THE FUNCTIONALIST THEORY OF STRATIFICATION
The functionalist theory of social inequality holds that stratification exists because it is
beneficial for society.
All societies require a system of stratification if they are to fill all
the statuses comprising the social structure and to motivate individuals to perform the
duties associated with these positions.
Consequently, society must motivate people at
two different levels: (1) It must instill in certain individuals the desire to fill various
positions, and (2) once the individuals are in these positions, it must instill in them the
desire to carry out the appropriate roles.
This theory was most clearly set forth in 1945
by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore, although it has been subsequently modified and
refined by other sociologists.
Davis and Moore argued that social stratification is both
universal and necessary, and hence no society is ever totally unstratified or classless.
Society must concern itself with human motivation because the duties associated with
the various statuses are not all equally pleasant to the human organism, are not all equally
important to social survival, and are not all equally in need of the same abilities and
If social life were otherwise, it would make little difference who got into which
positions, and the problem of social placement would be greatly reduced.
duties associated with a good many positions are viewed by their occupants as onerous.
Hence, in the absence of motivation, many individuals would fail to act out their roles.
For example, imagine being a dentist.
How likely is it that talented and intelligent people
would train to become dentists – pulling teeth, working to correct extensive (and bad-
smelling) decay, bending near to people’s faces even when they have runny noses,
coughs, and bad breath, causing people pain, anxiety, and distress – if the pay and status
were not fairly high?
Maintaining the dental health of our population is important to
society, and so we want to motivate people to become dentists.
On the basis of these social realities, functionalists contend that a society must have
(1) some kind of rewards that it can use as inducements for its members, and (2) some
way of distributing these rewards among the various statuses.
Inequality is the
motivational incentive that society has evolved to meet the problems of filling all the
statuses and getting the occupants to enact the associated roles to the best of their
Since these rewards are built into the social system, social stratification is a
structural feature of all societies.
Employing the economists’ model of supply and demand, funtionalists say that the
positions most highly rewarded are those (1) that are occupied by the most talented or
qualified incumbents (supply) and (2) that are functionally most important (demand).
example, to ensure sufficient physicians, a society needs to offer them high salaries and
If it did not offer these rewards, functionalists suggest that we could not