In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conflict Theory

  • Introduction
  • History and Overviews
  • Handbooks and Textbooks
  • Classics of the Conflict Theory Tradition
  • Classics of the Conflict Theory Paradigm
  • Contemporary Works of the Conflict Theory Paradigm
  • Multiparadigmatic Conflict Theory
  • Perspectives from Other Disciplines

Sociology Conflict Theory
Jörg Rössel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0035


Conflict theory is a rather fuzzy theoretical paradigm in sociological thinking. The term conflict theory crystallized in the 1950s as sociologists like Lewis Coser and Ralf Dahrendorf criticized the then dominant structural functionalism in sociology for overly emphasizing the consensual, conflict-free nature of societies (see Classics of the Conflict Theory Paradigm). Therefore, they put forward conflict theory as an independent paradigm of sociological theory with a distinct focus on phenomena of power, interests, coercion, and conflict. Basically, conflict theory assumes that societies exhibit structural power divisions and resource inequalities leading to conflicting interests. However, the emergence of manifest conflicts is a rather rare phenomenon, since it depends on the mobilization of power resources by social actors and on their social organization. Therefore, conflict theory assumes that societies and other forms of social organization usually exhibit rather stable structures of dominance and coercion, punctuated only infrequently by manifest conflicts. However, apart from some authors like Randall Collins (see Contemporary Works of the Conflict Theory Paradigm), only few contemporary sociologists use the label conflict theory to identify their paradigmatic stance. Thus, conflict theory has not become an established paradigm in social theory (see History and Overviews). However, apart from the notion of conflict theory as independent theoretical paradigm, the term is often used in at least three other important meanings: firstly, to summarize the theoretical tradition in sociological theory, which deals with conflict, power, domination and social change, exemplified by authors like Karl Marx, Max Weber (b. 1864–d. 1920), and Georg Simmel (b. 1858–d. 1918) (see Classics of the Conflict Theory Tradition). Secondly, it is applied to denote the analysis and explanation of social conflicts in different sociological paradigms and in other behavioral sciences (see Multiparadigmatic Conflict Theory and Perspectives from Other Disciplines). Finally, the label conflict theory is often applied to substantive research on power structures, domination, conflict, and change (see Fields of Conflict). Conflict theory as a paradigm had a kind of catalytic function in the social sciences. It was able to show that the sociological classics also had a focus on phenomena of power and conflict (see Classics of the Conflict Theory Tradition), it inspired other theoretical paradigms to broaden their focus to include hitherto neglected issues (see Multiparadigmatic Conflict Theory), and it contributed to the emergence of conflict-oriented research in several fields of sociology (see Fields of Conflict). In contemporary sociological discussions, therefore, conflict theory is less important as an independent sociological paradigm than in the various forms of conflict theorizing it has inspired.

History and Overviews

Since conflict theory is not a fully established, independent sociological paradigm, the number of introductory texts and reflections on the history of conflict theoretical thinking is rather limited. Bartos and Wehr 2002 provide a general and comprehensive introduction to the explanation of social conflict. Binns 1977 is a thorough overview of neo-Weberian and Marxist conflict theory. Bonacker 2008 gives an excellent insight into multiparadigmatic conflict theory, covering most theoretical approaches to social conflicts in contemporary social science. Collins 1994 deals exhaustively with the conflict theory tradition, especially Marx and Weber, whereas Collins 1990 creates a link between the conflict theoretical paradigm and contemporary work in comparative historical sociology. Demmers 2012 introduces the most important general theories of violent conflict. The chapter in Joas and Knöbl 2011 is an excellent overview of classic work in the conflict theory paradigm in the 1950s and discusses reasons for the demise of conflict theory as an independent sociological paradigm. Finally, Turner 2003 briefly discusses the conflict theoretical tradition and the classical conflict theory paradigm and focuses especially on contemporary neo-Weberian, neo-Marxist, and feminist conflict theory.

  • Bartos, Otomar J., and Paul Wehr. 2002. Using conflict theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511613692

    This is a comprehensive approach to the explanation of social conflict. It has an introductory character and links different theoretical perspectives with empirical examples.

  • Binns, David. 1977. Beyond the sociology of conflict. New York: St. Martin’s.

    This is a historical reflection of the conflict theoretical tradition, focusing especially on the Weberian and neo-Weberian tradition in its relationship to Marxism.

  • Bonacker, Thorsten, ed. 2008. Sozialwissenschaftliche Konflikttheorien: Eine Einführung. Wiesbaden: Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften.

    This volume covers a broad range of social scientific theories dealing with the phenomenon of social conflict. All contributions have a systematic structure and introduce complex theories in a very comprehensible way.

  • Collins, Randall. 1994. The conflict tradition. In Four sociological traditions. By Randall Collins. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This monograph introduces the history of sociological theory by focusing on four major strands of theory building: the conflict, the rational/utilitarian, the Durkheimian or normative, and the micro-interactionist tradition. Because of the author’s readable style and the annotated list of references, the book’s first chapter is a very good introduction to the conflict theoretical tradition.

  • Collins, Randall. 1990. Conflict theory and the advance of macro-historical sociology. In Frontiers of social theory. Edited by George Ritzer, 68–87. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    This chapter discusses the contemporary situation of conflict theoretical thinking and links the classical conflict theory paradigm to contemporary work in comparative historical sociology, especially the work in Mann 1986–2013 (see Contemporary Works in the Conflict Theory Paradigm). It thereby illustrates Collins’s rather encompassing notion of the term conflict theory.

  • Demmers, Jolle. 2012. Theories of violent conflict: An introduction. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    This is a book with an introductory character. It explains the most important theories of violent conflict of social psychology, sociology, and political science.

  • Joas, Hans, and Wolfgang Knöbl. 2011. Conflict sociology and conflict theory. In Social Theory: Twenty introductory lectures. By Hans Joas and Wolfgang Knöbl, 174–198. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This book gives an exhaustive and readable overview of contemporary sociological theorizing. It was originally published in German (Sozialtheorie) in 2004. The chapter not only introduces the main authors and discussions of the classical conflict theory paradigm of the 1950s and 1960s, but it also depicts the failure of conflict theory to establish itself fully as an independent sociological paradigm.

  • Turner, Jonathan H. 2003. The structure of sociological theory. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

    The four sub-chapters about conflict theorizing offer a very dense and systematic account of classical and contemporary conflict theory, especially in its neo-Weberian, neo-Marxian, and feminist variety. Turner presents the theories in a very analytic way, summarizing each of them by providing tables of major, empirically testable propositions.

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