SOCIAL MOBILITY. New York: Harper, 1927.

Social Mobility

Social Mobility (1927) - a pioneer study of the historical and contemporary dynamics of inequality.

Sorokin began Mobility with a discussion of the movements of actors in social space. In social stratification, space is pyramidal. Depending on the dimension of stratification (economic, political, or occupational) and its organization, the pyramids take distinct forms. Consider, for example, countries with different occupational structures. Country A has little occupational diversity. Most of the workers are in agriculture and extractive work; there are few skilled workers and tradesmen, and a smaller number of professionals. This pyramid would have a very broad base and be relatively flat. Country B has a smaller agricultural base, more diversity in semiskilled and skilled workers, a variety of people in commerce, clerical, sales, and service occupations, and specialized strata of managers and professionals. The pyramid thus becomes narrower and taller. Within stratification pyramids, actors move from one position to another. When the movement is in the same plane, horizontal mobility has occurred. If actors move between two or more planes, then there has been vertical mobility. It is this form of movement that was of most concern to Sorokin, who was deeply interested in the rates of movement in each sphere of stratification and in how these rates were influenced by a society's stage of development.

On a broader level the book addressed the essence and forms of social stratification in different historical periods; the relationship between social status and psychophysical characteristics; the channels and screening mechanisms of social mobility; and the social and psychological consequences of mobility and stability for individuals and social life. Carlsson44 observed that this study also anticipated some of the arguments raised by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore twenty years later in their important and controversial article "Some Principles of Stratification." Specifically, some jobs are more important for group survival than others, and demand that incumbents be more skilled and intelligent. Society, in turn, develops testing mechanisms to ensure that the best-qualified come to fill these important positions. If the mechanisms work, most people will fill jobs appropriate to their talents.


The methodology employed in Social Mobility differed from that in Sorokin's earlier works. While keeping an interest in historical trends, Sorokin had shifted toward a more quantitative approach. He states early on that the period of speculative or armchair sociology was ending. Moving into its place was a more objective, factual, and quantitative sociology. Speculation and the "illustrative method," using one or two facts to confirm a general statement, were to be abandoned. They were "a plague of sociology" on which he declared war. The data in Social Mobility are remarkable. They reflect an exhaustive search of the literature combined with the more time-consuming task of gathering one's own information. Data are presented for ancient and modern civilizations. Geographically, many of the world's major regions and countries are represented, and often comparative information on a specific topic (e.g., divorce) is analyzed and discussed. The work is a cornucopia of social data. Sorokin was perfectly aware that even these data allowed only preliminary and circumscribed conclusions. The more complete information necessary for testing some of his hypotheses would not be available for decades. The United States, for example, would not begin to systematically collect the basic items for mobility analysis until the 1950s. Cross-cultural mobility analysis is still hindered by the lack of systematically collected and reliable data.