conflict perspective | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology

The conflict perspective in criminology attributes crime to societal power imbalances, viewing it as a result of social, economic, and political conflict.

The conflict perspective in criminology is a broad theoretical framework that looks beyond individual choices or behaviors to understand crime. Instead, it emphasizes the influence of larger social, economic, and political structures. According to this perspective, crime is a direct product of these broader societal forces, often driven by imbalances in power and the resulting conflict.

Understanding Crime through the Conflict Perspective

Traditional theories of criminology often focus on the individual, attributing criminal behavior to personal factors like psychological issues, moral failings, or a person’s choice. However, the conflict perspective presents a more sociologically rooted view. It suggests that individuals’ behaviors, including criminal ones, are shaped significantly by the broader social and economic conditions in which they live.

In this view, crime is seen less as a matter of individual choice and more as a result of social and economic pressures. For example, individuals living in poverty, facing discrimination, or without access to quality education may be more likely to turn to crime as a survival strategy or as a response to their marginalization.

Role of Power, Inequality, and Conflict

Central to the conflict perspective is the idea that power, inequality, and conflict play a significant role in crime. Those who hold power in society—whether through wealth, social position, or political influence—can shape the law and the justice system to serve their interests, often at the expense of those with less power.

As a result, laws and law enforcement practices may disproportionately target marginalized or disadvantaged groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, and other socially excluded groups. This can create a cycle of crime and punishment that reinforces social inequalities and leads to even more conflict.

Bias and Disproportionate Impact on Marginalized Groups

From the viewpoint of the conflict perspective, the traditional criminal justice system is inherently biased. It suggests that the system often targets marginalized groups disproportionately, not by accident, but as a result of a power structure designed to maintain the status quo.

This systemic bias can manifest in various ways, such as racial profiling, stricter sentencing for certain groups, or uneven access to legal resources. The impact is a criminal justice system that exacerbates social and economic inequalities, creating a feedback loop that perpetuates crime.

Advocacy for Alternative Approaches

Given these critiques, proponents of the conflict perspective argue for a significant rethinking of the criminal justice system. Instead of focusing primarily on punishment, they suggest that the system should address the root causes of crime, many of which are tied to social and economic inequality.

One approach advocated by supporters of the conflict perspective is restorative justice. This approach seeks to repair the harm caused by crime through reconciliation and agreement between the offender, the victim, and the community. The goal is not just to punish but to heal, address root causes, and reintegrate the offender back into society.

Another alternative is a stronger emphasis on social programs aimed at reducing inequality, such as quality education, job training, social services, and affordable housing. By tackling the root social and economic causes of crime, these programs can help break the cycle of crime and punishment.


The conflict perspective in criminology provides a valuable lens to understand crime and the operation of the criminal justice system. By focusing on social, economic, and political structures, it highlights how power and inequality can drive criminal behavior. It also underscores the systemic biases in the criminal justice system and the need for alternative approaches to truly address crime. This perspective is not just about understanding crime; it is also about advocating for a more equitable and just society.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/14/2023

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