Jan 25, 2018 in Research


The social world is unequal. Stratification was and remains one of the most contested objects of sociological analysis. Numerous sociologists have tried to produce the most relevant ideology of stratification. Some of them were criticizing it, while others recognized the inevitability and even functional importance of the social strata. Nowhere else are these ideological variations visible better than in the writings of Karl Marx, Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore. For those sociologists, the idea of social, economic and political stratification became the basis for the development of their unique sociological views. Karl Marx's "The Class Struggle" and Davis and Moore's "Some Principles of Stratification" do have a number of conceptual commonalities, mainly through the sociologists' recognition that social stratification exists and capital is one of its essential prerequisites. At the same time, the two readings represent two opposite sides of the sociological reality – the conflict and functionalist ideologies that will never come to any functional agreement.

Davis and Moore: Some Principles of Stratification

Davis and Moore's "Some Principles of Stratification" is one of the most fundamental work in the field of sociology, inequality, and stratification. At the heart of Davis and Moore's argument is a strong belief in the inevitability of hierarchical inequality. Davis and Moore contend that stratification does exist in many societies, although it comes in different forms. Moreover, the two sociologists argue that social stratification is a matter of functional necessity, without which no society can successfully exist.

According to Davis and Moore (1967), "social inequality is an unconsciously evolved device by which societies insure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons" (p.330). The main factors determining the relative importance of different positions and the rewards, which accompany them, are functional importance and scarcity of personnel (Davis & Moore, 1967). Some positions are more important than others, and the relative importance of different positions varies considerably across societies. At the same time, the functional importance of a certain position is not a sufficient condition for acquiring it; all positions require some form of capacity of skill to cope with its functions (Davis & Moore, 1967). The more talent is required to fill the position the more rewarding it becomes. In the society described by Davis and Moore (1967), talents and skills come naturally or through extensive training. The stratification that results from the talent and skill variations is invariably linked to all major societal institutions and functions to maintain their stability in the long run.

Moore and Davis (1967) pay special attention to the relationship between stratification and religion. In their view, religion is one of the foundational elements of social stability, because it provides the beliefs and rituals that set the boundaries of acceptable behaviors. In a stratified society, religious officials enjoy special privileges, as they are believed to be the keepers of the sacred tradition (Moore & Davis, 1967). At the same time, their power is limited by low intellectual and technical competence, as well as by the growing importance of rationalism and technologies, when religion is pushed to the social background.

In a similar vein, Davis and Moore (1967) discuss the implications of stratification for politics, labor and property. In Davis and Moore's (1967) view, governments organize societies in terms of authority and law, and they enforce the norms and control all individuals within the states' territory. However, very often, individuals in the positions of political power have less discretion and authority than their position could theoretically provide (Davis & Moore, 1967). Moreover, no position by itself can result in power, prestige, or high income; rather, it is the relative importance of such position in the given society that defines the boundaries of income it can actually bring (Davis & Moore, 1967). In Davis and Moore's (1967) theory of stratification, technical knowledge occupies a special place, because it is the amount of technical knowledge that creates the basis for earning high rewards. Certainly, technical knowledge alone cannot guarantee exceptional returns, because other factors like labor demand and supply should also be considered (Davis & Moore, 1967). Overall, Davis and Moore (1967) perceive stratification as both inevitable and essential to any society's survival. In their view, stratification is a perfect motivation for society members to move up the social ladder.

Karl Marx and "The Class Struggle"

Marx's "The Class Struggle" presents an entirely different picture of stratification. According to Marx (1961), social stratification is not a harmonic system of social relationships but a never-ending conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed. The bourgeoisie which, according to Marx (1961) emerged as a result of numerous revolutionary shifts, is a real oppressor. It is the bourgeoisie that "has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers" (Marx, 1961, p.530). The bourgeoisie has deprived the society of its family values, turning it into product of money relations. Marx (1961) writes that bourgeoisie constantly revolutionizes the instruments of production and draws the oppressed classes into civilization by all means. As a result, and under the influence of their power, they manage to centralize the means of production and concentrate property ownership in a few hands (Marx, 1961). Meanwhile, the proletariat is left alone in its fight for survival, turning into a commodity in a world of industrial manufacturing. The division of labor and extensive reliance on machinery have deprived them of their individual character (Marx, 1961). Gender distinctions are being erased. Workers are bound to exchange their talents and toil for cash and fall further into the proletariat, because their diminutive capital does not let them fight for a better position in the stratified society (Marx, 1961).

Marx (1961) is convinced that the proletariat is the revolutionary class. The struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is the central and most essential national struggle (Marx, 1961). This struggle has been characteristic of all societal forms, but capitalism is moving the society towards the end of its existence. Bourgeoisie does not allow the lowest ranks to achieve a better state of wellbeing, which means that capitalism and the existence of bourgeoisie are no longer compatible with the goals of the proletariat (Marx, 1961). As the main producer of goods and capital, the laborer cannot be a slave, and by replacing fair labor competition with oppression, bourgeoisie is turning into its gravedigger (Marx, 1961). In Marx's view, it is revolutions that can bring the proletariat towards a new, better social status.

Davis and Moore versus Marx: Commonalities and Critiques

The writings by Davis and Moore (1967) and Marx (1961) do have certain commonalities. First, both works recognize the existence of stratification, although they depict its fundamental features in entirely different colors. Second, like Davis and Moore (1967), Marx (1961) recognizes the importance of capital and material values in one's movement to a higher social position. Third, Marx accepts the view promoted by Davis and Moore (1967) that technical knowledge matters and intellectuals can meet their social goals and make a living, as long as they fit in the economic and social conditions of their life (Collins, 1994). Like Davis and Moore (1967), Marx speaks about the relative importance of being a priest or monk during medieval feudalism, because that was the position that could create value and produce knowledge that was needed in society at that time (Collins, 1994).

Still, the philosophies of stratification promoted by Marx and Davis and Moore are more different than similar. More specifically, they represent the two opposite sides of the sociological reality – the functionalist (Davis and Moore) and conflict (Marx). While Davis and Moore (1967) highlight the most positive features of social stratification and justify its necessity by the need to motivate individuals and enable their productive movement up the social ladder, Marx (1961) depicts stratification in negative, oppressive, and grave terms. As a result, it is not difficult to imagine how Marx would criticize the stratification propositions made by Davis and Moore.

To start with, the numerous social classes and positions presented by Davis and Moore (1967) do not matter, as long as the socially stratified society is made of the two classes – the oppressor and the oppressed (Marx, 1961). The former have all material values in their hands, while the oppressed are destined to spend their lives in hard work for the meager cash received for their efforts. Such stratification does not work for the benefit of society and does not motivate the lower classes to improve their position, as Davis and Moore (1961) state. On the contrary, the laborer who is responsible for the rapid progress of the industrial revolution sinks further down to the bottom of the social hierarchy (Marx, 1961). Davis and Moore (1967) cannot be right in their belief that the importance of social positions and occupations comes before income and property. On the contrary, it is property and income that define the relative importance of various social layers (Marx, 1961). Those, who are lucky to occupy a more profitable position will keep accumulating wealth, capital, and property in their hands, thus preventing other society members from pursuing the same social path.

Even with all technical knowledge and talents, the oppressed class cannot dominate the oppressor, because it does not have the material conditions of mobilization (Collins, 1994). Even Davis and Moore (1967) recognize that learning and social growth can be impossible without material investments. In simpler terms, education is not provided for free, and not everyone is allowed to enter the privileged ranks. Stratification does not work for the sake of fairness in politics, because all major government positions are being held by those, have greater means of political mobilization (Marx, 1961; Collins, 1994). The oppressor has a good material basis to enter politics and guarantee that all important decisions are made in his favor (Collins, 1994). Meanwhile, the oppressed will have to work at the edge of material survival. Even religion cannot save the oppressed majority from material deprivation. It can only provide a temporary relief which is false and misleading. Only revolutions can break the vicious circle of wealth and politics, thus enabling the oppressed class to become the primary political decision maker.


Stratification has always been an interesting object of sociological analysis. Davis and Moore present a different picture of stratification, as compared with Marx. Davis and Moore view stratification as a functional driver of society's development that motivates society members to move up the social ladder. By contrast, Marx associates stratification with conflict and believes that this conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed is extremely damaging to any society. The two readings represent the two opposite ends of one sociological continuum – functionalism and conflict. From Marx's viewpoint, the functionalist propositions presented by Davis and Moore will never work, as long as the society needs equality and freedom, and only revolutions can break the vicious circle of discrimination, politics, and wealth. 


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