The concept of separating the population into social groups based on income, wealth, occupation, and or social or political power. In this paper, I will be breaking down each sociological perspective as they pertain to social stratification as well as providing an overview of the theories themselves. I will conclude by explaining why two of the theories are necessary to understand stratification. Structural functionalists believe that our society is a system of many complex parts that work together to promote stability for its members.
Sociologists Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore argued in the Davis-Moore thesis that a greater reward is required for roles that have greater functional significance. This theory is the most like the idea of the “American Dream”, work hard for a good job and obtain a higher social standing than someone who didn’t. The Davis-Moore thesis explains that social stratification is a necessary part of our society because it motivates people to strive for excellence, productivity, and something “better”.
Structural functionalists like Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore focus on society as a whole, on a macro-level. They ask broad questions like “how is society held together, and how does social stratification affect that?” “What are the major parts of society, and how does each part help our society work?” In the article, Kingsley and Moore explain that the efficiency of the different parts, or jobs, in society are incredibly dependent on who is fulfilling them. “If the duties associated with the various positions were all equally important to the human organism and all equally important to societal survival, and all equally in need of the same ability or talent, it would make no difference who got into which positions and the problem of social placement would be greatly reduced.
But actually, it does make a great deal of difference who gets into which positions, not only because some positions are inherently more agreeable than others, but also because some require special talents or training and some are functionally more important than another. Also, it is essential that the duties of the positions be performed with the diligence that their importance requires”. This leads to the rewards that are available to those who chose to take responsibility for more demanding roles, Kingsley and Moore go on to say that the rewards that “can be used as inducements, and, second, some way of distributing these rewards and their distributions become a part of the social order, and thus give rise to stratification”. In modern terms, this boils down to people with better jobs making more money and receiving higher social praise. A basic example of this is a grocery store cashier and a firefighter- society needs both of those roles. Not everyone can be a firefighter, but those who chose to fulfill roles of higher prestige will be placed higher on the social pyramid with people who have roles that are equally high in caliber. This leads to the next theory, symbolic interactionism.
Symbolic interactionism is the theory that examines everyday interactions with people using a micro-level perspective to explain society as a whole. In regards to social stratification, the social standing of an individual affects everyday interactions with others. In almost all communities, people typically interact with those who are in the same or similar social class as themselves. This is social stratification at its most basic form. People will typically work, marry and form friendships with others who are similar to themselves in income, educational, and racial background. When someone decides they are no longer content with the group they are in, they are forced to make changes in one or more areas in order to be accepted into a new group.
For example, imagine a child that has grown up in a low-income neighborhood; no one they know has gone to college and the people he is surrounded with are complacent with not making much money and living paycheck to paycheck. According to the symbolic interactionist perspective, unless he makes significant changes in his life, that is the group he will be “assigned to.” Now, enter the structural-functionalist perspective. Imagine the child decides he wants better for himself, goes to school to earn a degree in a field that will provide him with a high-paying job, and is able to move from that low-income neighborhood into a gated community. He has now changed the significance of his societal function, which changed the people he is surrounded with which will ultimately change his daily interactions. Symbolic interactionist look at society at a micro-level, they focus on the small details of everyday life in order to create the bigger picture. They ask questions like “how do people experience society, and how does that change from class to class?” “How do the people we have surrounded with shape our reality, and how does our social class affect how we treat and are treated by others?”
If understood and used correctly the previous sociological theories can be used to better one’s life and to help them make sense of the society they are in. Social conflict theorists, however, are deeply critical of social stratification and make the averment that it does not benefit all members of society. Conflict theorists believe that social stratification breeds inequality and strive to shed a light on such injustices. Conflict theory, in my opinion, is the black sheep of the theory family. While structural functionalism and symbolic internationalism work together to explain a society in which one is rewarded by higher social standing for having roles that are valued in society, conflict theorists believe that there is a system in place to make the rich richer and keep the poor poor. While they do raise fair questions, such as why movie stars and ballplayers make millions of dollars a year while teachers make just barely enough to keep them floating above the poverty line, the problem with their theory is that we are unfortunately in a society that values entertainment over education. It isn’t a matter of injustice, it simply circles back to the roles that are more valued in the society receiving more prestige, or in this case, money.
Conflict theorists focus on the tension between the social classes and how that tension has negative effects on our society. Conflict theorists look at society from a macro-level perspective, and ask questions such as “how does society divide a population”? Which is essentially exactly what social stratification is. “How do advantaged people protect their privileges?” “How do disadvantaged people challenge the system of stratification?” And “how does such a rich society have so many poor members” After looking at each of the three theories and how each one relates to social stratification, it is my opinion that all are needed in order to fully understand the concept and how it affects our society. Structural functionalism and symbolic interactionism are the easiest to understand, as their main concepts are pretty simple; work hard to get an esteemed role in society and with that comes high societal praise and recognition. They also both explore the theory that you are who you surround yourself with, and that seeing the success of others will motivate one to do more for themselves- the same theory that makes us want to “keep up with the Jones.” Structural functionalism and symbolic interactionism are most like the American Dream, and I would venture to guess that most American’s view as the way our social classes are dictated.
However, when you add conflict theory to the aforementioned theories, it raises more questions about the foundation of our society and why things are the way they are. Conflict theorists recognize the foundation of stratification but question its legitimacy or necessity in our society. While I may disagree with them in reference to social classes being solely based on inequalities that are outside of the control of those in certain classes, I’m not ignorant to the injustices that is prevalent in our society today. I do think that any society needs people to question why things are the way they are. They raise valid questions about poverty and iniquities that take place in our communities. The combination of these three theories is best summarized by the eighth paragraph of the Kingsley-Moore article. “If the rights and prerequisites of different positions in a society must be unequal, then the society must be stratified because that is precisely what stratification means. Social inequality is thus an unconsciously evolved device by which societies insure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons. Hence every society, no matter how simple or complex, must differentiate persons in terms of both prestige and esteem, and must therefore possess a certain about in institutionalized inequality”.