If you are a tenant, what kind of a relationship do you have with the owner of the property that you reside? If you claim that your relationship is founded on mutual benefit, then you are a consensus theorist. But as per the conflict theory, a conflict theorist will claim the relationship is based on a conflict in which the owner and tenant are struggling against each other. According to the conflict theory, the relationship between the owner and tenant is defined by the balance in their abilities to extract resources from each other, for example, a place to live or rent payments. Thus, the bounds of their relationship are set where each party is extracting the maximum possible amount of resources out of the other.
But let us not first get lost in the details. What is conflict theory? This is a Marxist-based social theory developed by Karl Marx that posits that interaction between individuals and groups (social classes) within a society is based not on consensus, but conflict. Thus, through various forms of conflict, individuals and or groups will tend to attain differing amounts of material and non-material resources. Consequently, individuals/groups that are more powerful will tend to use their power to retain power and exploit individuals/groups with less power.
Conflict theory maintains that due to never-ending competition for limited resources within a society, societies will always be in a state of conflict. With this pessimistic view, the theory implies that those in possession of resources and wealth will protect and hoard their resources and wealth, while those without them will do whatever they can to obtain them by any means necessary. Conflict theory holds that tensions and conflicts arise when resources, status, and power are not evenly distributed between individuals and groups in a society and that these conflicts lead to social change. In this case, power can be understood as control of resources and wealth, control of politics and the institutions in a society, and individual’s social status relative to others is determined not only by class but by race, gender, sexuality, culture, and religion, just to name a few.
As per the conflict theory, Karl Marx does not say that conflict is good or bad but instead argues that conflict is an unavoidable aspect of human nature. Thus the conflict theory helps to understand why things are the way they are. In this regard, conflict theory can be used to understand poverty, wars, violence, revolutions, discrimination, and domestic violence by explaining that there is a natural disparity in society that causes these problems.
Now let us go back to our example of the property owner and the tenant. As per the conflict theory, the relationship between the owner and tenant is based primarily on conflict rather than harmony. In this example, some of the limited resources which may give rise to conflicts between the owner and tenant include the limited space of the property, rent paid to the owner, faulty maintenance, and so on. Thus, as per the conflict theory, the conflict arises over these resources. Hence, the owner is fundamentally focused on getting the property filled with tenants as fast as possible so that he/she can collect as much rent as possible. While the tenants themselves are looking to get the best apartment possible for the least amount of rent. Undoubtedly, this seems like a recipe for a conflict.
Even though the relationship between the owner and the tenant may mostly appear harmonious, any sign of harmony is only a product of the law and other elements which constrain the relationship and which are themselves a product of much deeper conflict, class conflict. In this example, conflict theory helps us understand this relationship more than consensus theory because consensus theory fails to explain lawsuits between owners and tenants, and fails to explain the legal basis of the power relationship, which favors the owners more than the tenants.
Now let us move to another example. A conflict theorist would argue that the last financial crisis of 2008 and the resulting bank bailouts are perfect examples of real-life conflict theory. Alan Sears and James Cairns in their book A Good Book, in Theory argue that the financial crisis was an inevitable outcome of the inequalities and instabilities of the global economic system. According to the authors, the largest banks and institutions avoid government oversight and take huge risks that reward only a few, and when they go broke, received bailouts from the same governments that claim to have limited funds for social programs such as universal health care. This is what the conflict theory predicts by its assertion that individuals and groups with more resources and power will tend to use their resources and power to retain their resources and power and thus exploit individuals/groups with fewer resources and power.
Furthermore, as per the conflict theory, the 2008 financial crisis, government bailouts, and the Occupy Wall Street movement was all inevitable. This is in part because the gap between the rich and the poor had become so much wide and competition over resources had grown significantly that some type of redistribution and crisis management was paramount.
The examples given here show that conflict can be inherent in all forms of relationships, even those that appear on the surface to be not antagonistic. The examples also illustrate that even straightforward cases can lead to multiple layers of conflict.
As a sign that we have not learned anything since the last financial crisis, the wealth gap has widened further and social discontent is rising as populist politics intensifies. As predicted by the conflict theory, as the divide between the poor and the rich grows, tensions intensify, politics become divisive, and the stage is set for conflict.
Let us end with an optimistic tone. Most types of conflicts in societies can be understood using the conflict theory. However, according to the theory, conflict is not always a bad thing since conflicts in society is the force that brings about change and development in a society. For instance, when you think about conflict within a society on a large scale, it explains unfortunate social trends like racism, sexism, homophobia, and the likes, however, the theory also predicts change. A good example of how conflicts lead to change would be in the U.S in the 1960s when the country witnessed a huge change in civil rights given to African Americans due to political protests that highlighted the conflict between racial groups. While the country still has a long way to go to address racism, this social change enabled the U.S to make progress towards equality. Thus, protests highlighting social conflict led to change, that is, more civil rights for African Americans.
Let us sum up everything discussed here with a quote from Karl Marx’s economic essay Wage Labour and Capitalwritten in 1847:
“A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirements for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and the little house shrinks to a hut.”