Theoretical Perspectives on Stratification

What you’ll learn to do: describe theoretical perspectives on stratification

In the foreground there are two basketball players. Stephen Curry is on the left and jumping into the air with the basketball in his hands. Marcin Gortat is on the right, facing away from the camera and his arms are in the air as he runs towards Stephen.

Figure 1. Stephen Curry and Marcin Gortat playing basketball. (Photo courtesy of Keith Allison/flickr)

While basketball is one of the highest-paying professional sports, there is stratification among teams and especially among players. For example, the Sacramento Kings hand out the lowest annual payroll, while the Golden State Warriors reportedly pay the highest. In 2018, Stephen Curry, a Golden State Warriors point guard, was the highest paid athlete in the NBA, earning around $34.7 million a year[1]. Within specific fields from all walks of life, layers are stratified and members are ranked.
Sociological theories can help us explain social phenomena such as different salaries within the same high status profession. Functionalists would examine the purpose of such high salaries, while conflict theorists would study the exorbitant salaries as an unfair distribution of money, and might also explore the role of economic pressures arising from corporate-sponsored arenas, network ratings, owners, and managers. Interactionist theorists might examine how name-recognition is symbolic and important for particular teams and cities, such as LeBron James’ recent move from his hometown of Cleveland to Los Angeles. Social stratification takes on new meanings when it is examined from these different sociological perspectives.

Learning outcomes

  • Describe functionalist views of social stratification
  • Describe conflict theorists’ explanations of social stratification
  • Explain how symbolic interactionists conceptualize social stratification
  • Differentiate between conflict, interactionist, and functionalist explanations of social stratification
  • Explain global stratification using modernization theory and dependency theory

Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification


In sociology, the functionalist perspective examines how society’s parts operate. It is a macroanalytical view that focuses on the way that all aspects of society are integral to the continued health and viability of the whole. According to functionalism, different aspects of society exist because they serve a needed purpose. What is the function of social stratification?

In 1945, sociologists Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore published the Davis-Moore thesis, which argued that the greater the functional importance of a social role, the greater must be the reward. The theory posits that social stratification represents the inherently unequal value of different work. Certain tasks in society are more valuable than others. Qualified people who fill those positions must be rewarded more than others.

According to Davis and Moore, a firefighter’s job is more important than, for instance, a grocery store cashier’s. The cashier position does not require the same skill and training level as firefighting. Without the incentive of higher pay and better benefits, why would someone be willing to rush into burning buildings? If pay levels were the same, the firefighter might as well work as a grocery store cashier. Davis and Moore believed that rewarding more important work with higher levels of income, prestige, and power encourages people to work harder and longer.

Davis and Moore stated that, in most cases, the degree of skill required for a job determines that job’s importance. They also stated that the more skill required for a job, the fewer qualified people there would be to do that job. Certain jobs, such as cleaning hallways or answering phones, do not require much skill. The employees don’t need a college degree. Other work, like designing a highway system or delivering a baby, requires immense skill.

In 1953, Melvin Tumin countered the Davis-Moore thesis in “Some Principles of Stratification: A Critical Analysis.” Tumin questioned what determined a job’s degree of importance. The Davis-Moore thesis does not explain, he argued, why a media personality with little education or talent becomes famous and rich on a television show or politically successful on the campaign trail. The thesis also does not explain inequalities in the education system or inequalities due to race or gender. Tumin believed social stratification prevented qualified people from attempting to fill roles (Tumin 1953). For example, an underprivileged youth has less of a chance to become a scientist, no matter how smart she is, because of the relative lack of opportunity available to her. The Davis-Moore thesis also does not explain why a basketball player earns millions of dollars a year when a doctor who saves lives, a soldier who fights for others’ rights, and a teacher who helps form the minds of tomorrow will likely not make millions over the course of their careers.

The Davis-Moore thesis, though open for debate, was an early attempt to explain why stratification exists. The thesis states that social stratification is necessary to promote excellence, productivity, and efficiency, thus giving people something to strive for. Davis and Moore believed that the system serves society as a whole because it allows everyone to benefit to a certain extent. This supports meritocracy as an ideological system.

A functionalist might also focus on why we have global inequality and what social purposes it serves. This view might assert, for example, that we have global inequality because some nations are better than others at adapting to new technologies and profiting from a globalized economy, and that when core nation companies locate new operations in peripheral nations, they expand the local economy and benefit the workers.

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Conflict Theory

A group of people are shown standing on a sidewalk holding protest signs. Some signs read, "Cuts hurt students" and "Keep tech custodians in the family"

Figure 2. These people are protesting a decision made by Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee, to lay off custodians and outsource the jobs to a private firm to avoid paying employee benefits. Private job agencies often pay lower hourly wages and do not offer retirement benefits or health insurance. Is the decision fair? (Photo courtesy of Brian Stansberry/Wikimedia Commons)

Conflict theory focuses on the creation and reproduction of inequality. Conflict theorists are deeply critical of social stratification, asserting that it benefits only some people, not all of society. For instance, to a conflict theorist, it seems wrong that a basketball player is paid millions for an annual contract while a public school teacher earns $35,000 a year. Stratification, conflict theorists believe, perpetuates inequality. Conflict theorists try to bring awareness to inequalities, such as how a rich society can have so many poor members.

Many conflict theorists draw on the work of Karl Marx. During the nineteenth-century era of industrialization, Marx believed social stratification resulted from workers’ relationship to the means of production. People were divided by a single line: they either owned factories or worked in them. In Marx’s time, bourgeois capitalists owned high-producing businesses, factories, and land, as they still do today. Proletarians were the workers who performed the manual labor to produce goods. Upper-class capitalists raked in profits and got rich, while working-class proletarians earned meager wages and struggled to survive. With such opposing interests, the two groups were divided by differences of wealth and power. Marx theorized that workers experienced deep alienation, isolation and misery resulting from their sense of powerlessness and inferior status (Marx 1848). Marx argued that the proletarians were oppressed by the bourgeois.

Today, while working conditions have improved, conflict theorists believe that the strained working relationship between employers and employees still exists. Capitalists own the means of production, and a system is in place to make business owners rich and keep workers poor. According to conflict theorists, the resulting stratification creates class conflict. If he were alive in today’s economy–one still recovering from a prolonged recession–Marx would likely argue that the recession resulted from the greed of capitalists, who profited at the expense of working people.

When examining global stratification, a conflict theorist would likely address the systematic inequality created when core nations exploit the resources of peripheral nations. For example, how many U.S. companies take advantage of overseas workers who lack the constitutional protections and guaranteed minimum wages that exist in the United States? And how many establish overseas operations in countries with weak or nonexistent environmental protections? Doing so allows them to maximize profits, but at what cost?

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Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a theory that uses everyday interactions of individuals to explain society as a whole. Symbolic interactionism examines stratification from a micro-level perspective. This analysis strives to explain how people’s social standing affects their everyday interactions.

In most communities, people interact primarily with others who share the same social standing. It is precisely because of social stratification that people tend to live, work, and associate with others like themselves, people who share their income level, educational background, or racial background, and even tastes in food, music, and clothing. The built-in system of social stratification groups people together. This is one of the reasons why it was rare for a royal prince like England’s Prince William to marry a commoner.

Symbolic interactionists also note that people’s appearance reflects their perceived social standing. Housing, clothing, and transportation indicate social status, as do hairstyles, taste in accessories, and other symbolic elements of personal style.

Figure (a) shows a group of construction workers on a city street. Figure (b) shows a group of businessmen from behind.

Figure 3. (a) A group of construction workers on the job site, and (b) a group of businessmen. What categories of stratification do these construction workers share? How do construction workers differ from executives or custodians? Who is more skilled? Who has greater prestige in society? (Photo (a) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Photo (b) courtesy of Chun Kit/flickr)

To symbolically communicate social standing, people often engage in conspicuous consumption, which is the purchase, use, and display of certain products to make a social statement about status. Carrying pricey but eco-friendly water bottles could indicate a person’s social standing. Some people buy expensive, trendy sneakers even though they will never wear them to jog or play sports. A $17,000 car provides transportation as effectively as a $100,000 vehicle, but the luxury model makes a social statement that the less expensive car does not. All these symbols of stratification are worthy of examination by an interactionist.

When examining global stratification, a symbolic interactionist would study the day-to-day impact of global inequality, the meanings individuals attach to global stratification, and the subjective nature of poverty. Someone applying this view to global inequality would probably focus on understanding the difference between what someone living in a core nation defines as poverty (relative poverty, defined as being unable to live the lifestyle of the average person in your country) and what someone living in a peripheral nation defines as poverty (absolute poverty, defined as being barely able, or unable, to afford basic necessities such as food).


In the book Factory Girls: From Village to City in Changing China, Leslie T. Chang uses the symbolic interactionist approach to study global inequality. Chang follows two young women (Min and Chunming) employed at a handbag plant. They help manufacture coveted purses and bags for the global market. As part of the growing population of young people who are leaving behind the homesteads and farms of rural China, these female factory workers are ready to enter the urban fray and pursue an ambitious income.

Although Chang’s study is based in a town many have never heard of (Dongguan), this city produces one-third of all the shoes on the planet (Nike and Reebok are major manufacturers here), and 30 percent of the world’s computer disk drives, in addition to an abundance of apparel (Chang 2008).

But Chang’s focus is centered less on this large-scale global phenomenon itself than on how it affects these two women. As a symbolic interactionist would do, Chang examines the daily lives and interactions of Min and Chunming—their workplace friendships, family relationships, gadgets and goods—in this evolving global space where young women can leave tradition behind and shape their own futures. Their story is one that all people, not just scholars, can learn from as we contemplate sociological issues like global economies, cultural traditions and innovations, and opportunities for women in the workforce.

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Watch IT

Watch this video to review the ways that each of the three main paradigms explain social stratification.

Think It Over

  • Analyze the Davis-Moore thesis. Do you agree with Davis and Moore? Does social stratification play an important function in society? What examples can you think of that support the thesis? What examples can you think of that refute the thesis?
  • Consider social stratification from the symbolic interactionist perspective. How does social stratification influence the daily interactions of individuals? How do systems of class, based on factors such as prestige, power, income, and wealth, influence your own daily routines, as well as your beliefs and attitudes? Illustrate your ideas with specific examples and anecdotes from your own life and the lives of people in your community.

Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification

While the three main sociological paradigms all help explain global stratification, there are two major theories that developed out of the structural-functional and conflict theories that are best positioned to explain global inequality: modernization theory and dependency theory. Modernization theory posits that countries go through evolutionary stages and that industrialization and improved technology are the keys to forward progress. Dependency theory, on the other hand, sees modernization theory as Eurocentric and patronizing. According to dependency theory, global inequality is the result of core nations creating a cycle of dependence by exploiting resources and labor in peripheral and semi-peripheral countries.

Macrosociological Theories of Global Stratification

Modernization Theory

Modernization theory comes out of the structural-functional viewpoint, as it frames inequality as a function of industrial and cultural differences between nations. It holds that low-income nations were left out of the industrial gains that followed both the Columbian Exchange, which produced a transfer of goods and technologies between Europe and the “New World” beginning in the late 15th century, and the Industrial Revolution, due to an inability or reluctance to adopt new technologies. According to modernization theory, low-income countries are affected by their lack of industrialization and can improve their global economic standing through (Armer and Katsillis 2010):

  • an adjustment of cultural values and attitudes toward work
  • industrialization and other forms of economic growth

Critics point out the inherent ethnocentric bias of this theory. It supposes all countries have the same resources and are capable of following the same path. In addition, it assumes that the goal of all countries is to be as “developed” as possible. There is no room within this theory for the possibility that industrialization and technology are not the best goals.

There is, of course, some basis for this assumption. Data show that core nations tend to have lower maternal and child mortality rates, longer life spans, and less absolute poverty. It is also true that in the poorest countries, millions of people die from the lack of clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, which are benefits most of us take for granted. At the same time, the issue is more complex than the numbers might suggest. Cultural equality, history, community, and local traditions are all at risk as modernization pushes into peripheral countries. The challenge, then, is to allow the benefits of modernization while maintaining a cultural sensitivity to what already exists.

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Dependency Theory

Dependency theory coincides with the conflict viewpoint, as it focuses on ways that poor nations have been wronged by rich nations. It was created in part as a response to the Western-centric mindset of modernization theory. It states that global inequality is primarily caused by core nations (or high-income nations) exploiting semi-peripheral and peripheral nations (or middle-income and low-income nations), which creates a cycle of dependence (Hendricks 2010). As long as peripheral nations are dependent on core nations for economic stimulus and access to a larger piece of the global economy, they will never achieve stable and consistent economic growth in a self-determined sense. Further, the theory states that since core nations, as well as the World Bank, choose which countries are eligible for loans, as well as deciding what types of projects the loans may finance, they are creating highly segmented labor markets that are built to primarily benefit the dominant market countries.

At first glance, it seems this theory ignores the formerly low-income nations that are now considered middle-income nations and are on their way to becoming high-income nations and major players in the global economy, such as China. But some dependency theorists would state that it is in the best interests of core nations to ensure the long-term usefulness of their peripheral and semi-peripheral partners. Following that theory, sociologists have found that entities are more likely to outsource a significant portion of a company’s work if they are the dominant player in the equation; in other words, companies want to see their partner countries healthy enough to provide work, but not so healthy as to establish a threat (Caniels and Roeleveld 2009).

Watch IT

Watch this video to learn more about modernization and dependency theories. It explains how modernization developed through four stages: the traditional stage, the take-off stage, the drive to technological maturity, and then high-mass consumption. Modernization theory holds that increases in technology will increase wealth throughout the globe, and that low-income nations can follow the path taken by wealthier, modernized nations. Dependency theory hold that some nations gained wealth at the expense of other nations, especially through colonization.

Further Research

For more information about economic modernization, check out the Hudson Institute.

Learn more about economic dependency at the University of Texas Inequality Project.

Think It Over

  • There is much criticism that modernization theory is Eurocentric. Do you think dependency theory is also biased? Why, or why not?
  • Compare and contrast modernization theory and dependency theory. Which do you think is more useful for explaining global inequality? Explain, using examples.

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conspicuous consumption:
the act of buying and using products to make a statement about social standing
Davis-Moore thesis:
a thesis that argues some social stratification is a social necessity
dependency theory:
a theory which states that global inequity is due to the exploitation of peripheral and semi-peripheral nations by core nations
modernization theory:
a theory that low-income countries can improve their global economic standing by industrialization of infrastructure and a shift in cultural attitudes towards work

  1. Cork Gaines. (Jun. 5, 2018)."The 27 highest-paid players in the NBA for the 2017-18 season." Business Insider and "NBA Team Salaries." Basketball Insiders.