Exchange mobility, which is also known as circular mobility, refers to the simultaneous move of people to upper and lower-status jobs or occupational roles.
As a result of exchange mobility, the ratio between different classes in society remains the same. This is because both upper and lower-status jobs gain new members at the same time, which keeps the balance (Markandya, 1982; Schluter & Van de gaer, 2011).
This balance between the ratio of different classes is also known as equilibrium. Exchange mobility can be important for saving the equilibrium and keeping society stable.
Still, it is important to note that, unlike other types of mobility, exchange mobility is less of a fact and more of a hypothetical concept. Since it is a hypothesis, there are other concepts or theories that criticize the argument of exchange mobility about the stability of the equilibrium.
Exchange Mobility Definition
The academic definitions of exchange mobility tend to be far too difficult to understand. In my definition, I simply tell students: exchange mobility happens when the same number of people experience upward mobility and downward mobility. In effect, people are simply swapping social statuses.
Of course, we’re often compelled to use academic references in our essays. So, here are some academic references for you:
“The essence of exchange mobility is that income recipients change places within a structure in which all income amounts are held constant but the final distribution is permuted to preserve the initial order.”(Fields, 2021, p. 64)
“…social churning whereby some people improving upon their parental background at the cost of some people going down while the aggregate opportunities in the society remains unchanged.”(Majumder and Majumder, 2013, p. 28)
Exchange Mobility Examples
- Economic Shutdown in 2020: During economic shutdowns, many people become laid off from their jobs which leads to downward mobility for some, who needed immediate re-employment (Brodeur et al., 2021). At the same time, economic shutdowns can lead to the emergence of remote high-paying job opportunities since working from home became more popular (e.g. IT jobs). Therefore, the number of employees in both lower- and higher-status jobs increased, keeping their proportion relatively equal.
- Remote Work Transition: With the popularization of remote jobs, the digital nomad lifestyle has become more prevalent. On the one hand, this lifestyle is leading to the development of new sectors, such as location-independent online banks and online residency services, leading to the growth of upper classes. On the other hand, digital nomad migration from high-income countries to low-income ones lead to the increase of living costs in these countries which lead to the growth of the working class (Hayes & Zaban, 2020).
- Commercialization of Higher Education: The commercialization of higher education, and increasing tuitions lead to the growth of upper and lower classes at the same time. Some students dropout and start to work in manual jobs as a result of higher tuition, while colleges increasingly become more elitist, educating and training new generations of the capitalist class.
- Artificial Intelligence Revolution: With the prevalence of technology and artificial intelligence, some people lose their jobs to automation and start performing low-paying jobs. At the same time, as a result of technology, new, prestigious job opportunities emerge for high-skilled employees.
- Translation Apps Replacing Translators: The popularity of translation apps and programs lead to the change of occupations for many translators, interpreters, and language experts. While some of them have been experiencing downward mobility by receiving lesser pay, some others experienced upward mobility by becoming entrepreneurs or having an academic career.
- Jobs for Temporary Migrants: While in many countries international students cannot work, in Canada, many international students have been given full-time work permits (Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, 2022). As a result of the introduction of this new workforce, it can be argued that working, middle, and higher-classes received new members, increasing in number while keeping the proportion.
- Mass Production vs. Boutique Workforce: As a result of the prevalence of mass production, many tailors became a part of the working class and experienced downward mobility, while some others experienced upward mobility by becoming niche tailors or fashion designers. Therefore, both classes grew in number while the proportion remained the same.
- The Rise of Influencers and Freelancers: With the increasing popularity of social media, many advertisers and traditional (offline) magazine workers lost their jobs and went through downward mobility, while some others became wealthy influencers.
- The Transition from Physical Stores to eCommerce: With the prevalence of online shopping, many retail workers became unemployed or underemployed, while many online shop owners went through upward mobility and increased their wealth.
- Casualization of Employment in Higher Education: With the commercialization of higher education and the increase of contract working, many faculty members experienced downward mobility and became a part of the working class or service industry, while the upper classes also grew as a result of the increasing wealth of the college prevosts, chancellors, or other directors.
Critiques of Exchange Mobility
The concept of exchange mobility is based on the argument that the size of each class in society remains the same in proportion to the others. However, not all sociological theories agree with this hypothesis.
The most significant critique is based on the Marxist theory of classes.
According to the Marxist theory, the main classes in a society are the working and capitalist classes. While Marxism recognized the presence of a middle class, the classical Marxist theories predicted that the middle class will become smaller and eventually disappear as capitalism persists (“Marx on Social Class”, 2002).
In contrast, the working class will continuously grow and expand.
Causes of Exchange Mobility
Unlike other types of social mobility, exchange mobility focuses on multiple macro-level social moves. Therefore, the social transitions that are part of the exchange mobility are often caused by social events rather than individual opportunities.
These social factors include innovations as well as social, economic, and political upheavals affecting masses of people.
Innovations that may lead to exchange mobility include the internet, social media apps, smart phones and artificial intelligence.
An example to the economic and social issues can be economic recessions and their economic impacts, including mass lay-offs and the prevalence of remote work.
Individual Factors Affecting Exchange Mobility
All types of social mobility, including exchange mobility, depend on a number of factors affecting the social opportunities present for an individual and/or a social group. These factors are closely related to individuals’ social locations in the society’s hierarchy.
Social locations are shaped by different aspects of our identities and positions, including gender, sex, race, ethnicity, migration status, geographical location, physical and mental disabilities and class (Anthias, 2001).
For example, compared to white Americans, black Americans have less opportunities for experiencing upward social mobility. However, this divide is more significant between white and black men, as when it comes to white women, they also have less chances for an upward social move (Matthews, 2018).
How to Measure Exchange Mobility
There are multiple ways of measuring an individual’s or a group’s social mobility. These include comparing one’s economic power, social standing, and life standards before and after the social move (OECD, n.d.).
Tangible and intangible earnings, regular and irregular income, and the amount of debt are some key economic measures of social mobility. Other measures include broader aspects related to life quality, such as access to social networks, quality education, housing, health and well-being (OECD, n.d.).
Other Types of Social Mobility
In addition to exchange mobility, there are several other types of social mobility that can be divided into three categories.
- Horizontal vs Vertical: The first category includes horizontal and vertical social mobilities, which respectively refer to a move between two jobs of same status and a move between different statuses. Exchange mobility is a result of two types of vertical mobility, that are upward and downward mobility, happening simultaneously.
- Absolute vs Relative: Another category of social mobility includes absolute and relative mobility. While absolute mobility is an objective change in one’s social standing, relative mobility is a change of status or social position compared to others.
- Structural vs Intergenerational vs Intragenerational: The last category of social mobility types depend on their impact on one or multiple generations. These types include structural, intergenerational, and intragenerational mobilities. While structural mobility affects the whole population, intergenerational mobility affects multiple generations within a family. In contrast, intragenerational mobility happens in a single generation.
Exchange mobility is the social transition of groups of individuals in a population to different socioeconomic groups or classes. As a result of exchange mobility, which is also known as circular mobility, individuals replace each-other in different classes and therefore, the proportion of these classes in the society remain the same.
Exchange mobility can be a result of one of multiple social dynamics including technological and practical innovations, political upheavals, economic crises, social impacts of mass events such as pandemics, epidemics, or climate change, as well as mass migration or displacement.
While exchange mobility is seen as a way to keep the balance in the society, some theories, such as the Marxist theory, criticize the argument behind this concept.
Anthias, F. (2001). The material and the symbolic in theorizing social stratification: issues of gender, ethnicity and class. The British journal of sociology, 52(3), 367-390.
Brodeur, A., Gray, D., Islam, A., & Bhuiyan, S. (2021). A literature review of the economics of COVID‐19. Journal of Economic Surveys, 35(4), 1007-1044.
Fields, G. (2021). Exploring concepts of social mobility. In V. Iversen, A. Krishna & K. Sen (Eds.). Social mobility in developing countries: Concepts, methods, and determinants. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hayes, M., & Zaban, H. (2020). Transnational gentrification: The crossroads of transnational mobility and urban research. Urban Studies, 57(15), 3009-3024.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. (2022, October 7). International students to help address Canada’s labour shortage. Canada.ca. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/news/2022/10/international-students-to-help-address-canadas-labour-shortage.html
Majumder, R., & Majumder, R. (2013). Intergenerational Mobility (pp. 23-31). India: Springer.
Markandya, A. (1982). Intergenerational exchange mobility and economic welfare. European Economic Review, 17(3), 307-324.
Marx on Social Class. (2002, October 3). University of Regina. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://uregina.ca/~gingrich/o402.htm
Matthews, D. (2018, March 21). The massive new study on race and economic mobility in America, explained. Vox. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/21/17139300/economic-mobility-study-race-black-white-women-men-incarceration-income-chetty-hendren-jones-porter
OECD. (n.d.). Understanding social mobility. OECD. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://www.oecd.org/stories/social-mobility/
Schluter, C., & Van de gaer, D. (2011). Upward Structural Mobility, Exchange Mobility, And Subgroup Consistent Mobility Measurement: U.S.–German Mobility Rankings Revisited. The Review of Income and Wealth, 57(1), 1–22. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4991.2009.00372.x