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Sociology/P1/U5: Theories of social stratification – Structural Functionalist Theory (Davis and Moore)


Structural Functionalist Theory (Davis and Moore)

The most famous structural-functionalist theory of stratification was first presented in 1945 in an article by the American Sociologists Davis and Mooreentitled ‘Some Principles of Stratification’.

Here, Davis and Moore discussed the issues of functional necessity of stratification, determinants of positional rank, societal functions and stratification, and variation in stratified system at length.

Davis and Moore begin with the observation that stratification exists in every known society.

They attempt to explain in functional terms the universal necessity which calls for stratification in any social system. They argue that all social system share certain functional prerequisites, which must be met if the system is to survive and operate efficiently. One such functional prerequisite is effective role allocation and performance. This means that

  • Firstly, all roles must be filled.
  • Secondly, that they be filled by those best able to perform and
  • Thirdly, that the necessary training for them be undertaken and
  • Fourthly that the role be performed conscientiously (carefully).

Davis and Moore argue that all societies need some mechanism for ensuring 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 position in the society.

A major function of stratification is to match the most able people with the functionally the most important positions. It does this by attaching high rewards to those positions. The desire for such rewards motivates people to compete for them and in theory the most talented will win through.

Thus, Davis and Moore conclude that social stratification is a device by which societies ensure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons.


How Davis and Moore established his theory?

Davis and Moore realize that the difficulty with their theory is to show clearly which positions are functionally most important. The fact that a position is highly rewarded does not necessarily mean it is functionally important.

They suggest that the importance of a position can be measured in two ways –

-> Firstly, by the degree to which a position is functionally unique, there be no other positions that can perform the same function satisfactorily. Thus, it could be argued that a doctor is functionally more important than a nurse. Since his position carries with it many of the skills necessary to perform a nurse role, but not vice-versa.

-> Secondly, the degree to which other positions are dependent on one in question. Thus, it may be argued that managers are more important than routine office-staffs. Since the latter are dependent on direction from management.



Davis and Moore regard social stratification as a functional necessity for all societies. They see it as a solution to problem faced by all social systems that of placing and motivating individuals in the social structure.

They offer no other means of solving of this problem and imply that social inequality is an inevitable feature of human society.

They conclude that differential rewards are functional for society that they contribute to the maintenance and well being of social system.


Tumin’s Criticism to Davis and Moore:

-> Tumin questioned the adequacy of Davis & Moore’s measurement of the functional importance of positions. Davis and Moore have tended to assume that the most highly rewarded position are indeed most important. However, many occupations which afford little prestige or economic reward can be seen as vital to society.

Thus, Tumin argued that – some labour force of unskilled workmen is as important and as indispensable to the factory as some labour force engineers.

-> Tumin argues that Davis and Moore have ignored the influence of power on the unequal distribution of rewards.

Thus, differences in pay and prestige between occupational group may be due to differences in their power rather than their functional importance.

-> According to Davis & Moore the major function of unequal reward is to motivate talented individuals and allocate them to the functionally most important positions. Tumin rejects this view, he argues that social stratification can act as a barrier to the motivation and recruitment of talent. This readily apparent in a close system of caste and racial stratification.

Thus, the ascribed status of untouchables prevented even the most talented from becoming Brahmins.

-> Tumin concludes that stratification by its very nature can never adequately perform the functions which Davis & Moore assigned to it. He argues that those born into lower strata can never have the same opportunities for realizing their talents as those born into the higher strata.

-> Finally, Tumin questions the view that social stratification functions to integrate the social system. He argues that differential rewards can encourage hostility, suspicion and distrust among the various segments of society. From this viewpoint stratification is a divisive rather than an integrating force.


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