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Conflict Theory 101: Founder, Examples, Learning Opportunities

Humans have been in conflict for as long as they’ve existed. It can be on a very small scale (conflict between coworkers) or a massive scale (war). How does conflict work? Where does it come from? Conflict theory, which was founded on the ideas of Karl Marx, teaches that conflict comes from competition for resources and power. Unless systems completely change, society stays locked in an eternal battle between different groups, and inequality is a guarantee. In this article, we’ll discuss the founder of conflict theory, give examples of conflict theory in action, and list learning opportunities.

Conflict theory teaches that competition for resources drives societal conflict. Because the most powerful will do everything they can to maintain the resources they’ve accumulated, society will be unequal unless a major change is applied. Conflict theory can be used to examine many topics, such as wealth inequality, gender inequality, and racial inequality.

Who founded conflict theory?

Conflict theory is based on the work of Karl Marx. Born in 1818, he was a German philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary socialist. He believed that conflict between opposing interests, especially class conflict, fuels social change. There are two groups: the bourgeois (they own the means of production) and the proletariat (they’re the working and poor class). Because resources are limited, competition creates conflict between the classes. There are fewer bourgeois people, but they control everything and maintain power over the proletariat. This creates an inherently unequal social order, and as conditions get worse for the proletariat, Marx believed revolution was inevitable. Changes would be made, but if they maintained the capitalist system, the cycle was doomed to repeat. Conflict could only end with the birth of a new system, like socialism.

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Max Weber, another German socialist and political economist, adapted and refined Marx’s conflict theory. While Marx believed there was only one struggle in society that mattered – the one between owners and workers – Weber went beyond economic inequalities. Political and social inequalities mattered, too, and could cause just as much conflict. Weber’s view was more nuanced than Marx’s as he noted differences based on education, gender, race, and how individuals responded to inequality. All these factors affect conflict, power, and how the most powerful reinforce their domination. The work of Weber and other philosophers expands Marx’s rather limited conflict theory to one that’s more easily applied to different spheres of society.

What are examples of conflict theory?

If competition for resources and status drives conflict, those with the most resources and the highest status have the most power. Conflict theory has expanded beyond who has the most wealth or physical resources and includes race, gender, sexuality, religion, culture, and other non-economic factors. Money is important, but power isn’t limited to money. With this lens, we can find many examples of conflict theory throughout society.

Wealth inequality

Marx’s theory may have been limited because of its focus on economics, but the connection between wealth inequality and conflict can’t be ignored. Inequality is at an all-time high. The gap between the average incomes of the top 10% of individuals and the bottom 50% has nearly doubled in twenty years, and while the COVID-19 pandemic threw the world into chaos, Oxfam found the richest 1% captured almost ⅔ of all the new wealth created.

While it wouldn’t be accurate to pin all conflict on wealth inequality, it plays a huge role in conditions that brew conflict. According to the International Monetary Fund, income inequality can weaken social cohesion, increase political polarization, and lower economic growth. This can lead to literal violence, but even when it doesn’t, it creates unstable, conflict-heavy societies.

Gender inequality

Gender inequality has been a persistent issue around the world. In many societies, women have been considered “inferior” at one time or another, while men have accumulated the most resources, power, and status. Lots of ideological, religious, and legal arguments have been deployed to justify this inequality. Some even went so far as to say equality would harm women. As an example, during the suffrage era, some argued women would be miserable if they got to vote because they would leave their natural place, which was at home with children. When viewed through a conflict theory lens, it’s clear arguments like this reinforce the status quo and keep power out of the hands of women. The “concern” for harm against women is not genuine.

While gender equality has improved significantly, old conflicts continue while other ones have gotten increased attention. The accelerated fight for trans rights and its backlash can be seen as a competition for resources, status, and power. Binary views about gender represent the status quo, and as conflict theory teaches us, those with power will do anything to keep it. Anti-trans legislation in the United States, which bans trans girls from sports, forces people to use bathrooms that correspond to their birth genders, and ends gender-affirming care for kids, are just three examples of the steps the powerful will take.

Racial inequality 

Race, power, and conflict have a very long history together. To justify things like slavery and colonization, those in power created the modern definition of race. This led to a hierarchical system where “inferior” races were relegated to the bottom rung and allotted the fewest resources and lowest status. Things like housing segregation, educational disparities, and an unfair criminal justice system were set up so the powerful could maintain their dominance. Conflicts like the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement represent the struggle between those wanting to keep their power and those who want equality.

Conflict theory can also help explain why oppressed groups are often in conflict with each other. Returning to the suffrage era, leaders like Susan B. Anthony once worked with Black men and women. However, when the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments passed and Black men got the vote before white women, the white suffragettes revealed the severity of their racism. They were even willing to ignore lynching. Patterns of racism within feminist movements have led to an increased awareness of “white feminism.” This type of feminism centers the needs of white women at the expense of women of color. It’s only willing to stand with Black women (and other racial/ethnic groups with shared interests) when doing so doesn’t disrupt the status quo. If things start to change too much and white feminists feel they’re losing resources, they retreat into whiteness where they have an advantage.

Where can you learn more about conflict theory?

Conflict theory is a complex, nuanced concept that can be studied from many different angles. Here are three courses and three books about conflict theory and related topics:

Conflict Management Specialization (University of California, Irvine)

Length: 1 month (10 hours per week)

Level: Beginner

In this four-course specialization, you’ll learn about the fundamentals of conflict resolution, what positive conflict is, and how to enhance your intercultural communication skills. As your capstone, you’ll analyze a specific conflict and outline how to approach its management and resolution. By the course’s end, you’ll understand how competing interests, goals, and power imbalances influence conflict and management. No prerequisites are required.

Introduction to Conflict Management (UCLouvain)

Length: 8 weeks (4-6 hours per week)

Level: Intermediate

Conflict management is one of the most valuable tools in the workplace. In this course, you’ll study the core concepts and tools that let you understand conflict, its main characteristics, its causes, its consequences, and solutions. By the end, you’ll be ready to analyze and model divergence and conflict situations, understand different conflict management strategies, and examine your conflict style and the styles of others.

Internal Displacement, Conflict and Protection (University of London)

Length: 27 hours

Level: Beginner

Internal displacement is a major challenge today. In this course, you’ll learn who is internally displaced, where they come from, its scale, what the global protection response is, and what solutions exist. In the last section of the course, you’ll explore the lived experience of internal displacement and how IDP narratives are used in advocacy and creative contexts. You’ll gain experience with complex information, specialized sources, and applying technical legal and policy categories.

High Conflict: Why We Trapped and How To Get Out

By: Amanda Ripley

“High conflict” is very difficult to manage. It resists resolution and creates a hostile environment where parties can’t communicate. What fuels these scenarios? How can participants collaborate and move past a conflict? This book looks at real-world examples of high conflict and resolutions. The author, Amanda Ripley, is a New York Times bestselling author and investigative journalist. She received a certification in conflict mediation in 2018 and has trained journalists on how to cover conflict.

The Conflict Paradox

By: Bernie Mayer

Using stories, experiences, and exercises, this book explores why it’s hard to resolve conflict. Many people think they need to choose between being emotional or logical, but The Conflict Paradox offers new pathways and strategies. Paradoxes can be embraced. Author Bernie Mayer is a Professor Emeritus of Conflict Studies, Program on Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Creighton University. He’s worked with families, NGOs, corporations, government agencies, and others for 40+ Years.

Turn Enemies to Allies: The Art of Peace in the Workplace

By: Judy Ringer

Workplace conflict is one of the most common types of conflict. This book offers a deliberate, systematic approach to conflict between employees. You’ll learn how to guide employees back to a strong working relationship, restore control and peace to the workplace, and strengthen your leadership. Author Judy Ringer is the founder of Power & Presence Training, an international speaker, and a coach.