Conflict Theory in Sociology

Key Takeaways

  • Conflict theories emphasize looking at the history and events in a society in terms of structural power divisions, such as social class.
  • Although few modern sociologists call themselves conflict theorists, scholars as notable as Karl Marx (1818–1883), Max Weber (1864–1920), Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), and Ralf Dahrendorf (1929–2009) have formulated theories as to what causes conflict, its normalcy, and the impact it has on societies.
  • A structural conflict approach, such as Marxism, believes that society is in a conflict between the classes. They believe that the Bourgeoisie oppress the Proletariat through various social institutions without their full knowledge.
  • Some sociologists, such as Crouch (2001), categorize conflict theories across two axes: momentous vs. mundane and exceptional vs. endemic. This categorization reflects when and the extent to which theorists believe that conflict is pathological in a society.
  • Sociologists have used conflict theory to frame and enhance discussions as far-ranging as historical events to individualistic vs. collectivistic cultures and gender discrimination in the workplace.

What is Conflict Theory?

Conflict theory is a general term coving a number of 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 theories assume that all societies have structural power divisions and resource inequalities that lead to groups having conflicting interests (Wells, 1979).

For example, Marxism emphasizes class conflict over economic resources, but Weber suggests that conflict and inequality can be caused by power and status independently of class structures.

Evolution of Conflict Theory

Large-scale civil unrests and large demographic dislocations, extreme poverty, and a wide gap between the interests and wealth of workers and owners lead to the development of Marxist conflict theory, which emphasizes the omnipresence of the divides of social class.

Later, conflict theory manifested in World Wars and Civil Rights movements, empowerment movements, and rebuttals of colonial rule (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Although people have been spreading conflict from a folk knowledge context for millennia, the philosophy underlying conflict theory — and intentional thinking around how people understand conflict and how they can resolve it in constructive ways — stems from the thinking of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and George Simmel.

However, sociologists such as Bartos and Wehr (2002) propose the definition that conflict is any situation where actors use conflict action against each other in order to attain incompatible goals or to express their hostility.

When two or more individuals pursue incompatible interests, they are in a relationship of conflict. For example, if the workers in a factory wish to work as little as possible and be paid as much as possible, and the owners want the workers to work as much as possible with as little pay as possible, then the workers and owners have incompatible interests (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Conflict can also manifest when groups do not necessarily have incompatible goals but feel hostility toward each other.

Hostility arises out of non-rational decision-making, which is impulsive and often at odds with the actions rational analysis (such as prospect or utility theory) may suggest.

Because of this contradiction, conflict behavior heavily influenced by hostility can be damaging to the actor’s interest in the long term (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Finally, “conflict behavior” covers many types of behavior. Conflict behavior can consist of rational actions (actions that consider and accurately judge all possible outcomes) and the expression of hostility, as well as behavior that is either coercive (such as causing great physical harm to an opponent) or cooperative (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Understanding Conflict Theory

Functionalist Approaches to Conflict Theory

Functionalist theories, particularly those of structural functionalism, which dominated the US in the 1940s and 1950s, tend to see conflict as momentous and exceptional (i.e., unusual). When conflict is momentous, it is likely to result in major upheavals and potentially momentous change.

Functionalism, in sum, is a theory based on the premise that every aspect of society — such as institutions, roles, and norms — serves some purpose to society and that all of these systems work together with internal consistency (Wells, 1979).

Talcott Parsons (1964) is the most prominent structural functionalist who studied conflict. Parsons believed that conflict generally did not overwhelm social relations, and thus, that overwhelming, momentous conflict was exceptional.

When conflict does happen in a social situation, it is because there is something psychologically wrong with one of these essential institutions, and thus, conflict is a harbinger of potentially major change (Crouch, 2001).

Marxist Approach to Conflict Theory

Marx’s version of conflict theory focused on the conflict between two primary classes within capitalist society: the ruling capitalist class (or bourgeoisie), who own the means of production, and the working class (or proletariat), whose alienated labor the bourgeoisie exploit to produce a profit.

If the power of the ruling class is challenged by, say, strikes and protests, the ruling class can use the law to criminalize those posing the threat, and media reporting will be manipulated to give the impression that the ruling class’s interests are those of the whole nation.

For Marxists, the appearance of consensus is an illusion; it conceals the reality of one class imposing its will on the rest of society.

Coercion – the use of the army, police, and other government agencies to force other classes to accept the ruling class ideology.

In contrast to functionalist theories of conflict, Marxist theories of conflict see conflict as endemic and momentous (Marx, 2000). Endemic conflict theories see conflict as an inherent aspect of social relations, and likely to occur at many points over the course of a relationship.

Conflict is endemic to social relations, according to Marxism, because of the belief that society is based upon class relations and that those from different class groups have opposing interests.

This conflict is implicit in every interaction, and conflict does not only exist when it overtly manifests itself in actions.

Indeed, according to Marxists, weaker parties in class conflict may be powerless or too fearful to express conflict openly (Rowthorn, 1980).

Marxist vs. Functionalist Approaches to Conflict

While a functionalist may view the conflict between a supervisor and their employees as a symptom of something being wrong in the organization, a Marxist sociologist may view this conflict as a reflection of the reality of the relationship between the supervisor and his workers.

An absence of conflict would deny the inherent and fundamental divides underlying every structural divide in a Marxist society (Crouch, 2001).

Although both functionalism and Marxism disagree as to whether or not conflict is inherent to social interactions, both approaches agree that conflict is likely to bring about disorder and potentially radical social change.

In the case of Marxism, a momentous class conflict will lead to a catastrophic dissolution of class relations.

Indeed, in a way some sociologists have called ironic (Couch, 2001), the ongoing social order according to Marxism resembles that of the functionalist social order. All institutions tend to attempt to maintain the current social order.

Conflict as Mundane

Conflict can also be seen as mundane — unlikely to lead to an upheaval and radical social change. According to institutionalized conflict theory, for example, in cases where institutions are separated from each other, it is unlikely that conflict will spread between institutions.

This desire to separate institutions emerged in response to the fascism and extreme movements arising out of the early-mid 20th century. In particular, political sociologists were interested in how different identities in conflict could run together or cross-cut each other (Lipset, 1964; Crouch, 2001).

When groups tend to hold more identities in conflict with another group, the conflict is more widespread and more intense.

For example, one would expect a society where most blacks were working-class Catholics and most whites were bourgeois protestants to be in greater and more intense conflict than one where a significant proportion of whites were working-class Catholics and so on.

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.

Critical Sociology and the Normalization of Conflict

Critical sociologists, such as feminist sociologists, see conflict as both endemic and mundane.

Generally, modern sociologists have seen conflict as both endemic and mundane and thus regarded as normal, leading to the disappearance of distinctive conflict sociology in recent years (Crouch, 2001).

Some critical sociologists, such as Ralf Dahrendorf, see conflict as not only endemic and functional but capable of sustaining the social order in itself.

People innovated and created institutions, in Dahrendof’s approach (1972), by openly expressing and working out differences, difficulties, and contradictions.

This provides a radical contrast to structural functionalism in contending that the endemicity and mundanity — as opposed to the momentousness and exceptionality — of conflict preserves social structures rather than destroying them (Crouch, 2001).

Dahrendorf wrote from the cultural context of the conflicted history of Germany in the early-to-mid 20th century (Dahrendorf 1966). Postwar German sociologists, such as Habermas (1981), tended to stress open dialogue and communication in the working out of conflicts.

The works of Max Weber led to an increasing view of conflict as normalized (Weber, 1978). Weber, unlike Marx, did not reduce social relations to material class interests.

For him, conflict could be about any number of factors, from idealistic beliefs to symbolic orders, and none were necessarily any more important than the others (Crouch, 2001).

Conflict, Hostility, and Rationality/Irrationality

One way that sociologists propose to reduce conflict is through rational decision-making.

Weber (1978) argued that there are two types of rationality involved in decision-making processes.

The first, instrumental rationality, is directed at carrying out a specific goal, such as buying the best car with the money one has or deciding which topics to revise in order to pass an exam the next day.

The other type of rationality that Weber proposes is value rationality, when the objective is to conform to a vaguely defined set of values, such as when a religious person is trying to determine which among various ways of practice is most appropriate (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Sociologists consider the implementation of so-called rational decision-making to be effused with difficulties. Different individuals in different contexts can differ greatly in what they consider to be a rational choice.

However, sociologists agree that an action is rational if they consider the set of all relevant alternatives and assess every outcome correctly. Of course, this is unlikely in practice, and thus few actors make decisions completely rationally.

One form of non-rational decision-making that sociologists consider to drive conflict is hostility. Conflicts that start rationally may end non-rationally. For example, a demonstration planned to let a group’s point of view be known may turn into a riot with rock throwing, the burning of cars, and looting.

Conflict and hostility have a reciprocal relationship: hostility can add fuel to and intensify conflict behavior, and conflict can intensify hostility. As conflicts continue and actors inflict harm on each other, participants may become motivated by desires beyond reaching their original goals, such as inflicting as much harm on the perceived enemy as possible (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Causes of Conflict

Generally, sociologists agree that conflict occurs due to groups having incompatible goals. However, these incompatible goals generally arise from several factors: including contested resources, incompatible roles, and incompatible values.

Contested Resource

Contested Resources draws three main categories that contested resources fit into wealth, power, and prestige. Generally, wealth involves tangibles, such as money or land (Weber, 1978)

For example, children hearing the reading of the will of a deceased parent may suddenly come into conflict as they each believe that they deserve more money than was allocated to them.

The land has also been the source of a number of historical and contemporary conflicts, such as the conflict over East Jerusalem and Golan Heights between Israel, Palestine, and Syria (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

An actor, according to Bartos and Wehr (2002), is powerful if they can coerce others into doing what they want by either promising to reward the action they desire or by threatening to punish them for failing to do so.

Power is generally unequally distributed, and parties in a power relationship can either dominate another or when one party has greater power potential than the other.

For example, after WWI, the Treaty of Versailles allowed for the allied powers to dominate Germany, requiring the country to pay heavy reparations to the allied forces.

However, with the rise of Hitler, Germany was rearmed, increasing the country’s power potential. Thus, Germany was able to invade Austria and Czechoslovakia with impunity (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Prestige can also be a contested resource. Generally, those held in high respect (high prestige) have power, and those who have power are often held in high respect. Actors can have high prestige in certain situations and much lower prestige in others.

Incompatible Roles

Incompatible goals within an organization may arise out of incompatible roles. In the study of conflict, sociologists have emphasized vertical role differentiation, which assigns different roles to different positions within the power hierarchy.

Although many sociologists have studied the conflict arising from role differentiation, they have not generally agreed on whether role differentiation causes conflict.

In contrast, an organization can have role differentiation because members have partial and specific responsibilities, such as that of an engineer or a salesperson.

Although these roles are different in nature, those playing these rules do not refer to their relationships as those of superiors and subordinates (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Nonetheless, the roles of a horizontally integrated organization can still be incompatible.

For example, while an engineer may need to design a building that has beams visible from the atrium for structural stability reasons, this may contradict an architect or interior designer’s desire to have a clean, modern space without visible construction elements.

Incompatible Values

Groups separated from each other can also develop cultures that encourage incompatible values. This can happen due to separation, the values of communities and systems, or role differentiation.

Separation can occur on either the individual or group level. In either case, those separated from others develop unique sets of values, as their interactions with those in their ingroups are more intense than those in the outgroup.

One extreme example of isolation is cults. Cults can range from religious cults that may, for example, worship an ancient god to secular cults such as militias that oppose the government.

These organizations are generally small and have clearly defined beliefs, values, and norms that make them distinct from both other cults and mainstream cultures (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Those in groups also tend to form their own group identities, where they tend to value themselves more highly than others value them (Where, 2002).

This “ethnocentric” view — manifested today in the form of nationalism, for example (Chrristenson et al. 1975) — makes it easier for actions inflicted by other groups, however unintentional, to be seen as slights on the ethnocentric group (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Community and System Values

The American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1951) noted that in the creation of a social arrangement, actors have to decide whether the relationships among themselves are: affective or affectively neutral; self or collectively oriented; universalistic or particularistic; specific or diffuse; ascription or achievement-oriented.

In making these decisions, societies adopt a set of cultural values.

Small tribal societies tend to adopt communal values, and large societies tend to adopt system values (Bartos and Wehr, 2002), which in themselves can lead to goal incompatibility (conflict) between societies.

Communal values emerge from face-to-face interactions and tend to be effective, collectivistic, particularistic, ascriptive, and diffuse, while system values tend to be the opposite.

Habermas (1987) considers these opposing communal and system values to be a potential source of social conflict. Advanced industrial societies, in Habermas’ view, tend to “colonize” and “deform” communal life.

Role Differentiation

Finally, role differentiation can directly create incompatible goals by means of nudging those with different goals to act in incompatible ways.

Roles can emphasize, as discussed previously, communal or system values.

For example, a pastor may emphasize love (an affective communal value) while a businessman may value efficiency — a system value — as more important than love in a business context (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Examples of Conflict

The Cuban Missile Crisis

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the United States and the Soviet Union became close to nuclear war (Downing, 1992). The Soviet leader Kruschev installed medium-range missiles in Cuba.

The president of the United States had to negotiate the risks of reacting too strongly (nuclear war) with the drawbacks of responding weakly (increasing the influence of the Soviet Union).

That is to say, the United States and the Soviet Union had deeply conflicting interests: the Soviet Union wanted to increase its missile supremacy, and the United States wanted to curtail it (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Conflict and Individualism

Although some societies (such as Japan) can preserve some features of small groups, most wealthy, industrialized western societies tend to encourage individualism, which encourages members of a society to formulate and develop their own values rather than accepting those of the larger groups (Bartos and Wehr, 2002).

Individual personality differences — such as extraversion, aggression, talkative, and problem-solving styles — may lead to the development of incompatible values.

One’s alignment with individualism or collectivism can also have a great impact on styles of decision-making in conflicts.

According to LeFebvre and Franke (2013), for example, participants with higher levels of individualism tended to favor rational approaches to decision-making, while those with higher levels of collectivism tended to value staying loyal to the interests of their ingroups.

A Conflict Theory of Sexual Stratification

Collins (1971) attempts to explain employment discrimination against women as the result of a sexual stratification system constructed from the perspectives of Freud and Weber.

In short, Weber argued that conflict emerges over a struggle for as much dominance over other groups as resources permit.

In the early 1970s, women tended to comprise a low number of professional and manual labor positions relative to men.

For example, in 1971, 18% of college professors were female, and 3.3% of lawyers and judges were. Historically, explanations for this imbalance involved a perceived lack of training and a low commitment to professional work in favor of child rearing (Collins, 1971).

However, as Collins demonstrates, neither of these is necessarily true.

Rather, Collins suggests that women belong to a lower class in a sexual stratification system. This is evidenced by how women in the 1970s who took on managerial roles tended to do so mostly in professions dominated by women (such as nursing).

Collins then goes on to theorize that men’s large size and high sexual and aggressive drives have led to the historical subjugation of women by men.

In this system, according to Collins (1971), women can be acquired as sexual property and thus subjugated to the role of “menial servants” (Levi-Strauss, 1949).


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Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.