Rick Helmes-Hayes and James Curtis, editors, The Vertical Mosaic Revisited. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998, 255pp. $19.95 paper.

Research on social inequality in Canada owes an enormous debt to John Porter. His The Vertical Mosaic (1965) set the agenda for several streams of research, including studies of elites and the structure of power, social mobility and the role of education in the occupational attainment process, and immigrant integration and ethnic inequality. To mark the 30th anniversary of the publication of this landmark study, Rick Helmes-Hayes and James Curtis organized a colloquium at the University of Waterloo to which the authors of the individual chapters in this volume were invited as speakers. They were asked by the organizers to comment on the formative role played by The Vertical Mosaic in their areas of specialization, describe changes in these areas over the intervening 30 years, and sketch noteworthy theoretical developments and empirical findings in research in the areas over the period. While not all of the chapters are equally successful in meeting these objectives, the book as a whole represents a useful survey of developments in at least some of the streams of research flowing from Porter’s work. A conspicuous omission is the failure of the editors to include a survey of developments in research on social mobility and status attainment in Canada, an area to which John Porter himself was a major contributor in his later work, including his collaboration on the Canadian Mobility Study.

Helmes-Hayes and Curtis contribute a useful introduction that sketches John Porter’s life, discusses the importance of The Vertical Mosaic in Canadian intellectual life, and describes the enduring images of Canadian society projected by the volume that have so influenced Canadian sociology. Unfortunately, the editors set the tone for many of the contributions in the volume by apologizing for Porter’s emphasis on inequality in the distribution of scarce resources and rewards rather than on class relations, attributing it in part to the data available to him rather than to conscious theoretical decisions rooted in that data. However, in The Vertical Mosaic itself, Porter explicitly adopted a rather Weberian definition of class (“The respect in which people are similar for the analysis of social class is their similar location in one of the social strata” [p. 9]) and presciently offers a blunt negative assessment of Marxist analysis (“Marx’s class theories have in the main been abandoned by contemporary (sic) theorists for the good reason that the facts do not fit the theory” [p. 18]). Although this is not the place to discuss it, much recent scholarship in numerous countries supports Porter’s assessment. Indeed, the preponderance of evidence suggests that the salience of class in postindustrial societies is declining, and that many of the more developed countries can no longer be considered class societies (see Pakulski and Waters, The Death of Class [Sage, 1996]for a useful summary). This is not to say that inequality is declining, since much research documents precisely the opposite.

I will touch briefly on the individual chapters to give some sense of their content and approach. Wallace Clement’s chapter on power, ethnicity and class does little to meet the terms of reference provided by the editors. He devotes just a few paragraphs to key changes in Canadian society, saying only that “class formation has changed...” but never telling us precisely how. Aside from a balanced treatment of research on ethnicity and the national question, his overview of theoretical developments and empirical research is limited largely to his own work. In his chapter on ethnicity and race, Raymond Breton does a superb job of meeting the terms of reference set by the editors. In his discussions of native peoples, English-French relations, and immigrants and ethnic minorities he provides not only a comprehensive historical overview of changing intergroup relations, but he cites a substantial amount of existing research to document his observations and concisely summarizes recent theoretical developments. Aside from her opening section in which she struggles futilely to integrate concepts of economic class, gender, and race, Pat Armstrong’s essay provides a useful account of the gains made by women in Canada in the three decades since the 1960s as well as the threats to those gains posed by recent changes in the labour force and government policies. Like Breton on ethnicity and race, Michael Ornstein provides yeoman service in reviewing thirty years worth of research in the field of elite studies. Yet he goes further and identifies gaps in the existing literature and suggests how these might be filled. Graduate students seeking a thesis topic would do well to take up some of these suggestions. Finally, Julia O’Connor surveys the Canadian welfare state using both historical and comparative frameworks focussing particularly on the question of how welfare state programs have affected the level of income inequality over time, although this topic has only a tenuous connection to the issues raised in The Vertical Mosaic. This chapter is the only one in the book reporting original research, though I would have appreciated an attempt at providing a theoretical explanation of the patterns observed that goes beyond invoking Esping-Anderson’s typology of welfare regimes.

Despite my references to omissions and theoretical cul-de-sacs, in producing this volume Helmes-Hayes and Curtis provide a distinct service to Canadian sociology. Not only do they honour a great figure from the discipline’s past, but the authors of the component chapters demonstrate that macrosociology can be intellectually exciting and relevant to current political and economic issues. Perhaps work like this can help to arrest the decline in empirical research on social structure and social inequality noted here by Ornstein and lure graduate students who in recent years have been more attracted to sociology-as-autobiography than to research on the key structural issues that define our times.

Richard A. Wanner
Department of Sociology
University of Calgary

December 1998
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