Modern Theories of Stratification: Structural Theory and Conflict Theory | Sociology

The theories of these early writers—Spencer, Marx and Weber—have a strong influence on the two main prevailing modern theories of stratification—Structural-Functional Theory and Conflict Theory that we are dealing with in the following paragraphs:

1. Structural-Functional Theory:

This theory of stratification has been put forward by Davis and Moore (1945) and, separately by Talcott Parsons (1954), who derives it in fact from Spencer and Durkheim.

Structural-functionalists have refined Spencer’s notion that society, like any other organism, is self-regulating and self-maintaining and that it consists of interre­lated parts that serve a function in maintaining the system as a whole.


According to modern structural-functionalists, stratification is necessary or inevitable for society to function. It serves vital functions’ in complex society, particularly in an industrial society where it inevitably occurs. Functionalists are primarily concerned with the function of social stratification, i.e., how stratification systems help to maintain order and stability in society.

These writers have argued that inequality is inherent in any society and that the particular rewards a society gives to its members are the result of their ‘functional’ utility. In modern society power is placed in the hands of people who are capable of being leaders. Society rewards those who serve as leaders by giving them wealth.

Wealth and status, both scarce resources, provide power, so those who serve society by providing scarce skills become the powerful people. Thus, inequality is created by the needs of society, not by the desires and needs of individuals (Davis and Moore, 1945).

This means that an unequal distribution of rewards is necessary for the successful functioning of societies characterised by a division of labour. Under the division of labour people perform set tasks on a regular basis. Some of these tasks are more closely tied to societal requirements than others and must therefore be differentially rewarded in order to attract sufficient people who are capable of performing them.

Key Sociologists (Marxists and Functionalists)

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Davis and Moore begin their most celebrated article “Some Principles of Stratification” (1945) with the observation that stratifi­cation exists in every human society. They regard social stratification as a ‘functional necessity’ and see it as a solution to a problem faced by all social systems. They argue that all societies need some mechanism for insuring effective role allocation and performance.

This mechanism is social stratification which they see as a system which attaches unequal rewards and privileges to the different positions in society. Unequal rewards and privileges motivate individuals to compete for more societally important positions.

Davis and Moore asserted that in all societies there are positions (or tasks) that objectively have more functional importance than others. Such positions (or tasks) must be filled with properly talented and trained persons. These positions need special skills if they are to be performed adequately.

It is necessary that the more talented persons be attracted to those occupations which require their skills. While anyone can perform unskilled tasks, only the talented can perform certain skilled ones; consequently, persons with specialised skills must be rewarded with money, prestige or power.

They argue that differential rewards are functional for society, because they contribute to the maintenance and well-being of social systems. The possession of greater wealth, prestige and power marks a section of society as a class.

Given this, and given the existence of the human family, class privileges will be inherited by one generation from another. But, there will also be certain amount of social mobility; those who are unsuccessful at performing the tasks required of them may lose their class position, while others with exceptional abilities may rise.

Like many functionalists, Talcott Parsons (1953) sees social stratification as both inevitable and functional for society. It is inevi­table because it derives from shared values which are a necessary part of all social systems.

It is functional because it serves to integrate various groups in society. His theory of stratification is based mainly on the role of common values in the maintenance of social systems. He believes that order, stability and cooperation in society are based on value consensus.

His theory of stratification is based on the following assumptions:

(1) Power and prestige differentials are essential for the coordi­nation and integration of a specialised division of labour.

(2) Social inequality is also essential, without this how members of society could effectively cooperate and work together.

(3) Inequalities of power and prestige benefit all members of society since they serve to further collective goals which are based on shared values.

(4) High rewards are necessary to motivate people to do functionally important jobs.

(5) Achievement values have replaced astrictive criteria in indus­trial society and a merit system placed people in occupations.

(6) Occupations are arranged in a hierarchy of material rewards and social prestige according to their functional importance to society.

(7) There is a consensus about the importance of occupations.

Parsons has been strongly criticised on all above points. Sociolo­gists of Marxian followings have seen stratification as a divisive rather than an integrating force. These sociologists believe that it is an arrangement whereby some gains at the cost of others. They have also questioned Parsons’ view that stratification systems derive ultimately from shared values.


Functionalist accounts were criticised heavily in a long-running debate popularly referred to as the Davis-Moore debate.

The critics of this view put forward the following counter-arguments:

(1) That functional importance of positions cannot be specified (Tumin) and the theory is circular, because high-paying jobs are defined as functional or of more importance simply because they are high paying.

(2) That they dispute the argument that some tasks are more vital or important to a society than others. Many occupations which afford little prestige or economic reward can be seen as vital to society. The manager is no more vital than the manual labour, (like sweeper) for the one cannot operate without the other.

(3) That the conflict and the influence of power as aspects of stratification are under-emphasised.

(4) That the significance of wealth and property is ignored.

(5) That the extent to which inequality reflects achievement is exaggerated.

(6) That the consensual element is over-emphasised.

(7) That the theory favours social stability (status quo) rather than change.

(8) That it ignores the inheritance of class position.

(9) That stratification is not beneficial to society but actually it may hinder the efficient working of a social system by preventing those with superior, innate abilities from performing certain takes which are the preserve of a privileged class.

(10) That they question the need for large income differentials as a means of attracting men of talent to skilled occupation. Critics argue, in fact, that if occupations require special skills, they will usually give more intrinsic satisfaction than those which do not, so that there should be less need to offer higher rewards, not more.

(11) That they cast doubt on the implicit assumption that actual differentials of reward do reflect differences in the skills required for particular occupations.

(12) The final criticism is that a society without social classes is, in principle, possible if it possesses a value system, which encourages a commitment to equality and public service. It is said that this theory has been exposed as an ideological justification of existing patterns of inequality, especially in America that was concerned to deny the reality of social class.

To conclude, it may be written that Davis and Moore theory pivots on the causes and consequences of social stratifi­cation for society. There is little or no concern in it for the personal experiences of individuals who constitute the society.

Criticising severely Davis and Moore’s views in his book entitled The Rise of the Meritocracy (1961), Michael Young argues that no evidence supports the idea that the stratification is based on the principles of meritocracy and that is functional for society. He pointed out many dysfunctional possibilities of the stratification systems.

For instance, he argued that in a meritocracy, “talent and ability are efficiently syphoned out of the lower strata. As a result, these groups are in a particularly vulnerable position because they have no able members to represent their interests”.

Some scholars like Eva Rosenfeld {Social Stratification in a ‘Classless’ Society, 1974) tried to investigate the truth of the function­alist’s claim that stratification is inevitable. From her research of the Israeli ‘Kibbutzim’ system (a system which tries to translate the idea of an egalitarian society—a society without social inequality), Rosenfeld notes that even in this system authority and prestige are not equally distributed.

The position of ‘leader-manager’ in the Kibbutzim carries authority and commands higher prestige than the lower stratum that consists of the ‘rank and file’. This study clearly lends some support to the functionalists’ claim that social stratifi­cation, at least in terms of power and prestige, is inevitable in human society.

2. Conflict Theory (Marx’s Theory):

Conflict theorists reject out-rightly the above functional view of stratification. They argue that inequality develops as a result of people’s desire for scarce resources, and close knit groups compete with one another to gain possession of these resources.

According to this view, resources are not rewards for talent but are acquired through inheritance, coercion or exploitation. Inequality results when one group acquires more resources than other groups. According to Marxian analysis, social class depends on similarity of economic interest, i.e., the individual’s relation to the means of production.

Social theorists in the 19th and early 20th centuries were concerned with conflict in society. Functionalists of the mid-20th century neglected conflict in favour of a unitary concept of society and emphasised social integration (stability and order), social equilibrium and the harmonious effect of common values. Some sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to revive what they called ‘conflict theory’ against the dominant theory of functionalism of the time, drawing on Karl Marx, George Simmel to this end.

Those identified with the conflict school, such as Robert Lynd, C. Wright Mills, Lewis Coser and Ralf Dahrendorf, see society as a collection of various institutions—economic, political and educational—that are generally poorly integrated with each other.

The unequal distribution of property, power and prestige is seen as representing a special privilege enjoyed by elite. Social stratification or social inequality is thus conceived by these theorists as a major source of continuing conflict in a society. They see conflict as inherent, natural and predictable in any social organisation.

They believe that human beings are prone to conflict over such scarce resources as wealth, status and power. They are not concerned much about how parts of an organisation (society) fit together or how they sustain each other; rather, they inquire into the sources of tension and strain and view these as natural products of social interaction.

The functionalists (or equilibrium theorists) study the positive functions of social inequality or stratification; the conflict theorists are more concerned with the negative functions. Conflict theorists reject the functional view (Durberman, 1976), arguing that inequality develop as a result of people’s desire for scarce resources, and close-knit groups compete with one another to gain possession of these resources.

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