Social Conflict Theories

Cooperation and consensus are required for the many actors in any society to join together and carry out the task of society and assure its continuance; nevertheless, conflict is unavoidable because different people may have different interests and beliefs. Consider the following example. Family members must work together to keep the household's many operations running, and the family's needs met.

At the same time, some family members may feel oppressed or exploited by the current arrangements. They may believe their opinions or thoughts are not valued or that they must make more extraordinary sacrifices than other family members to keep the family running.

Types of Social Contract Theories

Following are the major types of social contract theories −

Social Structural Theories

The organization of society is emphasized in social structural theories. It thinks that the organization of society or the divides within society produce the reasons and conditions for conflict. This might include socio-economic factors and differences in race, religion, ethnicity, age, and gender. Apart from them, the world system is a structure in which states are the primary players. Hans Morgenthau, a political realist, defined the state's core interests as the foundation for its international activities. On the other hand, Johan Galtung was a firm believer in national and state equality.

It is further categorized as −

a. Structural Violence Theory

Conflict is inherent in societal structures, according to the Structural Violence Theory. Societal structures and institutions are the root causes of structural violence. Johan Galtung recognized three types of violence: direct or overt, indirect or structural, and cultural. Direct violence is a reaction to structural violence intended to damage another individual or group directly.

In structural violence, institutions, systems, and structures either discriminate against people or deny or deprive them of their essential human necessities such as survival, well-being, safety, respect, freedom, identity, religion, and so on. For example, cultural violence is utilized via ideology, religion, language, arts, and education to justify and legitimize overt and institutional violence. Individuals, groups, and communities are all threatened by structural violence, which hinders them from reaching their full potential and realizing their goals.

It can manifest as repression, exploitation, and alienation. The system may exploit people economically, repress them politically, or isolate them culturally. Examples of structural violence include slavery and colonialism. Gandhi believed in the development of new social structures that were devoid of structural violence. Hence, his approach to conflict resolution sought to protect the individual while deliberately attacking the structure.

b. Human Needs Theory

John Burton proposed the Human Needs Hypothesis. According to the notion, humans have certain basic or universal human wants. When those expectations are not realized or unfulfilled, it can lead to conflict. The conflict resolution process should aim to meet the basic human needs of the people or groups involved in the conflict. Human needs are seen as necessities or requirements that a person requires to live, perpetuate, and reproduce life. These demands must be met within the social environment rather than outside of it. These essential human requirements are material, cultural, and social. Food, shelter, health care, and employment are material necessities.

Religion and language are cultural demands, while respect, dignity, safety, and security are social needs. Fundamental human requirements can remain the same. Nevertheless, there has yet to be an agreement on the quantity and types of such needs. John Burton identified nine wants: consistency in response, stimulation, security, recognition, distributive justice, the appearance of logic, meaning, control, and role defense. Some, though, have been added to the list of requirements. In 1943, Abraham Maslow developed a requirements pyramid that hierarchically expressed needs. Maslow's pyramid begins with physiological requirements, progresses to security needs, then to belonging needs, then to esteem needs, and last to self-actualization needs.

Gandhi, like many others, saw the conflict as a result of the institutional denial of human needs. The development of new structures is required to meet human demands. This would necessitate a strategy of struggle that met three conditions: the demolition of need-denying institutions, the development of need-satisfying structures, and respecting the competing parties' needs during the struggle. Satyagraha, Gandhi's approach to conflict settlement, was an attempt to meet all three prerequisites. Gandhi regarded self-realization as the most critical need but emphasized that its fulfillment was contingent on the fulfillment of other wants.

c. Resource Theory

Conflict arises when one party desires the resource the other party possesses or when two or more parties desire the same resource. When resources are scarce or limited, people battle for them. Resources can be both tangible and intangible. These could take several forms, such as land or territory, money, coal, oil, water, etc. Max Weber described resources as belonging to one of three categories: wealth, power, or prestige. Wealth is a tangible resource that includes money, land, etc. Power is a resource for those who own and control it and can decide whether and how to allocate it. Prestige is defined as respect or reputation, and it is based on a rating from most respected to least respected.

d. Relative Deprivation Theory

Relative deprivation theory is founded on deprivation, which refers to the gap between what one anticipates and receives. Individuals feel deprived when receiving far less than they expected or were promised. This can cause people to become aggressive and engage in confrontations with others. Starvation and poverty are related to absolute deprivation. Ted Robert Gurr explained ethnic conflicts using the concept of relative deprivation.

Socio-Economic Theories

Karl Marx felt that economic organization structures laid the groundwork for class strife. As a result, the economic system is the root of the conflict. Marx's theory of class conflict maintains that social institutions and structures reflect society's material reality. Throughout history, economic structure has determined every other area of life, including politics. Capitalists control and have authority over social structures and the means of production or the economic framework. A system like this will always exploit the working class, resulting in a class war.

Neo-Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci place little emphasis on economic structures. Gramsci developed the theory of ideological hegemony. He believed that capitalists controlled not only the means of production but also a slew of other things, such as values, attitudes, beliefs, ideas, views, cultural norms, laws, and rules. The ruling class uses ideology to explain its aims. When the masses challenge the ruling class's ideological hegemony, conflict ensues.

Several additional thinkers claim that the causes of conflict are found in society's socio-economic divisions. Social conflict and social transformation were linked by Max Weber. According to Ralf Dahrendorf, conflict is the primary driver of societal change. He emphasized both political and economic factors. Critical theorists such as Max Horkheimer stressed the cultural consequences of current class inequalities.

Social Process Theories

Conflict and conflict resolution are viewed as processes in social process theories. Adam Smith was one of the first to write about social processes. Smith was both an economist and a philosopher. He placed a premium on the fabric of social ties. According to him, these webs of relationships can give rise to concepts that can be applied to conflict resolution. He believed that if markets were allowed to work usually, they could be an excellent means of resolving human issues. Numerous theorists in the twentieth century were interested in social process theories.

Park and Burgess identified conflict as a form of competition. Conflict served an excellent function for Simmel and Coser since it was interwoven into social institutions and contributed to negotiated order. He proposed that human institutions develop through a negotiating process. Hence, the negotiation was a vital activity in the formation and ongoing reconstitution of society. Conflict and its resolution are products of a field of forces in Field Theory. Field theorists like Kurt Lewin and Morton Deutsch reflect this in their work. Lewin felt that behavior was the result of a field of forces colliding. This influenced the behavior of the people who were involved. Deutsch investigated the concepts of competition and cooperation to determine the conditions under which cooperation may develop from the competition. According to him, communication was crucial for cooperation.

Conflict is viewed as a system of relationships in Systems Theory. It tries to discover how various social system components, namely social institutions, interact. Elements of social systems can function, but they can also fail. They are not in total harmony when they malfunction. This is where the concept of conflict and resolution comes into play. Social Interaction Theories have attempted to apply market ideas to non-market exchanges, such as informal contacts and group patterns. George C.Homans investigated interactions in terms of benefits and costs. Individuals strive to keep up good behavior. Kenneth E. Boulding's conflict perspectives were primarily based on economic models. In contrast to economics, which primarily deals with positive exchange, he understood that conflict could involve hostile exchanges - more bad than good.


Conflict is an unavoidable aspect of human existence. It can occur at the level of interpersonal conflict, as well as within or between groups, civilizations, and nations. It can range from two people not talking to each other or having an intense debate to violence and aggressiveness between groups and even organized warfare. Social science ideas are categorized based on their understanding of conflict and agreement. Whereas 'consensus' theories emphasize the qualities that hold societies together, such as common values, beliefs, and ideas, 'conflict' theories emphasize the various interests, ideals, and power relationships that define social life.

Updated on: 13-Mar-2023


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