Conflict theory, also known as the Marxist perspective, is a sociological theory that explains social change through the lens of power struggles between different groups in society. This theory suggests that change takes place as a result of conflict between these groups, with one group emerging as the victor and imposing its will on others.

Origins of Conflict Theory

The origins of conflict theory can be traced back to the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They argued that society is divided into two classes: the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, and the proletariat, who work for wages. According to Marx and Engels, conflict between these two classes was inevitable and would ultimately lead to a revolution in which the proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie.

Key Concepts in Conflict Theory

There are several key concepts in conflict theory that are important to understand:

Power: In conflict theory, power refers to the ability of one group to impose its will on another group. This can be done through force or coercion, but it can also be done through more subtle means such as controlling information or resources.

Class: Conflict theory sees society as divided into different classes based on their relationship to the means of production. The ruling class (bourgeoisie) controls the means of production while workers (proletariat) sell their labor for wages.

Exploitation: According to conflict theory, exploitation occurs when one group benefits at the expense of another group. In capitalist societies, this occurs when capitalists extract surplus value from workers by paying them less than they produce.

Alienation: Alienation occurs when workers are separated from their labor and from each other. It is a result of capitalism’s focus on profits rather than people.

The Role of Conflict in Social Change

Conflict theory suggests that social change occurs when there is a power struggle between different groups in society. This can be seen in the struggles of workers for better wages and working conditions, as well as in the civil rights movement and other social justice movements.

According to conflict theory, change is not necessarily a smooth or peaceful process. Instead, it often involves conflict and struggle between groups with competing interests. The group with the most power is usually able to impose its will on others and shape the direction of social change.

Limitations of Conflict Theory

While conflict theory provides a useful framework for understanding social change, it has its limitations. One of the main criticisms of conflict theory is that it tends to focus too much on power struggles between groups and does not account for other factors that may contribute to social change.

Another limitation is that conflict theory can be overly deterministic, suggesting that social change is inevitable and that there is little individuals or groups can do to influence it.


Conflict theory provides a valuable perspective for understanding social change. It highlights the role of power struggles between different groups in shaping society and offers insights into how social movements can bring about meaningful change.

However, it is important to recognize the limitations of this theory and consider other factors that may contribute to social change. Ultimately, understanding the complex interplay between different forces in society is key to creating a more just and equitable world.