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11 Characteristics of Conflict Theory

 , March 17, 2022 updated on May 31, 2023
Conflict theory is an approach to social sciences that characterizes society and its history as a struggle for material resources whereby an elite dominate and oppress the masses. The following are the basic characteristics of conflict theory.


Conflict theory has Marxist roots and is used as an approach to criticize capitalism and other dominant social systems. Karl Marx is viewed as a founder of conflict theory because his works presented a class-based materialist view of history that influenced the theory's early development.

Materialist Interpretation

Conflict theory views history in a completely materialist light whereby human life is a competition for material resources. This disregards other elements of the human experience, particularly positive behaviors such as trust, cooperation, comradery and altruism. As such, conflict theory is a useful device for criticizing dominant societies, cultures and economic systems whereby human nature is assumed to be completely selfish and shallow.

Power Elite

Conflict theory tends to present current and historical elites as all powerful such that they are viewed as the root cause of all or most social problems. For example, the elite may be depicted as intentionally and actively preventing developing countries from developing.

Us vs Them

The elite are presented as completely unified in their thinking and action. This employs the rhetorical device us vs them whereby the elite are cast as hegemonic, monolithic, all powerful and fundamentally different from the masses in order to simplify arguments or to generate emotions such as fear and indignation.

False Consciousness

Where the elite are positioned as all powerful, the masses are positioned as completely lacking human agency and self-awareness. If the masses disagree with some element of an ideology such as Marxism, they are conveniently assumed to have been tricked by the elite into false consciousness or false consensus.


Conflict theory presents equality as the solution to conflict. For example, if some musicians are more successful than others -- a government could simply take control of the process of listening to music so that all musicians get an equal audience.

Free Will

The free-will, rights and freedoms of the masses would tend to create inequality and would therefore create conflict. Conflict theory presents group harmony as the ultimate goal whereby individualism is sacrificed for the collective good. For example, if you had a house in a beautiful location, this might not be fair to others who might also want your house. This could create conflict so the state would need to step in and make sure that everyone has equally austere living conditions. This is the opposite of the capitalist view that people are the best judge of their own happiness and thrive with rights, freedoms and competition.


Competition, as a source of inequality, is viewed in a negative light. The idea that the strong may thrive over the weak in competition is viewed as abhorrent. The capitalist narrative that the creative, hardworking and talented rise to lead society is challenged with the idea that those who rise in society are part of the oppressive elite.


The vast improvements in quality of life achieved by developed countries are dismissed as primarily benefiting an elite. As such, conflict theory supposes that the masses have incentive to overthrow dominant systems, cultures, traditions and institutions with the idea that this will somehow benefit them.

Magical Thinking

Common flavors of conflict theory could be accused of magical thinking. For example, under Marxist theory, workers are assumed to be productive, happy and creative if only the government would step in to make sure that everyone gets exactly the same results in life. This is somewhat inconsistent with the assumption that all of history is a materialist power structure. Where capitalists are assumed to be completely selfish and materialist, communists are conveniently assumed to be complete altruistic -- happily offering their labor and sacrificing personal goals for the common good.

Post Modernism

Conflict theory is the root of the broad trend in social sciences known as postmodernism.
Overview: Conflict Theory
Definition (1)
An approach to social sciences that characterizes society and its history as a struggle for material resources.
Definition (2)
The assumption that humans are solely motivated by a materialist power struggle with positive elements of human behavior such as trust, cooperation, comradery and altruism playing no role in social systems and culture.
Definition (3)
The use of an us vs them dichotomy in social sciences whereby society is painted as a struggle between an all powerful elite and the powerless masses.
Associated With
Related Concepts
Next read: Characteristics of Postmodernism


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