Conflict theory in psychology is a theory that states social life is characterized by ongoing conflicts between different groups of people. It suggests that human behavior and relationships are driven by struggles for power, resources, or recognition. This theory was developed in the early 20th century as an alternative to structural functionalism – the idea that society works together like a machine and all parts serve a purpose. In contrast, conflict theorists believe that social order is maintained through coercion rather than consensus or cooperation. They argue that inequalities exist because powerful individuals or groups use their influence to gain more wealth and status at the expense of others.
The key figures associated with this approach include Karl Marx, Max Weber, George Herbert Mead, W E B Du Bois, Jean-Paul Sartre and Antonio Gramsci among others. Each theorist brings unique perspectives on how unequal distributions of power create tensions within societies, leading to both positive (e.g. progress) and negative (e.g. exploitation) outcomes for its members over time. For example, Marxist views suggest there will always be a class struggle between those who own the means of production and those who do not, whereas Weber argues there can be multiple sources of stratification such as race/ethnicity, which lead to conflict when access to resources becomes limited due to differences in privilege across these various categories. Similarly, Mead's notion of "I" vs "Me" implies two competing identities existing within each individual, creating inner tension whenever one needs to make decisions based on personal values versus societal norms, while Du Bois posits that racism causes mental anguish amongst African Americans struggling with double consciousness about their identity vis-à-vis mainstream culture. Lastly, Sartre offers his existentialist perspective whereby humans have free will but must ultimately choose from limited options due to oppressive structures present within our environments, thus making it difficult to realize true freedom under certain conditions. All these theories provide valuable insights into why inequality exists today, how it impacts people psychologically, and what steps we need to take to address it going forward.