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Social Conflict Theory in Sociology: Definition & Contributors

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Instructor
Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

Expert Contributor
Jeffrey Perry

Jeffrey Perry earned his Ph.D. in History from Purdue University and has taught History courses at private and state institutions of higher education since 2012.

Coined by Karl Marx, the social conflict theory focuses on the competitive and unequal aspects of social life and how it generates social change and conflict. Explore more about the social conflict theory, including its origins and contributors. Updated: 09/16/2021

Definition of Social Conflict

Social conflict theory is a macro-oriented paradigm in sociology that views society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict and social change. Key elements in this perspective are that society is structured in ways to benefit a few at the expense of the majority, and factors such as race, sex, class, and age are linked to social inequality. To a social conflict theorist, it is all about dominant group versus minority group relations. Karl Marx is considered the 'father' of social conflict theory. Let's examine this perspective deeper and take a look at a few key definitions.

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  • 0:01 Definition of Social Conflict
  • 0:40 Karl Marx
  • 3:20 Lesson Summary
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Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German philosopher, sociologist, economist, and revolutionary socialist. Marx offered a theory of capitalism based on his idea that human beings are basically productive - in order to survive, people have to work. He also believed that people have two relationships to the means of production: you either own the productive property or you work for someone who does.

The clash between the owners and the workers is at the heart of Marx's thinking. In an industrial, wealthy, society, how can so many people be poor? At the heart of Marx's thinking is social conflict, which is the struggle between groups in society over scarce resources. Marx's primary concern, however, was class conflict, which arises from the way society produces material goods.

Karl Marx lived in the early stages of industrial capitalism in Europe. Marx believed the owners of these industries were the capitalists, those people who own and operate businesses in pursuit of profits. The system of capitalism turns most people in any society into proletariats, those people who sell their labor for wages. To Marx, such a system will inevitably lead to class conflict between the capitalists and proletariats.

Marx further believed that capitalism would lead to feelings of alienation for the workers. Alienation is the experience of isolation and misery that results from feelings of powerlessness. The only way to avoid this is to reorganize society. He imagined a system of economic production that could provide the needs of all members of society. In his view, socialism was the answer to the failings of a capitalist system.

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Additional Activities

Discussion Activity

With your classmates discuss the core concepts of social conflict theory and how it relates to change in society. Social conflict theorists maintain that conflict in society can generate change. Do you agree with them? Why or why not? Does social change only result from conflict? Can you think of an instance of recent social conflict that generated change? Do you believe that change to be positive or negative?

Karl Marx's focus on class conflict claimed that industrial capitalism benefited the few at the expense of the many. Do you believe that current-day capitalism does the same? Why or why not? Would socialism - an economic and political system in which the people own the means of production (the factories, for instance) and control the distribution of resources - also generate inequality and thus social change?


Additional Questions to Consider

  1. What is the definition of Social Conflict Theory?
  2. Karl Marx believed that which kind of society could fix the ills of unrestrained capitalism?
  3. While Karl Marx focused on class conflict resulting from economic inequality, what other forms of social conflict do sociologists study?
  4. True or False: A social conflict theorist would argue that people in positions of power will try to protect the privileges of those at a disadvantage.


Solutions

  1. Social Conflict Theory is a paradigm in sociology that views society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict and social change.
  2. Socialist society
  3. racial conflict, gender conflict
  4. This is False.

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