What is Conflict Theory?
Conflict theory is a social theory that was formulated by the German philosopher, economist, journalist, and sociologists Karl Marx. This theory discusses the continual state of conflict in society, which happens due to the competition for limited resources or funds, which could eventually lead to a revolution or the war. This theory argues that people or groups interact based on the conflict and not on the consensus, and the social order in the society can only be maintained through power and domination and not through consensus and conformity; those who are wealthy and hold power try to maintain their power at any cost, and mainly by suppressing powerless individuals.
Understanding the Conflict Theory
The conflict theory is one of the four major theories of sociology that includes functionalism, feminism, and symbolic interactions. The conflict theory discusses the concepts of unequal distributorship of resources, social inequality, and socioeconomic differences between the classes, which we refer to as central tenets. These central tenets explain the majority of social conflicts that humans witness. Various types of social phenomena such as poverty, war, discrimination, revolutions and violence can be explained through the conflict theory. Karl Marx and most philosophers believe that social conflicts could result in the development of society by making changes in the previously existing unbiased policies or laws. According to Karl Marks, the societal conflict arises due to the conflict between the two main classes, one is the proletariat (working class) and the other is the bourgeoisie (owners of the company or organization). The paradigms of conflicts in society occur when one class dominates the other class. Marx stated that as the bourgeoisie holds more wealth and power than the proletariat’s class, it could lead to the exploitation of the proletariats by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoise may set up a structure that favours their dominance and prevent others (proletariats) from reaching their positions. According to the conflict theory, when the proletariat will realize that they have been exploited by the bourgeoisie it will result in a socialist revolution. The conflict may primarily occur due to the difference in the point of view of both classes. The bourgeoisie has the power and the wealth, and they are making profits by dominating the proletariat, hence they are happy with their current state; on the other hand, the proletariat earns minimum wages even after handling a lot of work pressure. The proletariat may demand a change in their current situation, i.e., higher wages, and better opportunities, which they may think can be obtained through the collapse of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie or the elites will eventually be forced by the proletariat to break their structure of dominance and set policies that improve the conditions of the proletariats. According to Marx, even if the condition of the proletariats improves after the revolution, the chances are that the conflict will again arise but in the reverse direction. The bourgeoise may then become more violent and try to dominate the other class through mass revolutions.
Four Assumptions of Conflict Theory
Competition, structural inequality, revolution and war are the four main assumptions of the conflict theory. Let’s discuss them briefly.
According to conflict theorists, competition is basic human nature. Humans compete with each other for various limited resources. These resources could be material items such as money and property or immaterial things like power, success, and social status. Conflict theory states that humans are always competing to possess limited resources rather than consensus and cooperating. Competition forms the basis for all social relationships, which leads to conflict by establishing groups, hierarchies and classes in the society.
2. Structural Inequality
Conflict theory highlights the concept of structural inequality. This theory is based on the assumption that society experiences structural inequalities; some the groups or the individual dominates the other groups or the individuals due to power differences. Those who have wealth and power try to keep it through any means, and they may refuse to bring any changes in the social structure. Those who have wealth can accumulate more wealth and those who are poor become poorer due to the exploitation by the elite class. This results in a wide income gap between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat class. This means that the competition for the resources results in structural inequalities such as inequalities in the profession, income or rules and regulations. Nowadays, it is often seen that the big companies urge the government the concession the taxes to sustain the structural inequalities because it enables the business owners to retain their position and restricts the proletariat class from reaching their position.
Conflict theorists assume that there is a perpetual conflict between both the main classes of the society, i.e., the proletariat class and the bourgeoise class. The expansion of this constant conflict results in the revolution. There are numerous examples available in history that show the occurrence of the revolution due to the constant conflict in the different classes of society. One such example is the revolution that occurred in 1848 throughout Europe in various nations including Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Spain due to the economic and political crisis. According to Marx, the revolution results in changes and development in society, and the social changes do not happen gradually it often occurs as the result of abrupt major conflicts.
Extreme competition between the two or more groups may lead to conflict between the government of the countries. These conflicts can result in a war that may either unify the newly structured society or lead to the formation of different hierarchies. According to the conflict theory, war results in the unification and formation of new rules and regulations in society, or we can simply say that it cleanses the society by breaking the old social structure that caused conflict in the various classes. Consider the example of World War II, this war bought numerous changes throughout the world. Several peace programmes or organisations such as United Nations and the European Union were set up after World War II. Rapid changes are seen in societies due to the destruction and crisis caused by the war. . The war generally occurs when it is the only way left to resolve the issues between the groups. Conflict theorists consider war as a reset in society because it brings sudden changes in society. However, this is not entirely true as war can lead to unification but only for a short period because the conflict in the society may still arise in one or the other way. In the worst-case scenario, war can even lead to consequences that can never be replenished or it may even result in the end of certain groups or classes in the society.
Real-Life Examples of the Conflict Theory
1. Conflict In the Workplace
Organizational conflict theory is the subtype of the social conflict theory, which is related to the conflicts that arise in the workplace. This theory helps the employees and employers to understand the cause behind the imbalance of power and dissent in the workplace. Following are examples of some of the fundamental parts of this theory.
Interpersonal conflicts occur when two people find it difficult to understand the point of view of each other, hence failing to work effectively together. This may be due to the differences in the personality of the two people. Whether there is an imbalance of resources or not, interpersonal conflict can occur at any level in the organization, in fact, it generally occurs due to the dissent between the two parties on the way of using the shared resources.
Maturity conflicts occur between the individual (employee) and the person who holds the authority or the power (employer). When the employee realises that he/she is not provided with sufficient resources such as good opportunities and new tasks for skill development or personal growth, by the organization or the company, it results in a maturity conflict.
People tend to share their personal opinions or beliefs with colleagues at the workplace, which may lead to ideological conflict if the beliefs or the values of the two persons are different. This may impact the work performance of the individuals involved in this conflict. Due to this reason, organizations emphasise limiting the conversations related to religious beliefs, and political points of view between the employees at the workplace.
Intergroup conflict is the social conflict within the group when two or more groups are struggling to achieve a certain objective. Like interpersonal conflict, intergroup conflict can also occur whether there is an imbalance in the power or not. The groups that face interpersonal conflict generally have different approaches to using the available resources for achieving the given objective at the workplace.
When the goals of the two members or departments in the organization directly contradict each other it leads to role conflict. Let’s understand it with an example, a customer is unhappy because the products that they bought from your company are malfunctioning, and he wants a refund for the same. In this situation, the customer service representative may agree to the refund as it will make the customer happy and build the customer’s trust in the company. Contrary to this, the sales team manager may refuse to refund and ask him to buy a new product because the product was not under the guarantee. Hence, the difference in the objectives of the two departments, i.e., the customer care departments and the sales department lead to role conflict.
2. Conflict Theory and Capitalism
In capitalism, every individual tries to maximize his/her wealth and power through any means. Karl Marx argues that capitalism is based on the premise that wealth can be generated through wealth, and the one with the more wealth can easily accumulate even more wealth, this means that the individuals that are born into poor families already lag behind the individuals that are born in wealthy families. The rich families pass on their wealth to their future generations, which further invest this wealth to gain more wealth and it leads to an increase in the gap or disparities of the wealth between the rich and the poor people. Marx argued that this will result in the conflict between those who hold wealth and those who don’t, and the people with little wealth will eventually become exhausted working for those who hold enormous wealth leading to the conflict.
3. Conflict in the Education System
Many private schools follow different ways of teaching and provide greater opportunities for the overall growth of the students than most public schools. The students belonging to the high socioeconomic background can easily afford to get admission to the well-advanced schools that promote the student’s careers. On the other hand, the students that belong to a low socioeconomic background can not afford to take admitted to these schools and they end up taking admitted to the schools that charge minimal admission fees and usually follows the regular and basic teaching style. This difference in socioeconomic status increases the gap between the rich and the poor students in availing of quality education. The students belonging to working-class families usually have to deal with several family problems while pursuing their academics. This shows that the students belonging to financially strong families achieve better opportunities, while those belonging to the financially weak class fail to achieve these opportunities, which leads to conflict in the educational system.
4. Occupy Wall Street
Occupy wall street refers to the two-month protest, which happened in 2011, following the global financial crisis on Wall Street, New York. The slogan of this protest was
We are the 99 percent”
This motto refers to the high-income disparities between the top 1 per cent of the wealthiest population and the bottom 99 per cent population. It is believed that the top 1 per cent population holds wealth that is nearly equal to the net wealth held by the bottom 99 per cent of the population. This protest also raise the concern that the income of the top 1 per cent grew rapidly in the last few years, while the income of the bottom 99 per cent population was increased by a few amount. This results in the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat because the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat to earn more and more profits. This protest was also expanded in the other areas as it demanded the improvement of the working class and balancing out the wealth disparities.
5. Me-too Movement
The Me too Movement begins in 2006, but it become popular in 2017 following the abuse and sexual harassment allegations against the American film producer Harvey Weinstein. As per the New York Times report, many women including some notable Hollywood personalities like Ashley Judd, Uma Thurman, and Jennifer Lawrence have reported sexual-abuse claims against Harvey Weinstein. The Me-too movement encourages women to raise their voices against any kind of abuse and sexual harassment. Me too movement grew rapidly after it became clear that a large number of female actresses were harassed by Weinstein, this encourages the other women to openly speak of the workplace sexual abuse. This movement highlights the power gap between movie producers and actresses. Some male producers use their power in the film industry to exploit some actresses by asking for sexual favours from them in exchange for a great role in particular movies. Some of the actresses even agree with it due to the high competition in the film industry, and those who reject to oblige are often given the roles in place of the hush money.
6. Black Lives Matter Movement
The conflict between different races is widely seen in almost all countries. The ‘Black Lives Matter Movement’ is also another example of the social conflicts that happen due to the years of discrimination against black people in western countries. Black lives matter is a protest that raises the voice against the violence and injustice against black people. The 1956 case of Rosa Park is one of the popular examples that reflects the conflict between racial groups. In this case, the police arrested Rosa Park just because she refused to give her bus seat to a white person. This arrest sparked the anger of the black community that leads to several civil rights movements and boycotts of the Montgomery bus. This case is exactly in accordance with the conflict theory’s assumptions as there has been a perpetual conflict between the police and the black people community for several years. The black community argues the police as the racists that suppress the rights of the black people in the same manner, the bourgeoisie dominates the proletariat.
7. The Criminal Justice System
It is often seen that the people who are financially strong or hold power get easily save themselves from the crimes they commit, and they usually get lesser punishments than the people with low socioeconomic backgrounds for committing the same crime. Hence, the criminal justice system is also a prominent example of the social conflict theory.
8. Proposition 8 Law
In 2008, the preposition 8 law was passed in California. This law banned same-sex marriages. This law gained the attention of all the media channels and international authorities as it was against gay rights. The supporters of gay marriages protested on the mass level and boycotted many businesses. This forced the supreme court of California to abolish the proposition. Later in 2015, the United States supreme court legalised same-sex marriage.
9. World War II
One of the prime causes of the World war II is the large economic punishments suffered by Germany after World War I. During this time period, most of the other countries around the globe were also suffering from a large economic crisis. The financial pressure after world war I result in the formation of dictatorships in various countries, for example, Stalin in Russia, Hitler in Germany, and Mussolini in Italy. The conflict occurs when the countries fight for the greed of obtaining more resources, and according to the beliefs of the dictators, the resource can be obtained through the invasion of the other countries. This results in the expansion of the german and eventually world War II.
10. The Cuban Missile Crisis
In 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, it is said that the Soviet Union and the United States were on the verge of a Nuclear War. The leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev had installed the medium-range missile in the Cuba region. According to the reports the United States was then planning to drawbacks the implementation of nuclear missiles due to the risk that the nuclear war may create. According to Bartos and Wehr, 2002, both the countries, i.e., the soviet union and the united states were in a state of conflict due to the entirely different points of view, the Soviet Union wanted to increase its nuclear weapons while the united states wanted to lowers the production of the nuclear weapons.
11. Conflict Theory of Sexual Stratification
A study conducted by Collins in 1971 tried to explain that the sexual stratification system established due to Freud and Weber’s perspective is responsible for the discrimination against women in the workplace. Throughout the years, it is seen that women are less likely to reach higher positions in companies or organizations. Think of the names of the CEOs and managers of all the big MNCs, you may struggle to find the names of the females occupying these positions. According to the statistical report of 1971, only 18 per cent of professors in the universities were women and the percentage of women as lawyers and judges was 3.3. per cent only. According to Collins, this imbalance at the workplace could be due to the less focus of the females on their professional work due to their personal responsibilities such as upbringing the children and managing the family. The women are placed at the bottom in the sexual stratification system, which results in social conflict.
12. Conflict and Individualism
Social conflict is often seen in societies that promote individualism. Most western nations tend to encourage people to formulate their own values and beliefs rather than following the beliefs and the values of the majority. According to Bartos and Wehr (2002), most the eastern nations like Japan tend to encourage collectiveness and conformity, which is why social conflict is less in these nations, while in industrialized and wealthy societies, for example, most of the western countries that tend to promote individualism, social conflict often arises due to the different approaches of the individuals to handle a particular situation. According to the study conducted by Lefebvre and Franke (2013), participants that follows the individualistic approach were more favourable toward the rational approach while making the decisions, but the participants that prefer collectivism were more favourable toward following the decisions of their groups rather than making their own decisions in the given problem. The differences in the decision making styles of the people who prefer individualism and those who prefer collectivism could lead to social conflict.