In sociology there exists multiple overarching theories that have many different applications. One of these classical theories was founded by philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx (1818-1883) and is called conflict theory. This theory focuses on inequality in society and the conflict that ensues because of it. He based it of the struggles of the working class during the industrialization, but how can it be applied in modern society?

Marx’ Conflict Theory

At the time Marx based this perspective on the inequalities in society that were experienced by the workers during the industrialisation. You must have heard at some point of the extreme working conditions and strikingly low wages. To him, society provided us with a constant struggle for scarce resources. People were always in conflict with each other over these resources, because they were too limited for everyone to have access to them. Individuals who hold most power dominate society and workers do not stand a chance against them. His theories on this resulted in him writing the Communist Manifesto (1847) with Friedrich Engels (1820-1895).

Modern applications

Moreover, over the years this theory has been used to explain many different processes and problems in society. One example is the response of varying social groups to immigrants or refugees. The working class often reacts rather forcefully to the news that a refugee centre will be build in their neighbourhood. With conflict theory in mind, can you imagine how sociologists might explain this?

Conflict theory and immigrants

Just like during the industrialisation, the working class in modern society has to fight the hardest for scarce resources. They are disadvantaged by the existing political conditions and by the structure of society. They have the least amount of power, money and capital and often cannot compete with the middle or upper class. Because of this, they already feel threatened and are scared of losing their job. Since their education is low, they are more easily replaced within a company.

To them, the arrival of immigrants or refugees means that there will be more people to compete with over these scarce resources. There is a limited number of jobs in society and they feel like it will become even more difficult to find one. From this feeling of competition ensues this strong feeling of threat, and this results in conflict. They are angry at these new people who have come to their neighbourhood to threaten their livelihood.

Individuals with higher paying jobs in more specific functions do not experience this same fear for their job or a place to live when more people arrive in their neighbourhood. Some might of course, there are always exceptions. However, they do often not have the same perspective on inequality in society as the working class.

In conclusion

So, conflict is at the root of many problems in society. Inequality causes people to see each other as a threat and this can manifest itself in various different ways. Power and competition shape the world around us and we have to understand this if we want to solve social problems. That is why conflict theory is the fundament for theories that are critical of society. So, what do you think of Marx’ theory? Is the world a place of conflict?

Also check out this cool article on another sociological theory, called rational choice theory.

Further reading:

On sociological theories:

On Marx:


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  1. Pingback: Are We Fully Rational? Rational Choice Theory - Polymath University

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