Social Stratification and Social Mobility

Sorokin holds a unique place in the study of social stratification and mo-bility. We owe to him the creation or definition of many of the terms that havebecome standard in this field. We also owe him a distinct vision of what thestudy of social mobility should be mainly concerned with, namely, the coursesand consequences of demographic exchanges between groups, as distinct fromthe study of individuals who may move up or down or sideways in the socialhierarchy.

Sorokin defined social mobility in its broadest sense as the shifting ofpeople in social space. He was not, however, interested in movements of indi-viduals but in social metabolism, in the consequences of such movements forsocial groups differently located in the social structure.

"To find the position of a man or a social phenomenon in social space,"Sorokin argued in the first place, "means to define his or its relations to othermen or other social phenomena chosen as the point of reference.' " Methodsappropriate for the study of mobility are somewhat reminiscent of the systemof coordinates used for the location of an object in geometrical space. But theanalytical task is not completed when one has established a person's relationsto specific groups. What needs further exploration is "the relation of thesegroups to each other within a population, and the relation of this population toother populations." In other words, though the study of social mobility needsto concern itself with the movements of individuals, it also needs to pay closeattention to the consequences of these movements for the social groups andthe total structures that encompass these individual moves. Before consideringsocial mobility we must know a good deal about the structure of stratificationin which such movements occur.

Social stratification, to Sorokin, means "the differentiation of a given popu-lation into hierarchically superposed classes." Such stratification, he held, isa permanent characteristic of any organized social group. Stratification may bebased on economic criteria--for example, when one focuses attention upon thedifferentials between the wealthy and the poor. But societies or groups are alsopolitically stratified when their social ranks are hierarchically structured withrespect to authority and power. If, however, the members of a society are dif-ferentiated into various occupational groups and some of these occupations aredeemed more honorable than others, or if occupations are internally dividedbetween those who give orders and those who receive orders, then we deal withoccupational stratification. Though there may be other concrete forms ofstratification, of central sociological importance are economic, political, and oc-cupational stratification.

Sociological investigation must proceed to pay attention to the height andthe profile of stratification pyramids. Of how many layers is it composed? Is itsprofile steep, or does it slope gradually ?

Whether one studies economic, political, or occupational stratification,Sorokin contended, one must always be attentive to two distinct phenomena:the rise or decline of a group as a whole and the increase or decrease of strat-ification within a group. In the first case we deal with increases of wealth,power, or occupational standing of social groups, as when we talk of the de-cline of the aristocracy or the rise of the bourgeoisie; in the second, we areconcerned with the increase or decrease of the height and steepness of thestratification pyramid in regard to wealth, power, or occupational prestigewithin groups--for example, when we say that the American Black populationnow has a higher stratification profile than it had at the turn of the century.

In contrast to evolutionary and "progressive' thought, and in tune with hisoverall view of the course of human history, Sorokin argued that no consistenttrend toward either the heightening or the flattening of stratificational pyra-mids can be discerned. Instead, all that can be observed is ceaseless fluctuation.At times, differences between the poor and the rich may be reduced throughthe impact of equalitarian forces, but at other times inequalitarian tendencieswill again assert themselves. Or at one point democratic participation will re-duce differences in political power, while at another aristocratic and dictatorialpolitics will successfully increase the height of the political pyramid. In similarways, some groups decline and others rise in ceaseless fluctuation.

Exterior features of the architecture of social structures having beensketched, Sorokin proceeds to summarize their inner construction, to wit thecharacter and disposition of the floors, the elevators, and the staircases that leadfrom one story to another; the ladders and accommodations for climbing upand going down from story to story. This brings him to the concrete detailsof his study of social mobility.

Social mobility is understood as the transition of people from one socialposition to another. There are two types of social mobility, horizontal andvertical. The first concerns movements from one social position to anothersituated on the same level, as in a movement from Baptist to Methodist affilia-tion, or from work as a foreman with Ford to similar work with Chrysler. Thesecond refers to transitions of people from one social stratum to one higher orlower in the social scale, as in ascendant movements from rags to riches or inthe downward mobility of inept children of able parents.

Both ascending and descending movements occur in two principal forms:the penetration of individuals of a lower stratum into an existing higher one,and the descent of individuals from a higher social position to one lower onthe scale; or the collective ascent or descent of whole groups relative to othergroups in the social pyramid. But--and this is what distinguished Sorokin'sorientation from that of many contemporary students of stratification and mo-bility--his main focus was upon collective, not on individual phenomena. Ashe puts it, "The case of individual infiltration into an existing higher stratumor of individuals dropping from a higher social layer into a lower one are rela-tively common and comprehensible. They need no explanation. The secondform of social ascending and descending, the rise and fall of groups, must beconsidered more carefully.

Groups and societies, according to Sorokin, may be distinguished accordingto their differences in the intensiveness and generality of social mobility. Theremay be stratified societies in which vertical mobility is virtually nil and othersin which it is very frequent. We must therefore be careful to distinguish be-tween the height and profile of stratification, and the prevalence or absence ofsocial mobility. In some highly stratified societies where the membranes be-tween strata are thin, social mobility is very high. In contrast other societieswith various profiles and heights of stratification have hardly any stairs andelevators to allow members to pass from one floor to another, so that the strataare largely closed, rigidly separated, immobile, and virtually impenetrable. Assuming that there are no societies in which strata are absolutely closed andnone where social mobility is absolutely free from obstacles, one must recognizethat Sorokin's distinctions, even though stated too metaphorically, are of con-siderable heuristic value.

In regard to degrees of openness and closure, Sorokin holds to his usualposition. No perpetual trend toward either increase or decrease of vertical mo-bility can be discerned in the course of human history; all that can be noticedare variations through geographical space and fluctuations in historical time.

Attempting to identify the channels of vertical mobility and the mecha-nisms of social selection and distribution of individuals within different socialstrata, Sorokin identifies the army, the church, the school, as well as political,professional, and economic organizations, as principal conduits of vertical socialcirculation. They are the "sieves" that sift individuals who claim access to dif-ferent social strata and positions. All these institutions are involved in socialselection and distribution of the members of a society. They decide whichpeople will climb and fall; they allocate individuals to various strata; theyeither open gates for the flow of individuals or create impediments to theirmovements.

Without minutely detailing the many ways in which Sorokin illustratesthe operation of these institutions or the way in which he shows why at a giventime certain stratification profiles have called for specific mechanisms of selec-tion, we should take note, however, of what he considers a "permanent anduniversal" basis for interoccupational stratification, namely: "The importanceof an occupation for the survival and existence of a group as a whole." Theoccupations that are considered most consequential in a society, he states, arethose that "are connected with the functions of organization and control ofa group."

In considering the impact of actual rates of social mobility, as well as theideology of social mobility, on modern societies, we find Sorokin offers a freshapproach in the light of current experience. Far from indulging in unalloyedenthusiasm about high degrees of social mobility, Sorokin, like Durkheim, wasat pains to highlight its dysfunctional and its functional aspects. He stressed,among other things, the heavy price in mental strain, mental disease, cynicism,social isolation, and loneliness of individuals cut adrift from their social moor-ings. He also stressed the increase in tolerance and the facilitation of intellec-tual life (as a result of discoveries and inventions) that were likely to occurwith more frequency in highly mobile societies

The analyst of social stratification, social mobility, and related matters canignore Sorokin's work only at his or her expense. It still remains a veritablestorehouse of ideas. Above all we need to take Sorokin's advice when he urgesus to consider social mobility as a form of social exchange. Just as Levi-Straussbrought about a revolution in the study of kinship (stressing that marriage isto be seen as an exchange between elementary families), so Sorokin presents theinnovative idea that social mobility does not primarily concern the placementof individuals but is to be understood as exchange between social groups. Byfostering the circulation of individuals in social space, such exchange increasesor decreases the specific weight and power of the groups and strata betweenwhich they move. This central idea, if more fully elaborated, could be theimpetus for a great deal of research in social stratification.

From Coser, 1977:472-476.


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