John Porter | The Canadian Encyclopedia


John Porter

John Arthur Porter, sociologist (born 12 November 1921 in Vancouver, BC; died 15 June 1979 in at Ottawa, ON). Regarded by many as Canada's leading English-language sociologist, Porter is best known for his monumental work, The Vertical Mosaic, published 1965.

John Arthur Porter, sociologist (born 12 November 1921 in Vancouver, BC; died 15 June 1979 in at Ottawa, ON). Regarded by many as Canada's leading English-language sociologist, Porter is best known for his monumental work, The Vertical Mosaic, published 1965.

Early Years and Education

Born in Canada to lower-middle-class parents — one a teacher, the other a clerk — Porter moved to London, England, as a teenager, in the middle of the Depression. He was unable to re-enroll in secondary school on his arrival in London because he had to work to help support the family. In 1941, he enlisted as a private in the Canadian Army. He served for six years, most of it in the Intelligence Section of the Seaforth Highlanders. He took part in Allied campaigns in Sicily, Italy and Northwestern Europe (1943‒45) before being demobilized in 1946, with the rank of captain. At war’s end, he worked briefly for the Historical Section of the Canadian Army in London while completing high school equivalency at night school. In 1946, he passed the entrance exams for the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

The four years he spent at the LSE (1946‒49) had a lifelong impact on his scholarly and political outlook. Widely regarded as a “Fabian” university, the LSE was, in fact, an intellectually diverse institution. The school was then in its “golden age,” and Porter’s teachers included world-renowned figures such as Karl Popper, T.H. Marshall, R.H. Tawney, Edward Shils, Harold Laski and, most notably, Morris Ginsberg. Through Ginsberg, Porter became acquainted with the ideas of the great liberal political philosopher and sociologist Leonard Hobhouse. Hobhouse’s sociology was philosophical, macrosociological, comparative, multi-disciplinary and synthetic in character. These elements of Hobhouse’s perspective, modified by the ideas of European and American thinkers, came to be enduring aspects of Porter’s scholarly worldview. Equally influential was Hobhouse’s reformist, welfare state liberalism. As a “New Liberal,” Hobhouse believed that reason and informed argument could help to create social progress and that the state had a duty to identify and look after the interests of its members rather than leave their fate to the play of market forces. The Fabian socialists were another important influence; Porter was impressed by their reliance on empirical data and their focus on social policy development.

Career Highlights

After graduating from the LSE (with a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Sociology), Porter visited Canada where he accepted a job teaching political science at then-tiny Carleton College. He remained at Carleton, later Carleton University, from 1949 to 1979, with interludes at the University of Toronto (1968‒69) and Harvard (1973‒74). He was Carleton’s first full-time appointment in sociology (1950) and over the next three decades helped build the Carleton department into one of Canada’s best.

Throughout his career, Porter focused on a few key questions: What is the structure of class and power in Canada? How are class and power related to ethnicity, race, region, etc.? What are the implications for Canadian society of massive inequalities of class and power, educational and occupational opportunity? Is Canada a just and rational society? A true democracy? If Canada is not just, rational and democratic, how can we make it so? In pursuit of answers to these questions, he undertook several major studies that focused on the web of relations that connects social class, power, educational aspirations, educational opportunities and social mobility.

His career had three stages. During the initial stage, he produced The Vertical Mosaic, the first comprehensive study of Canada’s national structure of class and power, perhaps the most important and influential volume yet produced by a Canadian sociologist. Drawing on the compelling image of the “vertical mosaic,” Porter argued that Canada was not the classless, egalitarian and democratic country that popular belief held it to be. It was a steeply hierarchical patchwork of classes and ethnic groups with the British charter group at the top. Power was held by a set of interrelated, largely WASP-dominated elites, the economic elite most powerful among them. Through a process of negotiation and struggle, these elites, not the populace at large, determined Canada’s political and economic agenda. Those at the top of the class structure had the largest access to elite positions, and opportunities for educational and occupational mobility.

During the second phase of his career, he pursued questions raised in The Vertical Mosaic by undertaking a series of large-scale empirical studies of occupational prestige (“Occupational Prestige in Canada,” 1967), educational opportunity and attainment (Stations and Callings, 1982) and social mobility (Ascription and Achievement, 1985). Porter’s work, especially The Vertical Mosaic, came to set the agenda of Canadian sociology for over a decade, stimulating work on elites, class, power, ethnic relations, regionalism, Canadian-American relations, etc.

Though Porter wrote for a scholarly audience, he was a public intellectual who did a great deal of policy-relevant research. His goal was to determine the role that education, especially post-secondary education, could play in the creation of a rational, just, liberal and egalitarian democratic nation. Early in his career, following a liberal individualist and meritocratic model, he thought that an expansion and democratization of educational opportunities was the key. Toward the end of his life, during the third phase of his career, he reconsidered. He came to believe that the democratization of education would not suffice. Class-based inequities of wealth and power would have to be dismantled by an interventionist social democratic state in order for Canada to realize its potential.

Honours and Awards

Porter received several honours and awards. The Vertical Mosaic won the MacIver Award of the American Sociological Association (best book of the year, 1966) — the only book about Canada by a Canadian to have won the award. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (1968), and received honorary degrees from McMaster University (1973) and the University of Waterloo (1977). He was named honorary president of the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association (1972). After his death the CSAA (now known as the Canadian Sociological Association) established an annual “best book” award in his name. Porter ranks with Harold Innis, C.B. Macpherson, George Grant and others as one of Canada’s most prestigious and influential social science and humanities scholars of the 20th century.

Further Reading

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