Sociology 250

December 2, 2002


Canadian Sociological Perspective – II


d.  Social Class, Social Stratification, Elites and the State


In recent years, one of the major areas of study within Canadian sociology has been that of social stratification and class structures.  These studies bring together some of the early studies of Canadian class structures, a Marxian class analysis, some of the historical and political economic tradition, and more recent developments in the study of class.  The latter generally build on a Marxian analysis of class, but deal with the issue of the middle classes and other problems in the Marxian model by using elements of the Weberian approach, Durkheimian or structural functional analysis or some of the game theoretic and analytical Marxian approaches.  The approach of Erik Olin Wright in the United States and Wallace Clement in Canada are the most notable examples of this.


Before 1960, there were very few sociological analyses of Canada which examine the capitalist class in Canada or considered that class conflict was an important feature of Canadian social and economic development.  While the Family Compact and Chateau Clique were part of colonial history, it was commonly held that Canada in the twentieth century was a parliamentary democracy with a reasonably competitive capitalist economy. Farmers and members of social reform movements of the early to mid twentieth century often argued that there were powerful bankers and financial interests or wealthy industrialists.  However, there appears to have been little coherent theory of a Canadian capitalist or working classes or a theory of change based on class contradictions and class conflict.


Early in the century, an American, Gustavus Myers, had written A History of Canadian Wealth (1914), describing the amassing of Canadian resources and wealth in the hands of a few wealthy individuals and families.  Myers also showed how these wealthy Canadians were often the same people who governed the country.  In nineteenth century Canada, the capitalist and the governing class were often the same people and, in these circumstances, there was little difficulty in identifying these as a ruling class.


In Montreal, the class divisions were very noticeable, and in 1896, a Montreal businessman, Herbert Ames wrote The City Below the Hill.   Ames had studied at Amherst College in the United States and was influenced by the settlement house and social gospel traditions that he encountered there (Copp, p. 19).   This was an early sociological description of a part of the Montreal working class – French, English and Irish.  This study did not paint a very positive picture of the working class, with much child labour, unemployment and poor health and housing conditions.  Ames hoped that by showing the prevalence of these conditions would spur business people to undertake social reform. 


In 1930, some sociological researchers at McGill University set up the McGill Social Science Research Project which examined issues such as unemployment, social welfare, immigration, labour mobility, land tenure and education (Shore, Ch. 6).  This Project was originally funded by the Rockefeller Foundation in the United States and had as its aim the establishment of “an interdisciplinary social science research program to study employment and unemployment” (Helmes-Hayes, p. 86).   Leonard Marsh (1906-1982) was hired to head the Project, and several of the studies are published with him as author or co-author.  Marsh brought with him the experience of the British studies of poverty and working class life, and the Fabian approach of the inevitability of socialism through social reform (rather than revolution).  In Canadians In and Out of Work, Marsh used Census data and other sources to examine the social stratification of Canada and concludes that there are four classes in Canada:  “the well-to-do, the middle classes, the working classes, and the farm classes” (Helmes-Hayes, p. 90).  This may be an essentially Weberian approach to class, with Marsh considering there to be “section of the community subject to certain economic conditions” and also status communities “the area over which certain characteristic conventions and valuation are accepted” (Helmes-Hayes, p. 90).  Marsh and his associated made many studies of employment and unemployment, but eventually the Project was terminated because senior McGill University professors and administrators considered the approach too radical.  Marsh himself wrote much of Report on Social Security for Canada (1943), a report that may have been ignored by government at the time, but provided a blueprint for the social security system that Canada developed.  This includes the unemployment insurance program, the Canada/Quebec Pension Plan, old age security and family allowances.  Marsh worked for the United Nations for a time and from 1948 through 1972 was a professor at the University of British Columbia.


The situation began to change after 1960.  Several studies of the Canadian capitalist class were published. This was then followed by extensive historical studies, and numerous theories concerning the nature of the Canadian capitalist class. The first of these studies was carried out by Libbie and Frank Park in Anatomy of Big Business. This book was published by Progress Publishers, the publishing wing of the Canadian Communist Party in 1962. The Parks showed the extensive interconnections among the major Canadian corporations, with many interlocks of directors of these corporations.  In the view of the Parks, this was centred around the large commercial banks, providing a strong means of control by wealthy individuals with financial interests.  While the Parks’ research appears to have been excellent, this book had little impact in academic circles at this time.


In the mid 1970s, Peter Newman published two volumes of The Canadian Establishment, the latter being devoted primarily to the Bronfman family. While somewhat journalistic in tone, and lacking any particular theory, Newman's books provide interesting and informative reading concerning the life and structure of some sections of the Canadian capitalist class.


Studies of poverty became more prevalent in the late 1960s.  The Economic Council of Canada released a report on poverty in 1968 showing that 27% of Canadians were living in poverty.  A special Senate committee was set up in 1968, chaired by David Croll.  Two reports were released in 1971, the official report and The Real Report on Poverty.  Data on poverty is now updated regularly by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Council on Social Development.


John Porter.  Studies of social stratification in Canada became much more common after the work of John Porter became available.  John Porter (1921-1979, born in Vancouver, died in Ottawa) was one of Canada's most important sociologists in the 1950s through the 1970s.  He was a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa for most of his academic life.  He studied in Britain at the London School of Economics, where he came into contact with the concept of social class.  He was concerned with the issue of equality of opportunity and the exercise of power by political, bureaucratic, economic, labour, and other elites in society.  His major work The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada (1965) showed how a small minority of powerful and rich men controlled the Canadian economic and political system.   Porter was concerned with challenging the image that Canada was a classless society with “no barriers to opportunity” (p. 4).  Porter is also known for the development, along with Peter Pineo, of the Pineo-Porter index of socioeconomic status.  In honour of Porter and his importance in the development of sociology in Canada, the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association now has an annual award called the Porter award. 


Porter concludes The Vertical Mosaic by noting:


Canada is probably not unlike other western industrial nations in relying heavily on its elite groups to make major decisions and to determine the shape and direction of its development.  The nineteenth-century notion of a liberal citizen-participating democracy is obviously not a satisfactory model by which to examine the processes of decision-making in either the economic of the political contexts. ...  If power and decision-making must always rest with elite groups, there can at least be open recruitment from all classes into the elite. (p. 558).


Porter argues that Marxist analysis of class, based on ownership or non-ownership of the means of production is a “questionable criterion of class in modern industrial society” (p. 25).  Porter also rejects power as the basis for social class because he observes that there is little conflict between those have power and those who do not.  Instead, Porter attempts to construct a new model based on the study of elites.


The latter are those who have assumed the major decision-making roles in the various institutional systems in the complex society of the modern world.  These institutional systems are ... hierarchically organized, and individuals or groups at the top of our institutions can be designated as elites.  Elites both compete and co-operate with one another: they compete to share in the making of decisions of major importance for the society, and they co-operate because together they keep the society working as a going concern.  Elites govern institutions which have, in the complex world, functional tasks. ...  It is elites who have the capacity to introduce change ... . (p. 27).


Porter's analysis is thus a combination of structural functional analysis with notions of elites, partly inspired by Marxian analysis, but attempting to present a non-Marxian approach.  As will be seen, the particular nature of the Canadian capitalist class also could be considered to be a reason why Porter could develop such a model.  The Canadian capitalist class of the 1950s was a fairly tightly knit group of wealthy, mainly Anglo-Saxon males, mostly centred in Montreal and Toronto.  This group controlled most of Canadian finance and industry, and also called many of the shots in the political sphere.  This Canadian capitalist class thus appeared to be an elite, or was an elite.  Porter considers there to be several elites, and he examines the economic, political, labour, and ideological (education  and religion) elites.  In this, he may have been inspired by the United States sociologist C. Wright Mills and his study of the United States power elite.


Wallace Clement.  In Canada, the main attempt to produce a similar analysis comes from Wallace Clement.  Porter's analysis of elites was replicated by Wallace Clement, a sociologist who is now a professor at Carleton University.  His study The Canadian Corporate Elite: An Analysis of Economic Power, was published in 1975.  As one of the major Canadian sociologists today, Clement has also studied the labour process in the mining industry and has written extensively on the Canadian capitalist class and on class structures.  Clement has developed a more Marxian approach, or a modified Marxian-Weberian approach to social class and stratification.  In order to see how Clement analyzes social stratification in Canada, it is necessary to consider some of the other models of class that have developed within the conflict theory approach.  


Clement bases his current research on a five nation study the “Comparative Class Structure Project.”  This project was partly set up by Wright, but included three Nordic countries as well.  Clement attempts to simplify the analysis of class structure by considering the small employers as a fraction of the capitalist or petty bourgeois class, and the semi-autonomous employees as a fraction of the new middle class or working class.  The petty bourgeois are the old middle class, including some small employers.  The new middle class is those workers who have control over the labour power of others but do not have substantial command over the means of production.  For Clement

making binding decision over the means of production is equated with real economic ownership, while directing labour power is understood as possession. Those with real economic ownership belong to the capitalist/executive class, while those with possession alone belong to the new middle class.  (Clement, 1990, p. 466). 

Clement is critical of Wright's formulations, but does not justify his assertions, and perhaps produces a overly simple model of social class.  For Clement, the main contradiction and struggle within modern capitalist societies is between the capitalist and the working classes. with the old and the new middle class in between.  He summarizes the main relations as

... the capitalist/executive class controls production and the employment of others while the new middle class is composed of employees who assist the employer's control through sanctioning authority and/or setting policy.  The working class is the subject of the control processes and engages in work for pay.  The old middle class is self-employed and works outside the dominant relations of production and basically has at its disposal the means of realizing its own labour.  (Clement, 1990, pp. 468-9).

Clement also sorts out class by sex, something which earlier analysts often ignored, assuming that the class position of women is determined by the husband in a family or household. 


Comparative Class Analysis


Class by nation – per cent in each class















New middle class






Old middle class






Working class



















From Wallace Clement, “Comparative class analysis: locating Canada in a North American and Nordic context,” Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 27(4), 1990, pp. 462-486.


e. Feminism


Dorothy Smith – see Adams and Sydie, pp. 550-563



6.  Conclusion


There appear to be few unique Canadian aspects of sociological theory that have general applicability, with the possible exception of the staple model.  In general, Canadian sociology has used concepts and approaches that are not strictly sociological, relying on historical, political economic, geographical or technological approaches that deal with the different history and nature of societal development, development of classes, class struggles and the nature of the state.  As applications of social theory, each provides examples of how social science approaches can be developed. 


More recently, Canadian sociologists have made contributions to sociology more generally.  For example, Clement was part of the Comparative Class Structure Project and Dorothy Smith is a major feminist writer.  Others that are less well known contribute to a variety of journals and books.


There are a considerable number of  implications of the Canadian applications for the classical sociological approaches, more recent sociological approaches, and theories from the other social sciences.  The basic concepts and formats of these other sociological approaches are not challenged by any Canadian uses of these approaches.  Instead, some of the shortcomings of the approaches are illustrated by Canadian examples.  Hopefully the theoretical approaches can be improved by considering some of the applications within Canadian sociology.  For example, it is clear that the Marxian approach needs modification in dealing with each specific country, even though some of the broad structural approaches of the Marxian model help explain the history and structure of Canadian society.  The liberal, structural functional approach obviously needs modification in dealing with the political and social realities of Canadian society and the Canadian state. 



Harrison, Deborah, The Limits of Liberalism: the Making of Canadian Sociology, Montreal, Black Rose, 1981. HM22 H37

Helmes-Hayes, Richard C. and Dennis Wilcox-Magill, “A Neglected Classic: Leonard Marsh's Canadians In and Out of Work, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, 30 (1), 1993, pp. 83-109.

Hiller, Harry H., Society and Change: S. D. Clark and the Development of Canadian Sociology, Toronto, University of Toronto, 1982.  HM 22 C32C53

Porter, John, The Vertical Mosaic: an analysis of social class and power in Canada, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1965.

Shore, Marlene, The Science of Social Redemption: McGill, the Chicago School, and the Origins of Social Research in Canada, Toronto, University of Toronto, 1987.

Last edited December 2, 2002


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