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The Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification

[This document is rather long and students who require only a brief summary of the Functionalist Theory may click here for the summary which appears at the end of this document]

 See also:   An Assignment on the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification

Click here for a recent BBC item which addresses the difficulty of determining "which workers are really key".

 Click here for Some Principles of Stratification [K. Davis and W. Moore] and here  for M. Tumin's critique

 Click here for The Class Ceiling [BBC Radio 4 Series presented by Polly Toynbee]. Part Two of this series should help students to evaluate critically Functionalist views as to the extent of social mobility in contemporary capitalist societies such as the UK. 

Click here for a Guardian Business Podcast : Does Income Inequality Matter?

For further information on Social Mobility  click here for a detailed PDF Presentation on Social Class and Mobility and Industrial Society by Professor TW Chan of Oxford University   Link added  April 21st 2012

Click here for  a research digest from the Equalities Trust on Social Mobility and Economic Inequality New link added June 2013

Click here  for Michael Portillo's  BBC Radio 4 two part series entitled Capitalism on Trial. Mr Portillo interviews both supporters and critics of the capitalist system but those who are familiar with Mr Portillo's own political career will not be surprised by his own conclusions.  [Link added September 2011]

Click here for a recent report [Nov.2011] of the High Pay Commission

Click here for Radio 4 Analysis: Capitalists against the Super-Rich 

The following links are to important detailed studies published in the last 2 or three years . It may be that Advanced Level Sociology students quite simply do not have the enough time to read such studies but in that case I hope that perhaps the reviews and video materials might prove useful.

Click here for a sympathetic review of "The Costs of Inequality" by Stewart Lansley

Click here for RSA video entitled "The Inequality Crisis " by Stewart Lansley [[New Link added June 2013]

Click here and here for reviews of "Them and Us: Changing Britain- Why we need a fair society" by Will Hutton  [New Links added June 2013]

Wealth and the Wealthy; Exploring and tackling inequalities between rich and poor Publishers' information and detailed review of excellent book by Professors Karen Rowlingson and Stephen McKay 2011 [New link added June 2013]

Click here for Guardian review by Yvonne Roberts of "The Price of Inequality" by Joseph Stiglitz and here for a short YouTube video lecture by Joseph Stiglitz [New links added July 2013]

 Click here for a video presentation by Danny Dorling entitled "Why Social Inequality Persists " and here for a Guardian review of Danny Dorling's Book entitled Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists   and  here for the Website accompanying this here for the website of Danny Dorling [New links added July 2013]

New Links added December 2014

Good Times Bad Times: the Welfare Myth of Them and Us [ Professor John Hills Podcast from LSE] NEW December 2014

Inequality and the 1%  what goes wrong when the rich become too rich [Professor Danny Dorling Podcast from LSE] NEW December 2014

The Establishment  and How They get away with it [Owen Jones Podcast from the LSE] NEW December 2014

Income  Inequality and Poverty from the OECD NEW December 2014

 Why We cannot afford the Rich Part One; Part Two {Professor Andrew Sayer] NEW December 2014

 

 

 

  • The Abolition of the 50P  Tax Rate

The issues around the abolition of the 50P  tax rate are related indirectly to arguments around the strengths and weaknesses of the functionalist theory of social stratification and A2 Sociology students who require a little background information on the abolition of the 50 p tax rate may use the following  four links to  a short  BBC item which in my view is sufficient for A2 Sociology purposes.

Click here for a good brief audio discussion of the taxation issue from Radio 4's Today programme and click here and here and here for BBC coverage of replacement  of the 50P tax rate by a 45p rate  in 2013-14.

The following links provide additional information which is interesting but in my view unnecessary for purposes of A2 Sociology examinations

Click here for a recent BBC item in which UK economists defend Functionalist-style arguments about tax and income inequality and click here for an alternative view from the New Statesman and click here for a Guardian Podcast [about 25minutes] entitled "What do the Rich owe Society?" and here for a critical view from Will Hutton in the Observer. Click here for a critical view of the Top 1% by George Monbiot in the Guardian.

Click here and here for more discussion from the BBC.

Click here for estimates of revenue raised via the higher rates of tax [ which the HMRC soon afterwards suggested were in any case inaccurate and here for some discussion of a possible "Mansions Tax" both from the Guardian . Click here for BBC coverage of most recent request from business leaders to abolish the 50p tax rate.

The following three long and detailed reports involve some fairly complex economic analysis which certainly is not included within the A2 Sociology Specification. and  although these reports are certainly very interesting A2 Sociologists should in my view disregard them for examination purposes. Of course they may if they wish check that their own teachers agree with me on this point !.

Click here for a Report from the IFS [Feb 12th 2012] on the 50p tax rate. The authors conclude among other things that it will be difficult for HMRC to provide robust estimates of the overall yield of the 50p tax in time for the 2012 budget.

Click here for the March 2012 HMRC Report on the 50 P tax rate. It concludes that that the yield of the tax was much lower than originally forecast and quite possibly could have been negative. We shall have to wait and see what the responses to the report will be especially from those who supported the retention of the 50P tax rate.

Click here for The Case for Austerity for the Rich by Professor Danny Dorling

 

 

The  Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification: Introduction

Patterns  of social stratification[ especially those related to differences in occupation/income/wealth/class, power and status] in different societies have been analysed using the differing sociological perspectives of Marxism, Weberianism, Feminism, Functionalism and, indeed, Postmodernism In the functionalist theory which was developed initially in  the 1940s and 1950s it was argued some form of social stratification  exists in all known societies, that hierarchical patterns of social stratification were both desirable and inevitable and that occupational differences in income were explicable in terms of differences in the functional importance of different occupations  combined with limited availability within societies' populations of the talents necessary for the performance of the more functionally important [and difficult] occupational roles and that inequalities of social status were similarly desirable and inevitable.

On this basis Functionalists argue that owners of capitalist firms and managers, administrators and other professionals in both the private and public sectors are well rewarded financially because their work is functionally important [that is: because it contributes to the stability of their societies in various ways] and because they have scarce skills .These functionalist theories were widely accepted in the 1950s and early 60s which may be seen as the period of Functionalist ascendancy within Sociology but they also quickly attracted criticism especially from sociologists influenced by Marxist and Weberian theories of social stratification and support within sociology for functionalist theories has certainly been limited from the 1960s onwards.

However the sociologist Peter Saunders who has been much influenced  by New Right ideology has condemned what he believes to be the ideological biases within Sociology against Functionalism and mounted a defence against some [but not all] aspects of the Functionalist theory of social stratification  all of which has encouraged many sociologists to reiterate the original criticisms of the Functionalist theory although some have developed so-called neo-Functionalist arguments suggesting that Functionalist theory does make some useful contribution to the explanation of patterns of social stratification.

 Functionalism is described as a Structural Consensus perspective on Sociology which distinguishes it from Structural Conflict perspectives such as Marxism and from various types of Social Action Sociology. In Functionalist models of societies such as those outlined by Talcott Parsons  all of the social institutions which make up a given society are assumed to contribute to the overall efficiency and stability of that society in various ways and to contribute positively to the welfare of its members [as you may already seen, for example,  in your studies of functionalist theories of the family and formal education systems]  and  the hierarchical systems of social stratification operative within societies are also seen as functional for societies and beneficial for all of its members.

Because all of the subsystems and institutions of any given society are seen as functional and beneficial for societies and all of their members Functionalists argue that an overall social consensus emerges in support of existing subsystems and institutions and that this consensus is continually reinforced via  the socialisation process which is  assumed to transmit shared norms and values which will themselves contribute to social stability. That is to say: the socialisation process also is functional for society as a whole. From this we can see that the Functionalist theory de-emphasises the importance of inherent social conflict (by comparison with structural conflict perspectives) and that it de-emphasises the importance of individual freedom of action ( by comparison with social action perspectives.) This Functionalist de-emphasis of individual agency can be seen most clearly in the following quotation from the Functionalists Davis and Moore: "Social stratification is thus an unconsciously evolved device [my emphasis] by which societies insure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons" ,a view that would be rejected strongly by Social Action theorists.

Conflict theorists have argued that Functionalists have in general overstated the extent to which societies are organised in the interests of all of societies' members and overstated also the useful contributions which existing social institutions make to the stability of societies and  understated both the extent to which societies are organised primarily in the interests of privileged minorities and against the interests of the majority and the possible dysfunctions of exiting social institutions. Consequently, the Conflict theorists argue, Functionalist theories contain inherent conservative biases in support of the social status quo and against arguments for radical social change.

  1. The original development of the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification is associated primarily with an article entitled "Some Principles of Stratification [ K. Davis and W. Moore 1945]. .
  2. Davies and Moore [and other later Functionalists] argue that some forms of social stratification exist in all known societies. Capitalist societies are characterised by inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth, social status and power; in former State Socialist societies economic inequalities [although considerable] may have been somewhat smaller than in capitalist societies  but political power was more heavily concentrated among senior Communist Party politicians and bureaucrats  while in many developing countries economic inequalities are greater than in industrialised societies whether capitalist or state socialist.
  3. Functionalists have therefore argued that the existence of some form of social stratification in every known society implies that social stratification [and the inequalities of income, wealth, power and status implied by it] must be both desirable and inevitable.
  4. Social stratification is seen as desirable because it meets one of the so-called  functional pre-requisites  in all societies of ensuring that individuals are allocated to suitable occupational roles and that they will perform these roles effectively which will contribute to the economic and social well-being of all members of society whatever their positions within the system of social stratification and thereby contribute to the stability of society as a whole.
  5. It is important to consider Functionalist analyses of the different aspects of social stratification: i.e. occupational differences in income and wealth, differences in social status and differences in power. As we shall see Functionalists describe occupational differences in income and wealth as involving  a hierarchy of a large number of  slightly differentiated and non-antagonistic social strata rather than as involving a limited number of antagonistic social classes as in Marxist Class Theory and, to a lesser extent in Weberian Class Theory.]
  6. Differences in income as between different occupations arise because of differences in the functional importance of different occupations and because only limited numbers of individuals have the talents necessary for the effective performance of the functionally most important occupations. Functionalists argue that in some cases such talents are  scarce because they are innate only to a minority within a society's population and in other cases that such talents are scarce because they can be developed only after long periods of onerous training.
  7. Davis and Moore agree that it is difficult to assess objectively the functional importance of different occupations but they do suggest also that occupations are likely to be functionally important "to  the extent that they are functionally unique"  and "to the extent to which other positions are dependent upon the one in question."
  8. Davis and Moore agree that the functional importance of different occupations will vary considerably over time and as between societies at different stages of development but they do suggest that in advanced industrial societies national politicians,  business leaders and skilled non-manual occupations are seen as the most functional important occupations and this helps to explain  why they are rewarded most highly. National politicians take important decisions on behalf of their citizens; business leaders coordinate the production of useful goods and services and provide gainful  employment while skilled non-manual workers contribute in various ways to the efficient operation of the private and public sectors of the economy. 
  9. However individuals receive high incomes not only because their work is functionally important but also because they possess skills which are limited in supply and  Functionalists do accept, however, that there are some functionally important occupational roles which are nevertheless relatively easy to fill because a supply of suitable labour is readily available and  Functionalists argue that these functionally important occupations will not be especially well rewarded. For example on this basis it would be argued by Functionalists that ,for example, the work of coal miners, agricultural labourers ,care assistants, plumbers, electricians etc. is certainly functionally important but that incomes in these occupations are relatively low  [say by comparison with merchant bankers and industrial entrepreneurs ] because of the relatively large supply of suitable labour in the former occupations. and the limited supply of suitable labour in the latter occupations.
  1. Income inequalities are desirable [i.e. functional for society]  because they provide financial incentives which encourage talented individuals to undertake long periods of training and to accept the pressures associated with functionally more important occupations . In the absence of income inequalities insufficient numbers of suitably talented individuals would choose employment in the functionally most important occupations.
  2. Income inequality also promotes meritocracy and social mobility because the existence of financial incentives encourages talented individuals from poorer backgrounds to aim for higher positions within the hierarchy of occupations.
  3. Davis and Moore note that some wealthy individuals derive substantial incomes from the ownership of wealth which is managed not by themselves but by financial advisers such that the wealth owners are receiving high incomes despite fulfilling no obviously useful role. However if wealth owners are actively involved in the management of their wealth their activities may be considered to be functionally important .
  4. According to Functionalists incomes in capitalist societies are distributed unequally within a finely differentiated hierarchy of occupation groups  but such groups are essentially non-antagonistic since Functionalists believe that income inequalities are functional for capitalist societies as a whole and for all of their individual members primarily because they help to promote economic efficiency and rising living standards for all. Thus there are no good reasons why income inequalities should result in social conflict as is suggested especially in Marxist class theories
  5. The most significant inequalities of social status in capitalist societies are related to inequalities of income and both types of inequalities reflect the functional importance of different occupations. That is: a doctor is well paid and is accorded high status in the community because the functional importance of his/her work is widely recognised. Therefore these social status differences are also functional for societies because they provide another [ in this case non-financial] incentive for individuals to opt for difficult but functionally important occupations.
  6. Functionalists  also see social stratification by power  as desirable and inevitable . Functionally important occupational roles often necessarily involve the use of decision-making power to direct the work activities of subordinate workers who themselves lack the talents and knowledge to contribute to complex decision-making procedures. However Functionalists have argued that power should be seen as a variable sum concept which the powerful use not in their own interests but in the interests of society as a whole. Thus inequalities of power like  inequalities of income and of social status are seen as functional for societies as a whole and inevitable given the limited supply of individuals with the talents necessary to make effective decisions in relation to complex problems.
  1. Furthermore Functionalists argue that social stratification by income is  inevitable in a free society because once income differentials are established which reflect the functional importance of different occupations limitations of talent within the overall population will prevent individuals from moving into functionally more important occupations and depressing the incomes of these occupations. Thus, for example, it might be argued that brain surgeons receive higher salaries than shop assistants because their work is functionally more important and that these income differentials are maintained because shop assistants would be unable to transfer to brain surgery because they lack the talents to do so. Functionalists appear to assume that individuals are primarily self- interested such that it is very unlikely that suitably talented individuals would be prepared to train for and to undertake functionally important and difficult work unless they are relatively well paid for doing so.
  2. Functionalists similarly believe that differences in social status are inevitable : for example in capitalist societies differences in social status derive from inevitable differences in the functional importance of different occupations.
  3. Differences in power are similarly inevitable because especially in complex industrial societies  there are many technically difficult decisions to be taken and only limited numbers of individuals with the abilities to take these decisions effectively all of which inevitably leads to differences in power as between those who take decisions and those who accept them. However these differences in power are seen as desirable because Functionalists argue that power itself is a variable sum concept and that power is used in the interests of societies as a whole. Further information on alternative theories of power may be found by clicking here. and scrolling down to the middle of the document
  1. Since Functionalists believe that patterns of social stratification involving differences in income, wealth, power and social status as inevitable, meritocratically determined and desirable they entirely support the processes of socialisation operative in families, schools, the mass media and elsewhere which encourage citizens to accept norms and values which are likely to solidify an overall consensus in support of these patterns of social stratification which ,to repeat, are considered to be both inevitable and functionally desirable.
  2. Since unequal patterns of social stratification are seen as desirable and inevitable  and are supported via socialisation processes operating throughout capitalist societies fundamental social conflict is seen as unlikely and undesirable . Instead Functionalists expect capitalist societies to be characterised by a broad consensus in support of existing social institutions and believe that any conflicts of interests which do arise can be settled relatively easily within existing political frameworks so that  see radical economic, social or political change are  entirely unnecessary.  Instead  societies might change and evolve gradually in response to changing social needs.
  1. Although , as will be shown below, the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification has been subjected to several important criticisms, it has also received some support from the 1970s onwards from New Right theorists. Thus , for example, the New Right theorist Peter Saunders has argued in accordance with the Functionalist theory that income differences may well be necessary to incentivise talented individuals to undertake functionally important and difficult work; that the effective performance of this work contributes to higher living standards even for those in lower positions within the social stratification system; and that the extent of social mobility in contemporary capitalist societies is actually greater than is implied by other theorists such as John Goldthorpe and Gordon Marshall which suggests that income inequality does not seriously undermine the extent of meritocracy in capitalist societies [all of which means that a careful assessment of competing theories of social mobility is necessary before the Functionalist theory of social stratification can be fully evaluated.] Peter Saunders does, however, reject the Functionalist claim that social stratification is inevitable arguing instead that it would be perfectly possible for powerful [and possibly totalitarian ] governments to impose greater economic equality but this would mean that individuals would then be forced rather than incentivised to undertake difficult functionally important work which they would then perform less effectively. such that increased equality would be achieved but only at the expense of reduced individual liberty and reduced economic efficiency. Of course other theorists have argued that individuals could be persuaded to work for the common good with no necessary reduction in liberty nor in economic efficiency.
  2. In recent years so-called neo-Functionalists have argued that although some of the arguments raised by original orthodox Functionalists are certainly open to criticisms  it may nevertheless be legitimate to argue that the incomes of highly paid industrial and financial entrepreneurs and of skilled managers , administrators and professionals within the private and public sectors may to some extent reflect the functionality of their work combined with the relative scarcity of their skills and abilities. However neo-Functionalists do recognise the limitations of the orthodox Functionalist theory and it is to these limitations which we now turn.

 

Key Criticisms of the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification 

Even if we accept initially the key assumptions of Functionalist Sociology that advanced capitalist societies are basically democratic, meritocratic, economically efficient and based upon a consensus around shared attitudes, values and norms of behaviour the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification can still be shown to have important limitations several of which ,having been  emphasised initially by M. W. Tumin [1953], have been reiterated by subsequent critics . Furthermore once we relax the basic general assumptions of Functionalism we are led on to additional criticisms of the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification.

  1. Functionalists argue that occupational differences in incomes reflect differences in the functional importance of different occupations but critics argue that it is difficult to measure  the functional importance of different occupations as will now be illustrated.
  2. It may well be the case that some owners and employers make a very significant contribution to the efficiency of their company, that they produce  necessary , functionally useful goods and  services, that they pay their employers fairly and that they abide strictly by health and safety and environmental legislation in which case it must certainly be agreed that their work is functionally useful although it will still be difficult to set a financial value on their functional usefulness. However radical critics of the Functionalist theory will argue that many owners and employers do not satisfy the above conditions such that the functional contribution of owners and employers is much less than might be supposed. Very similar arguments may be used to call into question the functional importance of some well paid non -manual workers in both the public and private sectors.
  3. When the production of goods and services involves the collective efforts of manual workers, non-manual workers and owners and employers it is difficult to separate the contributions of different groups of workers to the final goods or services. Thus an employer may simply accept the decisions of senior managers who in turn have accepted the advice of lower level specialists which suggests that in this example it is the lower level specialists who are functionally most important although they will certainly not be the highest paid employees. This point suggests that Davis' and Moore's criteria for assessment of the functionality of different occupations [functional uniqueness  and "the extent to which other positions are dependent upon the one in question." ] may sometimes be  difficult to apply in practice.
  4. It is impossible to compare the functional importance of different occupations objectively. For example we might agree that a well-meaning socially conscious employer whose company  produces a useful product [say whole wheat bread or efficient, user friendly personal computer software ]  is a functionally important worker but we cannot compare the functional importance of his/her work with that of ,say, teachers or social workers or doctors or nurses without making some value judgements as to the relative functional importance of providing a particular product  , educating students, managing difficult social issues or healing the sick. Consequently individuals  make differing assessments of the functional importance of different occupations on the basis of their own value judgements not on the basis of objective criteria.
  5. On the basis of points 2, 3 and 4 we may conclude that it is difficult to measure and to compare the functional importance of different occupations which suggests that we cannot assess with any certainty  whether actually existing differences in income among occupations reflect actual differences in functional importance. For example it has been pointed out that the average FT100 Chief Executive now earns 4.9 Million per year which is 200 times greater than the average  wage and it must be at least questionable whether these Chief Executives' work is 200 times more functionally important than the work of an average worker.
  1. Critics argue that the incomes of particular individuals and/or  occupational groups may be affected by factors other than the functional importance of different occupations. For example owners/employers and senior managers may have the power within their  companies to allocate especially high incomes to themselves; they may work in monopolistic industries where it is possible to charge excessively high prices for their goods and services; because they are able to  exploit their subordinate workers and to persuade consumers via advertising techniques to buy goods and services which they do not necessarily need; because long periods of training specified by some professional organisations  are designed partly to restrict entry as a means of maintaining high incomes and because some trade unions have sometimes been able to use their powers to maintain skill differentials in pay although many would argue that the powers of trade unions have been much reduced in recent years.
  1. Functionalists claim that differences in social status derive primarily from occupation and are therefore based upon the differential functional importance of occupations but since we cannot measure differences in functional importance of occupations we cannot assume that status differences are related to differences in the functional importance of different occupations. In any case there is considerable evidence that on average individuals from differing social class backgrounds are unlikely to have similar perceptions of the social status of different occupations: thus non-manual workers are more likely than manual workers to accord high social status to non-manual work and vice versa which may well reflect class differences in value judgements as to the functionality of different occupations. Also there may be sudden changes in the assessments of the functionality and social status of some occupations as recently in the cases of MPs and investment bankers!   
  2. According to Functionalists inequalities of power are also inevitable and functional for societies because only limited numbers of individuals have the talents necessary to enable them to take complex decisions which the majority should accept because they are taken not in the interests of the powerful minority but in the interests of all members of society.  Thus in the Functionalist theory power is seen as a non zero sum or variable sum concept . However in more radical theories power is seen as a multi-dimensional fixed sum concept and powerful  minorities are seen as using their power in their own interests and against the interests of the majority. At this point some further familiarity with general concept of power and in particular with Stephen Lukes' three-dimensional concept of power may be useful.
  1. Critics have argued that unequal patterns of social stratification are likely to be dysfunctional in that such patterns of social stratification impose a variety of material and cultural disadvantages on many working class students pupils and  that in unequal societies educational systems themselves may in various respects favour affluent upper and middle class students at the expense of working class students all of  which is likely to restrict the educational progress and prospects of upward social mobility of working class students.. Therefore according to the critics unequal patterns of social stratification, far from increasing the availability of talent, actually restrict it via the disadvantages which they impose on working class students [and on some ethnic minority  students and on some female students] and in so doing undermine rather than promote social mobility and meritocracy which in turn restricts the possibilities of rising living standards for all. { For a reminder click as appropriate for  PowerPoint Presentations on Social Class, Ethnicity, Gender and Educational Achievement} .
  2. Social Inequalities may also be dysfunctional in other respects. Inequalities of power may result in the abuse of power by the powerful at the expense of the relatively powerless; income inequalities may result in severe poverty which prevents the poor from developing their talents and living with the dignity which they deserve; even in contemporary advanced capitalist societies there are class -related inequalities in health and life expectancy; it is likely that social inequality is and important cause of crime and disorder; and social inequality may undermine the prospects of social harmony and consensus  which Functionalists see as crucial to social order. According to many critics of Functionalism only greater equality can ultimately promote social harmony.
  3. Conversely although well paid professionals may encounter stresses and strains in their work they may also receive great intrinsic satisfaction from it which reduce the necessity for large income differentials. If this is true rising living standards for all may be entirely possible without the necessity for large income inequalities .
  4. Some liberals and social democrats might well adopt an intermediate position that although massive inequalities of income, wealth, power and status are undesirable,  more limited inequalities may indeed be desirable in order to provide  financial incentives and to ensure that decisions are taken  by those most capable of doing so effectively as a means of promoting the increased efficiency which improves the economic welfare of all including the poorest.
  1.  Functionalists assume that each society contains only a limited proportion of talented individuals ; that income inequality is necessary to encourage talented individuals to train and to undertake the onerous tasks associated with functionally important occupations; that income differentials encourage individuals in functionally important occupations to perform their roles effectively which contributes to increased economic welfare for all and that income inequality promotes meritocracy by providing financial incentives for talented individuals to rise up within the social hierarchy. Against all this the critics deny that large income and wealth inequalities are desirable and inevitable and claim that the Functionalists have neglected the clear dysfunctions of social inequality.
  2.  Critics dispute the Functionalists argument  that in each society there is a limited pool of talent available for allocation to functionally important occupational roles and that unequal patterns of social stratification are  necessary to ensure the development and effective use of the talents of the limited number of individuals capable of performing in functionally important occupations. The critics of the Functionalist theory argue it is impossible to estimate with any certainty the potential availability of talent within societies and that, if anything,  Functionalists have under-estimated it as might be indicated, for example, that whereas in the 1940s and 1950s in the UK it was assumed that only perhaps 20% of pupils could benefit from a grammar school education it is now hoped that perhaps 40% of young people have the potential to benefit from Higher Education courses.
  1. Critics reject the Functionalists' argument  that individuals who undertake the training necessary for the performance of functionally important occupations will necessarily incur large financial costs in terms of lost earnings which means that they are unlikely to be prepared to undertake such training unless they are to receive high salaries one fully qualified and employed in their chosen profession. Thus the critics argue that the sacrifices implied by the need for training have been much overstated in that students would only lose incomes equivalent to those earned by poorly paid young people; they may be financially subsidised by their parents or via student grants [when these were available!] and , once qualified and employed in well paid occupations they quickly recoup earnings foregone in their student years when they also experienced significant advantages in terms of status, individual freedom and possibilities for self-development which are denied to young, unskilled workers.
  2. Melvin Tumin, for example,  claims that although some income inequalities may be necessary to encourage young people to embark on higher education and to incentivise workers to take on functionally important but difficult work it is by no means certain that the massive income inequalities which exist in capitalist societies are necessary for this purpose and it is also entirely conceivable in principle that individuals may be prepared to accept employment in difficult functionally important roles as much  for the good of the community as  for their own financial self-interest especially if the ideologies of competitive individualism associated with capitalism can be weakened. In this scenario great differences in incomes would be neither necessary nor inevitable and the this aspect of the Functionalist theory would be discredited. 
  3. [However we must note that Tumin could be mistaken in his assumption that individuals would be prepared to work in the good of the community in this way. As was mentioned above a rather different view [which may be described as more pessimistic or more realistic!] is offered by the New Right theorist Peter Saunders who has rather more sympathy with the Functionalist theory. In his view although some individuals might be prepared to undertake functionally important but difficult occupational roles out of altruistic motives  many would not so that in the absence of social stratification by income  either some functionally important occupations would not be filled at all [with adverse consequences for social stability and progress] or some individuals would be forced to undertake these roles in which case greater economic equality results in a decline in individual liberty which is a fundamental conclusion of New Right thinking. ]
  1. As already mentioned Functionalists argue that  incomes in capitalist societies are distributed unequally within a finely differentiated hierarchy of occupation groups  but such groups are essentially non-antagonistic since it is widely recognised that income inequalities are functional for capitalist societies as a whole and  for all of their individual members primarily because they help to promote economic efficiency and rising living standards for all. Similarly differences in power are unlikely to promote conflict because of the Functionalist assumption that power holders use their power in the interests of society as a whole and differences in status are seen as broadly acceptable because they reflect the functional importance of different occupations. However  in other conflict- based approaches to  social stratification such as Marxism, Weberianism and most variants of Feminism , it is argued that social conflict is central to the relationships between the dominant and the subservient social classes and that income inequalities derive largely from the powers of dominant social classes or groups to exploit subservient social class or groups . 
  2. According to  Functionalists capitalist societies are  democratic, economically efficient and  unequal but also fair and meritocratic. Because the capitalist system works well in the interests of all of its members there will limited conflict in society and a general consensus that the capitalist system should be continued in the future. In the Functionalist view the socialisation process operative in families, schools, the mass media and elsewhere is itself functional for capitalist societies because it encourages individuals to accept norms and values which will promote the continued existence of capitalism which , as stated is beneficial to all.

  3. However according to Marxists capitalism  is  dominated  economically   by the Bourgeoisie which uses its power  at the expense of the exploited Proletariat; it is grossly unequal as a result of which many members of the proletariat live a rotten existence with little chance to develop their potential; it is also dominated politically by the Bourgeoisie whose political influence is hidden by the "sham institutions of a pretend democracy".

  1. The Functionalist arguments that differences in income, wealth, power and social status are inevitable may be criticised on the grounds that the potential supply of talent may be greater than Functionalists have assumed; that furthermore the potential supply of talent might actually be restricted via the unequal patterns of social stratification that Functionalists support; that the supply of talent might actually increase in  a more equal society which offers greater opportunities for individuals from lower social strata to develop their talents; that we might assume, more optimistically than the Functionalists [and New Right theorists] that individuals might be persuaded and encouraged to work more for the good of society such that large financial incentives become less necessary;  that greater decentralisation of power in the political system and within the industrial and financial systems  might make for more effective decision -making so that great inequalities of power can be eradicated without reducing the efficiency of decision-making and that societies based upon equality of status might be more harmonious than those based upon status inequality.

  2. Nevertheless as I mentioned also in relation to the desirability or otherwise of unequal patterns of social stratification it may be that some liberals and social democrats will take the intermediate position that although massive inequalities are by no means inevitable some more limited inequalities may indeed be inevitable if societies are to be organised effectively.

  1. As has been indicated above  Functionalism is regarded as a Structural Consensus Perspective in which all existing social institutions  contribute usefully to the stability of society as a whole  as a result of which a general consensus is established in support of existing social institutions and processes including hierarchical patterns of social stratification. Occupational differences in income and wealth, differences in social status and differences in power are all seen as desirable and inevitable and as  involving divisions between non -antagonistic strata in which all [or the vast majority] of individuals contribute usefully to the stability and welfare of societies as a whole.

  2. Conversely Marxists argue instead that there are inevitable conflicts of interest  between the major social classes in society since although the property owning Bourgeoisie do provide employment and produce some useful goods and services[ although they may also manipulate consumers so that they are prepared to buy goods and services which are not entirely useful] the profits and resultant high incomes of the Bourgeoisie  derive not entirely from their functional usefulness but to a considerable extent from their  power to exploit the property-less Proletariat.

  3. Furthermore Marxists argue that capitalist states use political power mainly to further the interests of the Bourgeoisie as against the interest of the rest of the citizenry all of which means that capitalist patterns of social stratification inevitably involve conflict; that power is used primarily by and/or  in the interests of the Bourgeoisie and that the Functionalist image of capitalist patterns of social stratification as involving large numbers of non -antagonistic social strata is definitely flawed.

  4. In the Marxist view there is nothing desirable about the patterns of social stratification which exist under capitalism since they inevitably involve the exploitation of the Proletariat and the denial of real equality of opportunity [although the existence of limited amounts of social mobility may serve to strengthen the myth of equality of opportunity] but  such patterns of social stratification are indeed inevitable under capitalism not because of the  "limited pool of talent" but because they derive ultimately from the existence of private property which means that the  Bourgeoisie can use its economic and political power to sustain these inequalities.

  5. A fragile but bogus consensus is maintained because the Bourgeoisie can spread a so-called ruling class ideology which is a set of ideas which prevents the Proletariat from realising the causes of their exploitation and encourages them to accept the very capitalist system which is actually the source of their discontents. In this Marxist view the entire Functionalist theory would be seen not as an academic theory which seeks to explain patterns of social inequality  but as a variant of ruling class ideology  which seeks to legitimise the inequalities which in reality benefit the capitalist class at the expense of the rest of society.

  6.  Nevertheless according to Marxists the class conflict which inevitably exists under capitalism will eventually cause the Proletariat to rise up against the institutions of capitalism which will in turn eventually by replaced by a classless, socialist utopia in which capitalist patterns of social stratification will be shown to be neither desirable nor inevitable. Nevertheless actual attempts to introduce socialism by Marxist-inspired revolutionary means have as yet been unsuccessful although Marxists continue to hope for a better future while even social democrats argue that it should in principle be possible to reduce inequalities of class, status and power by parliamentary means even if it is not desirable totally to abolish them since they may , as Functionalists claim serve some useful incentivising purposes. [Certainly this is a view that Toy Blair and his New Labour supporters accepted.

  7. There are of course major differences between Marxist and Weberian class theories and I shall not consider such differences here but shall note simply that Weberian class theories also assume that there is some conflict as between social classes and status groups [although such conflicts are not expected to have the revolutionary outcome predicted by Marx] and also that Weber most definitely did not adopt the variable sum concept  of power used by the Functionalists. In Weber's view power could definitely often be used against the interests of the powerless so that, again, he would have rejected Functionalists' conclusions regarding the existence of non-antagonistic social strata. [I hope in future to provide some more detailed information on Weberian class theory...but it will not be in this academic year.]

In this Marxist view the entire Functionalist theory would be seen not as an academic theory which seeks to explain patterns of social inequality  but as a variant of ruling class ideology  which seeks to legitimise the inequalities which in reality benefit the capitalist class at the expense of the rest of society. Nevertheless according to Marxists the class conflict which inevitably exists under capitalism will eventually cause the Proletariat to rise up against the institutions of capitalism which will in turn eventually by replaced by a classless, socialist utopia in which capitalist patterns of social stratification will be shown to be neither desirable nor inevitable. Nevertheless actual attempts to introduce socialism by Marxist-inspired revolutionary means have as yet been unsuccessful although Marxists continue to hope for a better future while even social democrats argue that it should in principle be possible to reduce inequalities of class, status and power by parliamentary means if not totally to abolish them.

Functionalists argue that hierarchical patterns of social stratification are observable which to them suggests that such patterns must be both desirable and inevitable. In their view occupational differences in incomes derive from differences in the functional importance of different occupations combined with the scarcity of individuals with the talents necessary to undertake functionally important roles. The Functionalists Davis and Moore agree that it is difficult to assess objectively the functional importance of different occupations but they do suggest also that occupations are likely to be functionally important "to  the extent that they are functionally unique"  and "to the extent to which other positions are dependent upon the one in question." 

They also argue that the functional importance of different occupations will vary considerably over time and as between societies at different stages of development but they do suggest that in advanced industrial societies national politicians,  business leaders and skilled non-manual occupations are seen as the most functional important occupations and this helps to explain  why they are rewarded most highly. National politicians take important decisions on behalf of their citizens; business leaders coordinate the production of useful goods and services and provide gainful  employment while skilled non-manual workers contribute in various ways to the efficient operation of the private and public sectors of the economy.  Furthermore Functionalists argue that in capitalist societies differences in social status  derive primarily from the recognition of differences in the functional importance of different occupations and that inequalities of power derive from the necessity for complex decisions to be taken by those with the scarce talents necessary for effective decision making.

Functionalists see inequalities of income among different occupations as desirable since the higher incomes associated with functionally important occupations are assumed to incentivise talented individuals  to undertake the long periods of training and to accept the challenges associated with the effective performance of these functionally important occupations while the higher social status associated  with these occupational roles is assumed to provide a further non-financial incentive for talented individuals to opt for them.  The financial and non -financial incentives which generate economic and social inequality are seen as functional for societies because they help to ensure that functionally important roles are performed effectively by suitably talented individuals including those originating from the lower social strata who are assumed to be encouraged to strive for the higher incomes available in the higher social strata so that unequal patterns of social stratification are assumed to be consistent with a considerable degree of social mobility and meritocracy and the resultant effective allocation of individuals to appropriate occupational roles results in greater economic efficiency and greater economic welfare which benefits all members of society including those in the lower strata.

Furthermore those in functionally important occupations certainly exercise some power over those in the lower strata but the Functionalists argue , optimistically that power should be seen as a variable sum concept and that those who achieve power do so because they have the talents to use it effectively  and that they  actually use their power in the interests of society as a whole rather than solely in their own interests.

 It is therefore important to note that Functionalists see patterns of social stratification in capitalist societies as involving a relatively large number of finely differentiated  social strata which  are also non -antagonistic in the sense that those who are financially well rewarded and who exercise considerable power nevertheless act in the interests of the rest of society which reduces the likelihood that social conflict will arise out of the unequal distribution of income, wealth, power and status which Functionalists consider to be desirable.

Functionalists also see hierarchical patterns of social stratification as inevitable. They argue that social stratification by income is  inevitable in a free society because once income differentials are established which reflect the functional importance of different occupations limitations of talent within the overall population will prevent individuals from moving into functionally more important occupations and depressing the incomes of these occupations. Thus, for example, it might be argued that brain surgeons receive higher salaries than shop assistants because their work is functionally more important and that these income differentials are maintained because shop assistants would be unable to transfer to brain surgery because they lack the talents to do so. Income inequalities are also inevitable in free societies .Functionalists similarly believe that differences in social status are inevitable : for example in capitalist societies differences in social status derive from inevitable differences in the functional importance of different occupations. Differences in power are similarly inevitable because especially in complex industrial societies  there are many technically difficult decisions to be taken and only limited numbers of individuals with the abilities to take these decisions effectively all of which inevitably leads to differences in power as between those who take decisions and those who accept them. However , as already mentioned, these differences in power are seen as desirable because Functionalists argue that power itself is a variable sum concept and that power is used in the interests of societies as a whole.

Although , as will be shown below, the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification has been subjected to several important criticisms, it has also received some support from the 1970s onwards from New Right theorists. Thus , for example, the New Right theorist Peter Saunders has argued in accordance with the Functionalist theory that income differences may well be necessary to incentivise talented individuals to undertake functionally important and difficult work; that the effective performance of this work contributes to higher living standards even for those in lower positions within the social stratification system; and that the extent of social mobility in contemporary capitalist societies is actually greater than is implied by other theorists such as John Goldthorpe and Gordon Marshall which suggests that income inequality does not seriously undermine the extent of meritocracy in capitalist societies [all of which means that a careful assessment of competing theories of social mobility is necessary before the Functionalist theory of social stratification can be fully evaluated.] Peter Saunders does, however, reject the Functionalist claim that social stratification is inevitable arguing instead that it would be perfectly possible for powerful [and possibly totalitarian ] governments to impose greater economic equality but this would mean that individuals would then be forced rather than incentivised to undertake difficult functionally important work which they would then perform less effectively. such that increased equality would be achieved but only at the expense of reduced individual liberty and reduced economic efficiency. Of course other theorists have argued that individuals could be persuaded to work for the common good with no necessary reduction in liberty nor in economic efficiency.

In recent years so-called neo-Functionalists have argued that although some of the arguments raised by original orthodox Functionalists are certainly open to criticisms  it may nevertheless be legitimate to argue that the incomes of highly paid industrial and financial entrepreneurs and of skilled managers , administrators and professionals within the private and public sectors may to some extent reflect the functionality of their work combined with the relative scarcity of their skills and abilities. However neo-Functionalists do recognise the limitations of the orthodox Functionalist theory and it is to these limitations which we now turn.

The main criticisms of the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification may be listed as follows. [See above for further development of these criticisms. You might like to do some further work yourselves slightly extending  this section of my summary!]

  1. It is impossible to measure objectively the functional importance of different occupations.
  2. Differences in income as between different occupations depend upon factors other than the functional  importance of different occupations even if this could be measured objectively.
  3. The Functionalist analysis of  power and is flawed in that power should not be seen as a variable sum concept and it is not necessarily used in the interests of all members of society.
  4. The Functionalist analysis of social status is flawed because there is no necessary agreement within society as to what factors determine social status and which occupations are deserving of high social status. Who has the higher socials status; nurses or investment bankers?
  5. Unequal patterns of social stratification may for several reasons be dysfunctional and undesirable rather than functional and desirable.
  6. The Functionalist analysis of the significance of training costs as a factor necessitating income inequality is flawed.
  7. Functionalist have overstated the extent to which there is a limited pool of talent of individuals with functionally important skills.
  8. The Functionalist analysis of hierarchical patterns of social stratification as consisting in finely differentiated non -antagonistic strata accurate severely underestimates the extent of social conflict as between different social classes which is emphasised by conflict theorists.
  9. Although hierarchical patterns of social stratification are observable in most, if not all, known societies this does not mean that such patterns are inevitable.
  10. The Functionalist Theory amounts to little more than a variant of ruling class ideology dressed up as sociological theory which can be used to legitimise inequalities which are in fact unjustified and counterproductive.

Some sociologists would accept that the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification [and particularly, perhaps, the more recent neo-Functionalist version of the theory] does contribute something to our understanding of unequal patterns of social stratification in that the incomes received by industrial and financial entrepreneurs and skilled administrators, managers and other professionals in the private and public sectors  do in some cases and to some extent correspond loosely to the functional importance of their work, [assuming that this could be measured objectively].

Nevertheless conflict theorists especially make severe criticisms of the Functionalist theory claiming in particular that it is impossible to measure objectively the functional importance of different occupations; that incomes are influenced by factors other than functional importance including especially the powers of employers and other senior white collar workers to exploit  subordinate workers and/or mislead consumers; and that consequently relations between social classes or strata are in reality characterised by conflicts in which the powerful use their power in their own interests rather than by non- antagonism and the generalised use of power in the interests of all as suggested by Functionalist. Furthermore against Functionalism it is argued that unequal patterns of social stratification undermine meritocracy and are dysfunctional in several other respects  including , for example, the generation of social class differences in health and life expectancy and that although unequal patterns of social stratification are observable in most, if not all known societies, this does not mean that they are necessarily inevitable.

However whereas some radical critics of Functionalism argue in favour of the kinds of classless societies which would be based on the absence of unequal patterns of social stratification others of perhaps liberal or social democratic persuasions [such as for example, the political theorist John Rawls] argue for the significant narrowing of existing inequalities but for the maintenance of more limited inequalities which they still consider to be desirable and indeed necessary to promote effective decision making, economic efficiency and the best outcomes for the most disadvantaged members of society. Against this the radicals claim that only the abolition of private property and the class system  can promote the self-development of all, a view which Functionalists, of course, regard as entirely unrealistic.