Conflict Theory According to Max Weber

By Charlotte Nickerson, published June 23, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Max Weber's conflict theory posits that there are three main sources of conflict: economic, social, and political.

This theory focuses on the competition between social groups, rather than individuals, and attempts to explain social change and stability as a result of group conflict (Marx & Engels, 1847).

In this view, social order is maintained by domination and power rather than by consensus and conformity.

Key Points

  • Max Weber's (1864-1920) conflict theory posits that there are three main sources of conflict: economic, social, and political.
  • Economic conflict arises when people compete for scarce resources. Social conflict occurs when people have different values or beliefs.
  • Although Weber believed that the economic realm was the most important source of conflict, he criticized Marx's view that it was entirely responsible for the phenomenon.

Weber’s Ideas around Conflict Theory

Weber's (1905) version of conflict theory differed from Marx's in several important ways. Weber criticized Marx by claiming that he over-emphasized the influence of economic factors as the main source of social inequality and a cause of social behavior (Marx & Engels, 1847).

Firstly, Weber believed that class was not the only source of conflict in society. He argued that conflict arises as much over values, status, and a sense of personal honor as over class.

While Weber agreed with Marx's idea that social class is the most important type of status inequality, he contended that Marx ignored and neglected other important types of status inequality and difference based on gender, ethnicity, religion and nationality – which have little to do with wealth or profit (Weber, 1905).

Weber considered these stratification systems to be organized around two important dimensions: status and party. Status refers to a person's honor or prestige. That is to say, the amount of respect a person receives from society.

This may be expressed in economic reward or political deference. Those who lack status could be subjected to prejudice and discrimination from those with status.

Meanwhile, Weber defined ‘parties’ as interest groups that either exercise power or influence or wish to do so. For example, a worker's union may exercise striking power to increase wages or better working conditions. Weber believed that these two dimensions were fundamentally independent of each other.

Domination

In many societies around the world, and in many walks of life, men dominate women, majority ethnic groups and religions exploit ethnic and religious minorities and powerful nationalistic groups and societies repress other national groups or societies because they are interpreted as ‘inferior’.

For example, the dominant immigrant groups to a country — especially one that had previously colonized its inhabitants, may be treated discriminately, being provided with fewer social and economic opportunities on virtue of their origin.

NS-SEC system of occupational classification

Weber’s theory of social stratification influenced the setting-up of the NS-SEC system of occupational classification.

The NS-SEC system of occupational classification is used to measure social class in the UK. The system was first used in the 1951 Census and has been revised several times (Rose & Pevalin, 2003).

Weber's Criticisms of Social Class

Weber defined a social class as a group who share a similar market situation. Because of their skill-set, those in a particular social class receive similar economic rewards.

For example, a skilled worker and an unskilled worker will receive different wages for their work. However, Weber argued that Marx's idea of social class failed to explain the status differences that exist within social class strata.

For example, within the upper class, ‘old wealth’ such as that embodied by the Royal Family and the aristocracy seems to have more status than ‘new wealth,’ as symbolized by owners of companies or wealthy celebrities (Weber, 1905).

These differences in status between members of the same social class exist for lower classes as well. Within the middle-classes, for example, there exist status differences between the upper middle-class, the professional and managerial middle-classes and white-collar workers.

While those working professional jobs may have higher incomes than white-collar workers, the latter may have more status because of the type of work they do. For example, a stock trader is likely to have a higher income than a schoolteacher, but the schoolteacher is likely to have more status because their work is seen as being more important and beneficial to society.

Within the working-class, there are status differences between the ‘labor aristocracy’, those who are semi-skilled and unskilled but working, and those who are long-term unemployed and dependent on benefits.

On the upper end of income ranges, a plumber may significantly out earn even many in the middle class but maintain a working-class status for having a "blue collar" job.

All in all, as Weber added to conflict theory, economic wealth is related to, but not entirely determinant of, social status and power.

Weber and Power

Weber (1905) believed that conflict did not always lead to social change; instead, they might just as easily lead to the reinforcement of existing power relations.

Weber identified types of power that have little to do with economics or social class. For example, people may acquire power because they have greater physical or military strength over others.

Others may acquire a legitimate form of power called ‘authority’ from the state or society to exercise power over others, for example, the Prime Minister, the police, and teachers each exercise authority.

Furthermore, people, regardless of physical strength or societally-given authority, may acquire charismatic authority from the strength of their own personality, resulting in the acquisition of a following.

A popular social media star may, for example, wield significant economic and social power as a result of their online following. The important point that Weber makes in identifying different types of power is that none of these types of power originates in the way capitalism is organized and controlled.

This means that, even if capitalism were to be abolished, other forms of power would continue to exist. Weber’s ideas on conflict theory, therefore, present a more nuanced view of social change than Marx’s class struggle paradigm.

Critical Evaluation

Weber notes that it is not always the capitalist class theory of Marx that is responsible for inequality, exploitation, suffering and conflict.

He presents a method for sociologists to construct complex and multi-dimensional models of stratification. Weber acknowledges that it is important to consider all three dimensions when studying social inequality: economic, social and political.

While Marx’s theory focuses on the economic, Weber adds the political and social to create a more comprehensive view of societal stratification. He also acknowledges that there is not always a clearcut struggle between two groups, as Marx would have posited. Those occupying one "class" status in some respects may occupy others simultaneously (Weber, 1905).

Despite its influence, Weberian Conflict theory is not without its critics. Neo-Marxists, for example, criticize the notion of status differences within social classes.

Marxists see these as deliberately created by the bourgeoisie in order to divide and rule workers so that they never achieve full class consciousness and become a dangerous revolutionary class.

Additionally, Weber’s work has been criticized for its Eurocentric focus (Collins, 1980). Critics also argue that Weberian conflict theory does not pay enough attention to the role of women in society, and of gender as a general source of conflict.

In general, Weber’s work reflects the ideas and values of his time; however, feminist sociologists have more recently created gender-based conflict theories inspired by Weber's expansion of status and power differences.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, June 23). Conflict Theory According to Max Weber . Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/max-weber-conflict-theory.html

References

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Marx, K., Engels, F. (1847). Manifesto of the communist party.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1967). The communist manifesto. 1848. Trans. Samuel Moore. London: Penguin, 15.

Rose, D., & Pevalin, D. (2003). The NS-SEC described. A researcher’s guide to the national statistics socio-economic classification, 6-27.

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Weber, M. (2009). The theory of social and economic organization. Simon and Schuster.