Social Mobility is a concept from the social sciences that explains the ability of individuals or groups to change their position within their society’s class structure during their lifetime. It’s also a central feature of the American dream, where it was mythologized that social mobility was available to all.
Examples of social mobility include marrying into a wealthy family, moving from a shop floor job to a white-collar management job, and taking a university degree to unlock doors to a high-status profession.
This ability to move up or down what is commonly known as the social ladder will depend on a variety of factors outlined in this article.
Social mobility refers both to upwards and downward mobility: one can go up or down the social ladder. This movement entails changes in income, wealth, education, or occupation, amongst others.
One of the first proponents of social mobility was the Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who described the concept as:
“…any transition of an individual or social object or value – anything that has been created or modified by human activity – from one social position to another” (Sorokin 1959/2001: 133).
There are multiple types of social mobility, including upward, downward, horizontal, and intergenerational. The types will be explored after the examples section below.
- University education (upward) – Higher education can be a way to climb up the social ladder. For example, an individual with a working-class background who studies medicine and later works as a doctor would experience upward social mobility.
- Bankruptcy (downward) –Bankruptcy can be a cause of downward social mobility. It can happen, for example, that a person’s company crashes and fails and all wealth is lost, going straight down the social ladder.
- Hypergamy (upward) – Colloquially known as “marrying up”, hypergamy is a term used in the social sciences used to name the act or practice of a person marrying a spouse of higher caste or social status than themselves. Marriage can thus help some people up the social hierarchy.
- Divorce (downward) – Ending a marriage can also play a role in social mobility. In the same way that marriage helps people move up the social ladder, if a divorce occurs and that person is excluded, his or her social position can go downward.
- Sporting success (upward) – Success in sports or the entertainment industry, although rare, can too entail a change in the position of people in the social strata.
- Economic crisis (downward) – Economic crises are a good example of how social mobility is not just about individuals. When a crisis occurs, different sectors of society may collectively move down the social hierarchy.
- Access to social capital (upward) – Social capital, which refers to the connections or networks a person has, can promote social mobility. If you know the right people, opportunities for jobs can open up to you.
- Access to cultural capital (upward) – Cultural capital refers to your ability to fit into your cultural group. If you have upper middle-class cultural capital (such as a refined accent and appreciation of golf), you may be able to get along with the gatekeepers like HR interviewers and therefore find it easier to get a middle-class job.
- Winning the lottery (upward) – While rare, and not a strategy to rely upon, winning the lottery can buy you the economic capital required to move up the social ladder. However, you’ll need a good accountant who can help you manage it appropriately.
- Inheritance (intergenerational) – An unexpected inheritance can help you move up the social ladder by, for example, giving you the funds to go to university or the ability to live a more comfortable upper middle-class life.
- Business success (upward) – Many working-class people who aren’t great in academic settings can nonetheless bootstrap businesses and achieve wealth.
- Promotion (upward) – People can prove their worth and work their way up the ranks in large corporations from very lowly paid entry-level positions right up to executive levels.
- A new job (upward) – Changing employers to move up a level in your career is a common way people work their way up the social hierarchy. We jump from employer to employer to find our path up through the social classes.
- Getting fired (downward) – Losing a job can cause a spiral into a lesser paid or more precarious profession. We may, through this process, also start spending less time with middle-class people and more time with working-class people in precarious part-time jobs.
- New friends (upward or downward) – While most of these points have been about economic movement, we may also be considered to have higher social status simply by the new people we spend time with, who might introduce us to the pastimes, sports, and tastes of a different social class.
- Health crisis (downward) – Unless you live in a society with excellent job protections and a universal healthcare system, it’s possible you can fall into economic ruin when a health crisis occurs.
- Social change (absolute) – If your society as a whole goes through an economic revolution, you and all the people around you may experience social mobility. For example, in the early 2000s, tens of millions of Chinese people moved into a new middle class.
Types of Social Mobility
Absolute social mobility, or structural mobility, refers to the absolute number of people in a social group that move up or down the social strata.
For this reason, absolute mobility looks at structural changes in society.
An example of absolute mobility would be a village whose economy was solely based on agriculture undergoes a process of industrialization and as a result a large number of the population moves upwards.
2. Vertical mobility
Vertical mobility implies a change in the situation of an individual or a group in the social strata, either up or down.
When the change is up, there are two types: ascending mobility, or social climbing. When the change is down it can be descending social mobility or social sinking.
An example of ascending mobility would be when a person is promoted from a managerial position to CEO.
Descending mobility would be, for instance, when someone decides to take a career break and goes from being a lawyer to working as a shopkeeper.
3. Horizontal mobility
Horizontal mobility refers to a movement from one place, job, or life situation to another that isn’t accompanied by either upward or downward mobility.
Usually, when social mobility is discussed, it is made with reference to the change of a person, or group, either up or down the social ladder.
However, there is a type of social mobility, which is maybe less known, which refers to the movement of people across positions where they keep more or less the same status and there is no change in vertical position.
For example, a doctor that does from practicing medicine to teaching at a university shows a situation in which someone is experiencing horizontal mobility.
4. Intergenerational mobility
This type of social mobility refers to the change of social status, either up or down the ladder, that occurs from one generation to the next.
If someone acquires a higher social status than his or her parents it is called upward intergenerational mobility.
If, on the contrary, someone attains a lower social status it is called downward intergenerational mobility.
An example of upward intergenerational mobility would be a person whose mother and father owned a little market stall becoming a doctor.
If the opposite happened, a doctor’s son or daughter ends up as a factory worker, this is downward social mobility.
5. Intragenerational mobility
Intragenerational mobility happens during a person’s lifetime, and, unlike intergenerational mobility, the change in status happens in relation to one’s social position, not in comparison to one’s parents.
Like in intergenerational mobility, intragenerational mobility can be upwards or downwards.
So, in intragenerational mobility, a person may start working as a shop floor assistant then be promoted to store manager.
Through the years, this person may acquire further education and end up managing several stores from a central office. This upward mobility affects the individual, not the whole family.
6. Exchange Mobility
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).
An example of exchange mobility is when a coal mine closes and is replaced by a solar farm. A bunch of coal miners will lose their jobs and may experience downward social mobility; while a group of electricians can suddenly find great jobs at the solar farm. For each person who loses a middle-class job, someone else gains a middle-class job.
Common barriers to social mobility include:
- Childhood poverty. Childhood poverty can impact people’s life chances, making it more difficult to change their social position over their lifetime and preventing, therefore, social mobility.
- Deprivation. Living in a deprived neighborhood and having less access to cultural capital also has an effect on social mobility and the chances that those who live in social exclusion can move up the social ladder.
- Lack of capital. The Marxist critique of class systems is that people without capital are locked out of the economic system, while people who have capital find life a lot easier. If you lack social capital (not knowing people), cultural capital (the wrong accent, for example), or economic capital (e.g. money), it can be hard to achieve social mobility.
- Marginalization and discrimination. People who are marginalized by society are often prevented from achieving mobility. For example, they might be discriminated against in job interviews for their accent, ethnicity, gender, and so forth.
- Insufficient social infrastructure. Social infrastructure can be anything from a poor quality welfare program to lack of roads to rural towns. Without social infrastructure, people find it hard to get, start, and retain work and education.
Pathways for Social Mobility
For social mobility to take place in a society, the social system in place has to promote equality of opportunities amongst its citizens, through appropriate social policies.
Generally, societies have put in place taxation policies that allow for social services such as:
- Free or affordable education
- Affordable public transit
- Education scholarships
- Business grants
- The decreased bureaucratic burden for starting a business
However, there are alternative theories about how to achieve social mobility.
For example, libertarians and economic conservatives often argue that governments’ attempts to improve social mobility can actually hinder it, meaning removal of government intervention can help to improve chances for poor citizens.
In societies with rigid class systems, like for example the caste system in India, social mobility is often not possible.
Social mobility is a concept used in sociology to show the mobility of individuals or groups in the social hierarchy. It shows that, unless we speak of a society with rigid class systems, like the caste system in India, people are not always destined to stay in the position they were born into.
Social mobility refers to both upwards and downward mobility, so one’s position in the social strata can improve, but also it can worsen. Whichever way one goes, whether up or down, social mobility entails changes in income, wealth, education or occupation, amongst others.
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