What Is The Conflict Model?

Last Updated on May 11, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

The conflict model of criminal justice, also known as the non-system perspective or system conflict theory, argues that the organizations of a criminal justice system either do or should, work hard to achieve justice, as opposed to in a way that involves mutual assistance.

Conflict theory, first brought to light by Karl Marx, is a theory that society is in a state of never-ending conflict because of the competition for limited resources.

Conflict theory suggests that social order is kept afloat by domination and power rather than by general agreement and mass conformity. Conflict theory suggests those with wealth and power try to hold on to it no matter what, mainly by suppressing the poor and those not in a place of power.

The most common example of conflict theory is that individuals and companies in society will work to try to maximize their wealth and power, ignoring the repercussions.

Who Is Credited with Inventing Conflict Theory?

Conflict theory was founded by Karl Marx, a 19th-century political philosopher who headed up the development of communism as a particular way of thinking in economics. Karl Marx is most famous for “The Communist Manifesto”, which was published in 1848, and “Das Kapital”, published in 1867.

Although he lived in the 19th-century, he made a considerable difference in politics and economics in the 20th-century and is generally considered one of recent history’s most influential and controversial minds.

What Is Conflict Theory?

Conflict theory is a sociological theory brought to light by Karl Marx. It tries to explain political and economic events concerning the ongoing struggle over finite resources.

Marx highlights the adversary relationship between social classes, in particular, the relationship between the owners of capital, which Marx calls the “bourgeoisie” and the working class, which he calls the “proletariat”.

Conflict theory had a huge influence on 19th and 20th-century ways of thinking and continues to influence all politics to this current day.

Trying To Understand Conflict Theory

Understanding Conflict theory can be a little complicated, however, it’s easier to grasp when we apply it to a real-life situation.

Conflict theory has been used to explain a wide array of social issues, such as domestic violence, civil war, revolutions and poverty to name a few. Most of the fundamental changes in history are related to conflict theory such as democracy, civil rights and capitalistic attempts to control the masses, as opposed to trying to achieve natural social order.

The central pillars of conflict theory are the concepts of inequality, the struggle for resources and conflicts which exist between different classes of wealth and power. Marx ultimately believes that societal conflict is essential in driving change and development in society. 

Marx predominantly focused on looking at the conflict between two main classes. Each class was represented by people with mutual interests and a degree of property ownership. The two groups were the ‘Bourgeoisie’ and the ‘Proletariat.

The bourgeoisie represented members of society who hold the majority of wealth and power. Whereas the proletariat group were those considered working-class or poor. 

As capitalism began to take over, Marx found that the bourgeoisie who were a small minority within the population would use their power and social status to oppress the proletariat, who are in fact by far the majority. This is what we see in many countries today.

Those that believe and stick to this philosophy tend to also believe in the pyramid arrangement, in terms of how services and goods are distributed in society. The top group of the pyramid, who are a huge minority, dictate their conditions over the majority population because they have an unreasonable amount of control over power and resources due to the hierarchy in society.

Unfair distribution within society was predicted to be maintained by ideological coercion. Where the bourgeoisie would assert dominance over the current conditions by the proletariat.

Conflict theory suggests that the elite will set up laws, traditions, and other societal forms to support their ideals of dominance while preventing anyone else from joining them (or making it incredibly difficult, to say the least). 

Marx stated that, as the working class were subjected to consistently declining conditions, as a reaction, a collective consciousness would raise awareness about inequality sparking a revolution.

After the revolution, if the conditions were altered to favour the revolters, the conflict circle would eventually repeat but in the opposite direction. The bourgeoisie would in time become the revolter, desperately praying for the return of the structures that formerly maintained their dominance.

To better understand conflict theory or the conflict model, there are four main driving forces in society to support the theory, according to Marx. They are as follows:

Competition – Competition is deeply rooted in human nature. It comes from fighting over the scarcity of resources, attracting a partner, money, status, dominance and more. This is commonly an overwhelming factor in every human relationship at some point. 

Revolution – Assuming conflict arises between social classes who have different views and beliefs, one eventual outcome is a revolution to try to change the system to better favour the revolters. It is understood that a change in the power dynamic does not come from gradual adaptation, but rather an extreme conflict. That’s why changes from a revolution are usually large and abrupt, rather than gradual evolution. 

Structural Inequality – Fundamental structural inequality suggests that certain people inherently develop more power and reward than others. This is due to the structural inequality developed in social structures by minority groups in positions of power. Therefore the groups that benefit from this structure tend to work to maintain these structures as a way of keeping their power and status in society. 

War – The conflict model suggests that war tends to either be a cleanser of societies, or a unifier. War is the result of growing conflicts accumulating over a prolonged period with no resolution between groups, individuals or entire societies. War tends to unify societies to come together and work well as a group to challenge the issue, but conflict can remain between multiple societies. In another situation, war can result in the total end of a society as it had been known. 

Max Weber

Max Weber was a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist and political economist. He adopted many of Karl Marx’s theories with the conflict model but took it further in parts. He believed that although capitalism was rooted in commodities (a basic good used in commerce that is interchangeable with other goods) as Karl Marx claimed.

Weber believed that conflict over poverty was not limited to one specific scenario, he believed that there were many layers of conflict existing in every society at any given moment. Weber added an emotional factor about conflict, relating to religion and the underlying power making it an important ally of the state.

Transforming territorial communities into status groups, creating ‘legitimacy as a crucial focus. 

The conflict model in the 20th and 21st centuries has continued to extend its theory beyond the strict economic classes founded by Marx.

Economic relations remain at the core of the theory, but in the current day, conflict theory is highly influential in modern and postmodern cases of sexual and racial discrimination, peace and conflict issues, and the many identities and racial discrimination issues that have arisen in the past several decades. 

Case Studies for the Conflict Model 

The landlord & Tenant

A relatable case study is one of the housing markets, specifically the ‘owner’ and the ‘tenant’. This is seen as a conflict of interests rather than a harmonious exchange. What contributes to the conflict between the two parties are things like, limited space, the limited number of units, keeping the unit occupied, damage etc.

The complex owner’s fundamental aim is to have the property filled as much as possible, to cover their overheads and to make money (in most cases). This can create conflict between both parties as the tenant is looking for the best bargain.    

The Financial Crisis of 2008

This is a great real-life example of conflict theory. The financial crisis is said to be the inevitable outcome of prolonged inequalities and instabilities of the economic system, where the larger banks avoid government oversight and take huge risks that don’t benefit the system as a whole but only a select few.

As a result, large banks receive bailout funds from the same government that claimed to have no money for essential services such as health care. This fundamentally supports the assumption of conflict theory, which essentially says that political institutions and practices favour dominant groups and individuals rather than the collective. 


Some key takeaways from the Conflict model are its focus on the competition between groups within a society for limited resources. It views social and economic institutions as tools adding to the struggle between groups, maintaining inequality and powerful dominance to the ruling class.

More recent versions of conflict theory look into other components rather than just the social classes such as religion and racial and sexual discrimination.