What Is Social Conflict Theory?

Social conflict theory is a perspective in sociology that focuses on the power dynamics and inequalities within society. It suggests that society is characterized by conflicting interests among different social groups, leading to social change and the perpetuation of inequality.

This theory emphasizes how social structures and institutions contribute to the maintenance of power imbalances, often at the expense of marginalized groups.

Origins of Social Conflict Theory

Social conflict theory traces its roots back to Karl Marx, a renowned philosopher and sociologist. Marx believed that societies are divided into two main classes: the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (working class).

He argued that conflict between these classes arises due to the exploitation of labor by capitalists, resulting in economic inequality.

Marx’s ideas laid the foundation for later sociologists to develop social conflict theory further. Max Weber expanded on Marx’s work by highlighting additional sources of inequality, such as social status and political power.

Other prominent sociologists, like Ralf Dahrendorf and Lewis Coser, also contributed to this theory by examining how conflicts arise from competing interests in various social spheres.

Main Concepts


Power is a central concept in social conflict theory. It refers to the ability of individuals or groups to exert influence over others and control resources.

Those with more power can shape societal norms, laws, and institutions according to their interests. Power dynamics within society can lead to both cooperation and conflict between different groups.


Inequality is another key concept in social conflict theory. It refers to unequal distribution of resources, opportunities, and privileges among different groups in society.

These inequalities are seen as systemic rather than individual, resulting from social structures and institutions that favor certain groups over others.

Social Change

Social conflict theory argues that conflicts and struggles between social groups lead to social change. As marginalized groups challenge existing power structures, they seek to redefine societal norms and redistribute resources more equitably.

This ongoing process of social change can result in both positive transformations and further conflicts.

Applications of Social Conflict Theory

Social conflict theory has been applied to various areas of sociology, including gender studies, race relations, and class analysis. By examining how power imbalances contribute to inequality and social problems, this theory helps shed light on the root causes of societal issues.

Gender Inequality

Social conflict theory has been instrumental in understanding gender inequality. It highlights how patriarchal systems perpetuate male dominance and privilege over women.

By analyzing power dynamics within families, workplaces, and other institutions, sociologists using this perspective aim to address gender-based discrimination.

Racial Injustice

Social conflict theory also provides insight into racial injustice by examining how power dynamics perpetuate systemic racism. It reveals how racial minorities often face discrimination in access to education, employment opportunities, housing, and criminal justice systems.

Understanding these dynamics is crucial for advocating for racial equality.


In summary, social conflict theory offers a critical perspective on society by highlighting power imbalances and inequalities that exist within it. By understanding how conflicts arise from competing interests among different social groups, we can work towards creating a more just and equitable society for all.