Conflict Theory

Learning Outcomes

  • Summarize conflict theory
  • Apply conflict theory

Sociological Paradigm #2: Conflict Theory

Conflict theory looks at society as a competition for limited resources. This perspective is a macro-level approach most identified with the writings of German philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx (1818–1883), who saw society as being made up of two classes, the bourgeoisie (capitalist) and the proletariat (workers), who must compete for social, material, and political resources such as food and housing, employment, education, and leisure time. Social institutions like government, education, and religion reflect this competition in their inherent inequalities and help maintain the unequal social structure.

In the economic sphere, Marx focused on the “mode of production” (e.g., the industrial factory) and “relations of production” (e.g., unequal power between workers and factory owners). The bourgeoisie owns and controls the means of production, which leads to exploitation due to the profit motive. In this arrangement, proletarians have only their labor to sell, and do not own or control capital. False consciousness is Marx’s term for the proletarian’s inability to see her real position within the class system, a mis-recognition that is complicated by the control that the bourgeoisie often exerts over the media outlets that disseminate and normalize information. These are just some of the structural constrains that prevent workers from joining together in what Marx called class consciousness, or a common group identity as exploited proletarians and potential revolutionaries.

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Watch this video for an overview of Marx’s conflict theory.

portrait of Max Weber in 1894. He's wearing a suit, has a trimmed, full-beard.
Figure 1. Max Weber.

German sociologist Max Weber agreed with some of Marx’s main ideas, but also believed that in addition to economic inequalities, there were inequalities of political power and social structure that caused conflict. Weber noted that different groups were affected differently based on education, race, and gender, and that people’s reactions to inequality were moderated by class differences and rates of social mobility, as well as by perceptions about the legitimacy of those in power.

Ida B. Wells articulated the conflict perspective when she theorized a connection between an increase in lynching and an increase in Black socio-economic mobility in the United States from the late 1800s into the mid-20th century. She also examined competition within the feminist movement as women fought for the right to vote, yet the presumably egalitarian mainstream suffragist movements were headed by white women who excluded Black women from suffrage. W.E.B. DuBois also examined race in the U.S. and in U.S. colonies from a conflict perspective, and emphasized the importance of a reserve labor force, made up of Black men. Race conflict paradigms will be examined later in the course in the module devoted to race and ethnicity.

Race and Conflict Theory

W.E.B. DuBois is a classic sociologist who, after earning a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895 (the first Black man to do so), went on to an extremely productive career with extensive publication, research, theorizing, and activism. The Philadelphia Negro (1896) is considered one of the first examples of scientifically framed and conducted sociology research. DuBois’ study included over 2,500 in-person interviews conducted with African American households in the seventh ward of Philadelphia and even had visual representations of data such as bar graphs to illustrate the realities of racism[1]

He entered the national stage with an article written for The Atlantic in 1897 in which he described double consciousness. Read the following passage from DuBois’ article as he articulates double consciousness:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not with to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.” [2]

C. Wright Mills, who coined the term sociological imagination, also used conflict theory to examine systems of power and the ways in which government, military, and corporations forming a power elite (1956) in the United States in the 1950s. Bernie Sanders raised these issues in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by pointing out that both Republican and Democrat candidates were accepting campaign contributions from banks and investment firms on Wall Street, which he argued would make them subject to corporate influence.

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Just as structural functionalism was criticized for focusing too much on the stability of societies, conflict theory has been criticized because it tends to focus on conflict to the exclusion of recognizing stability. Many social structures are extremely stable or have gradually progressed over time rather than changing abruptly, as conflict theory would suggest.

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Gender and conflict Theory

Black and white photograph of two female suffragettes holding a poster saying "Votes for Women"
Figure 2. Over the years, feminist demands have changed. First-wave feminists fought for basic citizenship rights, such as the right to vote, while third wave feminists are concerned with more complex social movements, like post-structuralism.

Feminist theory was developed to fill a void in Marxism and neo-Marxism that examined class, but not gender as a distinct category. Feminist theory examines gender and gender inequality and also points out the male-centric aspects of conflict theory. It focuses on analyzing the limitations faced by women when they claim the right to equality with men. Additionally, feminist scholars examine the gendered nature of human interactions, which makes it a microsociological as opposed to a macrosociological theory.

Feminist scholars study a range of topics, including sexual orientation, race, economic status, and nationality. However, at the core of feminist sociology is the idea that, in most societies, women have been systematically oppressed, and that men have been historically dominant. This system of seemingly “natural” male control is referred to as patriarchy.

From the early work of women sociologists like Harriet Martineau, feminist sociology has focused on the power relationships and inequalities between women and men. How can the conditions of inequality faced by women be addressed?

Feminist theory has been criticized for its early focus on the lived experiences of white, educated women—which represent just a small subset within American society. Intersectional theory examines multiple, overlapping identities that include Black, Latina, Asian, gay, trans, working class, poor, single parent, working, stay-at-home, immigrant, and undocumented women, among others. This synthesis of analytical categories takes into consideration the various lived experiences of a more diverse range of women.

To take a contemporary example, the #MeToo movement began when white actress Ashley Judd came forward in 2017 and claimed that film producer Harvey Weinstein invited her to his hotel room, greeted her in a bathrobe, and asked her to massage him or watch him shower. The phrase “me too” had actually been coined in 2006 by Turana Burke, a Black activist who sought to bring attention to women who had been sexually assaulted. Many other wealthy, white, powerful woman came forward and said or tweeted #MeToo. Within one year, the #MeToo movement had become intersectional, stretching across industries, racial and ethnic backgrounds, age, sexual orientation, and gender identities.

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those who owned the means of production (i.e. factory owners in the Industrial Revolution)
class consciousness:
awareness that one is a proletarian, a worker, and has an understanding of solidarity in a class struggle against the bourgeoisie
conflict theory:
a theory that examines society as a competition for limited resources
double consciousness:
a term used to describe an individual whose identity is divided into several facets
false consciousness:
proletarians are unable to identify and understand their own class position and exploitation
one who believes that females should be equal to males
feminist theory:
the critical analysis of the way gender affects societal structures, power, and inequality
intersectional theory:
utilizes multiple identities (such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic class, etc.) as important to understanding inequality
a set of institutional structures (like property rights, access to positions of power and sources of income) that are based on the belief that males (patri means “father”) are and should be dominant
power elite:
the dominant individuals and groups within the military, business world, governments, and other institutions who are at the top of the power hierarchy
those who labor in the means of production (workers) and who do not possess or control capital, as the bourgeoisie does

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  1. Cole, N.L. updated 2017. How WEB DuBois Made His Mark on Sociology.
  2. Dubois, W.E.Burghardt. 1897. Strivings of the Negro People. The Atlantic.


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