The Functionalist View of Stratification:


1. Main principles of structural functionalism:


                a. Societies are complex systems of interrelated and interdependent parts, and each part of a society significantly influences the others.

b. Each part of a society exists because it has a vital function to perform in maintaining the existence or stability of society as a whole; the existence of any part of a society is therefore explained when its function for the whole is identified. In other words, the function of anything, which is assumed to be “beneficial function” explains why a structure exists.

c. The tendency of society is toward stability, harmony, or equilibrium, in other words toward balance. Society is seen as a self-regulating system and all of the constituent elements of a society must contribute to maintaining this state of harmony.

d. Overall, the assumption of functionalism is that all social structures contribute to the maintenance of the system and the existence of any given structure is explained by means of its consequences (functions) which must, by definition be beneficial to the maintenance of stable order.


2. Functionalism on stratification: the Davis-Moore thesis:


a. With particular respect to the issue of social stratification or social inequality, the functionalist view argues that social inequality is necessary because it fulfills vital system needs.

b. One such functionalist view of social inequality was developed by Kinsley Davis and Wilbert Moore and has come to be known as the “Davis-Moore Thesis.” This functionalist theory of stratification was first discussed by the authors in 1945 in the article, “Some Principles of Stratification” which appeared in the American Sociological Review and was later extended and refined in Davis’s book Human Society (1948).

                c. Davis and Moore argue like this:


• They claim that no society is unstratified. So, inequality is universal.

• This universal nature of stratification must mean that inequality is not only unavoidable, but indeed necessary to the smooth working of society.

• Then Davis and Moore set out to explain how inequality benefits society. (They assume it is beneficial then try to explain how it must be beneficial.)

• They ask: Why are some positions in society higher than others? Why do the higher positions carry more status and rewards? The answer they come up with is this:


1. Societies are stratified because inequality fulfills an important need of all social systems.

                2. Society must distribute its members among the various positions in society.

                3. People have to be motivated to fill certain positions and perform their duties.

4. Filling the positions within a social structure is a basic need of any society. This is accomplished through the unequal distribution of rewards.


“Any society must distribute its individuals and induce them to perform the duties of their positions. It must solve the problem of motivation at two levels: to instill in the proper individuals the desire to occupy certain positions and, once in these positions the desire to perform the duties attached to them” (Davis 1948, pp. 366-367).


                5. Not all positions are equally pleasant, equally important, or equal in terms of required talent and ability.

6. There must be rewards to provide inducements and those rewards must be distributed unequally to assure that all positions get filled. The inequality of rewards corresponds to what Davis and Moore call functional importance of the position. Davis and Moore state:


“Modern medicine, for example, is within the mental capacity of most individuals, but a medical education is so expensive and burdensome that virtually none would undertake it if the position of M.D. did not carry a reward commensurate with the sacrifice.”


                7. The most important positions are rewarded the most--the least important are rewarded the least.


• On the issue of functional importance, Davis and Moore state: “two factors...determine the relative rank of different positions. In general those positions convey the best reward, and have the highest rank which (a) have the greatest importance for the society and (b) require the greatest training or talent.”

• This means that, as Davis and Moore say: “a position does not bring power and prestige because it draws a high income. Rather it draws a high income because it is functionally important and the available personnel is for one reason or another scarce.”

 • So that...


“Social inequality is thus an unconsciously evolved device by which societies insure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons. Hence, every society, no matter how simple or complex, must differentiate persons in terms of both prestige and esteem, and must therefore possess a certain amount of institutionalized inequality.”


• Ranking of positions occurs according to functional importance and the amount of training or talent associated with the position. High income, power, prestige of a particular position are due to functional importance or scarcity of trained personnel.


3. Summary of the Davis-Moore Thesis:


                a. Social positions have varying degrees of functional importance.

b. Talented and trained individuals are scarce because acquisition of training and skills requires people to be sufficiently motivated to pursue them.

c. Stratification, or unequal distribution of rewards ensures that the most talented and trained individuals will fulfill the social roles of greatest importance.


The basic tone of the Davis-Moore thesis, as Irving Zeitlin says, is that, “The rich and powerful and prestigious are at the top because they are the most talented and the best trained and also because they make the greatest contribution to society’s preservation.”


4. Criticism of the Davis-Moore Thesis: The Nature of Social Mobility:


a. Scarcity of rewards is not a “natural” scarcity but rather an artificial scarcity--especially within a system of private property in production--property is, for example, exclusionary rights.

b. Some rewards are not functionally determined at all, but rather must be understood within the context of wealth ownership and institution of inheritance.


• Is wealth ownership functionally important?

• What does the institution of inheritance imply about qualifications, talent, or skill associated with ownership and the power that ownership brings with it?


* Associated idea from Durkheim (See Russell, p. 110):


“One of the problems of modern societies, which Durkheim sought to remedy through state action, was the chaotic and inefficient ways in which labor forces were trained and rewarded. Inept progeny of rich tycoons took over companies while intelligent children of workers went uneducated. Modern societies allocated their collective labor forces inefficiently, wasting talented but poor people in humble positions and suffering from the inept sons of the privileged in powerful positions. To remedy this problem, Durkheim advocated using public schooling to sift and winnow children according to their native abilities, educationally prepare them according to their potential--what later became known as tracking--and see that they ended up in jobs that paid accordingly.”


c. Control of access to training by powerful and privileged groups creates artificial  scarcity of talent.

d. Davis and Moore claimed that their theory was applicable to all forms of society. Critics of the Davis-Moore viewpoint argued that it did not make much sense in non-competitive societies--for example feudalism, where all positions are distributed not by merit but by birth. And, more importantly what about those aspects of a class society that do not operate like merit systems?


• The issue of ascribed vs. achieved status was brought up. The distribution of positions cannot be understood merely by achievement but achievement itself is conditioned by ascription of status.

• In other words, ascribed statuses condition access to opportunity structures. Weber’s concept of life chances  is relevant here. Opportunities for achievement are not distributed equally. Class itself can be though of as implying a set of life chances and obstacles to social mobility.


5. Melvin Tumin vs. Davis-Moore Thesis:


a. 1953--Melvin Tumin’s “Some Principles of Stratification: A Critical Analysis” was published in the American Sociological Review.

b. Tumin’s criticism rested on this point:


• The functional importance of varying social positions has not been demonstrated, nor can such a demonstration be made. “Are engineers functionally more important to a factory than unskilled workers.” Here, planning vs. implementation are considered complementary functions of production. We must also consider the problem of deskilling and the control of workers (see Braverman--the detailed division of labor).


c. Scarcity of talent is not an adequate explanation of stratification. There is in stratification systems artificial limits to the development of whatever potential skills there are in society. For example, wealth, education, professional associations, etc. ...these things assure not that the best and the brightest will be selected for powerful positions but that much of society’s potential talent will go un-utilized.

d. The universality of stratification does not mean it is necessarily beneficial or inevitable. Just because stratification is universal does not mean it is a vital aspect or system need of society. Stratification is not positively functionally for a society--it is dysfunctional.


Tumin states (see Levine, p. 108):


“Social stratification systems function to provide the elite with the political power necessary to procure acceptance and dominance of an ideology which rationalizes the status quo, whatever it may be as “logical,” “natural,” and “morally right.” In this manner, social stratification systems function as essentially conservative influences in the society in which they are found.”