Social mobility

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Social mobility is the movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between social strata in a society. It is a change in social status relative to others' social location within a given society.

Definition and typology[edit]

Social mobility is defined as movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between layers or tiers in an open system of social stratification. Open stratification systems are those in which at least some value is given to achieved status characteristics in a society. The movement can be in a downward or upward direction. Absolute social mobility refers to the overall numbers of people who end up in a different layer of stratification from that of their parents. Relative social mobility refers to the differences in probability of attaining a certain outcome, regardless of overall structural changes; a society can have high absolute mobility and low relative mobility. The availability of at least some social mobility can be important in providing pathways to greater equality in societies with high social inequality.

Mobility is most often quantitatively measured in terms of change in economic mobility such as changes in income or wealth. Occupation is another measure used in researching mobility, which usually involves both quantitative and qualitative analysis of data. Yet other studies may concentrate on social class.[1] Mobility may be intragenerational, within the same generation, or intergenerational, between one or more generations.[2] Intragenerational mobility is less frequent, representing "rags to riches" cases in terms of upward mobility. Intergenerational upward mobility is more common, where children or grandchildren are in economic circumstances better than those of their parents or grandparents. In the U.S.A, this type of mobility has been a fundamental feature of the "American Dream."

Social status and social class[edit]

Illustration from a 1916 advertisement for a vocational school in the back of a US magazine. Education has been seen as a key to social mobility, and this advertisement appealed to Americans' belief in the possibility of self-betterment, as well as threatening the consequences of downward mobility in the great income inequality existing during the Industrial Revolution.

Social mobility is highly dependent on the overall structure of social statuses and occupations in a given society.[3] The extent of differing social positions and the manner in which they fit together or overlap provides the overall social structure of such positions. Add to this the differing dimensions of status, such as Max Weber's delineation[4] of economic stature, prestige, and power and we see the potential for complexity in a given social stratification system. Such dimensions within a given society can be seen as independent variables that can explain differences in social mobility at different times and places in different stratification systems. In addition, the same variables that contribute as intervening variables to the valuation of income or wealth and that also affect social status, social class, and social inequality do affect social mobility. These include sex or gender, race or ethnicity, and age.[5] Structural mobility is a type of forced mobility that results from a change in the distribution of all or many of the statuses within a society. While structural mobility can be upward mobility, it more often involves downward mobility.

Class cultures and social networks[edit]

These differing dimensions of social mobility can be classified in terms of differing types of capital that contribute to changes in mobility. Cultural capital, a term first coined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is the process of distinguishing between the economic aspects of class and powerful cultural assets. Bourdieu described three types of capital that place a person in a certain social category: economic capital; social capital; and cultural capital. Economic capital includes economic resources such as cash, credit, and other material assets. Social capital includes resources one achieves based on group membership, networks of influence, relationships and support from other people. Cultural capital is any advantage a person has that gives them a higher status in society, such as education, skills, or any other form of knowledge. Usually, people with all three types of capital have a high status in society. Bourdieu found that the culture of the upper social class is oriented more toward formal reasoning and abstract thought. The lower social class is geared more towards matters of facts and the necessities of life. He also found that the environment in which person develops has a large effect on the cultural resources that a person will have.[6]

Patterns of mobility[edit]

While it is generally accepted that some level of mobility in society is desirable, there is no consensus agreement upon "how much" social mobility is "good" or "bad" for a society. Certainly too much social mobility would mean a constant social flux with no chance to build traditions and social institutions. Too little mobility leads to social stagnation with little opportunity for innovation and, often, to entire classes of persons who feel disenfranchised from the benefit of social participation. Thus, there is no international "benchmark" of social mobility, though one can compare measures of mobility across regions or countries or within a given area over time.[7] While cross-cultural studies comparing differing types of economies are possible, comparing economies of similar type usually yields more comparable data. Such comparisons typically look at intergenerational mobility, examining the extent to which children born into different families have different life chances and outcomes.

Social mobility is lower in more unequal countries. Wilkinson and Pickett (2009).

In a study for which the results were first published in 2009, Wilkinson and Pickett conduct an exhaustive analysis of social mobility in developed countries.[8] In addition to other correlations with negative social outcomes for societies having high inequality, they found a relationship between high social inequality and low social mobility. Of the eight countries studied — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, the UK and the USA, the USA had both the highest economic inequality and lowest economic mobility. In this and other studies, in fact, the USA has very low mobility at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, with mobility increasing slightly as one goes up the ladder. At the top rung of the ladder, however, mobility again decreases.[9]

One study comparing social mobility between developed countries[10][11][12] found that the four countries with the lowest "intergenerational income elasticity", i.e. the highest social mobility, were Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Canada with less than 20% of advantages of having a high income parent passed on to their children.[11]

Comparison of social mobility in selected countries

Studies have also found "a clear negative relationship" between income inequality and intergenerational mobility.[13] Countries with low levels of inequality such as Denmark, Norway and Finland had some of the greatest mobility, while the two countries with the high level of inequality—Chile and Brazil—had some of the lowest mobility.

In Britain, much debate on social mobility has been generated by comparisons of the 1958 National Child Development Study NCDS. and the 1970 Birth Cohort Study BCS70.[14] compare intergenerational mobility in earnings between the 1958 and the 1970 UK cohorts, and claim that intergenerational mobility decreased substantially in this 12-year period. These findings have been controversial, partly due to conflicting findings on social class mobility using the same datasets,[15] and partly due to questions regarding the analytical sample and the treatment of missing data.[16] UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has famously said that trends in social mobility "are not as we would have liked".[17]

Along with the aforementioned “Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults?" study The Economist also stated that "evidence from social scientists suggests that American society is much `stickier` than most Americans assume. Some researchers claim that social mobility is actually declining."[18][19] A German study corroborates these results.[20] In spite of this low mobility Americans have had the highest belief in meritocracy among middle- and high-income countries.[21]

Piketty (2014) finds that wealth-income ratios, today, seem to be returning to very high levels in low economic growth countries, similar to what he calls the "classic patrimonial" wealth-based societies of the 19th century wherein a minority lives off its wealth while the rest of the population works for subsistence living.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Grusky, David B. and Erin Cumberworth (February 2010). "A National Protocol for Measuring Intergenerational Mobility". Workshop on Advancing Social Science Theory: The Importance of Common Metrics. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Science. Retrieved 15 July 2014. 
  2. ^ Lopreato, Joseph and Hazelrigg, Lawrence E. (December 1970). "Intragenerational versus Intergenerational Mobility in Relation to Sociopolitical Attitudes". Social Forces (University of North Carolina Press) 49 (2): 200–210. doi:10.2307/2576520. JSTOR 2576520. 
  3. ^ Grusky, David B and Robert M. Hauser (February 1984). "Comparative Social Mobility Revisited: Models of Convergence and Divergence in 16 Countries". American Sociological Review 49 (1): 19–38. doi:10.2307/2095555. 
  4. ^ Weber, Max. 1946. “Class, Status, Party.” pp. 180–95 in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, H. H. Girth and C. Wright Mills (eds.). New York: Oxford University.
  5. ^ Collins, Patricia Hill (1998). "Toward a new vision: race, class and gender as categories of analysis and connection". Social Class and Stratification: Classic Statements and Theoretical Debates. Boston: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 231–247. ISBN 0-8476-8542-X. 
  6. ^ Bourdieu, Pierre (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London:: Routledge. ISBN 0415567882. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  7. ^ Causa, Orsetta and Åsa Johansson (2011). "Intergenerational Social Mobility in OECD Countries". Economic Studies 2010 (1). doi:10.1787/eco_studies-2010-5km33scz5rjj. 
  8. ^ Wilkinson, Richard and Kate Pickett (2009). The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1608190362. 
  9. ^ Isaacs, Julia B. (2008). International Comparisons of Economic Mobility. Brookings Institution. 
  10. ^ CAP: Understanding Mobility in America - April 26, 2006
  11. ^ a b Corak, Miles (2006). "Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults? Lessons from a Cross Country Comparison of Generational Earnings Mobility". In Creedy, John; Kalb, Guyonne. Dynamics of Inequality and Poverty. Research on Economic Inequality 13. Emerald. pp. 143–188. ISBN 978-0-76231-350-1. 
  12. ^ Economic Mobility Project
  13. ^ The Great Gatsby Curve Paul Krugman| 15 January 2012
  14. ^ Blanden, J.; Machin, S.; Goodman, A.; Gregg, P. (2004). "Changes in intergenerational mobility in Britain". In Corak, M. Generational Income Mobility in North America and Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82760-4. 
  15. ^ Goldthorpe, J.; Jackson, M. (2007). "Intergenerational class mobility in contemporary Britain: political concerns and empirical findings". British Journal of Sociology 58 (4): 525–546. doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2007.00165.x. 
  16. ^ Gorard, S. (2008). "A reconsideration of rates of ‘social mobility’ in Britain: or why research impact is not always a good thing". British Journal of Sociology of Education 29 (3): 317–324. doi:10.1080/01425690801966402. 
  17. ^ Clark, Tom (10 March 2010). "Is social mobility dead?". The Guardian (London). 
  18. ^ "Ever higher society, ever harder to ascend". The Economist. December 29, 2004. Retrieved 2013-02-15. 
  19. ^ Mitnik, Pablo; Cumberworth, Erin; Grusky, David (2013). "Social Mobility in a High Inequality Regime". Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality Working Paper. 
  20. ^ Jäntti, Markus; Bratsberg, Brent; Roed, Knut; Rauum, Oddbjörn et al. (2006). "American Exceptionalism in a New Light: A Comparison of Intergenerational Earnings Mobility in the Nordic Countries, the United Kingdom and the United States". IZA Discussion Paper No. 1938 (Bonn: Institute for the Study of Labor). 
  21. ^ Isaacs, Julia; Sawhill, Isabel (2008). "Reaching for the Prize: The Limits On Economic Mobility". The Brookings Institution. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  22. ^ Piketty, Thomas (2014). Capital in the 21st century. Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0674430006. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Clark, Gregory, The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).
  • Grusky, David B., and Erin Cumberworth. 2012. "A National Protocol for Measuring Intergenerational Mobility?" National Academy of Science.
  • Matthys, Mick 2012. Cultural Capital, Identity, and Social Mobility. Routledge.
  • Maume, David J. 1999. "'Glass Ceilings and Glass Escalators: Occupational Segregation and Race and Sex Differences in Managerial Promotions.'" Work and Occupations vol. 26. (November):483-509.
  • McGuire, Gail M. 2000. "'Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Networks: The Factors Affecting the Status of Employees’ Network Members.'" Work and Occupations vol. 27 (November): 500-523.
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin and Reinhard Bendix 1991. Social Mobility in Industrial Society. Transaction Publishers

External links[edit]