Conflict criminology

Conflict Criminology Theory- Examples and Applications


Conflict criminology is a subfield of criminology that studies the relationship between social conflict and criminal behavior. It focuses on how interpersonal conflicts can lead to criminal activities such as robbery or homicide.

This field has been studied since at least the late 1800s when it was first noted that crime rates were higher in periods of war and revolutions. During large-scale social unrest, deviance is more than during peacetime periods.

Other significant contributors to this field include Robert Merton, who noted that people commit crimes to reach particular goals (Mertonian Criminality).

Anthony Walsh also studied the linkages between gangs and violence with ethnic segregation (Walsh’s Theory of Ethnic Segregation)

Elihu Schrag examined the causes of violence in prisons, and Steven Messner and Richard Rosenfeld studied how legitimate employment opportunities reduce crime.

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The Social Conflict Theory

Friedrich Engels, a philosopher and social theorist argued that crime rates were higher in times of intense conflict between classes. He believed that deviance was a byproduct of social conflict between groups or classes. There were debates about whether social conflicts cause crime or whether people who already commit crimes are also more likely to be involved in social conflicts.

As a result, the theoretical perspective derived from these early observations is called The Social Conflict Theory. This theory holds that crime is a byproduct of social conflict, not necessarily the cause of it.

The Social Conflict Theory has two different parts: The Conflict Theory and the Anomie Theory.

The Conflict Theory

The Conflict Theory holds that crime is a byproduct of social conflict between different groups or classes. The main argument is that crime rates are higher when social bonds among people become weak, and conflicts between groups increase dramatically.

According to this theory, crime rates increase when people trust each other less, and conflicts are more common than cooperation. Conflict theorists argue that social and economic inequality creates different groups of people with different levels of resources. The elite control society’s wealth and hold high positions while the poor struggle their way through life.

This inequality causes resentment, which leads to conflicts between the two groups. Leaders within these groups try to exacerbate the conflicts and promote violence to gain power.

Karl Max’s Conflict Theory

The most notable proponent of the Conflict Theory was Karl Marx, though he did not refer to himself as a conflict theorist. Marx’s perspective was that the ruling class controlled most of the resources in society and used this control to exploit the working class. The superordination of one group over another creates resentment among those who feel exploited by the ruling group.

This resentment leads to conflict between the two groups, and, as a result, crime occurs. The working class needs money and resources to survive, and without them, they will participate in crimes such as theft or fraud.

Marx argued that industrialization created an abundance of resources, but the workers did not enjoy these benefits. The bourgeoisie used their control over resources to exploit the workers. The latter felt resentment and conflict towards their oppressors.

When looking at crime rates today, we can still see inequality and exploitation among the population. However, there is also a large amount of diversity among different groups in society.

Modern-day inequalities are more complex than those in Marx’s time because they do not necessarily fall along class lines. Today the groups who are most likely to commit crimes and be victims of crime are members of ethnic minorities. The main argument is that hard economic times lead to conflict between the groups, leading to high crime rates.

The Anomie Theory

Anomie is a feeling of social isolation and alienation among people within a group or society. The Anomie theory holds that when individuals’ expectations for success do not match with the opportunities and resources available to them, they can feel anomie.

Anomie can cause people to resent the group they belong to, which then leads to conflict. The latter happens to remove the barrier caused by anomie.

This social class conflict manifests in violence, but it is difficult to link crime with anomie without statistics.

Anomie is more commonly connected to the white-collar crime than other forms of crime. White-collar crime refers to a non-violent crime that is meant to make a profit for the perpetrator. This includes crimes like fraud, money laundering, and counterfeiting.

White-collar criminals commit these deviant acts because they feel that there is too much competition for success. They want to find a way to get ahead and don’t care about the consequences of their crimes.

A review of crime statistics shows that different societies have different rates of anomie among their members and crime rates. In the United States, for example, there is a lot of competition within society.

People are expected to make their own money and advance to higher social classes. However, there are also a lot of barriers that people face when trying to get ahead.

As a result, the United States has a high level of anomie, and it also has one of the highest rates of white-collar crime (though violent crimes are higher in the U.S.).

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Examples of The Conflict Theory

Some examples of the conflict theory in action include:

The Sacco-Vanzetti Case During the 1920s

Two Italian immigrants were convicted of murder and sentenced to death. The two men were not guilty, but they were believed to have been part of a larger group of anarchists; this group had sworn to overthrow the government violently.

These were members of the group, but there is no evidence that they had ever participated in violent activities. Sacco and Vanzetti immigrated to the country in 1913 and lived fairly peaceful lives, working hard to survive.

There were many conflicts between them and the other Italian immigrants, mainly because the latter was more conservative than the anarchists. The two suspects had gotten into fights in the past and had been involved in violent activities during strikes. These acts, however, did not make them guilty of murder.

The media blew out of proportion the fact that they were anarchists, and as a result, the two men became martyrs for the cause.

However, their death sparked protests across the country and forced the government to re-examine its court system.

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The Haymarket Riot

By the late 19th century, America was rapidly industrializing, and workers were trying to organize their rights. Blacksmiths in the city of Chicago demanded recognition, better working conditions, and an eight-hour workday.

A strike was organized, but it was more common to use violence to get what one wanted at that time. The main organizers of the strike were anarchists, and they wanted to use violence to bring attention to their cause.

Tensions mounted between the strikers and the workers who chose to remain in their jobs. The two groups met in a peaceful protest at Haymarket Square.

The police ordered the crowd to disperse, but one person threw a bomb. This act was followed by gunfire from both sides, and seven police officers were killed. Eight anarchists were arrested and tried for murder.

Seven of them turned out to be immigrants, leading society to believe that they were dangerous foreigners. The trial was highly biased in favor of the police, and the court sentenced all of them to death. Four of them were hanged, one committed suicide, and two were pardoned.

The trial was highly biased, and it sparked protests because the government had not condemned the violence but had used force to stop it.

The trial raised many questions about the criminal justice system and whether the government should sentence people to death if there is insufficient proof to support the conviction.

The Immigration Act of 1882

This act made it illegal for Chinese immigrants to enter the country and imposed heavy taxes on them. It was the first immigration act in United States history intended to control a particular group of people.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. The law prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the U.S., but it excluded merchants, students, and teachers.

The act set a precedent for future immigration laws and made American society more aware of its racist tendencies.

Workplace Issues

Conflict theorists view the workplace as a reflection of inequalities in society. They believe that the owners and managers benefit from their position while the workers are exploited. Several examples show how conflict criminologists would describe the relationship between workers and management/owners.

One example is the struggle between management and unionized workers. Conflict theorists assert that the owners of factories are using their power to exploit the workers.

These owners control the workers through hierarchical relationships that emphasize obedience and subordination.

Workers are expected to obey orders without question and are punished if they act out of line. They are also paid wages substantially lower than what they deserve, while managers/owners receive exorbitant salaries.

According to conflict criminologists, the poor working conditions in many factories could lead to workplace violence.

Another example of conflict is the violent relationship between workers and employers. In many cases, employees are expected to comply with several demands that do not necessarily fall within the scope of their positions.

Such demands may include being forced to work overtime or being asked to take on tasks outside their job descriptions.

If workers refuse to comply, they are reprimanded or punished. According to conflict criminologists, the negative consequences might lead an employee to become violent.

Lastly, there is conflict in the relationship between the government and business owners. The government is responsible for ensuring that businesses follow the laws and make sure they are playing by the rules.

However, government officials have been known to look the other way regarding these types of issues. Conflict criminologists believe that this relationship can lead business owners to become more violent in an attempt to get what they want.

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Cultural Criminology

Cultural criminologies are based on a critical theory perspective, and they consider the impact of social norms, culture, and the media on crime. Cultural criminologists argue that cultural factors also perpetrate white-collar crime.

Travis Hirschi

The social bond theory (Hirschi, 1969) is key to the rational choice perspective in criminology. It argues that successful control of criminal behavior is related to the degree of attachment by an individual to society.

This theory suggests that social bonds to conventional institutions are important in controlling deviant behavior. Thus, if individuals are bonded to society by having a job or family, they will be less likely to commit a criminal act.

When it comes to explaining differential crime rates within societies, the social bond theory suggests that certain sub-groups (ethnic minority groups) are more likely to be detached from society.

Hirschi argues that these subgroups commit crime at higher rates than the rest of the population when faced with the same opportunity structure.

He believed that a subgroup’s attachment to society and lower educational attainment leads to more deviance.

Howard Becker

This theorist was a leading proponent of the cultural approach to crime and deviance. He suggested that criminal behavior does not result from “rational” calculations of costs and benefits. He suggested that the decision to commit a criminal act is as much affected by cultural norms as any other type of decision.

Becker believed that people are involved in a “prestige economy”, trying to impress others with their wealth or status symbols. The “prestige economy” can lead some young people to commit crimes if they think it will impress their friends.

This theorist suggested that young males are especially likely to commit crimes if they have an “entrepreneurial” approach to life. These juveniles are willing to take risks and use violence to achieve their goals.

Becker believed that people who have “thrived” in the prestige economy are less likely to commit crimes than those who have not. He argued that the individuals respect a person’s right to their property, and they are less likely to steal, unlike those in the “entrepreneurial” group.

Howard Becker was the first theorist to suggest that cultural factors are important in explaining criminal behavior. He is also known for his research on deviance’s sociology, which looks at how people react to criminal behavior.

He believes that people’s response to deviant behavior is dependent on the type of crime committed. For example, murder will be treated much more seriously than shoplifting.

Becker disagreed with the social bond theory because he thought different people have different attachment levels to society. The theory does not account for their different rates of crime.

Max Weber

Weber noted that social institutions are dependent on the cultural values that they encourage. He suggested that crime rates vary due to cultural values, depending on religion and other factors.

Weber noted the impact of religion on the propensity for deviance, suggesting that stealing was not enforced in some areas of the Middle East because Islam forbade it. This faith encouraged people not to steal. He contrasted this with medieval Europe, where there was no moral condemnation of theft, so people were more likely to commit crimes.

Weber suggested that economic factors influence the cultural values of a society. For example, he believed that Protestantism encouraged capitalism, which led to higher crime rates due to the pursuit of material gain. He contrasted this with Catholicism, which encouraged people to be content with what they have and not desire more.

Weber argued that cultural factors such as religion and economic factors explain why crime varies across societies. He suggested that a person’s culture is likely to influence the number of criminal acts they are likely to commit. Crime is, therefore, a result of both social and cultural factors.

Dr Howard Abadinsky

Abadinsky states that “Culture matters and the dominant culture of our society has its roots in the values and behavioral perspectives of European culture.” Dr Abadinsky argues that it is indisputable that culture and class impact the crime rate.

In his article “Why Criminals Commit Crimes”, he states that present and intact culture must be protected by those who adhere to its standards. As long as a culture is protected, the group will flourish; however, when the values of a culture are turned on their head and conflict with those values, the culture will begin to unravel.

Abadinsky emphasized that the more a person is integrated into a single cultural group, the more likely they are to be integrated into the community and accept the norms of behavior.

This theorist believes that economic factors such as income have an impact on the rate of crime. A capitalist economy is the main source of discrepancies in the distribution of resources. These differences result in hostile social classes where the elite oppress the poor and the poor reset the elite.

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Assumptions of the Conflict Theory in Criminology

The conflict theory assumes that:

  • Society is not equal, and there is a ‘hierarchy’ in a social class system.
  • There is a big difference between groups within society and their access to economic goods and services.
  • In the internal conflict theory, conflict comes from groups within the same society competing for scarce resources.
  • The external conflict theory states a conflict between different groups as they compete for scarce resources.
  • There is a ‘disconnect’ between the groups in society.
  • The dominant group/class controls and uses its power to maintain control over the other groups within society. The dominant group/class is therefore likely to be more involved in crime than the subordinate groups.

Applications of the Conflict Theory in Sociology, Law, and Criminology

The conflict theory is applied in sociology, law, and criminology.


  • It is used to examine the social structure in place in any society. According to conflict theorists, it is essential to understand the social dynamics that exist in a society.
  • This theory explains various forms of violence, including bullying and rape. Conflict theorists believe that those who engage in such behavior are attempting to assert their power over others.
  • Controversially, the theory is also used to explain the behavior and violence that occur in poor neighborhoods. These people may be committing crimes due to their position in society, according to conflict criminologists. They believe that these people are in a position of subordination, and they have little to no chance of moving up the social ladder.

Conflict theorists believe that this breeds frustration. People may respond to these frustrations violently by committing crimes or bullying those below them in the social hierarchy.

  • The theory examines social change, such as the increase in immigration.

Law and Criminology

  • The conflict theory is used in legal studies to study criminal behavior.
  • It is also applied in the examination of cases related to discrimination and issues of inequality. Conflict criminologists believe that inequality can lead to several crimes.

For example, it may lead to bullying or other forms of violence directed at the powerless.

  • Conflict criminologists also believe that inequality can lead to crime in theft or other types of property crimes.
  • People in positions of power may feel as though they have been denied what is rightfully theirs, and they may resort to crime as a means of addressing the conflict. They may also be in a position of power themselves, and they might feel justified in stealing to get what is rightfully theirs.
  • Finally, conflict theory is also used in a variety of legal cases involving business.


Conflict criminology theory is a helpful tool for examining the social structure in any society. Theorists use it to explain various forms of violence, such as bullying and rape.

Criminologists believe that those who engage in these behaviors attempt to assert their power over others or be frustrated by their position in society.

Conflict theorists also examine how inequality leads to crime, whether it’s property crimes by people with power or bullying someone without power on another person below them on the social hierarchy ladder. The conflict theory has many applications within sociology, law, and criminology!

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