Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Conflict theory

core definition

Conflict theory is a general term used to refer to sociological theories that posit a society in which social relations are characterised by opposition or opposition is embedded in social structures.

explanatory context

In conflict theory opposition or conflict is taken in its widest sense, ranging from peaceful bargaining through to overt violence.

Conflict theory is usually contrasted with consensus theory. Instead of society being organized around a consensus of values conflict theory sees conflict situations as central.


Thus conflict theory is opposed to a unitary view of society and favours a plural society view in which there are two or more (self contained) classes. Actions of the members of a group are explained in terms of the group's interests in the conflict situation. Intergroup relations, in the first instance, are characterised by conflict.


The pluralist society will be hierarchical, with dominant class constantly legitimating its position and the dominated class striving for a radical revision of the class relations.


Thus conflict theory suggests that revolution is a potential, if not inevitable, consequence of social systems. The theory of revolution in conflict theory, however, tends to be vague and underdeveloped.


Conflict theory was a term (and general theoretical perspective) popular in the 1960s, especially in Britain. The rather simplistic opposition to consensus theory, the underdeveloped thesis about class conflict and ideology and its overgeneralied perspective lead the term 'conflict theory' to be gradually dropped during the 1970s (although it is still used occasionally).

The approach has also been adapted by criminologists to explore the nature of crime. This can be found in radical criminology or critical criminology, which are branches of conflict theory, drawing on a Marxist perspective.

analytical review

Sociology Central (undated) states::

One of the main Conflict perspectives you will meet from time to time during the course is better known as Marxism, after the founder of this particular way of looking at the social world, Karl Marx (1818 - 1883). There are, however, other forms of Conflict Structuralism at which we will look, the most important of these being Weberian sociology, named after its founder Max Weber (1864 - 1920).

Like its Functionalist counterpart, Conflict theories agree that society and culture influences individual behaviour, almost but not quite to the point of determining it, by the way it structures the way people are able to think and act.

The emphasis on the importance of structure and its influence on the individual does not, however, lead writers in this perspective to stress consensus as the basis of social organisation. In fact, the reverse is true. Conflict theorists stress the extent to which individuals, groups and classes within society are in competition with each other for whatever people in society consider to be important or worthwhile.

This does, of course, seem to raise a fundamental problem. On the one hand, Conflict theorists, by definition, argue that groups in society are always fighting each other. On the other, their Structuralist perspective leads them to suggest that the structure of a society produces social order and, in many respects, consensus. We need to examine how this apparent contradiction can be resolved.

The defining characteristic of any society, from a Conflict perspective, is inequality. Marxists, for example, argue that economic inequality is at the heart of all societies. In basic terms, some people will have more than their fair share of a society's economic resources (money) and others will consequently have less than their fair share.

It is in the interests of those who have wealth to keep and extend what they own, whereas it is in the interests of those who have little or no wealth to try to improve their lot in life.


McClelland (2000) writes:

The several social theories that emphasize social conflict have roots in the ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883), the great German theorist and political activist. The Marxist, conflict approach emphasizes a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical method of analysis, a critical stance toward existing social arrangements, and a political program of revolution or, at least, reform....


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Conflict perspective:  A sociological approach that assumes that social behavior is best understood in terms of conflict or tension between competing groups.

associated issues


related areas

See also



Sociology Central (undated) 'Conflict theories', available at , accessed 2 February 2013, still available 14 December 2016. Not at this address 1 June 2019.

McClelland, K., 2000, last update 21 February 2000, available at, accessed 20 December 2016, still available 1 June 2019.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017, page 'not found' 1 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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