The Vertical Mosaic (TVM) is the title of an iconic book by Canadian sociologist John Porter (1921‒79). Published in 1965, TVM is Porter’s most famous and influential book, and established him as one of the major figures in Canadian social science in the 20th century. TVM was the first comprehensive, empirically-detailed, theoretically-informed study of the national structure of class and power in Canada, and is probably the most important book ever written by a Canadian sociologist. Certainly, it is regarded as such in English Canada, though it received less attention in Québec and was never translated into French. Prior to its publication, the conventional wisdom held that Canada was an open, egalitarian, democratic society where people from all economic and ethnic backgrounds could "make it." Porter’s book demonstrated conclusively that this was a myth.
TVM was divided into two parts. Part one dealt with class. It outlined detailed statistical data regarding enormous inequities of income, wealth, occupational status, etc., among Canadians. It demonstrated that the widely held self-image of Canada as a classless or, at least, middle-class nation was erroneous. Only approximately 3 per cent of Canadians had sufficient income and wealth to enjoy the popular image of a middle-class lifestyle. Over 75 per cent of Canadians made less than half the necessary amount. Opportunities for education and social mobility were likewise unevenly distributed. Members of the British “charter group” (white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant or WASP) were greatly overrepresented at the top levels of the occupational and reward structures of Canadian society. As well, they enjoyed mobility opportunities not open to those from the other founding “charter group,” the French, and those from other ethnic and racial groups.
Part two dealt with power. Canadian society had four major institutional subsystems: the economic; the political; the administrative; and the ideological. A small elite commanded each subsystem, i.e., those that held the top organizational positions of that subsystem. The most powerful elite was the economic; i.e., the owners and managers of Canada’s dominant corporations (see Business Elites). Elites came overwhelmingly from WASP upper- and upper-middle class backgrounds. They had been educated at the same private schools and universities, belonged to the same social clubs, often knew one another and were often related by family ties. Frequently, recruitment to an elite position was from within these closed ranks of family and class. Almost all were male.
Porter used several then-popular theories — modernization theory, post-industrialism, functionalism, elite theory, etc. — to construct a theoretical account of the origins, structure and functioning of class and power in Canada. Porter rejected Marxist class theory as outdated and drew on the tradition of stratification theory then popular in British and American sociology to frame his account of class. Classes were groups of individuals who had similar incomes, educational qualifications and occupational status. Power, “the right to make effective decisions on behalf of a group of people,” was held by the small confraternity of elites listed above. Each elite had a separate institutional base of power (e.g., the economy) and used that base to defend and extend its influence. Elites neither comprised a conspiratorial cabal nor acted in concert on all issues. However, through common class-based socialization experiences they had developed a shared definition of their separate and collective interests that allowed them to maximize their own social standing and accommodate one another while maintaining the unity and efficient functioning of the system. One of Porter’s most important conclusions was that while Canada was legally a democracy, it was not democratic in any full or true sense of the term. Elites were not controlled by the populace at large, but were kept in check by one another, with the economic elite the most powerful of the lot.
Critical Reception and Impact
Porter’s book immediately captured the attention of Canada’s social scientists, historians and journalists. The catchy, powerful image of Canada as a vertical mosaic crystallized in two words the complex reality of Canada as a hierarchical patchwork of classes and ethnic groups, and the term gained wide and long-lasting currency. Indeed, like the notions of Canada as a nation of two solitudes and the image of Canada as a “British fragment,” the vertical mosaic became part of the country’s imagery heritage. It was conceived as a direct contrast to American society as a melting pot.
TVM had a transformative, long-term impact on Canadian social science research, especially in sociology and political science. It set a new standard and baseline for research and for well over a decade set the agenda of Canadian sociology, acting as a take-off point for scores of studies of class, social mobility, elites, power, ethnicity, educational opportunity and attainment, etc. — including a series of follow-up studies by Porter himself (The Measure of Canadian Society, 1987; J. Porter, M. Porter and B. Blishen, Stations and Callings, 1982; Boyd et al, Ascription and Achievement, 1985). Many of these studies were mainstream extensions or critiques of Porter’s work, but others were not. TVM acted as a focal point around which there developed a set of influential alternative traditions in Canadian sociology, including feminism, marxism and radical political economy (W. Clement, The Canadian Corporate Elite, 1975).
TVM asked "big questions:" Does Canada have a class structure? Who holds power in Canada? Is Canada a democracy? The answers Porter provided proved politically unsettling. Canadian society was class-bound, marred by serious ethnic inequality, dominated by elites, and not democratic in any full sense of the term. Porter supplemented this description and analysis with a principled moral and logical critique of inequalities of class and power. To take such a moral stand was unusual — and brave — in an era dominated by the idea that social science should be value free.
Though remarkable, TVM had gaps and shortcomings. For example, it paid insufficient attention to Québec, said little about American economic and cultural domination, rejected multiculturalism, and largely ignored issues of gender inequality and oppression. Moreover, his liberal meritocratic solution to the problem of class — a more accessible and merit-based educational system, especially at the post-secondary level — proved flawed. Nonetheless, despite its weaknesses, TVM offered a powerful empirical and moral critique of the status quo. How relevant is the vertical mosaic today? While in some respects dated, the phrase and the image it conjures still capture a central, defining feature of Canadian society. The class dynamics of Canadian society are more complicated than in the 1960s, and the ethnic diversity of Canada’s population has increased, but Canadian society remains a vertical mosaic of unequal life circumstances and opportunities.