Social inequalities - theories

  • Created by: holly6901
  • Created on: 01-04-20 08:49


  • Consensus theories and inequalities reflect value consensus
  • Parsons (1951): In all societies, some are better than others at achieving things that are worthy according to the value consensus. Most people agree those that create jobs deserve the highest rewards
  • Davis and Moore(1945):  Social stratification has always been a feature of all human society and therefore is functionally necessary and does 2 things
    • 1. Allocates the right people to the most important roles
    • 2. Ensures people in important roles perform them to the highest standard
  • We can tell the importance of positions by 2 factors
    • 1. Functional uniqueness
    • 2. The degree of dependence on others
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Critique of functionalism: Tumin

Melvin Tumin (1953) offered the following critiques

  • Is it possible to determine the functional importance of a position - the low-paid cleaner may be just as important to the patient's survival as the highly paid heart surgeon
  • Is there consensus about rewards - There is considerable resentment about the unfair distribution of income
  • Power and rewards - It is argued the high pay of businessmen reflects their power
  • The pool of talent - More people than we think may have the ability to perform top jobs but haven't had the opportunity
  • Is training a sacrifice - training can be a reward in itself
  • Motivation - Some people are motivated by things other than money
  • The dysfunction of stratification - Stratification often creates hostility and mistrust between sections of society
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The New Right

New Right ideas focus on freedom and the free market

Saunders (1990)

  • A society based on social equality would only work if considerable force was used such as the threat of death or imprisonment to ensure everyone did their jobs to the best of their ability
  • It is right and just we all have legal equality and he supports equality of opportunity
  • He rejects equality of outcomes which would result in everyone being rewarded the same and therefore argues a degree of inequality is desirable to motivate people

Murray (1984)

  • Argued that benefits create a dependency culture whereby the poor have no motivation to better themselves because they could rely on the state
  • This created an underclass trapped at the bottom of society
  • The underclass is a drain on taxpayers money and generally poorly socialise their children so they underachieve at school and usually turn to crime
  • Murray said that disadvantaged social groups should not be welfare dependant
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  • Weberian theories derive from sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber was also a conflict theorist but also a leading critic of Marx
  • He was sceptical of a revolution and suggested communism may be as bad as capitalism
  • Weber suggested there were 3 dimensions to social stratification - social class, status and party and social class wasn't always the most important
  • He suggested in capitalist societies there were 4 main social classes - The propertied upper class: the wealthy owners of the big businesses, the property-less white-collar workers: better market situation than manual workers so middle-class, the petty bourgeoisie: owners of small businesses and the manual working-class: have the poorest market situation as they have no wealth or qualifications
  • Status may be linked to economic or class position, ethnicity, religion or lifestyle. Weber acknowledged that in capitalist societies class and status are closely linked as income is a big source of status
  • Weber defined parties as groups who were concerned with exercising power or influencing decision-making e.g. trade unions or pressure groups (Greenpeace, RSPCA) 
  • Parties may be linked to class interests (trade unions often represent the working-class) or status groups (Stonewall supports the LGBTQ+ society)
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Critics of the New Right


  • Critics argue it is mistaken to assume capitalist societies based on the free market necessarily offer more freedom than socialist or communist societies
  • The slavery system in America, the apartheid system in South Africa and military dictatorships were all based on free-market capitalism but were extremely oppressive systems
  • Many of Tumin's critiques can be applied to Saunders


  • His work is highly controversial and has been criticised by many British sociologists
  • Studies of poor people show only a minority have the attitude Murray described
  • It is unclear who is responsible for the alleged problem of the underclass
  • Murray's work only focuses on the poorest of the poor and doesn't look at the wider trends of social class inequality or the growing gap between rich and poor
  • Many Marxist and Weberian sociologists argue the capitalist system leads to poverty. Blaming the poor for poverty is simply victim-blaming
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  • Marx saw the economic system as the basis of societies. The earliest human societies were based on primitive communism where all members worked together to get what society needed and no one owned anything
  • As societies evolved and a more specialised division of labour began to develop so class relations began to evolve
  • Capitalism emerged from feudalism between the 16th and 19th century as goods began to be mass-produced and steam was used to power modern machinery. According to Marx, this gave rise to two new classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat
  • Marx argued capitalism suffered from inherent problems that would lead to its downfall
  • The polarization of social classes - class divide would widen as the bourgeoisie push down prices and increase profits
  • Alienation - Workers can't control their own work and therefore wouldn't be satisfied
  • Economic crisis - Capitalist societies tended to suffer from periodic crises
  • The working classes had false class consciousness that the bourgeoisie perpetuated the idea that capitalism and its inequalities were acceptable
  • Marx believed that once the proletariat realised their exploitation, there would be a revolution to overthrow the capitalist state
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Critics of Marxism

Marx is mainly criticised in the post-communist world, this is some of the main criticisms

  • Economic determinism - Marx argued all societies can be explained in terms of their economic system, however, cultures may influence people's behaviour. Marx's emphasis on economic inequality tends to ignore other forms of inequality
  • The middle class - Marx ignored the importance of classes between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat such as small business owners and highly paid professionals, critics say this class has grown in size and importance and we should discuss them more
  • Class consciousness and revolution - Marx saw the downfall of capitalism in advanced industrial societies as inevitable.  In reality, communist revolutions occur in relatively under-developed societies, in Western societies, there is little sign of class consciousness, for example, fewer workers are in trade unions, supporting mild socialist parties and support for revolutionary parties has waned
  • The success of capitalism - capitalism seems to have flourished despite their inherent contradictions. Though they tend to go through a boom and bust cycle, in most Western societies everyone enjoys rising living standards, a wider range of products to consume, democracy and human rights
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Critics of Weberianism

Marxists are the main critics of Weberianism

  • They argue focusing on multiple social classes and different dimensions of inequality obscured the importance of class divisions in capitalist societies
  • Marxists argue state distinctions between the working class are often encouraged as a form of divide and rule by the ruling class and that the really important political struggles are linked to the class struggle and conflicts over economic interests
  • The concept of women, as a status group, having a great deal in common also obscures the fact that women, considered in class terms, many not have very much in common in terms of their life chances, experiences and so forth. A working-class woman, for example, may only have the biological fact of her sex in common with an upper-class woman
  • Weber's pluralistic approach to social stratification (which involves several competing and conflicting groups) makes it very difficult to specify stratified social groups in society. The boundaries between various groups are almost impossible to specify (where does one group begin and another group end, for example?) and we tend to end-up, empirically, with a stratification system that is highly fragmented (that is, split-up into numerous small groups) and almost impossible to classify coherently
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