Practice Question  –  Elucidate the basic premises of Davis’ structural-functional theory of social stratification. How far is it relevant in understanding contemporary Indian society? [UPSC 2016]

Approach  – Introduction, Explain Davis-Moore theory of social stratification, Apply it to the Indian context, Give examples, Criticism, Conclusion



Social stratification refers to unequal relations between individual and groups in a society. All the members of the society are a part of this arrangement of unequal social relations. Those who have occupied lower position in this order of relations have often resented their underprivileged status, whereas those who have enjoyed a privileged status have been averse to concede any change in the existing system.

Social structures are not constant. They change and reconstitute themselves. They undergo transformation with the activity of their members. They are subject to changes through scores of ways but more specifically through political action. In India, scholars have pointed out how the electoral process has led to the reformulation and reassertion of caste identities. Social agents or actors (members  of a society) may understand their position and role in social structures differently.



Functionalist tendency

The most important representatives of this trend are Emile Durkheim, A.R. Radcliffe Brown and Talcott Parsons. They see social structures as external to individual actors. These structures vary from one society to the other and largely explain the similarity and differences between one society and another. The behaviour of individuals in social life is to
be explained with them in view. They emphasize careful scrutiny of social facts and identifying the patterns of interaction holding them together. They see in society a normative order that assigns duties and responsibilities, prevents deviant behaviour and ensures value consensus.


Basic concepts 

  1. Societies are complex systems of interrelated and interdependent parts, and each part of a society significantly influences the others.
  2. Each part of a society exists because it has a vital function to perform in maintaining the existence or stability of society as a whole; the existence of any part of a society is therefore explained when its function for the whole is identified. In other words, the function of anything, which is assumed to be “beneficial function”explains why a structure exists.
  3. The tendency of society is toward stability, harmony, or equilibrium, in other words toward balance. Society is seen as a self-regulating system and all of the constituent elements of a society must contribute to maintaining this state of harmony.
  4. Overall, the assumption of functionalism is that all social structures contribute to the maintenance of the system and the existence of any given structure is explained by means of its consequences (functions) which must, by definition be beneficial to the maintenance of stable order.


The necessity of stratification

Every society requires individuals who can be placed and motivated for specific tasks. There are social positions and duties attached to them. Individual members in a society are assigned work in a specific position based on their eligibility and ability. People are motivated at two levels:
                    1) The need to fill certain positions;
                    2) The need to perform the duties attached to certain positions.

This is true of all systems, whether they are relatively static or somewhat dynamic. This goes on as a process. This is prevalent in both competitive and non-competitive system. Motivation may vary depending upon the nature of the system.


The logic of stratification

Since positions are not the same, therefore some positions require special training, and some are functionally more important than the others. Duties attached to given positions must be performed with the diligence required for those. On the basis of such a functionalist logic, a society thus has some kinds of rewards as inducements and these rewards are distributed based on one’s social position. Therefore, a social order is created which constitutes of rewards and distribution pattern followed by the foundation of the stratification system in the society.

Social inequality also emerges at this stage. Social inequality is thus unconsciously evolved, which is clear from the above explanation that the most qualified persons occupy the highest position in the social ladder. In every society, whether it is complex or simple, every individual is differentiated on the basis of her/his self-esteem and prestige. So, a society is characterised by inequality and the intensity and type of such inequality vary from society to society.



  • The functional theory of social stratification formulated by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore highlights
    i) Inevitability of social stratification.
    ii) Need for differential intent and ability for different functions.
    iii) Differential evaluation of different social positions and duties.
    iv) Reward on the basis of differential value attached with different functions.
    v). Values and rewards constituting the social differential and stratification.

Thus, social stratification is a consequence of inevitability of differentiation of roles and approaches to Social Stratification duties. Further, different duties and roles carry differential power and prestige. And the differentiation of roles and duties is inevitable for the survival of human society. Hence, stratification becomes inevitable in social life.



Melvin M. Tumin. argued that it was impossible to calculate the functional importance of any position in society objectively. According to Tumin, in his essay “Some Principles of Stratification: A Critical Analysis” published in 1953, “to judge that engineers in a factory are functionally more important to the factory than the unskilled workmen involves a notion
regarding the indispensability of the unskilled workmen.” In other words, Tumin says that in any given line of production, every position is interdependent and is therefore of functional importance. Tumin also argues that, instead of encouraging the use of talent, a rigid system of stratification may suppress the discovery of new talent. This is particularly salient in the areas of training and education. Tumin states that wealth may determine access to training and education, thus depriving large portions of the population of the opportunity to attain those positions that reward training and education. Based on this thinking, Tumin asserted that stratification is dysfunctional to society.

Ralf Dahrendorf considers that the control of social behaviour based on positive and negative sanctions creates a rank order of distributive status. Conformity is rewarded, deviance is penalised. Thus, stratification lies in certain features of all human societies which are necessary for them. The authority structure of the society sustains its system of norms and
sanctions. The functional theory of stratification does not take account of the crucial issue of the historical reality of the society and its existence as observed by Dahrendorf.


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