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An Assignment on the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification

Page last edited: 26/11/2011

See also:   The Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification: A Summary

Click here and here for Guardian coverage of data from the 2011 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings

Functionalists argue that hierarchical patterns of social stratification are observable in all known societies which leads them to argue that such patterns are inevitable and desirable. In capitalist  societies we may observe interconnected patterns of social stratification in relation to incomes and wealth, social status and power: that is in capitalist societies income, wealth, social status and power are all unequally distributed. In this first section of this assignment there are several questions on the current UK occupational differences in incomes while questions in the second section relate to the various elements of the Functionalist theory of Social Stratification

Section One : Earnings in Different Occupations [Sources: Annual Surveys of Hours and Earnings 2010]

1. The following table contains 2010  information on mean gross weekly earnings of full time employees in a range of different occupations which are seen to vary considerably . Students should tick one of the final three columns to signify whether in their opinion the incomes earned are too high, too low or approximately appropriate. {I have chosen 23 occupational groups but if ever you wish [!] you may click here  and then on Table 14.1A which provides 2010 information on approximately 450 occupational groups distinguishing for each occupational group between female and male and full time and part time employees.}


Occupational Category Mean gross full time weekly income: Too high? Too low? Approximately appropriate
Financial managers and chartered secretaries 1296.0      
Police Officers: Inspectors and above 1055.9      
Secondary Education ; teaching professionals 714.5      
Solicitors, Judges and coroners 1061.3      
Social workers 610.1      
Medical practitioners 1459.1      
Nurses 617.9      
Clergy 452.5      
Aircraft pilots and flight engineers 1408.2      
Train drivers 801.0      
Counter Clerks 424.0      
General office assistants/clerks 397.4      
Secretaries and related 408.8      
Motor mechanics and auto engineers 476.9      
Electricians and electrical fitters 596.9      
Plumbers, heating and ventilation engineers 564.0      
Care assistants and home carers 352.3      
Hairdressers and barbers 292.8      
Beauticians and related occupations 306.0      
Retail cashiers and check out operators 268.3      
Heavy goods vehicle drivers 506.8      
Farm workers 394.8      
Road sweepers 356.3      

2. You may Click here for a very useful article from the BBC entitled "Do you know what your colleagues earn?. This article is based on information from the same source as the above table and also contains a quiz related to the earnings of about 10 occupations. The student should jot down this list of occupations along with estimates of what these workers actually earn and the student' own opinion of what such workers deserve to earn. Then compare your answers with the findings which are provided as answers to the Quiz.

3. The weekly gross fulltime earnings listed in my table vary from about 1300  per week  to about 250 per week but you should note that these are mean earnings for each occupation and that some individuals earn much more than these mean figures. For example senior judges, surgeons and head teachers earn much more than the median figures given here.

4. You should note also that  a relatively small number of individuals receive earn exceptionally high incomes.  Click here and here for recent  Guardian coverage of High Income Earners. Read these articles and make 2-3 lines of notes about the incomes of high income recipients. Are these high incomes too high, too low or approximately appropriate? Discuss you opinions with your fellow students.

5. Finally  Click here for another useful article from the BBC. Read this article and take a few notes.

Section Two: Aspects of the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification 

  1. Which theorists are associated most closely with the Functionalist Theory of Social Stratification and who is, perhaps, the best known critic of this theory?
  2. What are the main dimensions of social stratification in advanced capitalist societies?
  3. When Functionalists claim that social stratification is "functional for society" what is the meaning of the phrase "functional for society"?
  4. Functionalists argue that incomes vary because of differences in the functional importance of different occupations and because of limited availability of the talents necessary for the performance of difficult functionally important occupations. Why might it be difficult to determine the functional importance of different occupations?
  5. List the following occupations in order of what you consider to be their functional importance. Employer; Accountant; Investment Banker; Nurse; Bus Driver; Surgeon; Fashion Designer; Professional Footballer {Premiership}; Road Sweeper; Teacher: Airline Pilot.
  6. Compare your lists with those of other students
  7. What is a value judgement?
  8. To what extent were your assessments of functional importance based upon observable facts and to what extent were they based upon value judgements?
  9. Whereas Functionalists see the occupational roles of employers and senior executives in both the private and public sectors as functional for their societies Marxists take a more critical view of employers and senior executives in the private and public sectors arguing that in some but not all respects these occupations may well be dysfunctional. In what ways might these occupational roles be functional and in what ways might they be dysfunctional?
  10. How may skill shortages in key professions affect  incomes in those key professions?
  11. Functionalists argue that income differentials encourage social mobility. To what extent do you agree?
  12. Functionalists argue that substantial differences in income are necessary to encourage individuals to undertake the long periods of training and to accept the stresses and strains associated with the performance of difficult, functionally important occupations. To what extent do you agree?
  13. Some critics of Functionalism argue that income inequalities restrict equality of opportunity. How might findings from the Sociology of Education support this argument?
  14. Functionalists argue that although there are significant inequalities of income, status and power relationships between the different social strata are essentially "non-antagonistic". What do they mean and why would Marxist sociologists disagree with them?
  15. What non- Functionalist explanations might be given for differences in income, status and power?
  16. In what senses should Functionalism be described as a structural consensus theory?
  17. In what senses should Marxism be described as a structural conflict theory?
  18. Functionalists argue that they have provided a sociological theory which explains the existence of social inequalities  whereas Marxists and some other critics argue that the functionalist theory of social stratification is in reality an ideology which seeks to legitimise differences in income, status and power which are in fact unjustified . Define "Ideology".
  19. Is the Functionalist theory ideologically biased?
  20. Is Marxism ideologically biased? 
  21. What are the similarities and differences between the Functionalist theory and New Right theory?
  22. What is neo-Functionalism and what do Neo-Functionalists have to say about patterns of social stratification in capitalist societies?
  23. Where 0= useless and 10 = perfect explanation allocate marks to the usefulness of the Functionalist theory of Social Stratification as an explanation of differences in income, wealth, power and social status.
  24. Where 0= useless and 10 = perfect explanation allocate marks to the usefulness of Marxist class theory as an explanation of differences in income, wealth, power and social status  


Further Reading

Click here for an extract from Will Hutton's latest book : Them and Us