Pitirim Sorokin -- SocialMobility

From Pitirim Sorokin, Social and Cultural Mobility. NewYork: The Free Press, 1959.

1. Conception of Social Mobility and Its Forms

By social mobility is understood any transition of an individualor social object or value--anything that has been created or modifiedby human activity--from one social position to another. There are twoprincipal types of social mobility, horizontal andvertical.. By horizontal social mobility or shifting, is meantthe transition of an individual or social object from one socialgroup to another situated on the same level. Transitions ofindividuals, as from the Baptist to the Methodist religious group,from one citizenship to another, from one family (as a husband orwife) to another by divorce and remarriage, from one factory toanother in the same occupational status, are all instances of socialmobility. So too are transitions of social objects, the radio,automobile, fashion, Communism, Darwin's theory, within the samesocial stratum, as from lowa to California, or from any one place toanother. In all these cases, "shifting" may take place without anynoticeable change of the social position of an individual or socialobject in the vertical direction. By vertical social mobilityis meant the relations involved in a transition of an individual (ora social object) from one social stratum to another. According to thedirection of the transition there are two types of vertical socialmobility: ascending and descending, or socialclimbing and social sinking. According to the nature ofthe stratification, there are ascending and descending currents ofeconomic, political, and occupational mobility, not to mention otherless important types. The ascending currents exist in two principalforms: as an infiltration of the individuals of a lowerstratum into an existing higher one; and as a creation of a newgroup by such individuals, and the insertion of such a group into ahigher stratum instead of, or side by side with, the existing groupsof this stratum.. Correspondingly, the descending current hasalso two principal forms: the first consists in a dropping ofindividuals from a higher social position into an existing lower one,without a degradation or disintegration of the higher group to whichthey belonged; the second is manifested in a degradation of asocial group as a whole, in an abasement of its rank among othergroups, or in its disintegration as a social unit.. The firstcase of "sinking" reminds one of an individual falling from a ship;the second of the sinking of the ship itself with all on board, or ofthe ship as a wreck breaking itself to pieces.

The cases of individual infiltration into an existing higherstratum or of individuals dropping from a higher social layer into alower one are relatively common and comprehensible. They need noexplanation. The second form of social ascending and descending, therise and fall of groups, must be considered more carefully.

The following historical examples may serve to illustrate. Thehistorians of India's caste-society tell us that the caste of theBrahmins did not always hold the position of indisputable superioritywhich it has held during the last two thousand years. In tlle remotepast, the caste of the warriors and rulers, or the caste of theKshatriyas, seems to have been not inferior to the caste of theBrahmins; and it appears that only after a long struggle did thelatter become the highest caste. [1] If this hypothesis be true, thenthis elevation of the rank of the Brahmin caste as a whole throughthe ranks of other castes is an example of the second type of socialascent. The group as a whole being elevated, all its members, incorpore, through this very fact, are elevated also. Before therecognition of the Christian religion by Constantine the Great, theposition of a Christian Bishop, or the Christian clergy, was not ahigh one among other social ranks of Roman society. In the next fewcenturies the Christian Church, as a whole, experienced an enormouselevation of social position and rank. Through this wholesaleelevationl of the Christian Church, the members of the clergy, andespecially the high Church dignitaries, were elevated to the highestranks of medieval society. And, contrariwise, a decrease in theauthority of the Christian Church during the last two centuries hasled to a relative abasement of the social ranks of the high Churchdignitaries within the ranks of the present society. The position ofthe Pope or a cardinal is still high, but undoubtedly it is lowerthan it was in the Middle Ages. [2] The group of the legists inFrance is another example. In the twelfth century, this groupappeared in France, as a group, and began to grow rapidly insignificance and rank. Very soon, in the form of the judicialaristocracy, it inserted itself into the place of the previouslyexistiug nobility. In this way, its members were raised to a muchhigher social position. During the seventeenth, and especially theeighteenth centuries, the group, as a whole, began to "sink," andfinally disappeared in the conflagration of the Revolution. A similarprocess took place in the elevation of the CommunalBourgeoisie in the Middle Ages, in the privileged Six Corps orthe Guilda Mercatoria, and in the aristocracy of manyroyal courts. To have a high position at the court of the Romanoffs,Hapsburgs, or Hohenzollerns before the revolutions meant to have oneof the highest social ranks in the corresponding countries. The"sinking" of the dynasties led to a "social sinking" of all ranksconnected with them. The group of the Communists in Russia, beforethe Revolution, did not have any high rank socially recognized.During the Rwolution the group climbed an enormous social distanceand occupied the highest strata in Russian society. As a result, allits members have been elevated en masse to the place occupiedby the Czarist aristocracy. Similar cases are given in a purelyeconomic stratification. Before the "oil" and "automobile" era, to bea prominent manufacturer in this field did not mean to be a captainof industry and finance. A great expansion of these industries hastransformed them into some of the most important kinds of industry.Correspondingly, to be a leading manufacturer in these fields nowmeans to be one of the most important leaders of industry andfinance. These examples illustrate the second collective form ofascending and descending currents of social mobility.

The situation is summed up in the following scheme:

(a) of individuals


Territorial, religious, political party, family, occupational and other horizontal shiftings without any noticeable change in vertical position


Individual infiltration


(b) of social objects


Creation and elevation of a whole group

Economic, occupational, political,etc.

Individual sinking


Sinking or disintegration of a whole group

Economic, occupational, political, etc.

* The mobility of social objects and values and the horizontalmobility, in spite of the great importance of the problem, is not anobject of this study.

2. Intensiveness or Velocity and Genera1ity of Vertical SocialMobility

From the quantitative point of view, a further distinction must bemade between the intensiveness and the generality of tlle verticalmobility. By its intensiveness is meant the vertical socialdistance, or the number of strata--economic or occupational orpolitical-- crossed by an individual in his upward or downwardmovement in a definite period of time. If, for instance, oneindividual in one year climbed from the position of a man with ayearly incolne of $500 to a position with an income of $50,000, whileanother man in the same period succeeded in increasing his incomeonly from $500 to $1,000, in the first case the intensiveness of theeconomic climbing would be fifty times greater than in the secondcase. For a corresponding change, the intensiveness of the verticalmobility may be measured in the same way in the field ot thepolitical and occupational stratifications. By the generality of thevertical mobility, is meant the number of individuals who havechanged their social position in the vertical direction in a definiteperiod of time. The absolute number of such individuals givcs theabsolute generality of the vertical mobility in a givenpopulation; the proportion of such individuals to the total number ofa given population gives the relative generality of the verticalmobility.

Finally, combining the data of intensiveness and relativegenerality of the vertical mobility in a definite field (e.g., in theeconomic), the aggregate index of the vertical economic mobilityof a given society may be obtained. In this way a comparison ofone society with another, or of the same society at different periodsmay be made, to find in which of them, or at what period, theaggregate mobility is greater. The same may be said about theaggregate index of the political and occupational verticalmobility.

3. Immobile and Mobile Types of Stratified Societies

On the basis of the above, it is easy to see that a socialstratification of the same height and profile may have a differentinner structure caused by the difference in the intensiveness andgenerality of the (horizontal and) vertical social mobility.Theoretically, there may be a stratified society in which thevertical social mobility is nil. This means that within it there isno ascending or descending, no circulation of its members; that everyindividual is forever attached to the social stratum in which he wasbom; that the membranes or hymens which separate one stratum fromanother are absolutely impenetrable, and do not have any "holes"through which, nor any stairs and elevators with which, the dwellersof the different strata may pass from one floor to another. Such atype of stratification may be styled as absolutely closed, rigid,impenetrable, or immobile. The opposite theoretical type of theinner structure of the stratification of the same height and profileis that in which the vertical mobility is very intensive and general;here the membranes between the strata are very thin and have thelargest holes to pass from one floor to another. Therefore, thoughthe social building is as stratified as the immobile one,nevertheless, the dwellers of its different strata are continuallychallging; they do not stay a very long time in the same "socialstory," and with the help of the largest staircases and elevators areen masse moving "up and down." Such a type of socialstratification may be styled open, plastic, penetrable, ormobile. Between these two extreme types there may be many middleor intermediary types of stratification.

Having indicated these types and the types of the verticalmobility, turn now to an analysis of the different kinds of societiesand the same society at different times, from the standpoint of thevertical mobility and penetrability of their strata.

4. Democracy and Vertical Social Mobility

One of the most conspicuous characteristics of the so-called"democratic societies" is a more intensive vertical mobility comparedwith that of the non-democratic groups. In democratic societies thesocial position of an individual, at least theoretically, is notdetermined by his birth; all positions are open to everybody who canget them; there are no judicial or religious obstacles to climbing orgoing down. All this facilitates a "greater vertical mobility"(capillarity, according to the expression of Dumont) in suchsocieties. This greater mobility is probably one of the causes of thebelief that the social building of democratic societies is notstratified, or is less stratified, than that of autocratic societies.We have seen that this opinion is not warranted by the facts. Such abelief is a kind of mental aberration, due to many causes, and amongthem to the fact that the strata in democratic groups are more open,have more holes and "elevators" to go up and down. This produces theillusion that there are no strata, even though they exist.

In pointing out this considerable mobility of the democraticsocieties, a reservation must be made at the same time, for notalways, and not in all "democratic" societies, is the verticalmobility greater than in the "autocratic" ones. [3] In some of thenon-democratic groups mobility has been greater than in thedemocracies. This is not often seen because the "channels" and themethods of climbing and sinking in such societies are not "theelections," as in democracies, but other and somewhat different ones.While "elections" are conspicuous indications of mobility, its otheroutlets and channels are often overlooked Hence the impression of thestagnant and immobile character of all "non-electoral" societies.That this impression is far from being always true will be shown.

5. General Principles of Vertical Mobility

1. First Proposiiion.--There has scarcely been any societywhose strata were absolutely closed, or in which vertical mobility inits three forms--economic, political and occupational--was notpresent.. That the strata of primitive tribes have beenpenetrable follows from the fact that within many of them there is nohereditary high position; their leaders often have been elected,their structures have been far from being quite rigid, and thepersonal qualities of an individual have played a decisive role insocial ascent or descent. The nearest approach to an absolutely rigidsociety, without any vertical mobility, is the so-calledcaste-society. Its most conspicuous type exists in India. Here,indeed, vertical social mobility is very weak. But even here it hasnot been absolutely absent. Historical records show that in the past,when the caste-system had already been developed, it did happen thatmembers of the highest Brahmin caste, or the king aud his fanlily,were overthrown or cast out for crimes. "Through a want of modestymany kings have perished, together with their belongings; throughmodesty even hermits in the forest have gained kingdoms. Through awant of humility Vena perished, likewise king Nahusha, Sudas, Sumukhaand Nevi," etc. [4] On the other hand, the outcasts, after a suitablerepentance, might be reinstated, or individuals bom in a lower socialstratum might succeed in entering the Brahmin caste, the top of thesocial cone of India. "By humility Prithu and Manu gainedsovereignty, Kubera the position of the Lord of wealth and the son ofGadhi, the rank of a Brahmana." [5] Because of the mixed intercastemarriages, it was possible slowly to climb or sink from caste tocaste in several generations. Here are the juridical textscorroborating these statements. In Gautama we read: ìFrom amarriage of Brahmana and Kshatriya springs a Savarna, from a Brahmanaand Vaisya a Nishada, from a Brahmana and Sudra a Parasava." In thisway intercaste subdivision was appearing. But "In the seventhgeneration men obtain a change of caste either being raised to ahigher or being degraded to a lower one." [6] "By the power ofausterities and of the seed from which they sprang the mixed racesobtain here among men more exalted or lower rank in successivebirth." [7] Articles concerning the degradation and casting-out forthe transgression of the caste rule are scattered throughout all theSacred Books of India. [8] The existence of the process of socialclimbing is certainly vouched for, too. At least, in the period ofEarly Buddhism, we find "many cases of Brahmans and Princes doingmanual work and manual occupations. Among the middle classes we findnot a few instances revealing anything but castebound heredity andgroove, to wit, parents discussing the best profession for theirson--no reference being made to the father's trade." "Socialdivisions and economic occupations were very far from beingcoinciding." "Labor was largely hereditary, yet there was, withal, amobility and initiative anything but rigid revealed in the exerciseof it." Moreover, at different periods, "slave-born kings are knownin history but tabooed in Law." "The spectacle of the low-born man inpower was never a rarity in India." The case of Chandragupta, alow-born son of Mura who became the founder of the great dynasty ofthe Maurya and the creator of the great and powerful Maurya Empire(321 to 297 B.C.) is only one conspicuous example among many. [9]

For the last few decades we see a similar picture. The weakcurrent of the vertical mobility has been active in different ways:"through enrolling in one of the more distinguished castes" by thosewho became wealthy and could obtain a sanction from the Brahmins;through creation of a new caste; through change of occupation;through intercaste marriages; through migration; and so on. [10]Quite recently a considerable role began to be played by education,and by political and religious factors.[11] It is evident, therefore,that, in spite of the fact that the caste-society of India isapparently the most conspicuous example of the most impenetrable andrigidly stratified body, nevertheless, even within it, the weak andslow currents of vertical mobility have been constantly present. Ifsuch is the case with the India caste-society, it is clear that inall other social bodies vertical mobility to this or that degree,must obviously be present. This statement is warranted by the facts.The histories of Greece, Rome, Egypt, [11] China, Medieval Europe,and so on show the existence of a vertical mobility much moreintensive than that of the Indian caste-society. The absolutely rigidsociety is a myth which has never been realized in history.

2. The Second Proposition.--There has never existed a societyin which vertical social mobility has been absolutely free and thetrasition from one social stratum to another has had noresistance. This proposition is a mere corollary to the premisesestablished ahove, that every organized society is a stratified body.If veritcal mobility were absolutely free, in the resultant societythere woulb be no strata. It would remind us of a building having nofloors separating one story from another. But all societies have beenstratified. This means that within them there has been a kind of"sieve" which has sifted the individuals, allowing some to go up,keeping others in the lower strata, and contrariwise.

Only in periods of anarchy and great disorder, when the entiresocial structure is broken and where the social strata areconsiderably demolished, do we have anything reminding us of achaotic and disorganized vertical mobility en masse. [13] Buteven in such periods, there are some hindrances to unlimited socialmobility, partly in the form of the remnants of the "sieve" of theold regime, partly in the form of a rapidly growing "new sieve."After a short period, if such an anarchic society does not perish inanarchy, a modified "sieve" rapidly takes the place of the old oneand, incidentally, becomes as tight as its predecessor. What is to beunderstood by the "sieve" will be explained further on. Here it isenough to say that it exists and functions in this or that form inany society. The proposition is so evident and in the future we shallindicate so many facts which warrant it, that there is no need todwell on it longer here.

3. The Third Proposition.--The intensiveness, as well as thegenerality of the vertical social mobility, varies from society tosociety (fluctuation of mobility in space). This statement isquite evident also. It is enough to compare the Indian caste-societywith the American society to see that. If the highest ranks in thepolitical, or economic, or occupational cone of both societies aretaken, it is seen that in India almost all these ranks are determinedby birth, and there are very few "upstarts" who climbed to thesepositions from the lowest strata. Meanwhile, in the United States,among its captains of industry and finance, 38.8 per cent in the pastand 19.6 per cent in the present generation started poor; 31.5 percent among the deceased and 27.7 per cent among the livingmultimillionaires started their careers neither rich nor poor; [14]among the twenty-nine presidents of the United States 14, or 48.3 percent, came from poor and humble families. [15] The differences in thegenerality of the vertical mobility of both countries are similar. InIndia a great majority of the occupational population inherit andkeep throughout their lives the occupational status of their fathers;in the United States the majority of the population change theiroccupations at least once in a lifetime. The study of occupationalshifting by Dr. Dublin has shown that among the policyholders of theMetropolitan Life Insurance Company 58.5 per cent have changed theiroccupation between the moment of issuance of the policy and death.[16] My own study of the transmission of occupation from father toson among different groups of the American population has shown thatamong the present generation the shifting from occupation tooccupation is high. The same may be said about the generality of thevertical economic mobility.

Furthermore, the differences in the intensity and generality ofthe vertical political mobility in different societies may he seenfrom the following figures which show what per cent among themonarchs and executives of the different countries were "newcomers"who climbed to this highest position from the lower social strata.(See following table.)



Western Roman Empire


Eastern Roman Empire








United States of America


Presidents of France and Germany


These figures may be taken as an approximate indication of theintensiveness and generality of the vertical political mobility fromthe bottom of the political structure to its top. The great variationof the figures is an indication of the great fluctuation of thepolitical mobility from country to country.

4. The Fourth Proposition. --The intensiveness and thegenerality of the vertical mobility--the economic, the political andthe occupational --fluctuate in the same society at different times. In the course of the history of a whole country, as well as ofany social group, there are periods when the vertical mobilityincreases from the quantitative as well as from the qualitativeviewpoint, and there are the periods when it decreases.

Though accurate statistical material to prove this proposition isvery scarce and fragmentary, nevertheless, it seems to me that thesedata, together with different forms of historical testimony, areenough to make the proposition safe. . . .

5. The Fifth Proposition.--As far as the correspondinghistorical and other materials permit seeing, in the field ofvertical mobility, in its three fundamental forms, there seems to beno definite perpetual trend toward either an increase or a decreaseof the intensiveness and generality of mobility. This is proposed asvalid for the history of a country, for that of a large social body,and, finally, for the history of mankind. . . .

It is evident that the tendency to social seclusion and rigidityin the later stages of development of many social bodies has beenrather common. While not trying to claim for this tendency apermanent trend, it is mentioned only to oppose the alleged tendencyof an increase of social mobility in the course of time.

What has been said seems to be enough to challenge the allegedtrend theories.


1. The principal forms of social mobility of individuals andsocial objects are: horizontal and vertical. Vertical mobility existsin the form of ascending and descending currents. Both have twovarieties: individual infiltration and collective ascent or descentof the whole group within the system of other groups.

2. According to the degree of the circulation, it is possible todiscriminate between immobile and mobile types of society.

3. There scarcely has existed a society whose strata wereabsolutely closed.

4. There scarcely has existed a society where vertical mobilitywas absolutely free from obstacles.

5. The intensiveness and the generality of vertical mobility varyfrom group to group, from time to time (fluctuation in space and intime). In the history of a social body there is a rhythm ofcomparatively immobile and mobile periods.

6. In these fluctuations there seems to be no perpetual trendtoward either an increase or decrease of vertical mobility.

7. Though the so-called democratic societies are often more mobilethan autocratic ones, nevertheless, the rule is not general and hasmany exceptions.


1. See Bougle, C., "Remarques sur le regime des castes," pp. 53et seq., The Cambridge History of India, pp. 92et seq.

2. See Guizot, F., The History of Civilization, Vol. 1, pp.50-54, New York, 1874.

3. This is natural because under the signboard "democracy" areusually put societies of the most different types. The same is trueof "autocracy." Both terms are very vague and scientificallydefective.

4. Laws of Manu, VII, 40-42; see also XI, 183-199.

5. Laws of Manu, VII, 42, XI, 187-199.

6. Guautama, Chap. IV, pp. 8-21.

7. Laws of Manu, X, 42; see also 5-56.

8. See also Lilly, W. S., India and Its Problems, pp. 200et seq. London, 1922.

9. The Cambridge History of India, Vol. I, pp. 208ff., 223,268-269, 288, 480, New York, 1922.

10. See The Imperial Gazetteer of India, Vol. I, pp.311-331.

11. See Woodburne, A. S., Decline of Caste in India, inCase, C., Outlines of Introductory Sociology.

12. See Breasted, J. H., op. cit., pp. 120, 173, 289, 333,360.

13. See Sorokin, P., Sociology of Revolution, Pt. III.

14. Sorokin, P., "American Millionaires and Multimillionaires,''Journal of Social Forces, p. 638, May, 1925.

15. Sorokin, P., "The Monarchs and the Rulers," Journal ofSocial Forces, March, 1926.

16. Dublin, L. J., "Shifting of Occupations Among Wage Eamers,"Monthly Labor Review, April, 1924.