Social Stratification Essay

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The classic, functionalist statement on social stratification is by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945). ”Starting from the proposition that no society is ‘classless,’ or unstratified,” they sought ”to explain, in functional terms, the universal necessity that calls forth stratification in any social system” (p. 242). The main functional requisites that stratification fulfills are the need to distribute people in the social structure, motivate them to strive to fill important, demanding positions and then to perform. Because not all positions are equally pleasant, demanding in skills or important ”to societal survival,” the differential rewards of social stratification induce people to fill significant, demanding positions. Thus social inequality is ”an unconsciously evolved device by which societies insure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons” (p. 243). The positions offering the most rewards — financial, respect, status, and lifestyle comforts — are the most important and require the greatest talent and training. Any position that is easily filled, no matter its importance, does not require significant reward. ”[I]f the skills required are scarce by reason of the rarity of talent, or the costliness of training, the position, if functionally important, must have an attractive power that will draw the necessary skills in competition with other positions” (p. 244).

After presenting their main premises and argument, Davis and Moore discussed how stratification operated functionally in the spheres of religion, government, technical knowledge, and wealth, property and labor.

Davis and Moore’s article stimulated considerable debate. Conflict theorists posed several fundamental criticisms. Critical of functionalists’ highly abstract conception of society as a natural, boundary-maintaining system with specific functional requisites, conflict theorists argued that social formations (and the stratification systems found throughout history) are constituted through specific, contested struggles between groups with differing aims. Social groups (particularly classes), power, history, historical location and social context which are central to understanding stratification are absent from the functionalist position.

More specifically, while functionalist theory might help account for the emergence of stratification as social groups begin to experience increasing social differentiation, over the long term there are specific actions that groups take to either retain their positions of social advantage and power or to challenge emerging social inequalities. Thus, even if stratification arose because some positions were genuinely important and required hard-to-find or costly-to-develop skills, once individuals or groups occupy those positions they then have the power and resources to consolidate their positions of privilege, close or narrow access to those positions and create an ideology of legitimacy that serves their particular interests. As a skilled group, sharing specific abilities and desires, those individuals can mobilize resources and organize themselves more effectively than larger, disparate groups pushing for greater access or more equity in the allocation of social rewards. Moreover, in the short-run, restrictions to equality of opportunity and existing inequalities of condition mean that the alleged functionality of stratification is limited — even precluded — by the power wielded by those at the top of the hierarchy.

Finally, critics noted that Davis and Moore’s premises presupposed a key relationship that they needed to demonstrate — that increased social differentiation must result in stratification.


  1. Davis, K. & Moore, W. (1945) Some principles of stratification. American Sociological Review (10): 242—9.
  2. Horton, J. (1966) Order and conflict theories of social problems as competing ideologies. American Journal of Sociology 71: 701—13.
  3. Wrong, D. (1959) The functional theory of stratification: some neglected considerations. American Sociological Review (24): 772—82.

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