There is no question that Sorokin was a sociological giant, one whose pioneer studies The Sociology of Revolution, Social Mobility, Contemporary Sociological Theories, and of course, Social and Cultural Dynamics, to name just the most obvious provided basic frames for major sociological fields. But although an academic professor, he was also a prophet, one who felt his responsibility to decry certain conditions and behavior patterns of modernity, to warn of their consequences, and to seek or prepare us to go beyond the normative crisis of late modernity”. (Edward A. Tiryakian)

 


 

Stratification and Mobility

Sorokin holds a unique place in the study of social stratification and mobility. We owe to him the creation or definition of many of the terms that have become standard in this field. We also owe him a distinct vision of what the study of social mobility should be mainly concerned with, namely, the courses and consequences of demographic exchanges between groups, as distinct from the study of individuals who may move up or down or sideways in the social hierarchy.

Sorokin defined social mobility in its broadest sense as the shifting of people in social space. He was not, however, interested in movements of individuals but in social metabolism, in the consequences of such movements for social 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 other men or other social phenomena chosen as the point of reference.' "

Methods appropriate for the study of mobility are somewhat reminiscent of the system of coordinates used for the location of an object in geometrical space. But the analytical task is not completed when one has established a person's relations to specific groups. What needs further exploration is "the relation of these groups to each other within a population, and the relation of this population to other populations." In other words, though the study of social mobility needs to concern itself with the movements of individuals, it also needs to pay close attention to the consequences of these movements for the social groups and the total structures that encompass these individual moves. Before considering social mobility we must know a good deal about the structure of stratification in which such movements occur.

Social stratification, to Sorokin, means "the differentiation of a given population into hierarchically superposed classes." Such stratification, he held, is a permanent characteristic of any organized social group. Stratification may be based on economic criteria--for example, when one focuses attention upon the differentials between the wealthy and the poor. But societies or groups are also politically stratified when their social ranks are hierarchically structured with respect to authority and power. If, however, the members of a society are differentiated into various occupational groups and some of these occupations are deemed more honorable than others, or if occupations are internally divided between those who give orders and those who receive orders, then we deal with occupational stratification. Though there may be other concrete forms of stratification, of central sociological importance are economic, political, and occupational stratification.

Sociological investigation must proceed to pay attention to the height and the profile of stratification pyramids. Of how many layers is it composed? Is its profile 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 stratification 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 are concerned with the increase or decrease of the height and steepness of the stratification pyramid in regard to wealth, power, or occupational prestige within groups--for example, when we say that the American Black population now 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 his overall view of the course of human history, Sorokin argued that no consistent trend toward either the heightening or the flattening of stratificational pyramids can be discerned. Instead, all that can be observed is ceaseless fluctuation. At times, differences between the poor and the rich may be reduced through the impact of equalitarian forces, but at other times in equalitarian tendencies will again assert themselves. Or at one point democratic participation will re-duce differences in political power, while at another aristocratic and dictatorial politics will successfully increase the height of the political pyramid. In similar ways, some groups decline and others rise in ceaseless fluctuation.

Exterior features of the architecture of social structures having been sketched, Sorokin proceeds to summarize their inner construction, to wit the character and disposition of the floors, the elevators, and the staircases that lead from one story to another; the ladders and accommodations for climbing up and going down from story to story. This brings him to the concrete details of his study of social mobility.

Social mobility is understood as the transition of people from one social position to another. There are two types of social mobility, horizontal and vertical. The first concerns movements from one social position to another situated on the same level, as in a movement from Baptist to Methodist affiliation, or from work as a foreman with Ford to similar work with Chrysler. The second refers to transitions of people from one social stratum to one higher or lower in the social scale, as in ascendant movements from rags to riches or in the 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 on the scale; or the collective ascent or descent of whole groups relative to other groups in the social pyramid. But--and this is what distinguished Sorokin's orientation from that of many contemporary students of stratification and mobility--his main focus was upon collective, not on individual phenomena. Ashe puts it, "The case of individual infiltration into an existing higher stratum or of individuals dropping from a higher social layer into a lower one are relatively common and comprehensible. They need no explanation. The second form of social ascending and descending, the rise and fall of groups, must be considered more carefully.

Groups and societies, according to Sorokin, may be distinguished according to their differences in the intensiveness and generality of social mobility. There may be stratified societies in which vertical mobility is virtually nil and others in 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 of social mobility. In some highly stratified societies where the membranes be-tween strata are thin, social mobility is very high. In contrast other societies with various profiles and heights of stratification have hardly any stairs and elevators to allow members to pass from one floor to another, so that the strata are largely closed, rigidly separated, immobile, and virtually impenetrable. Assuming that there are no societies in which strata are absolutely closed and none where social mobility is absolutely free from obstacles, one must recognize that Sorokin's distinctions, even though stated too metaphorically, are of considerable heuristic value.

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

Attempting to identify the channels of vertical mobility and the mechanisms of social selection and distribution of individuals within different social strata, Sorokin identifies the army, the church, the school, as well as political, professional, and economic organizations, as principal conduits of vertical social circulation. They are the "sieves" that sift individuals who claim access to different social strata and positions. All these institutions are involved in social selection and distribution of the members of a society. They decide which people will climb and fall; they allocate individuals to various strata; they either open gates for the flow of individuals or create impediments to their movements.

Without minutely detailing the many ways in which Sorokin illustrates the operation of these institutions or the way in which he shows why at a given time certain stratification profiles have called for specific mechanisms of selection, we should take note, however, of what he considers a "permanent and universal" basis for inter occupational stratification, namely: "The importance of an occupation for the survival and existence of a group as a whole." The occupations that are considered most consequential in a society, he states, are those that "are connected with the functions of organization and control of a group."

In considering the impact of actual rates of social mobility, as well as the ideology of social mobility, on modern societies, we find Sorokin offers a fresh approach in the light of current experience. Far from indulging in unalloyed enthusiasm about high degrees of social mobility, Sorokin, like Durkheim, was at 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 moorings. He also stressed the increase in tolerance and the facilitation of intellectual life (as a result of discoveries and inventions) that were likely to occur with more frequency in highly mobile societies

The analyst of social stratification, social mobility, and related matters can ignore Sorokin's work only at his or her expense. It still remains a veritable store house of ideas. Above all we need to take Sorokin's advice when he urges us to consider social mobility as a form of social exchange. Just as Levi-Strauss brought about a revolution in the study of kinship (stressing that marriage is to be seen as an exchange between elementary families), so Sorokin presents the innovative idea that social mobility does not primarily concern the placement of individuals but is to be understood as exchange between social groups. By fostering the circulation of individuals in social space, such exchange increases or decreases the specific weight and power of the groups and strata between which they move. This central idea, if more fully elaborated, could be the impetus for a great deal of research in social stratification.

(From: Coser, 1977:472-476.)

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