Classic Theories of Social Stratification

Why is there inequality in society?

Social stratification, and inequality, are fundamental concepts in sociology.

We defined stratification as the existence of structured inequalities between social groups on the basis of power and resources. But this just defines the term.

A crucial question is: Why does inequality exist in society? To answer this question, let’s examine classic theories of social stratification.

Classic Theories of Social Stratification

We examine several classic sociological theories of social stratification, including functionalism, conflict theory, and Lenski’s power and privilege theory.

Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification

Sociologists Davis and Moore published their famous and now classic article on social stratification theory called, “Some Principles of Stratification” in the American Sociological Review (1945).

Here are the basic principles that they wrote about.

Stratification functions for society

In every society, there needs to be a division of labor.

As such, some jobs are more difficult to perform than others.

Also, some jobs require a longer period of education/training that takes people out of the labor market for long periods of time.

Without these jobs, society could not function properly.

In order to induce the best people to take-on the most difficult jobs and undergo extensive education and training, there has to be a structure of differential rewards.  

Stratification exists because it ensures that the best people fill the most important positions generation after generation and, hence, that society functions properly.

Critiques of the Functionalist Theory of Stratification

The obviously flaw of functionalism is that it tends to justify the existence of things, rather than questioning why these things exist in the first place. In other words, functionalists believe stratification exists because it is useful. They don’t question its existence.

There are other obvious flaws in the theory. Let’s ask some critical questions.

  • How do we know which positions in society are more important than others?
  • Are occupational positions always paid according to their societal worth?
  • How can we determine who the most talented individuals are?
  • Are individuals primarily status seekers? Or do they seek other rewards?
Conflict theory in action

Conflict Theory of Social Stratification

Conflict theorists critiqued functionalists and have a different explanation for why social stratification exists.

In what became known as “Tumin’s Reply” to Davis and Moore’s classic article, in 1953, Tumin laid out a different theory that eventually became the basis of the conflict theory of social stratification.

Stratification exists because in the struggle over resources, some inevitably get more than others. Valuable resources are scarce.

Part of the struggle over valuable resources is that those with more try to hold on to what they have, and gather as much more as possible.

Resources are the capacity for power.

Given the statements above, we surmise that those with more make it difficult for those with less to improve their conditions.  Simply, everyone wants to secure valuable resources for themselves (including family and other in-groups).

Stratification exists because it is the outcome of institutionalized boundaries between groups.

Conflict theorists argue that stratification is the outcome of a struggle — a “conflict” — over resources. It is not functional and it exists because valuable resources, such as money, land, water, and political voice, are unequally distributed throughout the population. The few have more; the majority have less.

Lenski’s Power and Privilege Theory of Social Stratification

Gerhard Lenski had a different theory than either the functionalists or the conflict theorists. Lenski examined societies across thousands of years, from pre-industrial societies of hunter-gatherers to the ones of the modern day (well, the 1960s) — he published his theory in the book, Power and Privilege in 1966.

Here is Lenski’s theory of social stratification.

— Social stratification is a study of the distributive process. The main question of social stratification, writes Lenski, is ”who gets what and why.”  

— He places emphasis on “power”

— Like functionalists and conflict theorists, he argues that most of what people strive for is in short supply.

— Most of what people strive for has “instrumental” value, e.g. wealth, occupational position, that are used to achieve their goals.

— The struggle for rewards is inevitable.

— In each society, as surplus increases and level of technology increases, the level of stratification increases.  

— Power differentials determine the distribution of nearly all surplus.

— In low surplus societies, goods and services are distributed based on need.  For hunter-gatherer, horticultural, and agricultural societies, the theory is well supported.  

— With technological advance, an increasing proportion of goods and services are distributed based on power differentials.

— People are divided into classes. Lenski defines class as an aggregate of persons who stand in a similar position in terms of power, privilege, and prestige.  

What can we learn from classic theories of social stratification?

Each theory has some elements that sound right. Functionalists are correct in that people are more willing to endure long educational and training periods if they believe that the financial rewards after graduation are great. Also, it is hard to argue against the idea that medical doctors occupy an important position in society and thus have higher incomes. Of course, that teachers are so low paid and NBA players get millions is hard to justify as “functional” for society.

Conflict theorists are right that people struggle over scarce and valued resources. Yet, there is also cooperation in society, and social welfare programs which, in some countries, like those in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, are helpful.

Lenski’s theory works very well to explain inequality in pre-industrial societies. A problem with Lenski’s theory is that, while it is easier to apply it in pre-industrial societies, it is difficult to understand what “surplus” means in modern societies. What is a surplus in modern society? A surplus of smart phones? A surplus of survival bunkers? and so on.

It is clear that social stratification exists because people in societies conflict over scarce and valued resources. Whether it should be that way is another question entirely.

Copyright Joshua Dubrow The Sociology Place 2022

Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Cover photo by DALL-E. Photo of conflict by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash.

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