Friday, April 18, 2014

A Critique of Davis and Moore on the 'Functional Necessity' of High Pay for Some Jobs

One of the staples of sociological discussions of social stratification is the Davis-Moore hypothesis.  This idea, advanced in 1945 by two then-famous sociologists, Kingsley David and Wilbert Moore, argued that some jobs were so 'functionally necessary' to society that we needed to pay people more to get them to do them.  This also implied that many jobs were not so functionally necessary, and therefore we could pay people less.

While giving a guest lecture for a colleague, I had occasion to read this hypothesis again for the first time in years.

In the intervening years, I have often had occasion to answer student objections about unfair pay.  Their argument is usually something like 'the work teachers do is more valuable that what professional athletes do - we should pay teachers more.' (And, presumably, pay athletes less).

The answer I have given to students was that, for the most part, wages are a measure of market value, not social value. What we get paid is determined much more by the supply of people who can do what we do, compared to the demand from people willing to pay for what we do.  The super-skill of the very best professional athletes is in great demand for a handful of positions.  There are millions of teachers, but even greater millions who are willing and able to do the job demanded at the pay offered.

Which brings us back to Davis and Moore.  The more I think about it, the less I think pay is offered as an incentive to do socially valuable jobs with rare skills.  That is, the pay is not the motivation.  The job is the motivation, for many mysterious reasons.  The pay is what you have to offer to get enough people with the relevant skills to do that job, given the supply and demand. Change either supply or demand, and the pay changes, without any change in the social value of the job.

One of the reasons we honor some jobs more than others is that social status is something that most people want, apart from and in addition to pay.  And status goes both ways - we honor jobs that are worthwhile, but we also honor people who do worthwhile jobs for low pay because they are willing to work for low pay. 

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