Compare the Functionalist and Marxist Views on Social Stratification

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Social stratification refers to the presence of distinct social groups which are ranked one above the other in terms of factors such as prestige and wealth (Haralambos & Holborn, 2004). Those who belong to a particular group or stratum will have some awareness of common interests and a common identity. They also share a similar lifestyle which, to some extent, will distinguish them from members of other social strata (Lenski, 1984). Social stratification involves a hierarchy of social groups and they either enjoy or suffer the unequal distribution of rewards in society as members of different social groups.

Four principles are identified which help explain why social stratification exists. First, social stratification is a characteristic of society and not merely of individuals. Second, social stratification is universal but variable. Third, it persists over generations and fourth, it is supported by patterns of belief. There are different sociological perspectives which have been put forward about social stratification; the Functionalists and the Marxists. A Functionalist, (Parsons, 1954 in Haralambos & Holborn, 2004), has argued that stratification systems derive from common values.

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He proposes that those who perform successfully in terms of society’s values will be ranked highly and they will be likely to receive a variety of rewards. At a minimum they will be accorded high prestige because they exemplify and personify common values. He also states that because different societies have different value systems, the ways of attaining a high position will vary from society to society. Functionalists tend to see the relationship between social groups in society as one of co-operation and interdependence.

Each group in society may specialize in a different activity, so no one group is self sufficient; they must therefore exchange goods and services with other groups (Lenski, 1984). This relationship is extended to the strata in a stratification system. Therefore, those with the power to organize and co-ordinate the activities of others will have a higher social status than those they direct. Parsons, 1954 also argued that in addition to prestige, there are also power differentials in society. He felt that inequalities of power are based on shared values.

Power was accepted as a part of society since he felt that those in authority used their power to pursue collective goals which derive from society’s central values. The most famous Functionalist theory of stratification has been put forward by (Davis & Moore ,1998 in Haralambos & Holborn, 2004). They felt that stratification existed in every known human society; they argued that all social systems share certain functional prerequisites which must be met if the system is to survive and operate efficiently.

They further argued that all societies needed some mechanism for effective role allocation and performance; this mechanism is social stratification. They viewed social stratification as a system that attaches unequal rewards and privileges to the different positions in society. People differ in terms of their innate ability and talent and the different positions in society differ in terms of their importance for the survival and maintenance of society. Therefore they believed that certain positions were functionally more important than others.

As a result, stratification is viewed as matching the most able people with the functionally most important positions. High rewards are attached to these positions which require long periods of training and the desire for such rewards motivates people to compete for them even though they may have to undergo sacrifices. It is essential for the well-being of society that those who hold the functionally most important positions perform their roles diligently and conscientiously. It is felt that the high rewards built into these positions provide the necessary inducement and generate the required motivation for such performance.

Davis and Moore therefore concluded that social stratification is a device by which societies ensure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons. They realized however that it was difficult to show which positions are functionally more important. Therefore they stated that the importance of a position may be measured by the degree to which a position is functionally unique and also the degree to which other positions are dependent on the one in question. The Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification has been subjected to several important criticisms; the major opponent being Melvin Tumin.

He questioned the adequacy of the measurement of the functional importance of positions as laid out by David and Moore. He disagreed with the view that the most highly rewarded positions are indeed the most important. He proposed that many occupations which afford little economic reward is vital to society. He therefore argued that the labor force of unskilled workmen in a factory were just as important as the labor force of engineers. Tumin also felt that Davis and Moore ignored the influence of power on the unequal distribution of rewards.

He argued that differences in pay and prestige between occupational groups may be due to differences in their power rather than their functional importance. Tumin further rejects the notion that only a limited number of individuals have the talent to acquire the skills necessary for the functionally most important positions. This is due to the fact that there is no effective method of measuring talent and abilities, no proof that exceptional talents are required for the important positions as mentioned by David and Moore and that the pool of talent in society may be considerably larger than that expected(Haralambos & Holborn, 2004).

On the other hand, the Marxists have put forward their views on social stratification which differ to the views of the Functionalists. In fact, the Marxist perspective provides a radical alternative to the functionalist views of the nature of social stratification. The Marxists regard stratification as a divisive rather than an integrative structure. It is seen as a mechanism whereby some exploit others, rather than as a means of furthering goals. The Marxists focus on social strata whereby the functionalists say very little about social stratification in relation to the topic of social strata.

This focus on social strata is central to the Marxist Theory. From a Marxist perspective, systems of stratification derive from the relationships of social groups to the means of production. The term ‘class’ was used to refer to the main strata in all stratification systems; a class is a social group whose members share the same relationship to the means of production. In a capitalist era, there are two main classes, the bourgeoisie or capitalist class and the proletariat or working class. Classes emerge when the productive capacity of society expands beyond the level required for subsistence.

Private property and the accumulation of surplus wealth form the basis for the development of class societies. These provide the preconditions for the emergence of a class of producers and a class of non-producers (Haralambos & Holborn, 2004). According to Marx, the relationship between the major social classes is one of mutual dependence and conflict. The wage laborers must sell their labor power in order to survive since they do not own a part of the means of production. They are therefore, dependent for their livelihood on the capitalists and the wages they offer.

The capitalists are dependent on the labor power of wage laborers, since without it there would be no production. This relationship however, is one of an exploiter and exploited or oppressor and oppressed. As such, the ruling class gains at the expense of the subject class which leads to a conflict of interest between them. From a Marxist perspective, capital, which is the money used to finance the production of commodities, is privately owned by the capitalist class. Marx believes that this capital is gained from the exploitation of the working class (Haralambos & Holborn, 2004).

This he further argued, produced nothing as only labor was capable of producing wealth; yet still the wages paid to workers are well below the value of the goods they produce. Therefore the capitalists realize a surplus value or profit. The bourgeoisie are therefore exploiting the proletariat who are the real producers of wealth. Marx maintained that in all societies, the ruling class exploits and oppresses the subject class. According to Marxist theory, the political power comes from the economic power; the political power of the ruling class stems from its ownership and control of the means of production.

The ruling class dominates the relations of production which results in the political and legal systems reflecting the ruling class interest. For example, the various ownership rights of the capitalist class will be enshrined in and protected by the laws of the land. The dominant concepts of class societies is referred to as ruling-class ideology which according to Marx produces false class consciousness, a false picture of the nature of the relationship between social classes.

Members of both classes tend to accept the status quo as normal and natural and are largely unaware of the true nature of exploitation and oppression. In this manner, the conflict of interest between the classes is disguised and a degree of social stability is produced, but the contradictions and conflicts of class societies remain unresolved. Marx believed that the class struggle was the driving force of social change. It is only when the means of production are communally owned will classes disappear and bring an end to the exploitation and oppression of some by others.

He also felt that certain factors in the natural development of a capitalist society would hasten its downfall. These factors include increasing use of machinery, difference in wealth between the bourgeoisie and proletariat and the competitive nature of capitalism. Marx believed that these factors would widen the gap between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Marx’s views on social stratification continue to influence many sociologists and debates within the sociology of stratification. It is evident that both the Functionalist and Marxist see the world in terms of their values and attitudes.

The Functionalist is seen as conservative and is concerned with explaining the basis of social order. They therefore focus on the contributions of the various parts of society to the maintenance of order. By comparison, Marxist theories are openly radical; they advocate fundamental social change in many contemporary societies.


Haralambos, M. & Holborn, M. (2004). Socilogy Themes andPerspectives. London, HarperCollins Publishers. Lenski, G. E. (1984). Power and Privilege. A Theory of Social Stratification. United States, University of North Carolina Press.

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