Vertical Social Mobility
Horizontal Social Mobility, Social Mobility, Books Social Mobility, Stratification
Social mobility is the 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. Based on the direction of the transition, we can
classify vertical social mobility as: ascending and descending, or social climbing and
When the transition of an individual or social object is
from one social stratum to another, we call it vertical social mobility.
Vertical social mobility is the transition of an
individual from one position to another, situated at a different level. It can be a move
up (upwardly mobile) or a move down (downwardly mobile).
In social mobility we have movement of individuals or
groups from one position to another. It might be horizontal or vertical.
Horizontal social mobility is the transition of an individual from one position to
another situated on the same level, that is, moving from one company to another in the
same occupational status (movement of blue-collar worker in company A to blue-collar
worker in company B)
We usually speak of moves up or down taking into account
factors such as occupation or education. For instance, upward occupational mobility means
moving from a lower status occupation to a higher status occupation. Downward occupational
mobility means moving from a high status occupation to another, situated at a lower level.
Depending on the nature of the stratification, there are ascending and descending currents
of economic, political, and occupational mobility.
Democracy and Vertical Social Mobility
One of the most conspicuous characteristics of the so-called "democratic
societies" is a more intensive vertical social 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 social 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.
General Principles of Vertical Social Mobility
There has scarcely been any society whose strata were absolutely closed, or in which
vertical social 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 social 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 and his fanlily, were
overthrown or cast out for crimes.
The case of Chandragupta, a low-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.
Quite recently a considerable role began to be played by education, and by political and
religious factors. 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 social mobility to
this or that degree, must obviously be present. This statement is warranted by the facts.
The histories of Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, Medieval Europe, and so on show the existence
of a vertical social 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.
There has never existed a society in which vertical social mobility has been absolutely
free and the trasition from one social stratum to another has had no resistance. Every
organized society is a stratified body. If veritcal 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. 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
The intensiveness, as well as the generality of the vertical social mobility, varies from
society to society. 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; among the
twenty-nine presidents of the United States 14, or 48.3 percent, came from poor and humble
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 policyholders of the Metropolitan Life
Insurance Company 58.5 per cent have changed their occupation between the moment of
issuance of the policy and death.
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
Furthermore, the differences in the intensity and generality of the vertical political
mobility in different societies may be seen what per cent among the monarchs and
executives of the different countries were "newcomers" who climbed to this
highest position from the lower social strata.
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. . . .
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 decreaseof 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. . . . From Pitirim Sorokin, Social
and Cultural Mobility. NewYork: The Free Press, 1959.
Vertical Social Mobility in Communist Society - N. S.
The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Jul., 1944), pp. 9-21
Abstract: The Russian Revolution is a four-phase process. The phases are distinguished by
varying criteria of social prestige and by significant change in the composition and
ranking of social groups. The critical years which separate the phases are 1921, 1929, and
1934. As the result of the social process belonging to the fourth phase, Russia, on the
eve of the second World War, was once more a stratified society consisting of a ruling
elite, the Nonparty Bolsheviks, the "toilers," and the paupers. Membership in
these groups displays the tendency to become hereditary.
Social mobility can be horizontal or vertical.
Examples of horizontal social mobility or shifting are:
Transition of an individual or social object from one
social group to another situated on the same level.
Transitions of individuals without any noticeable
change of the social position of an individual or social object in the vertical direction.
Transition from one citizenship to another,
Transition from one family to another by divorce and
Transition from one factory to another in the same
Transitions of social objects, the radio, automobile,
fashion, Communism, Darwin's theory, within the same social stratum, from one place to
The ascending currents can be explained as:
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.
The descending current can be explained as:
Moving down or falling 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 degradation of a social group as a whole and
demotion of its rank among other groups, or the complete disintegration of a social group
as a social unit.