Why does social stratification exist at all? According to the structural-functional paradigm, social stratification plays a vital part in the operation of society. This argument was presented more than fifty years ago by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945).


The Davis-Moore thesis states that social stratification has beneficial consequences for the operation of a society. How else, ask Davis and Moore, can we explain the fact that some form of social stratification has been found in every known society?

Davis and Moore note that modern societies have hundreds of occupational positions of varying importance. Certain jobs—say, washing windows or answering a telephone—are fairly easy and can be performed by almost anyone. Other jobs—such as designing new generations of computers—are very difficult and demand the scarce talents of people with extensive (and expensive) training.

Therefore, Davis and Moore explain, the greater the functional importance of a position, the more rewards a society attaches to it. This strategy promotes productivity and efficiency, since rewarding important work with income, prestige, power, or leisure encourages people to do these things, and to work better, longer, and harder. In short, unequal rewards—which is what social stratification is—benefits society as a whole.

Davis and Moore concede that any society can be egalitarian, but only to the extent that people are willing to let anyone perform any job. Equality also demands that someone who does a job poorly be rewarded on a par with someone who performs well. Such a system clearly offers little incentive for people to try their best and thereby reduces a society’s productive efficiency.

The Davis-Moore thesis suggests why some form of stratification exists everywhere; it does not state precisely what rewards a society should give to any occupational position or how unequal rewards should be. Davis and Moore merely point out that positions a society considers crucial must yield sufficient rewards to draw talented people away from less important work.

Critical evaluation. Although the Davis-Moore thesis is an important contribution to sociological analysis, it has provoked criticism. Melvin Tumin (1953) wondered, first, how we assess how important any occupation really is. Perhaps the high rewards our society gives to, say, physicians partly results from deliberate efforts by medical schools to limit the supply of physicians and thereby increase the demand for their services. Moreover, do rewards actually reflect the contribution one makes to society? With income approaching $100 million per year, television personality Oprah Winfrey earns more in two days than the president of the United States earns all year. Would anyone argue that hosting a talk show is more important than leading a country?

Second, Tumin claimed that Davis and Moore ignore how the caste elements of social stratification can prevent the development of individual talent. Born to inequality, rich children may develop their abilities, something many gifted poor children can never do.

Third, by suggesting that social stratification benefits all of society, the Davis-Moore thesis ignores how social inequality promotes conflict and even outright revolution. This criticism leads to the social-conflict paradigm, which provides a very different explanation for social hierarchy.