasp how power relations shape our experiences and opportunities in society. A central concept in this theory, is the theory of class conflict.

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According to principle, those who hold power in society seek to maintain it by exploiting those who are economically disadvantaged. In particular, the ruling class (i.e., the wealthy and powerful elites) attempts to hold onto its power by keeping the working class in a state of  economic dependence.

This power struggle between the classes results in a state of constant conflict, with each group seeking to maximize its power and wealth at the expense of the other. Conflict theory argues that social change occurs when the oppressed class rises up against the ruling class and demands a fair distribution of resources and power.

In essence, the theory of class conflict highlights the fundamental inequality and competition that exists within society and emphasizes the importance of power relations in shaping social dynamics. It provides a lens through which to analyze the underlying causes of social problems such as poverty, discrimination, and oppression, and can guide efforts to promote social justice and equality.

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 (1818 1883) 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.

C. Wright Mills is often considered the father of modern conflict theory because of his influential work in the field of sociology during the mid-twentieth century. He is particularly known for his book “The Power Elite” published in 1956, which analyzed the political, economic, and military elites in American society and their influence over social and political institutions.

Conflict theory in daily life

Conflict theory is an important concept in understanding social dynamics and how power relations play out in society. The theory suggests that society is comprised of groups that are in competition for limited resources and that conflict is an inherent part of social life.

In our daily life, conflict theory can help understand why certain groups may have more power or privilege than others, and how this affects human interactions with eachother. For example, conflict theory can help understand why certain individuals or groups may experience discrimination or inequality in the workplace, in education, or in other areas of life.

Conflict theory can also help us become more aware of power dynamics in our own relationships and interactions with others. By recognizing the potential for conflict and power imbalances, we can work towards more equitable and just outcomes. For instance, we may seek to negotiate with others in a way that is respectful and acknowledges their perspective, or we may seek to advocate for social justice and political change in areas where we see unequal power relations at play.

Assumptions in conflict theory

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


In conflict theory, competition is a fundamental assumption that underlies social relations and interactions. The theory assumes that people and groups are constantly in competition with one another over limited resources such as wealth, power, and status.

Competition is viewed as a natural and inevitable part of social life, with individuals and groups seeking to maximize their own interests and gain an advantage over others. Conflict theory suggests that competition can lead to inequality and social stratification, as some groups are able to gain more resources than others, leading to the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few.


In conflict theory, revolution is viewed as a possible outcome of the struggle between social classes and the unequal distribution of power and resources within society. The assumption of revolution is based on the belief that conflict between social groups can escalate to a point where the existing social order is no longer viable, and a new order must be established.

For example, the Russian Revolution of 1917, which led to the establishment of the Soviet Union, can be seen as an example of a successful revolution based on the conflict theory assumption of revolution. The Bolsheviks, who were a minority group of revolutionary Marxists, were able to mobilize support from the working class to overthrow the existing social order and establish a new socialist state.

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.


In conflict theory, war is often viewed as the ultimate manifestation of social conflict, arising from the struggle between groups or nations over power and resources. The theory assumes that competition for limited resources, such as land, wealth, and natural resources, leads to conflicts that escalate into wars.

Conflict theory suggests that the cause of war is rooted in the unequal distribution of power and resources among different groups, particularly the powerful elite who control the state apparatus. The powerful elite, driven by their self-interest, may engage in wars to protect their own interests, expand their power and control over resources, or assert their dominance over other groups.

Realistic Group Conflict Theory

Realistic Group Conflict Theory is a more social and psychological theory, that explains intergroup conflict and prejudice as a result of competition between groups over scarce resources. Scarce resources are money, land, or status. According to this theory, when groups feel that their interests are threatened, they become more competitive and hostile towards each other, leading to conflict and prejudice.

The theory suggests that group conflict arises from a perception of a zero-sum game, where one group’s gain is seen as another group’s loss. As a result, groups may view other groups as a threat to their well-being and engage in discriminatory or aggressive behaviors to protect their own interests.

For example, the theory can explain why two neighboring countries may engage in a territorial dispute over a piece of land that both consider their own. The theory suggests that both groups will perceive the other as a threat to their own interests and may engage in hostile behavior to defend their claims.

Realistic Group Conflict Theory highlights the role of competition and resource allocation in shaping intergroup relations. By understanding the underlying factors that contribute to conflict and prejudice, this theory can inform efforts to promote peace, cooperation, and understanding between groups.

Development of the conflict theory

Many theorists in sociology have built on Marx’s 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 Karl 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.

What Are Common Criticisms of the Conflict Theory?

There are several criticisms of the conflict theory. One of the main criticisms is that it tends to focus too much on the negative aspects of society, such as conflict and inequality, and neglects the positive aspects, such as cooperation and social harmony.

Another criticism is that it may oversimplify complex social phenomena by reducing them to a simple conflict between groups or classes. This can lead to a narrow and one-sided understanding of social dynamics, and may ignore the complexities and nuances of human behavior and social interaction.

Some critics argue that the conflict theory is too deterministic, meaning that it assumes that social outcomes are predetermined by the underlying power dynamics and social structures. This can lead to a lack of agency and individual responsibility, as people may be seen as passive victims of social forces beyond their control.

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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.

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2022). Conflict Theory. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 07/13/2022 | Last update: 05/11/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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