Conflict Theory



This activity aims to prepare a written work applying the concepts studied in this module. Go deeper into the topic(s) discussed in the module by answering the following questions:

  1. What is conflict theory? Express your opinion about this theory.
  2. Who is credited with the invention of conflict theory?
  3. What are some common criticisms of conflict theory?


  • Development of the topic
  • Arguments for and against
  • Conclusion

You must include an example that evidences the application of the study concept. Remember that you must author the work submitted without using quotations, the material discussed in the module, or any other source.

Submission Instructions:

Module 4:


Lecture Content- Phenomenology and the Foundations of the Complex World

I. Husserl: Phenomenology and the Foundations of the Complex World

Phenomenology is commonly understood in two ways: as a disciplinary field in philosophy or as a movement in the history of philosophy. Hegel described philosophy as “its own time imprisoned in thoughts,” reflecting an increasingly experienced desire, namely, the desire to understand the complex and changing world. But how can the world be described philosophically? When Hegel attempted his systematic account of the historical world, he needed to conceive history as rational progress to enable such a description.

After the twentieth-century events, there are many doubts about such progress. However, in the twentieth century, another German philosopher, Edmund Husserl, attempted a similar project when he realized that a philosophical account of human experience requires addressing the historical world. According to Husserl, the Western world is a world in crisis. Husserl radicalizes Hegel’s philosophy by providing an account of the historical movement as open. Husserl’s phenomenology allows us to think of historical worlds in the plural, without hierarchy, determined by ethics and aesthetics.

The discipline of phenomenology is initially defined as studying the structures of experience or consciousness. Phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: the appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or how we experience things, hence the meanings that things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as it is experienced from the subjective or first-person point of view. This field of philosophy must be distinguished from and related to the other major fields of philosophy: ontology (the study of being or what is), epistemology (the study of knowledge), logic (the study of valid reasoning), ethics (the study of right and wrong action), etc.

Phenomenology studies the structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality; it is being directed toward something, as is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object under its content or meaning (representing the object) and the appropriate enabling conditions (Fernandez, Garcia, 2009). Phenomenology as a discipline is distinct but related to other key disciplines in philosophy, such as ontology, epistemology, logic, and ethics. Phenomenology has been practiced in various forms for centuries but came into its own in the early twentieth century in the works of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and others. Phenomenological issues of intentionality, consciousness and first-person perspective have been prominent in recent philosophy of mind (Aguilar,2019).

Staehler (2003) argues that, through his radicalization of Hegel’s philosophy, Husserl provides a historical phenomenology and a coherent concept of a culture that points to the future of phenomenology as a philosophy that provides the methodological basis for a variety of qualitative approaches in the humanities and social sciences. In recent philosophy of mind, “phenomenology” is often restricted to characterizing the sensory qualities of seeing, hearing, etc. It is like having sensations of various kinds.


Lecture Content 2

 Module 4: Lecture Content- Subjectivity, the Subject of History, and the Social Worker’s Responsibility

II. Subjectivity, the Subject of History, and the Social Worker’s Responsibility

Subjectivity inevitably involves the human subject. It has been an important concept for research and intervention in social and political life since the 1970s. Concern with the meaning of subjectivity has generated debates in several disciplinary fields, including political subject studies, white subjectivity, gender subjectivities, workplace subjectivity, colonial subjectivities, and embodied subjectivity. Any consideration of discrimination and oppression will inevitably make direct reference to or assumptions about the nature of subjectivity.

The social work subject is very much concerned with subjectivity in its various forms, whether as personhood, self, character, individuality, or identity. There are multiple ways of articulating the term “subject” associated with social work. Indeed, the values of anti-discrimination social work depend largely on a very particular perspective on the subject. Moreover, the entire rights discourse is based on a strong notion of subjectivity as self-ownership. Human rights arguments inevitably appeal to some form of reflexive self-direction and personal freedom. Such autonomy is to pursue one’s projects or values appropriately and unrestrictedly. Given the indispensability of subjectivity in discussions ranging from social work interventions to social work ethics, how little conceptual analysis is explicitly devoted to the term. Subjectivity, broadly referenced as the subject and its feelings, desires, interpretations, and perceptions is central in social work.

It needs a theory of the subject to stay afloat.

Relying on contemporary notions of individual autonomy, the preoccupation with subjectivity in social work often overlooks other concerns, such as its contrast with objectivity. “It goes without saying,” writes Vincent Descombes, “that philosophy as such, or at least modern philosophy, was on the side of an affirmation of man as ‘subject'” (2004).

After God and the king, humanity was the natural successor to the status of a subject at the center of all things. The modern distinction between subjectivity and objectivity was historically shaped through a philosophical approach enshrined in the work of René Descartes. Enlightenment rationalism and, later, the Kantian (Kant) free will philosophy. This is commonly known as the Cartesian theory of subjectivity.

The sister psychological concept of the “self” entered English usage along with the restlessness of rationalism and the Enlightenment. The important thing to understate here is that the formation of the subject is a historical process. Marx acutely observed that: “Man is only individualized through the process of history. Originally, he appears as a generic being, a tribal being, a herding animal, though by no means a ‘political animal’ in the political sense” (1964). Descartes believed that subjectivity was the essence and storehouse of the mind and that the self is the guarantor of its own continued existence and the basis of all reality. The result of this Cartesian influence was an asymmetrical dichotomy: separated from the external world of “matter” (or nature), the subject assumed the role of master of reasoning assignments or overseer of self-determination in the world, a role that fuels the enterprise of disciplines such as psychotherapy, counseling, and social work (Dallmayr, 2009). Similarly, the Kantian subject has the self-assurance of his “knowledge of truth and is understood by Kant as capable of apprehending himself as a self through perception and reflection” (Weber, 2006, p. 327). This aspect of Kant’s theory goes back to Descartes’ theory of the cogito and remains influential in the social work account of reflective practice.

Reflective practitioners are Kantian in that they consider individual processes to be based on autonomous individuals who can achieve transparency in understanding what is right and what are wrong and critical insights into social work processes (D’Cruz et al., 2007). This view supports a certainty of self based on the verification of personal experience and through the process of rationally guided introspection and reflection (Webb and McBeath, 1989)


Lecture Content 3

 Module 4: Lecture Content- Hegel, Marx, and Dialectical Reality

III. Hegel, Marx, and Dialectical Reality: Between the Ideal and the Concrete World, the Subject, and the Object

Things were progressing in the Western world during the first half of the 20th century. Industrialization led to modernism; the world was a radically different place. Emerging technology completely transformed how humans lived. For many, the concerns of modern life were unlike those of pre-modern agrarian life. Now, people were no longer concerned with mere survival, but we were worried about what to do with leisure time. Medical advances were increasing human life expectancy. There could be no doubt that human history was a story of triumphant growth and development. This was a view shared by both cultural optimists and pessimists. One of the most influential cultural optimists was Karl Marx. Marx inherited a view of history from the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel thought that all of history followed a predetermined path that would eventually lead to the final perfect state of human freedom.

A. The Hegelian Dialectic

For the philosopher Hegel, the universe evolved through a constant cycle of dialectical progress. This path was determined by a process called dialectics. In each epoch, the reigning state of the world would create a fundamental opposition. For Hegel, this dialectic was the mind of God coming to understand his own being. At first, God is the subject, that which thinks. But then, to think, you need an object, that is, something to think about. Therefore, God is both the subject and the object. A state always creates the opposite. You cannot have a master without enslaving a person, for without the enslaved person, the master would not be a master. But when you place a thing and its opposite together, the two would clash, each wanting to free itself from the other, the thing existing. Ultimately, this conflict destroys them, leaving only the central commonalities they share that would become the basis for the next higher reality stage. This, too, would create a fundamental opposition and so on down the process until, finally, the universe ended up where it was meant to be.

B. Marx and the Class Struggle

Marx maintained this image of reality as a historical process that resolved itself. But instead of everything being an immaterial mode of God-consciousness, as Hegel thought, Marx claimed that the universe was made of material things rather than abstract states of being. Marx suggested that the dialectical process of cultural and economic development resulted from class struggles against class. Each new socioeconomic stage would provide both advances in human life and the seeds of its own destruction. The revolution that would destroy the socioeconomic state of being was necessary to enable humanity to advance to the next stage. From slavery to capitalism. For Marx, slavery, for example, was a necessary evil. By enslaving people, people began to create the physical infrastructure of true culture. But while the institution of slavery was necessary for human progress, it was also necessary for enslaved people to become insubordinate. Their freedom and humanity had been taken from them. The tension between enslavers and enslaved people would lead to a revolution that would destroy the entire social system and leave a new one in its place: feudalism, in which others did not own people, at least not directly. These workers were at least nominally free because the lords could not dictate their every action, but they did control the land that produced the food needed to survive. Eventually, there was a peasant revolt, resulting in a capitalist society in which it was not the landowners who controlled society but the factory owners who controlled the means of production.

C. Capitalism: A Step in Human Development

While Marx is often regarded as an opponent of capitalism, Marx did not think that capitalism was an inherently lousy system. In fact, he thought it was a necessary step in economic history. Capitalism must happen, and it plays a significant role in human development. According to Ezequiel Ander et al., capitalism would eventually lead to a workers’ revolution in the Marxist view. Capitalism is driven by the desire to maximize profit, leading to the production process’s depreciation of labor and resources. The cheaper and easier you can make something, the more profit you will make. As a result, capitalists are always trying to figure out how to make many more things than we need and how to make them quickly, easily, and cheaply. The result is eliminating scarcity, so human beings have everything they need.

But by making this happen, workers have alienated themselves, dehumanized themselves, and removed themselves from meaningful relationships with each other, themselves, and the things they create. Eventually, they will have had enough. Now we are ready for the next step and the workers’ revolution.

D. A Communist Utopia

Passing through an epoch of collective ownership, one finally arrives at the communist utopia. In utopia, because capitalists have figured out how to satisfy needs using a minimum of resources and effort, relatively little time can be spent attending to them. Humans have the luxury of doing what they love, whether fishing, making music, writing poetry, studying the universe, or making people laugh (Ezekiel Anderson).

The fundamental image here is that human beings are essentially social animals. They live in a community and use that community to figure out how to solve problems. But the structures needed to solve one set of problems ultimately cause another set of problems until they finally figure out how to live together without problems.

Lecture Content 4

 Module 4: Lecture Content- The Human Being as Protagonist of History

IV. The Human Being as Protagonist of History: Tension Between Humanism and Historical Materialism

The use of materialism demands that there be something called idealism, and a comprehensive discussion of both is essential. Materialist philosophy emphasizes that its central idea is neither idea nor idealism but is the physical world. It highlights the master or material condition of society and everyday life. Materialism recognizes nothing beyond the physical world. There is no place for divinity, supernatural phenomena, elements, or force in materialism or materialistic philosophy. Man constitutes the core of materialism.

Along with man, society enters materialistic philosophy. But many philosophers deny this. They claim that only mind, thought, spirit, and ideas are primary. Nature or the physical world is secondary.

The physical world is derived from spirit, consciousness, and ideas. The physical world is a piece of man’s imagination. Man thinks something first; the physical world arises from that image or thought. Therefore, the difference between materialism and idealism can be expressed in the following words: Those who regard the material basis of nature as primary and thought spirit as a property of matter belong to the camp of materialism. Those who hold that thought, spirit, and idea existed before nature, and that nature is, in one way or another, the creation of spirit and dependent upon it constitute the camp of idealism.

From the earliest days of civilization, a controversy has been going on between idealism and materialism. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels asserted that matter or the material world is real through a consistent and unassailable logic. They also commented that idealism has no real basis, is mere imagination, and cannot be taken as the object of any serious analysis. The developing history of philosophy shows that the conflict between materialism and idealism covers a significant part.

Materialism or materialistic philosophy is practically a protest of idealism or spiritualism. It is a guide to real life and action. Materialism helps to understand the nature, functioning, and development of society. It does not proceed to determine the happiness and pleasure of the heavenly life. It teaches man to be practical. It further asserts that the change and development of society are the results of human efforts and are not dictated by the wills or whims of supernatural power.

Engels has said, “Modern materialism is not a philosophy, but a simple conception of the world (Weltanschauung) which has to establish its validity and apply itself not in a science of the sciences that distinguishes itself, but within the real sciences.” An important aspect of materialism or materialistic interpretation of history is that man, with his intellectual capacity, can enter the deepest stage of matter and can know what the matter is. In other words, man’s intellectual capacity helps unlock the secrets of nature and matter, so man is the sole determinant of everything in society.

According to Ezequiel Anderson et al., idealism affirms that neither man nor his intellectual power nor consciousness determine the events of the physical world. The ideal or eternal spirit determines the movements of the physical world. As a result, idealism glorifies death and an afterlife. According to philosophical idealism, the external world is a misnomer. The only reality is the spirit or ideal.

Lecture Content 5

 Module 4: Lecture Content- The Idea of Conflict as an Engine of Progress

V. The Idea of Conflict as an Engine of Progress- Social Policy as a Promoter and Consequence of Change

According to Karl Marx, conflict theory is a theory that society is in a state of perpetual conflict due to competition for limited resources. Conflict theory holds that social order is maintained by domination and power rather than by consensus and conformity. According to conflict theory, those with wealth and power try to hold on to it by any means possible, mainly by suppressing the poor and powerless. A basic premise of conflict theory is that individuals and groups within society will work to try to maximize their wealth and power.

Conflict theory has been used to explain many social phenomena, including wars, revolutions, poverty, discrimination, and domestic violence. It attributes most of the fundamental developments in human histories, such as democracy and civil rights, to capitalist attempts to control the masses (as opposed to a desire for social order). The central tenets of conflict theory are the concepts of social inequality, the division of resources, and the conflicts between different socioeconomic classes. Throughout history, many types of social conflicts can be explained using the central tenets of conflict theory. Some theorists, including Marx, believe that social conflict is the force that ultimately drives societal change and development.

Marx’s version of conflict theory focused on the conflict between two primary classes. Each class consists of a group of people united by mutual interests and a certain degree of property ownership. Marx theorized about the bourgeoisie, a group of people representing those members of society who own most wealth and means. The proletariat is the other group: those considered workers or the poor.

This way of thinking is tied to a common image associated with models of society based on conflict theory. With the rise of capitalism, Marx theorized that the bourgeoisie, a minority within the population, would use its influence to oppress the proletariat, the majority class. Adherents to this philosophy tend to believe in a pyramidal arrangement regarding how goods and services are distributed in society. At the top of the pyramid is a small group of elites who dictate terms and conditions to most of the society because they have excessive control over resources and power.

Conflict theory assumes that the elite will establish systems of laws, traditions, and other social structures to support their dominance further while preventing others from joining their ranks. Marx theorized that, as the working class and poor were subjected to worsening conditions, a collective consciousness would increase awareness of inequality, potentially resulting in revolt. If, after the revolt, conditions were adjusted to favor the concerns of the proletariat, the circle of conflict would eventually repeat itself, but in the opposite direction. The bourgeois would become the aggressor and the revolter, clinging to the return of the structures that previously held their sway.

A. Conflict Theory Assumptions

In current conflict theory, four main assumptions are helpful to understand: competition, revolution, structural inequality, and war.

· Conflict theorists believe that competition is a constant and sometimes overwhelming factor in almost all human relationships and interactions.

· Competition: It exists because of the scarcity of resources, including material resources: money, property, goods, and more. Beyond material resources, individuals and groups within a society also compete for intangible resources. These may include leisure time, dominance, social status, sexual partners, etc. Conflict theorists assume that competition is the default (rather than cooperation).

· Revolution: Given the assumption of conflict theorists that conflict occurs between social classes, an outcome of this conflict is a revolutionary event. The idea is that change in an intergroup power dynamic does not happen because of gradual adaptation. Instead, it emerges as the symptom of conflict between these groups. Thus, changes in a power dynamic are often abrupt and large-scale rather than gradual and evolutionary.

· Structural inequality: An important assumption of conflict theory is that human relationships and social structures experience power inequalities. Thus, some individuals and groups inherently develop more power and reward than others. After that, those individuals and groups that benefit from a particular structure of society tend to work to maintain those structures to retain and enhance their power.

· War: Conflict theorists view war as a unifier or a “cleanser” of societies. In conflict theory, war results from cumulative and escalating conflict between individuals and groups and between entire societies. In the context of war, a society may unify somehow, but the conflict remains between multiple societies. On the other hand, war can also result in the total end of society.

B. Special Considerations

Marx saw capitalism as part of a historical progression of economic systems. He believed that capitalism was rooted in commodities or things bought and sold. For example, he thought that labor was a type of commodity. Because workers have little control or power in the economic system (because they do not own factories or materials), their value can devalue over time. This can create an imbalance between business owners and their workers, eventually leading to social conflict. He believed these problems would finally be solved through a social and economic revolution.

Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist, adopted many aspects of Marx’s conflict theory and later further refined some of Marx’s ideas. Weber believed that conflict over property was not limited to one specific setting. Instead, he thought multiple layers of conflict existed at any time and in every society. At the same time, Marx framed his view of conflict as one between owners and workers.

Weber also added an emotional component to his ideas about conflict. Weber said, “It is these that underlie the power of religion and make it an important ally of the state; that transform classes into status groups and do the same to territorial communities under particular circumstances…and that make ‘legitimacy’ a crucial focus for efforts at domination.”

As expounded in the literature, Weber’s Beliefs about conflict extend beyond Marx’s because they suggest that some forms of social interaction, including conflict, generate beliefs and solidarity among individuals and groups within a society. Thus, an individual’s reactions to inequality may differ depending on which groups they are associated with, whether they perceive those in power as legitimate, etc.

Conflict theory is highly influential in modern and postmodern theories of sexual and racial inequality, peace and conflict studies, and the wide varieties of identity studies that have emerged throughout Western academia in recent decades. Conflict theorists of the late 20th and 21st centuries have continued to extend conflict theory beyond the strict economic classes postulated by Marx. However, economic relations remain a central feature of intergroup inequalities in the various branches of conflict theory.

For example, conflict theorists believe that the relationship between the owner of a housing complex and a tenant is based primarily on conflict rather than balance or harmony, even though there may be more harmony than conflict. They believe they are defined by getting all the resources they can from each other. In the example above, some of the limited resources that may contribute to conflict between tenants and the complex owner include the limited space within the complex, the limited number of units, the money tenants pay the complex owner for rent, etc. Ultimately, conflict theorists see this dynamic as a conflict over these resources. The complex owner, however kind, is focused on filling as many apartment units as possible to make as much money in rent as possible, especially if bills such as mortgages and utilities must be covered. This can introduce conflict between housing complexes, between tenant applicants looking to move into an apartment, etc. On the other side of the conflict, the tenants themselves are looking to get the best possible apartment for the least amount of money in rent.

According to authors Alan Sears and James Cairns in their book A Good Book in Theory, conflict theorists point to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent bank bailouts as good examples of real-life conflict theory. They see the financial crisis as the inevitable result of inequities and instability in the global economic system, allowing the largest banks and institutions to avoid government oversight and take huge risks that reward only a select few. Sears and Cairns point out that large banks and corporations subsequently received bailout funds from the same governments claiming insufficient funds for large-scale social programs, such as universal health care. This dichotomy supports a fundamental assumption of conflict theory: conventional political institutions and cultural practices favor dominant groups and individuals. This example illustrates that conflict can be inherent in all kinds of relationships, including those that do not appear antagonistic. It also shows that even a simple scenario can lead to multiple layers of conflict.



Gray, S. & Zide, M. (2017). Psychopathology: Competency-based assessment models for Social Workers.

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