Davis-Moore Thesis Research Paper Starter

Davis-Moore Thesis

(Research Starters)

More than a half a century after American sociologists Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore offered their controversial theory, the concepts they identified are still an important topic of discussion and debate in academia and in practical circles. This paper explores the Davis-Moore thesis in greater detail and casts a light on the debate it has fostered. By understanding the forces behind its development, the reader gains a better grasp of many of the intricacies of the class systems that continue today in modern, industrialized societies.

Keywords Functional importance; Social Darwinism; Social inequality; Stratification; Structural functionalism

The Davis-Moore Thesis


In 1895, a publication known as Girl's Home Companion published an article in which it offered its view of how social and economic classes interact with one another. "Each class of society has its own requirements; but it may be said that every class teaches the one immediately below it," the article suggested. "[If] the highest class be ignorant, uneducated, loving display, luxuriousness and idle," it added, "the same spirit will prevail in humbler life" (Columbia World, 1996).

Throughout history, countless societies have been established to give greater and equitable power to the citizens, only to have the various social and economic subgroups of those systems experience a less egalitarian shift. Social, economic and political classes have formed in hierarchical fashion. Although such stratified systems do often allow for upward, downward or lateral mobility, the former of these forms of movement, upward mobility, is often sporadic and unpredictable. In stable systems, classes usually retain their composition until dramatic change occurs.

Then again, there is a school of thought that suggests that stratified systems and classes are in many ways useful and necessary to a society. In 1945, sociologists Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore argued that classes and stratified societies create important social roles for the members of each class. Their hypothesis, known as the Davis-Moore thesis, fostered a major debate among sociologists, economists and policymakers alike.

More than a half a century after Davis and Moore offered their controversial theory, the concepts they identified are still an important topic of discussion and debate in academia and in practical circles. This paper explores this thesis in greater detail and casts a light on the debate it has fostered. By understanding the forces behind the theory's development, the reader will gain a better grasp of many of the intricacies of the class systems that continue today in modern, industrialized societies.

History of Stratification

It is difficult to gauge when human societies first demonstrated segregated, class-based organization and, therefore, when social philosophers and leaders offered their thoughts on the subject. Several centuries before the birth of Christ, the early Hebrew prophets lambasted the wealthiest members of society and how they obtained their wealth. Interestingly, Indian religious scholars of the second century BCE also offered comments about stratified society, saying that classes and social inequality were created by divine intervention — it was the will of the Supreme Being that the upper classes use their intelligence and wealth to help society, the middle classes protect the people, and the lower classes perform the manual labor.

After the French Revolution, which was launched against legally sanctioned social and political inequality, attention turned to economic inequity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the ideals of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and, on the anti-socialistic front, Adam Smith and the "social Darwinists." In the mid-twentieth century, Davis best summarized the long history of class and social inequity when he said, "Social inequality is thus an unconsciously evolved device by which societies ensure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons" (Lenski, 1984).

Whether it is the product of imperial domination, divine providence or simply a natural evolutionary process, there is little argument that stratification occurs in almost every industrialized society. It remains important to understand why the populaces of nation-states so commonly fall into classes. Without such an analysis, any attempt to change such systems faces a terrible risk of failure.

Indeed, there is a clear imperative to relate stratification to the social system in which it takes place. While it has fostered considerable controversy among scholars since its introduction, Davis and Moore's "functional theory of stratification" has, at the same time, generated considerable discussion as well. It is on this theory that this paper will focus attention.

The Functional Theory of Stratification

If one were to divide the attitudes of scholars regarding social inequity, the two schools of thought might be those who believe stratification to be a natural process of human social organization, and those who believe that social inequity is an abhorrent trend that must be corrected. For Davis and Moore, the former of these perspectives appears to be the case. In their view, stratification is requisite to the functioning of any society, as long as the agents of that change (the classes themselves) demonstrate a willingness to adapt to the changes at hand (Sieradzki, 1956).

Not unlike the Hindu ideal described earlier, Davis and Moore believed that everyone must work in order to contribute to a society. Then again, not all jobs are as labor-intensive as others — some require a great deal more training and education than others. Doctors, for example, undergo much more training than do custodians. Similarly, engineers and lawyers attend college and graduate school for several years, earning little money while they receive their training, whereas farmers and gas station attendants receive far less training and, usually, little more than a high school diploma.


According to the Davis-Moore thesis, the amount of training an individual receives for his or her job is an important point. Medical students, law school students, engineers and others must undergo training for years, and even when they graduate, they must work long hours for little to no salary. However, Davis and Moore assert, their jobs are clearly invaluable to society. Without doctors, for example, farmers, custodians and others would be unable to treat themselves. An absence of custodians, however, would not leave a dearth of individuals who could fill an absent janitor's shoes.

Under Davis and Moore's functional theory of stratification, the fact that a long-term lack of pay while training occurs could be a deterrent for people to enter medicine, law or engineering necessitates a powerful incentive. The motivating factor for people to obtain these higher-echelon positions, therefore, is money and prestige. Therefore, stratification is a natural, as well as necessary, element of a society, for it ensures that people will be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to fill the most important jobs (Brim & Lie, 2004).

The Work of Talcott Parsons

Davis and Moore's ideal was very much the product of their sociological training. While attending Harvard University in the 1930s, both worked closely with noted sociologist Talcott Parsons. Parsons is renowned for his groundbreaking work on developing analytical frameworks for the study of social order, integration and equilibrium. His analytical style was that of a structural-functional nature — connected and interacting units forming the structures of a given social system lend to the development and maintenance of that system. Parsons's concepts are indicative of a movement away from a normative view of sociology and toward an empirical perspective that many of the institutions established by a given society are natural results of sociological trends and behaviors. As academic colleagues of Parsons, Davis and Moore also began to explore the functional side of sociological theory, giving greater light to the forces that foster stratification in industrialized societies.

As the connection between Davis, Moore and Parsons suggests, the Davis-Moore thesis is not known as a "groundbreaking" work in and of itself. However, its impact is nonetheless significant, particularly in light of the fact that it turned sociology's attention away...

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