The Davis-Moore thesis is a sociological theory that posits that social stratification, or the division of society into hierarchical levels, is an inevitable and necessary feature of any complex society.
Developed by American sociologists Talcott Parsons and Kingsley Davis in the 1940s and later expanded upon by William J. Moore, the thesis argues that social inequality is natural and functional for society.
Researchers believe social inequality plays a crucial role in society by incentivizing the most talented and skilled individuals to be rewarded based on their abilities, thus promoting a healthier and more prosperous overall community.
The thesis proposes that jobs that require more remarkable skills and have a more significant societal impact—such as doctors, lawyers, and scientists—should be paid higher salaries than less-skilled jobs, such as janitors and factory workers.
The Davis-Moore thesis has been a subject of much debate and criticism in sociology, but it remains an influential and widely cited theory in the study of social stratification.
Definition of Davis-Moore Thesis
The Davis-Moore thesis is a sociological theory that asserts that social stratification is a functional necessity, as it ensures the allocation of individuals into social positions according to their abilities and qualifications.
According to Macionis and Plummer (2012),
“…the Davis – Moore thesis implies that a productive society is a meritocracy, a system of social stratification based on personal merit” (p. 202).
Sernau (2019) states that “stratification is universal, occurring in all societies, because it is necessary and inevitable, resulting from the need for a working social order” (p. 31).
The Davis-Moore thesis posits that individuals with more skills, knowledge, and education are more valuable to society and, thus, should be rewarded with higher social status, prestige, and income.
This differential treatment motivates individuals to strive for excellence in their chosen fields, acquire new skills and knowledge, and perform critical social roles, contributing to society’s overall well-being.
So, in simple terms, the Davis-Moore thesis proposes that social stratification is an inevitable feature of any complex society and serves a functional purpose.
10 Examples of Davis-Moore Thesis
- Education: The Davis-Moore thesis proposes that education is correlated to social status, with higher educational attainment often leading to a more decent place in society. After all, those who have gone the extra mile and pursued further studies are usually better equipped for influential social roles within their communities.
- Income inequality: The Davis-Moore thesis maintains that income inequality is both expected and obligatory in our society. Its argument states that highly paid people have attained higher levels of education, skills, and knowledge, enabling them to complete essential social tasks more competently than others.
- Professional sports: The Davis-Moore thesis posits that professional athletes often receive some of the highest compensations in society thanks to their remarkable skills and abilities. Such a high income rewards these athletes’ invaluable contributions – entertaining people and igniting motivation in others – to our community.
- Military service: The Davis-Moore thesis would argue that military personnel occupies a high status in society because of their vital role in defending the nation and maintaining social order.
- Medical professions: Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals are often seen as occupying high-status positions in society because of their specialized knowledge and skills.
- CEO compensation: The Davis-Moore thesis would suggest that CEOs of large companies are among the highest-paid individuals in society because of their essential role in guiding the strategic direction of their organizations and ensuring their long-term success.
- Political leadership: According to the Davis-Moore thesis, those who occupy political leadership positions are not just randomly chosen – they must possess remarkable abilities and be capable of motivating others. These individuals have outstanding skills, knowledge, and charisma that make them uniquely qualified to guide their peers effectively.
- Scientific research: The Davis-Moore thesis would suggest that scientists who make essential discoveries or contribute to the advancement of knowledge occupy high-status positions in society because of their valuable contributions to humanity’s collective knowledge.
- Creative professions: Artists, musicians, and writers are often seen as occupying high-status positions in society because of their unique skills and talents that allow them to produce works of art and literature that entertain and inspire others.
- Entrepreneurship: The Davis-Moore thesis would predict that successful entrepreneurs occupy high-status positions in society because of their innovative ideas, risk-taking behavior, and ability to create new businesses and generate wealth.
Origins of the Davis-Moore Thesis
The Davis-Moore thesis was developed in the mid-twentieth century by two American sociologists Talcott Parsons and Kingsley Davis.
Davis’ groundbreaking article, “The Theory of Social Stratification,” was published in the American Sociological Review in 1940 and set the stage for Parsons to develop these ideas further. His magnum opus on this topic, The Social System, was released nearly a decade later in 1951 (Hauhart, 2003).
The origins of the Davis-Moore thesis can be traced back to earlier work in functionalist sociology, which emphasized the importance of social institutions in maintaining social order and stability.
This viewpoint considered social stratification an essential part of our world since it provided recognition to those with high skills and capabilities in return for their meaningful contributions to society (Berberoglu, 2017).
Davis and Moore built upon this functionalist perspective by arguing that social stratification was inevitable and beneficial for society.
They argued that social inequality encouraged individuals to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to perform critical social roles while incentivizing them to work hard and contribute to society’s overall well-being.
Social Stratification vs. Social Differentiation
Social stratification implies that individuals are placed into distinct classes based on their economic and social power. In contrast, social differentiation pushes the idea that people’s talents and traits impact which vocations they are suited for.
Social stratification systematically arranges individuals and groups into hierarchical categories based on social status, power, and wealth (Macionis & Plummer, 2012).
In contrast, social differentiation refers to how people and groups develop distinct characteristics, including capabilities, knowledge base, and values.
Social differentiation can arise through various means, such as education level, career path, cultural background, and gender.
However, social stratification is primarily based on an individual’s positioning within the societal ladder and typically depends upon financial standing, educational attainment, and vocation (Umanailo et al., 2020).
Social differentiation can lead to differences in status, power, and wealth, but these differences are not necessarily hierarchical or unequal.
In contrast, social stratification is characterized by a systematic and unequal distribution of resources and rewards across different social positions (Umanailo et al., 2020).
So, unlike social differentiation, a less structured form of separation, social stratification has rigid hierarchies where resources are unequally distributed among different social ranks.
Why Is Social Stratification Necessary?
According to the Davis-Moore thesis, social stratification is both necessary and inevitable in modern societies since it helps motivate individuals, allocate talents, entourage education, and maintain social order.
Here are some of the key reasons why social stratification is necessary:
- Motivation: The unequal distribution of rewards motivates individuals to acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to occupy higher positions in the social hierarchy. It, in turn, leads to greater productivity and innovation in society.
- Allocating Talent: Social stratification allows society to allocate talent and resources where they are most needed (Berberoglu, 2017). Individuals who possess valuable skills and knowledge are rewarded with higher positions in the social hierarchy, which allows society to benefit from their talents and abilities.
- Encouraging Education and Training: The presence of social stratification incentivizes people to dedicate themselves to education and training, as these skills are often crucial in obtaining the competencies and expertise needed to attain higher positions in the social structure.
- Maintaining Social Order: Social stratification is crucial for keeping society in order. It provides a structure of power and authority that makes it easier to comprehend one’s place within the social hierarchy while emphasizing individual rights and obligations (Umanailo et al., 2020). As such, this system enables citizens to understand their roles better and what they are entitled to or expected of them.
So, the Davis-Moore thesis professes that social stratification is essential for a functioning society.
Though one may view the unequal distribution of rewards as unjust, they argue it encourages individuals to obtain skills and knowledge needed to benefit their communities.
Criticism of Davis-Moore Thesis
The Davis-Moore thesis has been severely contested due to its assumption that merit alone determines social ranking and for disregarding the considerable power of social systems as well as institutions.
Here are some of the key criticisms of the Davis-Moore thesis:
- Not all rewards are based on merit: The Davis-Moore thesis suggests that prizes are allocated based on an individual’s talent and contributions to the public. Sadly, however, many rewards remain available due to external factors such as social class, skin color, and gender rather than genuine merit (Hurst et al., 2020).
- Ignores the role of power: This theory fails to analyze the role of power in constructing social stratification, overlooking the fact that those who possess higher positions have more authority and sway. Consequently, this allows them to sustain their status and restrict others from rising through the ranks.
- Overemphasizes the benefits of social stratification: According to the Davis-Moore thesis, social stratification is required and positive for society. Yet, this viewpoint has been criticized as it overlooks the potentially damaging consequences of unequal distributions of wealth, such as poverty, criminal behavior, and civil unrest.
- Ignores the role of social institutions: The Davis-Moore thesis overlooks the influence of social institutions, like the education and media sectors, in shaping social stratification. These institutions can reinforce and maintain social inequality instead of advancing meritocracy.
- Has inadequate empirical evidence: Critics have contended that the Davis-Moore thesis lacks sufficient empirical evidence, despite offering a theoretical framework for comprehending social stratification. The theory has been criticized for needing more practical support (Hauhart, 2003).
These criticisms highlight the pitfalls and oversights of the Davis-Moore thesis, thereby indicating that further research is needed to understand social stratification better.
The Davis-Moore thesis proposes that social stratification is an inevitable and necessary feature of any complex society. It ensures that individuals are allocated to social positions according to their abilities, talents, and qualifications.
According to the thesis, social inequality significantly impacts society as it motivates capable and skilled individuals to be acknowledged and rewarded for their abilities, ultimately contributing to the well-being and prosperity of the community.
Despite the ongoing controversy and debates surrounding this idea in sociology, it remains prominent and frequently referenced when analyzing social stratification.
The Davis-Moore thesis has provided several examples of high-status societal positions based on individual meritocracies, such as political leadership, medical professions, and successful entrepreneurship.
The Davis-Moore thesis continues to inform ongoing debates about social inequality and its role in shaping society.
Berberoglu, B. (2017). Social theory: Classical and contemporary – a critical perspective. Routledge, an Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group.
Hauhart, R. C. (2003). The davis-moore theory of stratification: The life course of a socially constructed classic. The American Sociologist, 34(4), 5–24. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27700363
Hurst, C. E., Fitz, H. M., & Nurse, A. (2020). Social inequality: Forms, causes, and consequences. Routledge.
Macionis, J. J., & Plummer, K. (2012). Sociology: A global introduction (5th ed.). Pearson/Prentice Hall. (Original work published 1997)
Sernau, S. R. (2019). Social inequality in a global age. Sage Publications.
Umanailo, M. C. B., Umanailo, A. R., & Umanailo, A. D. S. (2020). Stratification and differentiation in the social life. In SSOAR. SSOAR. https://nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:0168-ssoar-73973-5