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Social Mobility

by Pitirim A. Sorokin

In: Social and Cultural Mobility
New York: The Free Press, 1959.

George C. Homans
1. Conception of Social Mobility and Its Forms
2. Intensiveness or Velocity and Generality of Vertical Social Mobility
3. Immobile and Mobile Types of Stratified Societies
4. Democracy and Vertical Social Mobility
5. General Principles of Vertical Mobility
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1. Conception of Social Mobility and Its Forms

By social mobility is understood any transition of an individual or social object or value —anything that has been created or modified by human activity— from one social position to another. There are two principal types of social mobility, horizontal and vertical.

By horizontal social mobility or shifting, is meant the transition of an individual or social object from one social group to another situated on the same level. Transitions of individuals, as from the Baptist to the Methodist religious group, from one citizenship to another, from one family (as a husband or wife) to another by divorce and remarriage, from one factory to another in the same occupational status, are all instances of social mobility. So too are transitions of social objects, the radio, automobile, fashion, Communism, Darwin’s theory, within the same social stratum, as from lowa to California, or from any one place to another. In all these cases, »shifting« may take place without any noticeable change of the social position of an individual or social object in the vertical direction.

By vertical social mobility is meant the relations involved in a transition of an individual (or a social object) from one social stratum to another. According to the direction of the transition there are two types of vertical social mobility: ascending and descending, or social climbing and social sinking. According to the nature of the stratification, there are ascending and descending currents of economic, political, and occupational mobility, not to mention other less important types.

The ascending currents exist in two principal forms: as an infiltration of the individuals of a lower stratum into an existing higher one; and as a creation of a new group by such individuals, and the insertion of such a group into a higher stratum instead of, or side by side with, the existing groups of this stratum.

Correspondingly, the descending current has also two principal forms: the first consists in a dropping of individuals from a higher social position into an existing lower one, without a degradation or disintegration of the higher group to which they belonged; the second is manifested in a degradation of asocial group as a whole, in an abasement of its rank among other groups, or in its disintegration as a social unit. The first case 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 of the ship as a wreck breaking itself to pieces.

The cases 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.

The following historical examples may serve to illustrate. The historians of India’s caste-society tell us that the caste of the Brahmins did not always hold the position of indisputable superiority which it has held during the last two thousand years. In the remote past, the caste of the warriors and rulers, or the caste of the Kshatriyas, seems to have been not inferior to the caste of the Brahmins; and it appears that only after a long struggle did the latter become the highest caste. [1] If this hypothesis be true, then this elevation of the rank of the Brahmin caste as a whole through the ranks of other castes is an example of the second type of social ascent. The group as a whole being elevated, all its members, in corpore, through this very fact, are elevated also.

Before there cognition of the Christian religion by Constantine the Great, the position of a Christian Bishop, or the Christian clergy, was not a high one among other social ranks of Roman society. In the next few centuries the Christian Church, as a whole, experienced an enormous elevation of social position and rank. Through this wholesale elevation of the Christian Church, the members of the clergy, and especially the high Church dignitaries, were elevated to the highest ranks of medieval society. And, contrariwise, a decrease in the authority of the Christian Church during the last two centuries has led to a relative abasement of the social ranks of the high Church dignitaries within the ranks of the present society. The position of the Pope or a cardinal is still high, but undoubtedly it is lower than it was in the Middle Ages. [2]

The group of the legists in France is another example. In the twelfth century, this group appeared in France, as a group, and began to grow rapidly in significance and rank. Very soon, in the form of the judicial aristocracy, it inserted itself into the place of the previously existing nobility. In this way, its members were raised to a much higher social position. During the seventeenth, and especially the eighteenth centuries, the group, as a whole, began to ‘sink’, and finally disappeared in the conflagration of the Revolution.

A similar process took place in the elevation of the Communal Bourgeoisie in the Middle Ages, in the privileged Six Corps or the Guilda Mercatoria, and in the aristocracy of many royal courts. To have a high position at the court of the Romanoffs, Hapsburgs, or Hohenzollerns before the revolutions meant to have one of the highest social ranks in the corresponding countries. The ‘sinking’ of the dynasties led to a ‘social sinking’ of all ranks connected with them. The group of the Communists in Russia, before the Revolution, did not have any high rank socially recognized. During the Revolution the group climbed an enormous social distance and occupied the highest strata in Russian society. As a result, all its members have been elevated en masse to the place occupied by the Czarist aristocracy. Similar cases are given in a purely economic stratification. Before the ‘oil’ and ‘automobile’ era, to be a prominent manufacturer in this field did not mean to be a captain of industry and finance. A great expansion of these industries has transformed them into some of the most important kinds of industry. Correspondingly, to be a leading manufacturer in these fields now means to be one of the most important leaders of industry and finance. These examples illustrate the second collective form of ascending and descending currents of social mobility.

The situation is summed up in the following scheme:

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


Individual infiltration


of social objects


Creation and elevation
of a whole group

Economic, occupational,

Individual sinking


Sinking or disintegration
of a whole group
Economic, occupational,
political, etc.

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

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2. Intensiveness or Velocity and Genera1ity of Vertical SocialMobility

From the quantitative point of view, a further distinction must be made between the intensiveness and the generality of the vertical mobility. By its intensiveness is meant the vertical social distance, or the number of strata —economic or occupational or political— crossed by an individual in his upward or downward movement in a definite period of time. If, for instance, one individual in one year climbed from the position of a man with a yearly income of $500 to a position with an income of $50,000, while another man in the same period succeeded in increasing his income only from $500 to $1,000, in the first case the intensiveness of the economic climbing would be fifty times greater than in the second case.

For a corresponding change, the intensiveness of the vertical mobility may be measured in the same way in the field of the political and occupational stratifications. By the generality of the vertical mobility, is meant the number of individuals who have changed their social position in the vertical direction in a definite period of time. The absolute number of such individuals gives the absolute generality of the vertical mobility in a given population; the proportion of such individuals to the total number of a given population gives the relative generality of the vertical mobility.

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

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3. Immobile and Mobile Types of Stratified Societies

On the basis of the above, it is easy to see that a social stratification of the same height and profile may have a different inner structure caused by the difference in the intensiveness and generality of the (horizontal and) vertical social mobility. Theoretically, there may be a stratified society in which the vertical social mobility is nil. This means that within it there is no ascending or descending, no circulation of its members; that every individual is forever attached to the social stratum in which he was born; that the membranes or hymens which separate one stratum from another are absolutely impenetrable, and do not have any ‘holes’ through which, nor any stairs and elevators with which, the dwellers of the different strata may pass from one floor to another. Such a type of stratification may be styled as absolutely closed, rigid, impenetrable, or immobile.

The opposite theoretical type of the inner structure of the stratification of the same height and profile is that in which the vertical mobility is very intensive and general; here the membranes between the strata are very thin and have the largest holes to pass from one floor to another. Therefore, though the social building is as stratified as the immobile one, nevertheless, the dwellers of its different strata are continually challiging; they do not stay a very long time in the same ‘social story‘, and with the help of the largest staircases and elevators are en masse moving ‘up and down’. Such a type of social stratification may be styled open, plastic, penetrable, or mobile. Between these two extreme types there may be many middle or intermediary types of stratification.

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

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4. Democracy and Vertical Social Mobility

One of the most conspicuous characteristics of the so-called ‘democratic societies’ is a more intensive vertical mobility compared with that of the non-democratic groups. In democratic societies the social position of an individual, at least theoretically, is not determined by his birth; all positions are open to everybody who can get them; there are no judicial or religious obstacles to climbing or going down. All this facilitates a ‘greater vertical mobility’ (capillarity, according to the expression of Dumont) in such societies. This greater mobility is probably one of the causes of the belief that the social building of democratic societies is not stratified, or is less stratified, than that of autocratic societies. We have seen that this opinion is not warranted by the facts. Such a belief is a kind of mental aberration, due to many causes, and among them to the fact that the strata in democratic groups are more open, have more holes and ‘elevators’ to go up and down. This produces the illusion that there are no strata, even though they exist.

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

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5. General Principles of Vertical Mobility

1. First Proposition — There has scarcely been any society whose strata were absolutely closed, or in which vertical mobility in its three forms —economic, political and occupational— was not present. That the strata of primitive tribes have been penetrable follows from the fact that within many of them there is no hereditary high position; their leaders often have been elected, their structures have been far from being quite rigid, and the personal qualities of an individual have played a decisive role in social ascent or descent. The nearest approach to an absolutely rigid society, without any vertical mobility, is the so-called caste-society.

Its most conspicuous type exists in India. Here, indeed, vertical social mobility is very weak. But even here it has not been absolutely absent. Historical records show that in the past, when the caste-system had already been developed, it did happen that members of the highest Brahmin caste, or the king aud his family, were overthrown or cast out for crimes. “Through a want of modesty many kings have perished, together with their belongings; through modesty even hermits in the forest have gained kingdoms. Through a want of humility Vena perished, likewise king Nahusha, Sudas, Sumukha and Nevi,” etc. [4]

On the other hand, the outcasts, after a suitable repentance, might be reinstated, or individuals born in a lower social stratum might succeed in entering the Brahmin caste, the top of the social cone of India. “By humility Prithu and Manu gained sovereignty, Kubera the position of the Lord of wealth and the son of Gadhi, the rank of a Brahmana.” [5] Because of the mixed intercaste marriages, it was possible slowly to climb or sink from caste to caste in several generations.

Here are the juridical texts corroborating these statements. In Gautama we read: “From a marriage of Brahmana and Kshatriya springs a Savarna, from a Brahmana and Vaisya a Nishada, from a Brahmana and Sudra a Parasava.” In this way intercaste subdivision was appearing. But “In the seventh generation men obtain a change of caste either being raised to a higher or being degraded to a lower one.” [6] “By the power of austerities and of the seed from which they sprang the mixed races obtain here among men more exalted or lower rank in successive birth.” [7] Articles concerning the degradation and casting-out for the transgression of the caste rule are scattered throughout all the Sacred Books of India. [8]

The existence of the process of social climbing is certainly vouched for, too. At least, in the period of Early Buddhism, we find “many cases of Brahmans and Princes doing manual work and manual occupations. Among the middle classes we find not a few instances revealing anything but caste bound heredity and groove, to wit, parents discussing the best profession for their son — no reference being made to the father’s trade.” “Social divisions and economic occupations were very far from being coinciding.” “Labor was largely hereditary, yet there was, withal, a mobility and initiative anything but rigid revealed in the exercise of it.” Moreover, at different periods, “slave-born kings are known in history but tabooed in Law.” “The spectacle of the low-born man in power was never a rarity in India.” The case of Chandragupta, alow-born son of Mura who became the founder of the great dynasty of the 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 weak current of the vertical mobility has been active in different ways: “through enrolling in one of the more distinguished castes” by those who 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 is apparently the most conspicuous example of the most impenetrable and rigidly stratified body, nevertheless, even within it, the weak and slow currents of vertical mobility have been constantly present. If such is the case with the India caste-society, it is clear that in all 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,[12] China, Medieval Europe, and so on show the existence of a vertical mobility much more intensive than that of the Indian caste-society. The absolutely rigid society is a myth which has never been realized in history.

2. The Second Proposition — There has never existed a society in which vertical social mobility has been absolutely free and the transition from one social stratum to another has had no resistance. This proposition is a mere corollary to the premises established a hove, that every organized society is a stratified body. If veritical mobility were absolutely free, in the resultant society there would be no strata. It would remind us of a building having no floors separating one story from another. But all societies have been stratified. 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 entire social structure is broken and where the social strata are considerably demolished, do we have anything reminding us of a chaotic and disorganized vertical mobility en masse. [13] But even in such periods, there are some hindrances to unlimited social mobility, partly in the form of the remnants of the ‘sieve’ of the old regime, partly in the form of a rapidly growing ‘new sieve’. After a short period, if such an anarchic society does not perish in anarchy, a modified ‘sieve’ rapidly takes the place of the old one and, incidentally, becomes as tight as its predecessor. What is to be understood by the ‘sieve’ will be explained further on. Here it is enough to say that it exists and functions in this or that form in any society.

The proposition is so evident and in the future we shall indicate so many facts which warrant it, that there is no need to dwell on it longer here.

3. The Third Proposition — The intensiveness, as well as the generality of the vertical social mobility, varies from society to society (fluctuation of mobility in space). This statement is quite evident also. It is enough to compare the Indian caste-society with the American society to see that. If the highest ranks in the political, or economic, or occupational cone of both societies are taken, it is seen that in India almost all these ranks are determined by birth, and there are very few ‘upstarts’ who climbed to these positions from the lowest strata. Meanwhile, in the United States, among its captains of industry and finance, 38.8 per cent in the past and 19.6 per cent in the present generation started poor; 31.5 percent among the deceased and 27.7 per cent among the living multimillionaires 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 the generality of the vertical mobility of both countries are similar. In India a great majority of the occupational population inherit and keep throughout their lives the occupational status of their fathers; in the United States the majority of the population change their occupations at least once in a lifetime. The study of occupational shifting by Dr. Dublin has shown that among the policy holders of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company 58.5 per cent have changed their occupation between the moment of insurance of the policy and death.[16]

My own study of the transmission of occupation from father to son among different groups of the American population has shown that among the present generation the shifting from occupation to occupation is high. The same may be said about the generality of the vertical economic mobility.

Furthermore, the differences in the intensity and generality of the vertical political mobility in different societies may he seen from the following figures which show what percent among the monarchs 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 45.6
Eastern Roman Empire 27.7
Russia 5.5
France 3.9
England 5.0
United States of America 48.3
Presidents of France and Germany 23.1

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

4. The Fourth Proposition — The intensiveness and the generality of the vertical mobility —the economic, the political and the occupational— fluctuate in the same society at different times. In the course of the history of a whole country, as well as of any social group, there are periods when the vertical mobility increases from the quantitative as well as from the qualitative viewpoint, and there are the periods when it decreases.

Though accurate statistical material to prove this proposition is very scarce and fragmentary, nevertheless, it seems to me that these data, together with different forms of historical testimony, are enough to make the proposition safe. . . .

5. The Fifth Proposition — As far as the corresponding historical and other materials permit seeing, in the field of vertical mobility, in its three fundamental forms, there seems to be no definite perpetual trend toward either an increase or a decrease of the intensiveness and generality of mobility. This is proposed as valid 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 rigidity in the later stages of development of many social bodies has been rather common. While not trying to claim for this tendency a permanent trend, it is mentioned only to oppose the alleged tendency of an increase of social mobility in the course of time.

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

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  1. The principal forms of social mobility of individuals and social objects are: horizontal and vertical. Vertical mobility exists in the form of ascending and descending currents. Both have two varieties: individual infiltration and collective ascent or descent of the whole group within the system of other groups.

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

  3. There scarcely has existed a society whose strata were absolutely closed.

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

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

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

  7. Though the so-called democratic societies are often more mobile than autocratic ones, nevertheless, the rule is not general and has many exceptions.
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1. See Bougle, C., "Remarques sur le regime des castes," pp. 53et seq., The Cambridge History of India, pp. 92 et 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« are usually put societies of the most different types. The same is true of »autocracy«. Both terms are very vague and scientifically defective.

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, in: Case, 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.

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