domingo, 1 de julio de 2012

Cortito 1 “Foundations in the study of social mobility”

-   Sorokin, P. 1959. Social and cultural mobility. Glencoe, Ill., Free Press. Chapters I - III; VI – IX; XIV-XVII.
-   Polanyi K 1944. The great transformation. New York, Toronto, Farrar & Rinehart, Inc. Part II.
-   Young, M. 1958. The rise of the meritocracy. London: Thames and Hudson. Chapters I, IV, V and VII.
These three works were chosen because Sorokin (1959[1927]) , Polanyi (1944), and Young (1958) document and propose a set of ideas which can be taken as foundations of social stratification studies, especially those which aim at understanding (social) mobility in contemporary societies. Evidently, analyses of Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Simmel are a must in the foundation of any current sociological topic. However, a stronger foundation to deeply comprehend some of the key concepts behind social mobility research can be built from the former three authors, especially Sorokin’s Social and cultural mobility. Furthermore, and for the purpose of this memo, the contributions of Polanyi and Young can be respectively associated to the emergence of self-regulated markets as opposed to systems which are coordinated in reference to mechanism of collaboration and cooperation, and the prevalence of intelligence as an individual trait that can break individual stagnation.
There are several common ideas which these three authors share, for the purpose of this memo only three will be briefly highlighted: a) a criticism to the notion of progress, b) drawing from Weber, the ontological position of “culture” in the shaping of society and how rationalization takes places, and c) a broad methodological consideration for the measurement of social mobility.
Progress was a pervasive concept for the 18th and 19th century thinkers. The notion that societies move, in many cases inevitably, towards a better state, is perhaps one fundamental idea of stratification. This dynamic furthermore can be applied, as Sorokin brilliantly operationalizes, to populations (countries), groups and individuals (p.5). In other words, the notion of progress is inherent to mobility studies since a “positive” movement can be captured in each of these three units of analysis. Nevertheless, it is hard to agree on what better really means since the movement from tradition to modernity, savage to civil, or ascription to achievement needs to be clearly addressed. Even though each pair of these six concepts can be aligned into three different continuums and therefore can potentially become such indexes, there arise evident problems in order to propose a parsimonious methodology. Furthermore, each of these concepts is heavily loaded with political values.
Sorokin in a more open criticism to Marx and other economists, documents a goalless fluctuation of income as an indicator that progress is not per se a hallmark of human societies, and therefore equality is not likely to be achieved (p.25-26).  Perpetual prosperity is something that actually has not been proved and it is hard to even project, Sorokin argues. There are periods indeed where vertical mobility can be assessed but these dynamics usually end. Even though, there have been important changes in political and economic dimensions (i.e. democracy and industrial revolution), this author also points out that the belief that there will be an eternal increase of vertical mobility is essentially misplaced. By vertical mobility Sorokin means “the relations involved in a transition of an individual (or a social object) from one social stratum to another” (p.133). According to this author, obstacles that impede vertical mobility are always present, but what changes is their influence, in other words there are obstacles which prevent individuals to move from strata to other but their impact fluctuates. Furthermore, mobility is not necessarily associated to whether a society is primitive of modern, since the distribution of assets (being those social, political or economic) might not be assorted of how technologically advanced a given society is.
Polanyi also criticizes the notion of progress, defended by those economists, whereby the supremacy of market as a self-regulated institution is conceived as the appropriate mechanism to regulate society fairly. Unlike Sorokin, Polanyi relies in anthropological studies in order to document how artificial the economic man defended by Smith is, but also how markets had to rely in a direct intervention of several actors (i.e. social movements, parties, guilds or social classes) whose interests shape the forms of distribution of commodities.[1]
The metaphor of the economic man is used by Polanyi to contrast the principles of reciprocity and collaboration which regulated communities and therefore markets, rather than competition, previous to the emergence of capitalist societies. Polanyi points out that “it would be rash to assert that local markets ever developed form individual acts of barter” (p.65). Exchanges of goods were heavily regulated by ritual and ceremonies, and as soon as the state commenced to intervene, it did in reference to avoid either the formation of monopolies or competition. Both regulations aimed at protecting communities (i.e. towns) from behaviours which could invert the role of the existent institutions and therefore attempt to overturn enshrined values of cooperation. As Sorokin, Polanyi points out that, even though there were primitive practices of collaboration to promote specific type of communities, stratification is still an important characteristic of these social groups. In other words inequality or difference among individual is regarded as inevitable, because resources are never equally distributed. However, what is a stake is the degree of exclusion which certain communities or societies can display once they invert their values, from cooperation to competition for instance, or once accumulation of goods moves from social to self-interest.
For Polanyi the emergence of poverty, at the end of the 18th century in Europe particularly in England, not only shakes the assumption of progress which was sustained by liberal economists, but also helps to identify the pitfalls of the notion of self-regulated markets as the mechanism which distributes assets in the most efficient manner. In other words, the existence of a group of individuals who do not benefit from the advances fostered by the industrial revolution, whereby population’s average starts to heavily increase, questions the economic assumption that self-interests could regulate society, particularly the idea that once one “let[s] the market be given charge of the poor, (…) things will look after themselves” (p.122).
Polanyi cleverly identifies within the liberal economic thought the tendency of regarding the self-regulated market as a natural system, in other words subject to unchangeable and universal laws. This conceptualization was the main reasoning behind the opposition of introducing human laws which ultimately foster the decrease of poverty, not because poverty was something unachievable but rather because the march of progress ultimately was only going to face (human) obstacles and therefore delaying its last stage. This type of logical reasoning promoted the notion that no intervention is the appropriate mechanism to distribute goods, and for instance state involvement is noxious to the development of society. Since a nil state involvement is something that currently is hard to fulfill, liberal economists can always bring the unfalsifiable statement that “society will never face the complete absence of poverty since some degree of state intervention will avoid this outcome to be materialized”.
Progress in Young has a satirical meaning. His Rise of the Meritocracy toys with the notion that in the future, meritocracy—a well-established procedure of assortment, whereby individuals compete for the available occupational positions and are selected according to their objective abilities—is actually fulfilled. In other words, the notion of progress lies behind the overcoming of loyalty by reason, since elements such as the influence of family or seniority lose their prevalence in the shaping of society. One important result of this sorting mechanism can be understood in how the lower class of England is composed of. On the one had, “the majority who are second-generation of lower-class parents” (p.77) and on the other “[t]he minority who are first-generation lower class. These are the stupid offspring of upper-class parents” (ibid). While it is indeed comical to see the word stupid in the text, this concept denotes the existence of intelligence as the main attribute which individuals have and therefore can be assessed. Young argues that tests to measure intelligence are the adequate tools to sort individual in different position throughout their lives; these tests are key for the individuals’ entrance to institutions such as armies, schools, private and public companies among others. Under this dynamic, Young argues, revolts, riots, or revolutions were no longer necessary since the achieved position of every individual was assumed as fair. The mechanism of allocation thus reproduces a form of inequality whereby everyone’s (socioeconomic) position fulfils a bigger social objective which everyone has agreed to be part of. Particularly, those who were intelligent, and never had the opportunity to rule, are finally responsible of also guiding the country, and therefore, are no longer source of disruption which can make the social system instable.
In these three authors the shadow of Weberian thought is quite prevalent. Particularly the presence of power, in Sorokin, the formation of laws in Polanyi or the introduction of social arrangements which consolidate notions of achievement over adscription—that is merit—in Young, are all elements which consolidate the understanding of society and its changes from variations occurred in the cultural dimension.
Sorokin’s initial analysis of economic, political and occupational stratification heavily resembles Marx’s conceptualization of class since he accepts a theoretical correlation of these three dimensions, and therefore departing from Weber’s classical distinction of class and status. However, Sorokin’s brief analysis of democratic versus autocratic regimes (pp. 133-160) sides with Weber’s notion of how vertical mobility can have different forms for each of these political systems. In other words, since it is the political arrangement of the society which can be associated to a given distribution of resources being those symbolic or material, Sorokin’s conceptualization echoes Weber’s theory of how culture shapes society.
Another concept which has an important parallel with Weber is the distribution of power between and within occupational strata. Particularly once he analyzes the different layers between strata (p.104-107) it is noteworthy how prestige is implicitly distributed within these groups. It is important to acknowledge that Sorokin argues that both the survival of a larger group and intelligence are conceived of as the two main functions which sort individuals in whatever occupations a society might have. These definitions ultimately absorb the Marxian conceptualization of who owns the means of production as the ultimate category which sorts individuals in classes. In other words, control is actually associated to types of knowledge which foster the survival of the group, and therefore the notion of means of production has at best a complementary character.
In Polanyi, the notion of how the construction and implementation of laws (i.e the Speenhamland law) are associated to both the emergence of a new type of society, and the formation of a new intelligentsia whose knowledge had an ad-hoc character. This type of causal reasoning has also an important Weberian influence since on the one hand the Speenhamland once it was consolidated it was conceived as an obstacle to the economic system that members of the middle class regarded as morally necessary. Particularly, under the notion of the economic man “nobody would work for a wage if he could make a living by doing nothing (or not much more than nothing)” (p.82), and therefore, the mechanism to transform society was the paradoxical intervention of deregulating economy. On the other hand, regarding the birth and evolution of economics, a jump towards nature was a necessary step in order to explain the paradox of how the new economy was emerging once paternalistic regulation was also set in place. In this regard functionalist explanations reigned economy, for instance the emergence of pestilence or wars were conceived as natural responses of the system in order to find its equilibrium.
In Young the presence of Weber is less prevalent; however, I would argue that the process of selection via the introduction of intelligence tests can be regarded as one indicator of the (ideal) rationalization of the English society. As Weber suggests the movement from less rational sources of legitimacy (i.e. charismatic figures) towards a more rational ones (i.e laws) is one of the dimensions of rationalization. In this case, there is a departure from loyalties—which is expressed in family relations, whereby sons (and daughters) are subjects of benefits of adscription—towards a system where the state, as “the guardian of collective efficiency” (p.25), promotes merit as the sorting mechanism of individuals. The assessment of merit configures the raking position which a given individual occupies in order to contribute to the functioning of society.
Lastly, these three authors offer different methodological elements for the study of both stratification and social mobility. Firstly, Sorokin and Young at the individual level suggest analyzing how the movement of an individual can be assessed by comparing the position of his/her father. Secondly, Sorokin extends the analysis of occupational mobility to economic and political dimensions; in other words, analysis of mobility can also be associated to income or political membership. Nonetheless regarding political membership it seems to be more intuitive to assess more properly tradition rather than change. Sorting mechanisms have different options in theses authors since each of them study different unit of analysis. In Polanyi, competition and collaboration are both mechanisms which at the macro level can shed light on the degree of inequality which a society might display, particularly by operationalizing levels of poverty. In Sorokin the unit of analysis will condition the understanding of the type of mechanism that sorts individuals, groups or countries in certain positions. For instance demographic variables, crime factors and revolutions are associated to vertical mobility of society, whereas intelligence, or differences between parents and offspring. In both Sorokin and Young the measurement of intelligence is also a characteristic that can be considered in order to assess the position and the movement of this position in a given individual. Both approaches can be for instance applied to the study of educational mobility if grades of academic tests are available. Sorokin proposal however goes beyond academic achievement since families, churches and occupations are also other channels whereby individuals move.
The following table presents some of the most important points discussed in this memo.
Table 1 Summary of some important concepts in Sorokin, Polanyi and Young.

Unit of analysis
Sorting mechanism



Permanent but varies according to the values of the system

Different types
Several (merit, loyalty, intelligence, etc.)

Collaboration and competence



Competence (via assesment of merit)

[1] I am using the word commodity in Polanyi’s sense, that is, whereby not only goods are considered but also, money, land and labor.

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