Conflict theory is one of the most prominent sociological theories. It essentially argues that society is not a complex system striving towards some form of equilibrium, but rather a competition. Under conflict theory, all individuals are competing to control a limited number of resources. Large institutions, such as religions or government reflect the competitive nature of society by the inequality they maintain in society, by controlling and using resources to obtain power.
There are three main assumptions in conflict theory. The first is that at the heart of all social relationships lies the competition over scarce resources. The main characteristic of human relationships, therefore, is competition. The second assumption is that inequalities of power and reward are built into all social structures. Those individuals and groups that benefit work to see the structure maintained. The third assumption is that change is the result of conflict and is most often abrupt and revolutionary, rather than evolutionary.
A number of thinkers in both the United States and Great Britain, including Max Gluckman, John Rex, Lewis A. Coser and Randall Collins, helped develop conflict theory. However, much of their work was influenced by Karl Marx and other founders of European sociology. Conflict theory often works best when combined with elements of structuralism-functionalism, which stresses the more stable long-term elements of society.