What Is the Definition of Conflict Theory?

Conflict theory refers to a group of perspectives within sociology that explain society in terms of the discordance between social groups. These perspectives run contrary to structural functionalism, which defines society by its level of cooperation. Since its origin, conflict theory has manifested in many different forms shaped by the time and the thinkers behind them.

Social conflict theory originated and developed in the 19th century. In their 1848 seminal work, “The Communist Manifesto,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argued that the history of human society is primarily a history of subversive and open struggle between economic classes. This theory was later advanced by sociologists, like Lester P. Ward and Ludwig Gumplowicz, to encompass the dynamics of conflict along virtually every social division, not just economics. The theorists of this era primarily focused on conflict in one of three ways: an apocalyptic approach, in which it poses an unseen, catastrophic threat to modern society; a heuristic approach, in which conflict can be learned from and subsequently eased; and even a functionalist approach, as explored by Emile Durkheim, in which some conflict is a necessary component of a stable society.

In the 20th century, due in large part to the work of American sociologist C. Wright Mills, the focus of conflict theory shifted to disparate arenas like class, race and religion to the umbrella notion of power, especially power in the hands of elites. Since the end of the Cold War, however, conflict theory has refocused on the power dynamics between different social groups, and with the individual with the consensus of society.