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MCAT Content / Theoretical Approaches / Conflict Theory

Conflict theory

Topic: Theoretical Approaches

Conflict theory is a way of studying society by focusing on inequality between different groups and sees social life as a competition and focuses on the distribution of resources and power between these groups.

Conflict theory derives from the ideas of Karl Marx, who believed society is dynamic and constantly undergoing change driven by class conflict. Functionalism understands society as a complex system striving for equilibrium, conflict theory views social life as a competition.

In 19th Century Europe there existed a capitalist system where the bourgeoisie was a minority of the population and the majority, called the proletariat. The bourgeoisie had all the power as they had all the factories and access to resources to sell. The proletariat, however, had little in terms of resources but were needed by the bourgeoisie to work in their factories, whilst the proletariat needed the bourgeoisie to provide jobs, so an interdependence existed despite the inequality in power and resources. Marx believed that inequality can fuel change in society and that the proletariat would unite and form a class consciousness which would result in the overthrow of the capitalist model and the formation of a socialist model. Conflict theory views this change as abrupt and revolutionary. This is where conflict theory is more open to social change as a theory compared to functionalism.

While functionalism emphasizes stability, conflict theory emphasizes change. According to the conflict perspective, society is constantly in conflict over resources, and that conflict drives social change. In the conflict perspective, change comes about through conflict between competing interests, not consensus or adaptation. Conflict theory, therefore, gives sociologists a framework for explaining social change, thereby addressing one of the problems with the functionalist perspective. However, unlike functionalism, conflict theory has been criticized for its focus on change and neglect of social stability and treatment of change as abrupt and sudden as opposed to gradual.


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Key Points

• Conflict theory sees social life as a competition and focuses on the distribution of resources, power, and inequality.

• Unlike functionalist theory, conflict theory is better at explaining social change, and weaker at explaining social stability.

• Conflict theory has been critiqued for its inability to explain social stability and incremental change.

• Conflict theory derives from the ideas of Karl Marx

Key Terms

conflict theory: a social science perspective that holds that stratification is dysfunctional and harmful in society, with inequality perpetuated because it benefits the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor

functionalism: is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability

Karl Marx: was a German philosopher credited with conflict theory

bourgeoisie: a class of wealthy powerful people

proletariat: the working class

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