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Social Conflict Theory in Sociology: Definition, Lesson & Quiz

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Taught by

Kimberly Moffitt

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

Social conflict theory sees social life as a competition, and focuses on the distribution of resources, power, and inequality. Let's take a look at a few of the key aspects of this perspective and test our knowledge with a quiz.


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 vs. 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.

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 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 primary concern, however, was class conflict , which arises from the way society produces material goods.

Karl Marx

Class Conflict and Alienation

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 owned and operated 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 capitalist 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.


Social Conflict Approach Today

The social conflict approach is a framework for building theory that sees society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict and change. Sociologists use the social conflict approach to study the ongoing conflict between dominant and more disadvantage groups. Using this perspective, we can easily study the relationships between the wealthy and the poor, whites in relation to people of color, and men in relation to women. A social conflict theorist would argue that people in positions of power will try to protect their privileges, while the disadvantaged struggle to gain more for themselves.

Besides Karl Marx, important contributors to this perspective include W.E.B. Dubois, who saw sociology as the key to solving racial inequality, and Max Weber, who introduced the 'Protestant Work Ethic' as an explanation for modern capitalism. Feminism, or gender equality, is also included under this perspective.

Lesson Summary

Social conflict theory sees social life as a competition, and focuses on the distribution of resources, power, and inequality. Conflict theorists view society as an arena of inequality the generates social conflict and social change. Karl Marx is considered the 'father' of social conflict theory. In doing so, he offered a theory of capitalism and class conflict between dominant and minority groups. Besides Marx, important contributors also include W.E.B. Dubois, Max Weber and various feminist thinkers.

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