If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Conflict theory

Conflict theory emphasizes the role of power struggles between different groups in shaping society. Originating from the ideas of Karl Marx, this theory sees societal change as the result of conflict between a dominant group and a subordinate group. Although conflict theory is a useful tool for analyzing historical movements, it doesn't always account for periods of societal stability. Created by Sydney Brown.

Want to join the conversation?

  • purple pi teal style avatar for user Sophia
    At I still don't understand what Thesis and Antithesis mean. Can somebody explain it to me? Thanks!
    (13 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • hopper cool style avatar for user Charlene Martin
    Assuming that everyone started out equally at the beginning of society, how did the minority bourgeoise become so powerful and come to own the means of production , whereas the majority proletariat became subordinate/powerless?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf green style avatar for user Gabriel Auclair
      The division of labour created the social classes. It is taught that long ago, the society divided itself into 3. The first was the economical class who did the work, the second was the intellectual-spiritual class who did the thinking, and the third was the military class who did the fighting. The Vaishya, the Brahmins and the Kshatrya in the indian castre system can be seen as a rigid representation of such division of labour. Such division of labour created also a division of power.

      Starting at that time, everyone were not equal any more

      During feudalism, the military class, the nobility, controlled the society. But with economical development of cities created a place not as feudalistic as the countryside for they use a money based economy when the serf only had the food they made and the nobility the food the serf payed them in taxes.

      As cities developed, the nobility started to losing influence, feudal kingdom started to becoming more centralized because of the taxes paid in money by the cities to the kings, letting the king to have a more powerful army that didn't needed the nobility.

      The industrial revolution let people in the cities who had more money the invest in capital and take control of new means of production like factories, becoming by that the bourgeoisie. People worked for the bourgeoisie, mostly serf who emigrated in the cities, became the proletariat.

      The bourgeoisie also gained a lot of power during political revolutions like the American Independence War or the French Revolution. They used such revolution to destroy the nobility. For example, in France, the revolutionary government took over all the land that was owned by the nobility and the church and sell it to raise money for the war effort against the rest of Europe (almost all of Europe was at war with France at that time). For only the bourgeoisie had the money needed to buy huge chunk of land, they took control of almost every piece of land in France during this time and the serf, not having any land, had to work for the bourgeoisie.
      (12 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user mdelga28
    Can you explain how Ludwig Gumplowicz and Max Weber contributed to this theory?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user ScienceMon
    Can conflict theory be tested?
    (5 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • male robot donald style avatar for user Alok Rahul
      You can witness in various incidence of History. Nelson Mandela. Martin luther king, Mahatma gandhi were few of the people who demonstrated antithesis in history. This theory looks to be an observation and certainly can be tested. You can test in group of people over a period of time by creating difference. Its more of an behavioural trait.
      (2 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user NotMyRealUsername
    Didn't Karl Marx write the "Communist Manifesto"?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • old spice man blue style avatar for user Xiaoyi Ren
    Du Bois is actually pronounced without a French accent.



    Yahoo! Best Answer: Nope.

    There is a written record of Dubois in fact explaining how to pronounce his name ('duboyz'). I'll try to find it for you.

    Add: Here it is: In a letter to the Chicago Sunday Evening Club dated Jan. 20, 1939 (cited in David Levering Lewis W.E.B. DuBois, Biography of a Race, p. 11), Du Bois wrote that "The pronunciation of my name is Due Boyss, with the accent on the last syllable."
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Justin
    Was Karl Marx the first person to propose capitalism ----> socialism ----> Communism?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf red style avatar for user Edward Henry
      He proposed that capitalism ought to be replaced by communism (although there are other interpretations that stress a more deterministic view of history, stressing that socialism is inevitable, but Marx himself knew that wasn't exactly the case), which would have a lower and higher phase of development, the lower phase still somewhat resembling the social order it was leaving behind for various reasons (an example being that communism wouldn't magically change us into radically different people that lose all of our old prejudices; ideological change lags behind economic change and there's a good chance that we would still be operating as we already often do out of social habit). This lower stage has often been referred to as simply "socialism" since Lenin, but that did not come from Marx himself and, of course, whether or not Lenin's socialism really coincides with Marx's view of a lower stage (or if a lower stage/transitional period is even necessary in the first place) has been debated for a century now.
      (4 votes)
  • leaf grey style avatar for user John Cashin
    Did Karl Marx foresee an evolving state, as described in the video, or did he envision violent overthrows of the uneven societies through revolution of the proletariat?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine seed style avatar for user ranoosh
    how might cultural war be beneficial to society?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers seed style avatar for user Yevhen Perelyhin
    There is a question, I can't answer, could you please take a look at it:
    "Healthy older Americans often encounter exclusionary treatment when younger people assume that they are feebleminded and thus overlook them for jobs they are capable of doing. How would "Conflict theory" explain the dynamics of prejudice agains the elderly?"
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

Conflict theory is a way of studying society that focuses on the inequalities of different groups in a society. It is based on the ideas of Karl Marx from the 19th century, who believed a society evolved through several stages, the most important of which were feudalism, capitalism, and finally socialism. 19th century Europe was a capitalist society where the rich upper class called the bourgeoisie were a minority of the population. And the poor lower class, called the proletariat, were the majority. Now you might think that the majority would have more sway over the society. But it was actually the bourgeoisie that had the power. They owned the factories that produced everything people needed. And they sold what they produced to earn a living. The proletariat only had their labor to sell to make a living, and they were dependent on the factory owners to get paid. But this wasn't just a one-sided dependence. The factory owners were also dependent on the workers to work in the factories, though they would never admit it because they would lose some of their power. There was a significant economic inequality between the factory owners and the workers. It was this economic inequality that Marx believed would fuel a change in society. As the working class realized they were being exploited, they would unite to create a class consciousness. This class consciousness is kind of like getting everyone on the same wavelength so they can be stronger and overthrow the capitalist status quo. Marx created a model which proposed that a society where one group exploited another group economically would actually contain the seeds of its own destruction. The existing generally accepted state, or thesis, of a society would cause the formation of a reaction or antithesis that opposed the accepted state. In a capitalist society, the accepted thesis was that the bourgeoisie ran the factories while the working class provided the labor. The desire of the working class to change the way things were was the antithesis. The thesis and antithesis can't exist together peacefully. One side is quite happy with the status quo and wants to leave things the way they are. The other side is looking for change because they really aren't so happy with the current state of things. The struggle between the two sides would eventually lead to a compromise or a synthesis of the two, resolving the tension between them by creating a new state. Perhaps the synthesis here is that members of the working class begin to take on managerial positions. The few workers who become managers might create a new middle class that has even more power than the factory owners themselves. This synthesis of thesis and antithesis would eventually become a new thesis in its own right and begin the process of creating its opposite once again. Perhaps the new middle class has become so powerful that the factory owners begin to feel threatened. The middle class is quite happy with their newfound status, but the bourgeoisie doesn't want to share. The strong influence of the middle class over everyone else has become the new thesis. And the bourgeoisie wants that to change, creating an antithesis. But maybe the bourgeoisie doesn't feel threatened, and instead, the workers are resentful of their former friends and their new power. Now, the workers want the status quo to change. The antithesis can arrive from any source of unrest to oppose the thesis. Even after this struggle is settled, there would eventually be unrest again, and an antithesis would spring from that new source of unrest and tension. The idea of two opposing sides has come up many times through history. WEB Du Bois was very influential in the struggle of African-Americans for equal rights. And the women's suffrage movement created tension and eventually changed society. Each of these conflicts between the status quo and its opposition resolved into a new thesis, which just waited for the next source of tension to come along. Conflict theory does a wonderful job of modeling the often drastic changes that occur in a society. But it doesn't take into account the stability that a society can experience. And it doesn't explain how a society is held together. And it really doesn't like the status quo. There is much to be said for the application of conflict theory and much that it leaves unanswered. All in all, it's another tool in our belt to understand the complexities of the society we live in.