September 08, 2011

What Explains Social Inequality?

Janis_picBy Janis Prince Inniss

Surely you’ve seen someone holding a sign with something similar to the following:

Hungry. No job. Please help.

What is the purpose of that person or that class of persons? Yes, purpose. Are you surprised by that question? Do you think it odd to consider that the poor may have a role with regard to the rest of us?

clip_image002Arguably, the poor function to make the rest of us (some might say lucky and/or blessed souls) feel better about ourselves for not being in their shoes. Further, the poor can serve to inspire us to be different, lest we end up in their position. And if we help those who are less fortunate by volunteering in a soup kitchen or other establishment -- if you’ve done this, then you know how pleased you might feel about being so altruistic and caring. Perhaps your career is dedicated to assisting the poor; well, in that case the poor provide you with employment.

These ideas may be odd-sounding to you unless you have encountered functionalist theory, one of the major sociological perspectives. Functionalist theory has an auspicious promoter: Émile Durkheim, the founder of sociology as a unique discipline.

Functionalist theorists equate society with the way the human body works: they see society as being made up of interrelated parts that must all work in harmony for the larger system to perform. As a lens from which to consider social inequality then, functionalists highlight the ways in which inequality is functional for society. (For some examples and discussions of social inequality see here and here.)

Proponents of this theoretical outlook point out that the poor play a central role in society and are necessary for several reasons. For example, they argue that we need the poor to do the “dirty” jobs that nobody else wants, particularly given the low wages for working in difficult conditions such as work in many factories and farms. Although I don’t want a dirty job, my life depends on someone else doing these jobs. (Can you think of some of the dirty jobs that make your own life possible and/or easier?)

One version of functionalism addresses differential income and status accorded various professions. According to Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore, in order to function, society must have people working in a variety of professions including physician, teacher, politician, janitor, and file clerk. Due to the personal ability, extensive training and advanced degrees required for the more specialized positions, people in these professions are rewarded with increased earnings and higher status than those whose positions require less.

Let’s look at example of this. Viewed from this framework, if you finish high school, attend college, and then go on to law school and become an attorney, your income and status should reflect the skills needed for your profession.

Conversely, if you drop out of high school and work as a janitor you would still be making a contribution to society—but your contribution would be less central—and therefore not deserving of as much income and status as an attorney. Therefore, according to the functionalist perspective, social inequality is inevitable and functional for society.

clip_image004Another sociological perspective is that of conflict theory. The ideas for this theory originate in the work of German-born Karl Marx, who saw society as marked by class conflict.

Conflict theory focuses on the competition between classes for scarce resources. The upper classes (capitalists) then can be seen as doing battle with those beneath them (workers), in an effort to maintain their power, prestige, and wealth. This perspective suggests that the class system is very deep-rooted because the “haves” control social institutions (such as education, religion, politics, and the law, for example) and set them up in favor of their positions and values and also because they pass on their spoils to their children. The same is true for the “have-nots” who also pass on what they have to their children; unfortunately this class has little to pass on but a disadvantaged position.

Rather than seeing high income/high prestige jobs as reward for a person’s talent and time as functionalists do, conflict theorists point out that many people in unskilled jobs are pushed into that kind of employment because of social inequality: they have not had the educational and other opportunities afforded those who are better-off.


Given equal opportunity and support, they argue, many people in low wage jobs could perform in higher level positions. The conflict perspective therefore, characterizes social inequality as the result of a struggle for scarce resources. (For a more nuanced and complete understanding of them, you will want to read more about these theories, including how the original ideas have been built upon by those who came later.)

As I suggested in my previous post, I hope you have been applying the theoretical perspectives to various sociological issues and problems. This post demonstrates how social inequality looks from two perspectives; what evidence can you find that suggests either is a better explanation of inequality than the other?


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Citlali Moreno
Soci 1301 V04
"What evidence can you find that suggests either is a better explanation of inequality than the other?"

As for evidence: functionalist side with those whom have higher prestige jobs not realizing that some people are somewhat forced upon low income job simply because of their inequality. Therefore, not understanding that the poor working class may in fact be able to complete the same jobs but are being shut down due to inequality.
In favor of conflict theorist; just like mentioned in “The Real World” textbook, Paris Hilton is set an example of how she has followed into a family of wealth and therefore has a high prestige no matter her position. There was no work necessary from her behalf towards a high level of society as she was born an heiress of the fortune. Which brings to the understanding that a person whom was born in poverty has no choice in their upbringing until he or she are able to make decisions upon their future and level of society in which they might fall in.

Concluding that conflict theorists have a better grasp of inequality and why it is that they do. In my believe their view is somewhat optimistic, for they appreciate the higher class for they work hard but also are supportive to the poor and the working poor for they must work harder.

The author of this article was describing how society works and how certain people in society all have a purpose to form a larger picture. She explained how social inequality is necessary in a society. For example someone has to do dirty jobs. This proves that even the most minor occupation is needed in the bigger picture in order for society to work. Also, this article made me think that in a society everyone should have equal opportunity and support. Many people focus on their personal problems and classify them as social issues and try to make connections to other people who make up society. In the reading the author suggests that if you see a homeless person you think how are they contributing to a working society. In addition to that statement those people make you feel better about yourself and you feel like you have more of a purpose.

This is an interesting concept to consider in a sociological manner: what do homeless people contribute to society? I had never thought about that before, but after reading this article, they do actually serve to provide jobs to others (soup kitchens, homeless shelters, etc.), and the lower class in general do the jobs that, frankly, no one else wants to do. In a sociology text book, I have read that there is no "correct" perspective to view the world with, so I can see both arguments provided by the functionalist and conflict theories. On one hand, the lower class IS serving a purpose, and they do contribute an important aspect to society which can't be taken for granted. However, the conflict theory challenges that lower class people aren't given a fair chance to make it in the world, thus they are disadvantaged and stuck in those positions forever. I can see how this is a logical argument, but I am also a firm believer that people are in control of their own lives, and they must take responsibility instead of blaming their unfortunate circumstances. If I had to choose a particular perspective with which I agree more, I would have to say I'm a functionalist because I like to acknowledge the lower class's contribution, no matter how overlooked it may be.

this is very interesting, i never thought about people in lower oaying jobs as being a balcance for society. You say it is inevitable to get rid of social inequality, i agree to an extent. On the other hand if people would stop judging people by what they put on paper, and by their work ethics they might be surprised at what the lower class citezen with no college degree can achieve.

Very much enjoyed this post, and the question of what homeless people contribute to society.
The argument of Meritocracy and Marxism was also objective and entertaining to read, well done.

This is a joke... If you can see homelessness as functional then you should start looking at things differently.

This was a nice read and provided insight to the homeless. Although it may be a stretch, I think this may be able to relate to a lot of other things as well. This article says that social inequality serves a purpose, so it's definitely a different way of looking at a problem.

I found this post as an interesting and this should be an avenue for every right thinking individual to share their opinion as well as learning. Both sociological perspective seems to be a clue and a guidelines for us to critically look at our contemporary societies and also reviewed the activities and role play by individual that made up such society. I suggest that everyone in any society have one or more role to play, as such influencing the society either positively or negatively.Most importantly sociologists need to think deeply and widely about the role played by anyone instead of judging the person.I agreed with the functionalist by stating that inequality is inevitable and everyone would not have the same role(s) in a society. For example a Lawyer,Doctor,driver,carpenter,Nanny,Cleaner will belong to different class in the society. It is clear that a role played by one class complement the work/role play by the other class. Also I could say that without the lower class the upper class might not be recognized. At this point we need to consider if each part of any society function well no one will ever see other part as inimical to the well-being of the society. i.e for example if the institutions/Governments play their role. No citizen will be homeless. even if there are college dropouts,they will be fixed in other institutions where they might excel or be useful.

I strongly agree with the author, and I am the both sides of the functionalism and conflict theory. The rich are getting richer, and the poor is getting poorer. Some people believe that as long as they work hard, and they will be as rich as the others. However, the rich is still gaining more while the people are working hard, and they will not catch up with the rich. It reflects that the social inequality exists around everyone. Most of the people own the wealth from the last generation, they have better living surroundings, and they have never worried about if their lives are changing, because there will not happen. It is the congenital condition that shows disparities from others obviously. The lower classes of people are not given an equal chance to make it in the world, and they stay in the status forever.
Each performs its own functions in the society. However, jobs are the common way to judge someone and make distinction between each other. The poor do the jobs that others do not want, and in effect the poor is balancing the society. Doing the lower income jobs that are serving the people who have high income, if the phenomenon is not existing, there are will have some high-income people to complete the works, because we need it. The result is even though the jobs seem to be negligible, but are needed in general, and it in order to realize the values in the society.

Almost any brain surgeon can sweep streets, but virtually no street sweepers can do brain surgery.
Social inequality is significantly defined by the naturally unequal distribution of virtuous traits.

Permanent immutable social divisions are a result of two factors, nepotism and heritability. Intelligence, the supreme virtue, is significantly heritable.

A just society should aim to minimise nepotism as a factor in determining social status in order to maximise its intellectual capacity.

Durkheim seems foolish to me to consider the mere existence of a social class as vindication of that class's functional role within society. Using your analogy, a person may have an injured limb, this does not mean that this injury is functional, but merely that a misfortune has befallen the individual. Extreme poverty is a social mishap, suggesting an inefficient system of social organization.

Marx is simply in denial of natural inequality.

This is the definitive way to stop Economic Inequality which in turn will reduce Social Inequality.

The First-Ever Publicly Traded Corporation On Wall Street Guaranteed To Stop Economic Inequality Is Now In Development.

Antilope, LLC, the parent company of is developing a web platform that monetizes the greed of Wall Street by means that guarantee to stop Economic Inequality. First Rate Crowd will utilize its "patent pending" Economic Inequality Rating system to ascertain how much Economic Inequality certain companies are responsible for. Those companies with a high rating, specifically those companies of the 1% which produce the most greed and Economic Inequality, will be avoided in favor of those with a lower rating, demonstrating support for the 99%. The use of this rating system represents a boycott of companies that do not support the values of the 99%.

FirstRateCrowd is a powerful rating platform that combines the community’s strength with the power of crowdsourcing to achieve its goals. The platform’s "patent pending" for a crowdsourced online ownership by the community, eventually allows the members to be rewarded with both its revenue and control, depending on the members’ level of participation; a cooperative effort between FirstRateCrowd and the 99%.

Tied to this initiative is the community's development of an Economic Inequality Rating system. Used on a handheld device, the app’s technology allows people to scan a product and ascertain whether the manufacturer supports the 99% or the 1%; consumers make their purchasing decision accordingly. This app will redirect the revenue from the 1% back to the 99% by providing individuals an economic choice, thus reducing Economic Inequality. This system bypasses the usual political, tax and judicial gridlocks by positioning the power into the hands of the 99%. One does not have to vote anyone into office, change any tax codes, or enact any new laws; one simply makes an economic choice based upon the data provided by FirstRateCrowd’s community, causing revenue to flow back to the 99%. This infrastructure is a component of the economic engine the venture will use when applying for an IPO on Wall Street; one that represents 99%.

Economic Inequality is a direct result of greed. Many Wall Street companies have contributed to the current state; an insatiable desire to accumulate more to the detriment of others, an old story. With this future public offering, the 99% have a new means with which to defeat this affliction. The world will have a new form of corporation allowing society to profit from the greed of other corporations. The more selfish they are, the more they will drive individuals towards FirstRateCrowd to fight this selfishness. Imagine that, a company earning its revenue and profits from the Economic Inequality generated by the very selfish ways of other corporations; surely it will prosper. As it grows in size and strength, it will decrease Economic Inequality. Finally, the world will have a company on Wall Street, a people's company, that truly represents the 99% and their values.

For the sake of your own future and that of the world's, please join FirstRateCrowd in taking a stance against Economic Inequality.

Interesting article! the example you've given of the attorney and the janitor is so realistic. True also that the poor are always associated with 'dirty jobs' regardless of their skills. The poor also can perform in higher level positions if given an opportunity. All in all in the society, the contribution of both the rich and the poor really matters and should be appreciated equally.

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