Davis and Moore

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Table of contents

    These were the important questions of two thinkers of structural-functionalism, Davis and Moore.

    Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore were students of Talcott Parsons and, following in his footsteps, created a significant theory of social stratification and social inequality. We will be looking at their theories in more detail.

    • First, we will look at the lives and careers of the two scholars, Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore.
    • Then we will move on to the Davis-Moore hypothesis. We will discuss their theory on inequality, mentioning their views on role allocation, meritocracy, and unequal rewards.
    • We will apply the Davis-Moore hypothesis to education.
    • Finally, we will consider some criticisms of their controversial theory.

    Davis and Moore's biographies and careers

    Let us look at the lives and careers of Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore.

    Kingsley Davis

    Kingsley Davis was a very influential American sociologist and demographer of the 20th century. Davis studied at Harvard University, where he received his doctorate. After that, he taught at several universities, including the prestigious institutions of:

    • Smith College
    • Princeton University
    • Columbia University
    • University of California at Berkeley, and
    • University of Southern California

    Davis won multiple awards during his career and was the first American sociologist to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1966. He also served as the president of the American Sociological Association.

    Davis’s work focused on the societies of Europe, South America, Africa and Asia. He conducted several studies and created significant sociological concepts, such as ‘popular explosion’ and the demographic transition model.

    Davis was an expert in multiple areas within his field as a demographer. He wrote a lot about world population growth, theories of international migration, urbanisation and population policy, among other things.

    Davis and Moore, graphic of colourful human population, StudySmarterKingsley Davis was an expert in the field of world population growth.

    In his study on world population growth in 1957, he stated that the world’s population would reach six billion by 2000. His prediction turned out to be extremely close, as the world’s population reached six billion in October 1999.

    One of Davis’s most important works was published together with Wilbert E. Moore. Its title was Some Principles of Stratification, and it became one of the most influential texts in the functionalist theory of social stratification and social inequality. We will explore this further on.

    Next, we will look at the life and career of Wilbert E. Moore.

    Wilbert E. Moore

    Wilbert E. Moore was an important American functionalist sociologist of the 20th century.

    Similar to Davis, he studied at Harvard University and received his doctorate degree from its Department of Sociology in 1940. Moore was among Talcott Parsons’ first group of doctoral students at Harvard. This is where he developed a closer professional relationship with scholars like Kingsley Davis, Robert Merton and John Riley.

    He taught at Princeton University until the 1960s. It was during this time that he and Davis published their most significant work, Some Principles of Stratification.

    Later, he worked at the Russel Sage Foundation and at the University of Denver, where he stayed until he went into retirement. Moore was also the 56th president of the American Sociological Association.

    Davis and Moore's sociology

    The most important work of Davis and Moore was on social stratification. Let us refresh our memories on what exactly social stratification is.

    Social stratification is a process that is deeply ingrained in most societies. It refers to the ranking of various social groups on a scale, most commonly along the lines of gender, class, age, or ethnicity.

    There are many types of stratification systems, including slave systems and class systems, the latter of which is much more common in contemporary Western societies like Britain.

    The Davis-Moore hypothesis

    The Davis-Moore hypothesis (also known as the Davis-Moore theory, the Davis-Moore thesis and the Davis-Moore theory of stratification) is a theory that argues that social inequality and stratification are inevitable in every society, as they perform a beneficial function for society.

    The Davis-Moore hypothesis was developed by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore during their time at Princeton University. The paper it appeared in, Some Principles of Stratification, was published in 1945.

    It states that the role of social inequality is to motivate the most talented individuals to fulfil the most necessary and complex tasks in wider society.

    Let us look at the work in more detail.

    Davis and Moore: inequality

    Davis and Moore were the students of Talcott Parsons, the father of structural-functionalism in sociology. They followed in Parson's footsteps and created a groundbreaking but controversial structural-functionalist perspective on social stratification.

    They claimed that stratification was inevitable across all societies because of a ‘motivational problem’.

    So, according to Davis and Moore, how and why is social stratification inevitable and necessary in society?

    Role allocation

    They argued that certain roles in society were more important than others. In order for these crucial roles to be fulfilled in the best possible way, society needs to attract the most talented and qualified people for these jobs. These people had to be naturally gifted in their tasks, and they had to complete extensive training for the roles.

    Their natural talent and hard work should be rewarded by monetary rewards (represented through their salaries) and by social status (represented in their social standing).

    Meritocracy

    Davis and Moore believed that all individuals had the same opportunities to exploit their talent, work hard, gain qualifications and end up in high-paying, high status positions.

    They believed that education and wider society were both meritocratic. The hierarchy that would inevitably result from the differentiation between more important and less important jobs was based on merit rather than anything else, according to functionalists.

    Merriam-Webster defines a meritocracy as "a system... in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit".

    Therefore, if someone could not get a high-paying position, it is because they did not work hard enough.

    Unequal rewards

    Davis and Moore highlighted the significance of unequal rewards. If one can get paid just as much for a position where one does not need extensive training and physical or mental effort, everyone would opt for those jobs and no one would voluntarily undergo training and choose the more difficult options.

    They argue that by putting higher rewards on more important jobs, ambitious individuals compete and thus motivate each other to get better skills and knowledge. As a result of this competition, society would end up with the best experts in every field.

    A heart surgeon is an example of a very crucial job. One must undergo extensive training and work hard at the position to fulfil it well. As a result, it must be awarded high rewards, money and prestige.

    On the other hand, a cashier - while important - is not a position that requires great talent and training to fulfil. As a result, it comes with lower social status and monetary reward.

    Davis and Moore, graphic a doctor in the operation room with his equipment, StudySmarterDoctors fulfil an essential role in society, so according to the Davis and Moore hypothesis, they should be rewarded with high pay and status for their work.

    Davis and Moore summarised their theory on the inevitability of social inequality in the following way. Take a look at this quote from 1945:

    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.

    Hence, every society, no matter how simple or complex, must differentiate persons in terms of both prestige and esteem, and must therefore possess a certain amount of institutionalized inequality."

    Davis and Moore on education

    Davis and Moore believed that social stratification, role allocation and meritocracy start in education.

    According to functionalists, educational institutions reflect what is happening in wider society. This happens in several ways:

    • It is normal and common to separate students according to their talents and interests
    • Pupils have to prove their worth through tests and exams to be allocated to the best ability groups.
    • It is also shown that the longer one stays in education, the more likely it is that they end up in higher paying, more prestigious jobs.

    The Education Act of 1944 introduced the Tripartite System in the United Kingdom. This new system allocated pupils into three different types of schools according to their achievements and abilities. The three different schools were grammar schools, technical schools and secondary modern schools.

    • Functionalists saw the system as ideal for motivating pupils and making sure that they all had the opportunity to climb the social ladder and make sure that those with the best abilities end up in the most difficult but also most rewarding jobs.
    • Conflict theorists had a different view of the system, a much more critical one. They claimed that it restricted the social mobility of working-class pupils, who usually ended up in technical schools and later in working-class jobs because the evaluation and sorting system discriminated against them in the first place.

    Social mobility is the ability to change one's social position by being educated in a resource-rich environment, regardless of whether you come from a wealthy or deprived background.

    According to Davis and Moore, inequality is a necessary evil. Let us see what sociologists of other perspectives thought about this.

    Davis and Moore: criticisms

    One of the biggest criticisms of Davis and Moore targets their idea of meritocracy. Marxist sociologists argue that meritocracy in both education and wider society is a myth.

    People have different life chances and opportunities open to them depending on which class, ethnicity and gender they belong to.

    Working-class pupils find it hard to adapt to the middle-class values and rules of schools, which makes it more difficult for them to succeed in education and go into further training, get qualifications and land high-status jobs.

    The same thing happens with many pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds, who struggle to conform to the White culture and values of most Western educational institutions.

    In addition, the Davis-Moore theory seems to blame marginalised groups of people for their own poverty, suffering and general subjugation in society.

    Another criticism of the Davis-Moore hypothesis is that in real life, quite often, less important jobs get much higher rewards than essential positions.

    The fact that many football players and pop singers earn much more than nurses and teachers, is not sufficiently explained by the functionalists’ theory.

    Some sociologists argue that Davis and Moore fail to factor in the freedom of personal choice in role allocation. They suggest that individuals passively accept the roles they are most suited to, which is often not the case in practice.

    Davis and Moore fail to include people with disabilities and learning disorders in their theory.

    Davis and Moore - Key takeaways

    • Kingsley Davis was a very influential American sociologist and demographer of the 20th century.
    • Wilbert E. Moore taught at Princeton University until the 1960s. It was during his time at Princeton that he and Davis published their most significant work, Some Principles of Stratification.
    • The most important work of Davis and Moore was on social stratification. Social stratification is a process that is deeply ingrained in most societies. It refers to the ranking of various social groups on a scale, most commonly along the lines of gender, class, age, or ethnicity.
    • The Davis-Moore hypothesis is a theory arguing that social inequality and stratification are inevitable in every society, as they perform a beneficial function for society.
    • Marxist sociologists argue that meritocracy in both education and wider society is a myth. Another criticism of the Davis-Moore hypothesis is that in real life, less important jobs get much higher rewards than essential positions.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Davis and Moore

    What did Davis and Moore argue?

    Davis and Moore argued that certain roles in society were more important than others. In order for these crucial roles to be fulfilled in the best possible way, society needs to attract the most talented and qualified people for these jobs. These people had to be naturally gifted in their tasks, and they had to complete extensive training for the roles. 

    Their natural talent and hard work should be rewarded by monetary rewards (represented through their salaries) and by social status (represented in their social standing).

    What do Davis and Moore believe?

    Davis and Moore believed that all individuals had the same opportunities to exploit their talent, work hard, gain qualifications and end up in high-paying, high status positions. They believed that education and wider society were both meritocratic. The hierarchy that would inevitably result from the differentiation between more important and less important jobs was based on merit rather than anything else, according to functionalists.

    What types of sociologists are Davis and Moore?

    Davis and Moore are structural functionalist sociologists.

    Are Davis and Moore functionalists?

    Yes, Davis and Moore are theorists of structural-functionalism.

    What is the main argument of the Davis-Moore theory?

    The Davis-Moore theory argues that social inequality and stratification are inevitable in every society, as they perform a beneficial function for society. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    According to functionalists, educational institutions reflect what is happening in wider society.

    Which university did Kingsley Davis receive his doctorate from?

    Which department of Harvard did Wilbert E. Moore receive his doctorate from?

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