Given the range and impacts of American values, multiple theories apply regarding why these concepts are not consistently, or even often, evident in American behavior. Symbolic interactionism, for example, may explain how varying interpretations of justice create circumstances in which the concept itself is altered; even as all people within a community may claim that equality must be the American norm, strained race relations may easily counter this because a minority population believes the justice is restricted to the mainstream. Nonetheless, it is arguable that conflict theory most effectively explains the differences between American values and behavior, and partly because the interpretation element of symbolic interactionism is within this theory as well. More to the point, the crucial matter of resources, and ideas as to their uses, has a powerful effect on values, and often leads to conduct not at all in keeping with them.
In terms of the natural environment alone, conflict theory accounts for a number of issues which do not support American values. Generally speaking, Americans tend to hold that preserving the environment is both necessary and a responsibility of everyone. This has been an increasingly important value since concerns about industrial pollution emerged in the 20th century, and most Americans believe that all are entitled to natural resources, which must be protected. In practical terms, however, this value is subject to literal conflict because different populations have very different views about the resources themselves. Even as scientific evidence of global warming increases, for example, many Americans insist that there is no danger of this harming the environment. The view that natural resources are then not threatened likely encourages less concern for protecting them in such people. Consequently, tensions between opposing views grow as well, and the American value of respecting the environment is subject to debate and actual conflict because resources are perceived in opposing ways.
Even more reflecting tension is how the American value of opportunity for all is contradicted by the varying thinking of economic and other resources. Americans have long cherished the ideal that any citizen may acquire success through hard work. It may be that no other value more defines traditional American ideology. However, and as the recent and ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement reinforces, large segments of the population are convinced that the resources necessary for equal opportunity do not exist. They hold that the vast majority of wealth in the nation is within the control of a powerful elite, and this elite exists only to protect its own wealth. What then occurs is real conflict because there are strongly opposing views of economic resources and access to them. The conflict is so intense, in fact, the value itself is seen as not credible by millions of Americans, and the growing discontent in the nation goes to the belief that no real opportunity for success exists for the common person.
This in turn reflects another value not upheld by American behavior. Americans have traditionally believed that, as long as a person performs their work as expected, they will be secure in employment. This is a concept of a resource fundamental to the nation but, in increasingly unstable corporate environments, no such security exists. Many large corporations feel their own resources are limited and employees of longstanding are dismissed. Multiple conflicts regarding resources are then in play, which goes to behaviors – as in the corporations – defying the American value. As noted, symbols and interpretations are inherent to all the situations discussed above. Ultimately, however, it is the tensions arising from resource concerns or realities that most separate American values and American conduct in general, so conflict theory most closely addresses the difference.