Conflict theory is a way of framing and analyzing society and what happens within it. It stems from the theoretical writings of founding thinker of sociology, Karl Marx. Marx's focus, while he wrote about British and other Western European societies in the 19th century, was on class conflict in particular-conflicts over access to rights and resources that erupted due to an economic class-based hierarchy that emerged out of early capitalism as the central social organizational structure at that time.
From this view, conflict exists because there is an imbalance of power. The minority upper classes control political power, and thus they make the rules of society in a way that privileges their continued accumulation of wealth, at the economic and political expense of the majority of society, who provide most of the labor required for society to operate.
Marx theorized that by controlling social institutions, the elite are able to maintain control and order in society by perpetuating ideologies that justify their unfair and undemocratic position, and, when that fails, the elite, who control police and military forces, can turn to direct physical repression of the masses to maintain their power.
Today, sociologists apply conflict theory to a multitude of social problems that stem from imbalances of power that play out as racism, gender inequality, and discrimination and exclusion on the basis of sexuality, xenophobia, cultural differences, and still, economic class.
Let's take a look at how conflict theory can be useful in understanding a current event and conflict: the Occupy Central with Love and Peace protests that happened in Hong Kong during the fall of 2014. In applying the conflict theory lens to this event, we will ask some key questions to help us understand the sociological essence and origins of this problem:
- What is going on?
- Who is in conflict, and why?
- What are the socio-historical origins of the conflict?
- What is at stake in the conflict?
- What relations of power and resources of power are present in this conflict?
- From Saturday, September 27, 2014, thousands of protesters, many of them students, occupied spaces across the city under the name and cause “Occupy Central with Peace and Love.” Protestors filled public squares, streets, and disrupted daily life.
- They protested for a fully democratic government. The conflict was between those demanding democratic elections and the national government of China, represented by riot police in Hong Kong. They were in conflict because the protestors believed that it was unjust that candidates for Chief Executive of Hong Kong, the top leadership position, would have to be approved by a nomination committee in Beijing composed of political and economic elites before they were allowed to run for office. The protestors argued that this would not be a true democracy, and the ability to truly democratically elect their political representatives is what they demanded.
- Hong Kong, an island just off the coast of mainland China, was a British colony until 1997, when it was officially handed back to China. At that time, residents of Hong Kong were promised universal suffrage, or the right to vote for all adults, by 2017. Presently, the Chief Executive is elected by a 1,200 member committee within Hong Kong, as are nearly half of the seats in its local government (the others are democratically chosen). It is written into the Hong Kong constitution that universal suffrage should be completely achieved by 2017, however, on August 31, 2014, the government announced that rather than conduct the upcoming election for the Chief Executive this way, it would proceed with a Beijing-based nomination committee.
- Political control, economic power, and equality are at stake in this conflict. Historically in Hong Kong, the wealthy capitalist class has fought democratic reform and aligned itself with mainland China's ruling government, the Communist Party of China (CCP). The wealthy minority have been made exorbitantly so by the development of global capitalism over the last thirty years, while the majority of Hong Kong society has not benefitted from this economic boom. Real wages have been stagnant for two decades, housing costs continue to soar, and the job market is poor in terms of available jobs and quality of life provided by them. In fact, Hong Kong has one of the highest Gini coefficients for the developed world, which is a measure of economic inequality, and used as a predictor of social upheaval. As is the case with other Occupy movements around the world, and with general critiques of neoliberal, global capitalism, livelihood of the masses and equality are at stake in this conflict. From the perspective of those in power, their grip on economic and political power is at stake.
- The power of the state (China) is present in the police forces, which act as deputies of the state and the ruling class to maintain the established social order; and, economic power is present in the form of the wealthy capitalist class of Hong Kong, which uses its economic power to exert political influence. The wealthy thus turn their economic power into political power, which in turn protects their economic interests, and ensures their hold on both forms of power. But, also present is the embodied power of the protestors, who use their very bodies to challenge social order by disrupting daily life, and thus, the status quo. They harness the technological power of social media to build and sustain their movement, and they benefit from the ideological power of major media outlets, which share their views with the global audience. It is possible that the embodied and mediated, ideological power of the protestors may turn into political power if other national governments begin to exert pressure on the Chinese government to meet the protestors' demands.
By applying the conflict perspective to the case of the Occupy Central with Peace and Love protest in Hong Kong, we can see the power relations that encapsulate and produce this conflict, how the material relations of society (the economic arrangements) contribute to producing the conflict, and how conflicting ideologies are present (those who believe that it is the right of a people to elect their government, versus those who favor the selection of the government by a wealthy elite).
Though created over a century ago, the conflict perspective, rooted in Marx's theory, remains relevant today, and continues to serve as a useful tool of inquiry and analysis for sociologists around the world.