Page last edited: 04/01/2013
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 NEWEST. Link added April 21st 2012
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. [New 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
Click here for a sympathetic review of "The Costs of Inequality" by Stewart Lansley
- 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 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.
- Functionalism and the Nature of Social Stratification
- Functionalism and the Desirability of Social Stratification
- Functionalism and the Inevitability of Social Stratification
- Functionalism, Socialisation, Social Consensus and Social Change
- Functionalism, The New Right and Neo-Functionalism
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 , 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.
- On the Difficulties of Measuring the Functional Importance of Different Occupations
- Individuals' incomes are influenced by factors other than the functional importance of their occupations
- Criticisms of Functionalist Analysis of Social Status and Power
- Criticisms of the Functionalist View that Unequal Patterns of Social Stratification are desirable
- Criticisms of the Functionalist View that there is a "limited pool of talent
- Criticisms of the Functionalist Analysis of Training Costs
- Criticisms of the Functionalist Theory that patterns of social stratification in capitalist societies should be seen as hierarchies of non -antagonistic social strata.
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.
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".
Criticisms of the Functionalist Theory that unequal patterns of social stratification are inevitable.
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.
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.
Conflict Theorists' Criticisms of the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- The Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification: A Summary
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!]
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.