Conflict Theory and Social Work Practice

Subesh Raj Panta

Numerous social theories are applied in social work practice at both micro, mezzo and macro level focusing mainly on human growth and development, psychological and social functioning, social and economic justice. Social work practitioners, in general conceptualize framework according to social theories developed from historical perspective to crack a problem for enhancing and creating a change. Social theories are just set of ideas developed consequently in philosophy, psychology, sociology discipline according to human responses towards different situations. Let us take conflict theory as a social work practice model. Since the early 1990s, bulk of civil conflicts have occurred. The nature of armed conflict has changed since the conclusion of the Cold War. Mark Duffield argues that new wars can also be called ‘network wars’ or ‘complex political emergencies’ by those in the humanitarian sector, as these conflicts tend to cut through state territories and are linked to global financial and criminal networks. Essentially, new wars comprise a new form of privatized non-territorial network consisting of state and non-state actors working beyond the competence of territorially defined governments (Duffield, 2001).

Conflict is a central feature of society which can be found in early writings of Eastern and Western philosophers. Conflict theories have been traced back to the 5th century B.C. in classical Indian, Chinese and Greek philosophy (Martindale, 1988). Similarly, George Simmel: Theorists who worked on forms of interaction and types of interactions within groups and size of groups and Marx led the way with contemporary conflict theory was followed by Neo-Marxist theories. During late 50s in 20thcentury theory of conflict came from the beliefs of classical sociologist especially from Karl Marx, Max Weber, Georg Simmel which highlights on social conflict life and explains about social change. Initially, conflict theory was originated from Karl Marx ‘Father of Social Conflict Theory’, focused on causes and consequences between bourgeoise and proletariat. He stated that socially created class system and rise of capitalism has provoke lower classes which gave rise to conflict between working class and capitalists. The main cause between these classes were the unequal distribution and use of natural resources. Bourgeoise or capitalist gathered most of the productive resources creating job opportunity by developing industries. The worker or labor on those industries were no other than proletariat groups who were exploited. Furthermore, from Marx point of view, the work carried out by the proletariat formed excessive wealth for the ruling class. Goods created in factories which was the quantifiable upshot of the worker’s labor traded above than the cost of the labor itself i.e. more than the worker’s wages resulted in the benefit for capitalist societies but the condition of worker remained stagnant. Marx alleged that the capitalism confined the kernels of its own annihilation by describing the capital of the bourgeoise depended on the work of labor. Capitalism required labor but Marx projected that the continued abuse of these labor would create great hatred. The working class would lead a revolution in contradiction of the bourgeoise. The closing scuffle would lead to the overthrow of capitalism and its supporters (Crossman, 2017). After the defeat of capitalism, a new classis of society would develop constructed on the clue: ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’. In newly emerged society, land, industry, labor and wealth would be shared between all people as well as people will have the all the fundamental human rights ending the class structures. Synchronization would reign, and the state will simply ‘wither away’ (Bourgeoise and Proletariat, 1886). Conflict arises due to the competition for limited resources. Adding to this, social order is maintained by domination and power i.e. those with wealth always try to suppress the poorer one. Max Weber was a bit different from Marx but carrying same perspective of Marx he included class conflict in social factors rather than economic one such as gender, ethnicity and religion. Whilst, from Durkheim point of view, societies transfer from simple to complex form becoming more general and intellectual and human will be free from any external control to themselves. Then, Social relations gradually become more dependent on communal interests and welfares. People will only give their labor for receiving pay rather than doing honest duty which will cause conflict and social disorder (Turner, 1985). Durkheim gave more emphasize to social order and consensus in relation to conflict. According to him, men desires are unlimited. They are unsatisfied creatures even after fulfilling their biological needs. Human desires are unlimited can only patternedby means of social control which imposes limits on human desires. He also highlighted on family marriage system saying that there is a conflict of interest between two separate genders about the institution of marriage. His data on suicide indicates that the regulatory function of marriage benefits men more than women. Matrimonial society is more harmful to women and intensifies her tendency towards suicide (Lamanna).

 There are lots of instances in respect to Marx conflict theory. ‘French Revolution’, which shook France between 1787-1799. Initial causes of French revolution were the social structural causes of west. The revolution propose was to overthrow absolute monarchy as well as the three-state system. The first state consists of clergy and the priests who didn’t payed taxes living luxurious life. While, second one of aristocracy and nobility and the last consisted of farmers. Peasants, labourers, doctors. They didn’t have equal representation in the government and were the one to pay heavy tax set by the king (Roy, 2012). During French revolution, Louis XVI, king with heartless feelings towards his citizen and his wife Marie-Antoinette spent money on her adored luxury keeping French in debt over 2 billion livres. Citizens were suffering from poverty and hunger. All these were the outcome of careless way of living of Marie-Antoinette as a result they were executed. Because of French revolution, the feudal system was abolished, land was freed which promoted individualism. French revolution was outcome of prolonged and constant worsening of feudal system. Themounting conflict between the old feudal industrious relations and new commercialmethod of construction gave new track for revolution. French revolution also gave strong foundation to people which had a lasting impact of not only France but many other nations as well. Civil war in Africa, an example explaining about the conflict of resources like diamond offshore soil which killed more than 5 hundred thousand people since 1989. The underlining causes of conflict in Africa were legacy of European colonialism, politics and poverty, and globalization. During European colonization, artificial boundaries created by rulers had a devastating impact on Africa. As they left Africa bringing together many ethnic people in short period of time was unable to accommodate cultural and ethnic diversity. The colonial administrative policy of divide and rule favoured ethnic group taken because of the cold war on the continent of Africa. Politics and poverty was also seen as the major causes of civil war. Main reason being under poverty and conflicts was unequal international trade, bad governance, and burden of debt. It is anticipated that poverty and deprivation are the norms among the population, especially among the youth, the opportunity cost of rebel labour was low forcing them to join rebel organization. High level corruption, absence for the respect of law, and human rights violence issome of the major reasons to boost Africa’s problem.Several conflicts in post-colonial Africa was the result of failure in the de-colonisation process, so the effortsforsolving African conflicts may not been very successful (Zartman, 2000).Similarly, arm conflict in Nepal is also an influence of Marxism. The root causes of conflict were the increasing literacy rate and stagnant employment opportunity among the Nepalese. According to government statistics, 4 per cent population were unemployed whereas, 47 per cent underemployed working less than 40 hours per week. This shows that unemployed and underemployed rates were high in educated and literate mass and livelihood was getting tougher in rural parts. Moving towards the productive land which were owned by high class societies exploited bonded labourers (kamaiyas) in low labour or without labour cost. The existing government and local units of political parties did not work on solving problems and issues instead they worked merely for just individual party politics securing votes which, as a result Maoist (Communist party of Nepal) declared war against the current political system. According to (Upreti, 2006), Maoist insurgency was theconsequence of failure in multi-party democracyand the outcomes of 30 years of an autocratic panchayat system. Introduction of federal democracy in Nepal was the outcome of 10 years of Maoist struggle.

Marx history and economic theory predicted the unavoidable collapse of both capitalism and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Capitalism has not only been able to survive, insteadbecome more deep-rootedby accepting, in various degrees, social-democratic reform measures; thereby absorbing the labour and socialist movements into the structure of the state capitalist economic system (sometimes designated “welfare state” or “welfare capitalism”). Marx along with authoritarian socialist failed to give much thought to the forms of organization that might translate into reality the ideal of a free and stateless society. The dialectical method which Marx employed in working out his theory of Dialectical Materialism is essentially a philosophy of everlasting conflict between opposing tendencies or forces interrupted by temporary adjustments. There is conflict, but society is also a vast interlocking network of co-operative labour and the very existence of mankind depends upon this inner cohesion. Contrasting to Marx, Bakunin argued the idea of bourgeois-minded workers in the progressive industrialized countries are not going to make revolutions which proved that the Bakunin was right and Marx wrong. The most notable revolutions of this century have been those that broke out in Russia and China. Nor did the October Revolution, as Lenin expected, initiate a series of proletarian upheavals in the advanced countries of Western Europe that were deemed ripe for the Social Revolution (Dogloff).Although Marx theory of conflict gave new shape to society but there was criticism too. According to Marx conflict theory, modern society has two class of people: Bourgeoise owners of the means of production, Proletariat are the labourers exploited by higher class and get paid enough to afford just food and shelter. Main theme which the Marx stated was the worker will realise that they are being exploited. Therefore, Marx predicted that working class will be removed from the means of production and the owner of the production will be placed in a power and will find a way to exploit proletariat groups in gaining capital. Worker will start revolution against ruling class. He hypothesized that workers would develop a sense of shared identity and consciousness and will rise in a global revolution which as a result everyone will be equal. But, his vision did not come true. Modern society people became more educated and received skill jobs achieving financial well-being rather than facing increased exploitation after coming under the protection of unions and labour laws which was beyond the thoughts of Marx.

Nevertheless, conflict theory generated by Karl Marx although being criticized is used in social work practice at Micro, Mezzo and Macro level. Now, let’s discuss about Conflict theory and social Work Practice.Conflict resolution is a practice frequently required in social work.An example of natural resource (water) conflict among the rural communities of Nepal. “Giving short description: In Nepal, caste system determines an individual’s behaviour, obligations, and expectations. Many castes are regarded as lowest/untouchables. The one who are regarded as dominant always dominate these lower castes group in every step of social life. Therefore, these evil practices based on religion play a vital role in maintaining social inequalities”. Growing demand and increased competition for the water resource has pushed rural communities into conflicting circumstances. Pressure on limited fresh water resources is growing, driven by increasing population, pollution, natural disaster, seasonal cycle and other human made activities such as resource monopoly, elitism, and political influence. As water supply decreases for any of these reasons, competition among different user’s group will increase and such situation may induce risk of conflict. Inequitable distribution of drinking water service is big problem in different rural communities of Nepal. Racefor using the similar water source for reciprocal purposes is a localized problem, which involves conflicts among hydropower, irrigation, drinking water and industrial use. Now, how does this natural resource conflict can be solved by social work practice method? As a social worker, foremost step is to critically analyse the current situation among those communities involved in conflict. Next step involves finding out the reason of conflict i.e. whether lower caste group is supressed by higher one’s in filling water from the tap due to reason of untouchable. Final step is to resolve conflicts by variety of methods such as anti-oppressive practice for ending socioeconomic oppression and creating social justice, giving posterpresentation about the outcomes of conflict if lead to violence. This was areal-life experience which I personally experienced during my field work. There is a great saying,

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal”

Above given my own experiencereflects this quote. If one is born in higher caste family then he/she suddenly gets license to improve socioeconomic condition, but same case is reversed then such people are marginalised, they are not allowed to use sources given by nature. Conflict produces both positive and negative consequences. Conflict if not addressed can escalate into violence, case damage and degrade social harmony/relations among the community people. Below is a case study from Afghanistan related to natural resource dispute:

Natural Resource Dispute in Afghanistan

Natural resource disputes in Afghanistan Contrary to international news reports on Afghanistan, which emphasize instability caused by radical Islamist insurgencies, the most common causes of violence reported by rural communities are disputes over land and irrigation water (followed by family disputes). While local disputes are not the cause of the insurgency, they do help to create the conditions of instability and violence that facilitate it. In addition, ‘conflict economies’ producing opium and heroin, or smuggling high-value cedar wood and precious gemstones, are making millions of dollars for warlords and corrupt politicians. This is creating incentives among some groups for prolonged insecurity. Powerful warlords are capitalizing on the insecurity and governance vacuum to grab large tracts of land (Brown, Keating, 2015).

As written by Robbins, Chatterjee and Canda (2012), “As much as problems of power and inequality will matter in social life, conflict theory in all those problem will be an important theoretical base for social work practice. Conflict theories provides a framework in understanding “alienation of individual, groups and communities”. Moving towards mezzo level, it also gives frameworkin understanding power among small groups. Social work practice at macro level in relation to conflict theory can be utilized in analysing policy-making process as well as in understanding globalization (Robbin,S.P, Chatterjee, P.Canda, E.R, 2011).Conflict is an unavoidable and natural process in society which generates social change. Society involves coercion and groups with different interest produces opposition, exclusion and hostility among social life. These sort of exclusion and hostility creates conflict.According to the Council on Social Work Education (2008), Social workers are knowledgeable about human behaviour across the life course; the range of social systems in which people live; and the ways social systems promote or deter people in maintaining or achieving health and well-being. Social workers apply theories and knowledge from the liberal arts to understand biological, social, cultural, psychological, and spiritual development. Social worker’s critique and apply knowledge to understand the person and environment.Conflict occurs when two or more people or groups get engaged in a disagreement about different or differently perceived positions, values and needs. As all humans have innate needs, (material, social, cultural) if these needs are not met humans will not able to thrive or survive. Denial of human need’s will lead to conflictual behaviour, sense of trauma and violence. Social work has always been about resolving the conflict through empowerment, self-determination of the client, use of a systems perspective, focus on process, and a commitment to social justice. As conflict tenacity is a core competency in social work and considering that conflict resolution is a growing field, exploring the benefits, challenges and practitioner improvements associated with training in the field is judicious (Kelly, 2014). For example, conflict resolution skills are utilized in areas related to families such as divorce, aging, mental health, child/parent relationships, and adoption. In addition, those skills are applied in areas of community, education, workplace, criminal justice, social policy, and intercultural issues too. Mayer (2000) indicates there are five general types of services that social workers provide related to conflict resolution, “prevention, reconciliation, decision-making, procedural assistance, and substantive assistance”. According to Mayer (2013), resolving conflict is a fundamentalskill of social workers for which they have contributed greatly in this thriving field. This field of practice includes mediation, facilitation, conflict coaching, dispute system design, management, and arbitration. Conflict resolving professionals deliver preventative, restorative, substantive, procedural, and decision-making services to people in conflict.Currently, social workers work through conflict at all levels of practice, yet no evidence can be found to indicate that social workers are trained in conflict resolution through schools of social work. Keefe and Koch (1999) indicate that “Engaging in the problem-solving process endemic to conflict resolution is appealing to social workers because it implies direct, assertive communication on the part of participants, because it requires thoughtful participation in the process, and because it enables participants to control outcomes”.Currently, social workers work through conflict at all levels of practice, yet no evidence can be found to indicate that social workers are trained in conflict resolution through schools of social work.

Our society is characterized by inequality and conflicts causing various social alteration. The knowledge and experience which I gained being a social worker dictate me to believe this theory is correct. Social conflict can be viewed all over the world which we belongto. As about Karl Marx, he studied social conflict in his entire life for reducing social inequality. Reducing conflict generated from social inequality being a social worker needs to understand the goals of opposing groups., sensitivity to diverse culture, economic status as well as gender is necessary for searching an appropriate framework to resolve the conflict issues.


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