functional theory of social stratification

functional(ist) theory of social stratification

an account of the origins and persistence of SOCIAL STRATIFICATION in terms of the contribution this makes to human societies. The theory is provided by modern US functionalist sociologists, especially Davis and Moore (1945). For Davis and Moore, social stratification comes into existence as an institutionalized form and persists as the ‘device by which societies ensure that the most important positions’ are ‘filled by the most qualified persons’. The positions which carry the greatest rewards and the highest rank are those ‘which have the greatest importance for society’ and also require the ‘greatest training or talent’. Together, these two factors interact to determine the precise form of any particular system of stratification. As societies evolve so do their specific requirements of a system of social stratification (e.g. from priests to specialists in high tech), but new requirements do not result in the elimination of social stratification.

Critics of the functional(ist) theory make a number of main points (especially see Tumin, 1953):

  1. it provides no adequate discussion of the way in which differences in rewards and status arise simply from the operation of POWER. Regarding the correlation between income and education, for example, there are three components which might explain this correlation: (i) superiority in skills, (ii) social background and/or social values, (iii) native abilities.

    The first of these might conceivably also incorporate the other two, but only if labour markets are fully competitive. The argument against the functionalist theory is that usually labour markets are not fully competitive, with factors such as ‘ascription’ and CULTURAL CAPITAL often playing a role in the determination of incomes and status;

  2. the assessment of ‘functional needs’ is also suspect, tending to involve a circular argument that the best rewarded in society are also the most important/scarcest in supply with. no clear independent demonstration of their social indispensability;
  3. no indication is given of why stratification must involve differential financial rewards or steep hierarchies of status, rather than more variegated differences in individual prestige, since Davis and Moore themselves suggest that ‘humour and diversion’ and ‘self-respect and ego expansion’ may alone serve to motivate social actors. Thus, the case against the possibility of a far more equal society has not been made by the functional(ist) theory (see also EQUALITY);
  4. no adequate account is taken of the way in which social stratification inhibits participation in education and the achievement of social ends. Davis and Moore do suggest the functional inappropriateness of too great an emphasis on ascription in modern societies. However, they fail to discuss how all systems of social stratification tend to generate such ascriptive elements.

Functionalists seek to reply to such criticisms by arguing, as did DURKHEIM, that anything that becomes established in society is likely to perform essential functions. However, as Durkheim agreed (especially in relation to particular types of society when the evolution of that societal type is incomplete), an independent argument for functional importance is essential. The argument against the functionalist theory of social structure is that such an independent case has not been forthcoming.

The message is not so much that functional analysis of social stratification is, in principle, impossible, but that this needs to be handled with greater caution. See also FUNCTIONAL(IST) EXPLANATION.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
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