Structural mobility is a type of social mobility that refers to the movement of people up or down the social ladder when there are changes in the overall structure of society.
It is a kind of forced mobility because it is caused by events beyond one’s control. It contrasts with individual mobility, which refers to the ability of individuals to move up or down the social ladder through their own efforts.
The changes that cause structural mobility include technological advances, historical events, etc. Let us begin with the definition and examples of structural mobility, and then we will look at some case studies.
Structural Mobility Definition
According to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, structural mobility refers to :
“changes in the objective relations between positions within a given structure, which are independent of the strategies and the will of the agents who occupy these positions.” (1984)
In other words, structural mobility refers to the changes in the overall structure of society, which impacts how people move up or down the social ladder. This is independent of the individual’s actions or choices.
Every society is divided into different layers or strata, a characteristic known as social stratification. This stratification is based on class, gender, ethnicity, etc., and different groups have different levels of resources, power, and prestige.
Social mobility is the movement of people between these social strata, and it can be in either an upward or downward direction (Heckman, 2014).
Structural Mobility Examples
- Shifts in economic structure: Major changes in the economic structure can significantly influence structural mobility. The economic structure includes the types of goods and services produced, the dominant industries, the distribution of wealth, etc., and changes in these shape structural mobility. For example, the shift from an agrarian to an industrial society led to new opportunities for people and urbanization. If this shift cause one sector of society to gain and others to lose, it is referred to as exchange mobiltiy.
- Technological advances: Technological advances can create new industries and jobs while also making some jobs obsolete. So, they allow some people to move up the social ladder through high-paying jobs, but they can also cause others to face downward mobility. For example, automation and robotics have increased efficiency in many industries but have also led to job loss for some workers.
- Globalization: Globalisation is the increasing interconnectedness of countries through the exchange of goods & services, and it has a significant impact on structural mobility. As the world becomes more connected, businesses can access new markets, which brings economic growth & job creation, therefore causing upward or vertical mobility. However, outsourcing & global competition can also bring downward mobility.
- Growth of the service sector: The service sector includes industries like healthcare, education, financial services, etc., and in a postindustrial world, it is the backbone of the economy. The growth of the service sector leads to jobs that are not only high-paying but also much more stable than jobs in agriculture or manufacturing. At the same time, the increased competition in the sector can lead to lower wages & benefits.
- Changes in the labor market: The labor market refers to the supply & demand for labor, including the types of jobs available, the skills required, the wages offered, etc. It has a massive impact on structural mobility. For example, the growth of the gig economy has led to increased opportunities for freelancers; however, it can also make it difficult for people to find stable, full-time jobs, causing downward mobility.
- Government policies: Through its laws and programs, the government can significantly shape structural mobility. It can invest in education programs, which would help people learn new skills & get higher-paying jobs. It can also use redistributive policies, such as progressive taxation and welfare programs to reduce income inequality. Finally, its regulations, such as minimum-wage laws, also shape structural mobility.
- Demographic changes: Changes in demographics, such as the age structure or education level, can influence structural mobility. For example, an aging population leads to a lower number of workers and causes a fall in economic growth, leading to downward mobility for some. At the same time, it will lead to more opportunities for healthcare professionals and caregivers, allowing them to move up the social ladder.
- Digitalization: Digitalization is the increasing reliance on digital technology in life & businesses, and it has a massive impact on structural mobility. It has created new opportunities for people to work remotely and in tech-based jobs like software development, digital marketing, etc. Digital technology has also made it easier for people to start businesses, giving a boost to entrepreneurs & self-employment.
- Change in trends: Changes in consumer preferences and trends affect structural mobility. For example, the growing awareness of environmentalism has led to a rise in eco-friendly products, creating opportunities for the sustainable industry. Changes in demand for a certain good can affect the job market of that industry. Finally, the way society accepts work (say remote jobs) also influences structural mobility.
- Historical events: Natural disasters or major wars can lead to widespread destruction, which can disrupt the economy and lead to downward mobility for many people. At the same time, it can also create new opportunities for reconstruction, allowing some to move up. Other events, such as social movements (like the Civil Rights Movement) or changes in political regimes can also impact structural mobility.
Structural Mobility Case Studies
1. From agriculture to industry
The shift from an agricultural to an industrial society leads to increased job opportunities and economic growth; however, it can also involve job loss in the agriculture sector & social dislocation.
During the industrial revolution in Britain, several new jobs came up in the textile and manufacturing industries. Those who were able to acquire new skills moved to higher-paying, skilled jobs, and experienced upward mobility.
Max Weber discussed how this rise of industrial societies—which allowed skilled individuals people to go up the ladder—also led to a new social stratification that was based on merit & achievement, rather than traditional status & birth (1904).
Similarly, Soviet Union’s focus on industrialization in the 20th century created many new jobs, especially in heavy industry. However, it also led to the displacement of rural populations, and traditional forms of social organization eroded.
2. The end of colonialism
The end of the era of colonialism allowed countries to come out of the exploitative structures of the colonizer and grow economically, which promoted social mobility.
In his famous book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney discussed how colonizers exploited the resources and labor in colonized countries; it effectively led to a developed Europe at the cost of an underdeveloped Africa.
The end of colonialism led to changes in the political and economic systems. In Africa, it led to the formation of independent states, which created new job opportunities in the public sector. So, those with the necessary skills and qualifications benefitted from these and experienced upward mobility.
In Africa, the end of colonialism also brought the redistribution of land from colonizers to the indigenous people. It allowed people from low-income groups to acquire land and resources, thereby moving up the social ladder.
3. The birth of the digital economy
The integration of digital technology in various aspects of life has massively impacted structural mobility.
Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, the world has witnessed a digital revolution—rapid adoption of technologies, such as computers, mobile devices, and the internet, all of which have transformed the way we live and work.
This digital revolution has significantly shaped structural mobility. It led to the creation of a digital economy involving e-commerce, digital platforms, etc, which has opened up several new job opportunities.
Skills like coding, data analysis, and digital marketing have now become quite valuable, and those able to acquire such skills experience upward mobility through high-paying jobs.
Digitalisation has also led certain companies (such as Google & Amazon) to become tremendously wealthy. A concentration of wealth in a few companies, industries, or nations, increases income inequality, making it difficult for low-income groups to rise.
In their book The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?, Frey and Osborne discuss how digitalization will change the labor market. They built a statistical model involving 702 occupations and studied the probability of their computerization.
They found out that at least 47% of total employment in the United States was at risk. The most vulnerable were those involving predictable physical/cognitive tasks like data entry, bookkeeping, etc.
Structural mobility refers to the movement of people up, down, or even across (i.e. horizontal mobility) the social ladder because of changes in the overall structure of society.
It involves things such as technological advances, labor market changes, historical events, etc. In our world, perhaps the growth of digital technology is the most evident factor shaping structural mobility.
While it has opened many new opportunities, it has also led to job loss and income equality. But technological change is inevitable—we cannot escape it. What we can do, as a society, is to help spread the benefits of technology (or any structural change) to everyone.
This can involve education and training programs to help people acquire new skills. The government can also create progressive tax systems and introduce welfare programs to address income equality.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Harvard University Press.
Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2013). “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation?”. Technological Forecasting and Social Change. Elsevier.
Heckman JJ, Mosso S (August 2014). “The Economics of Human Development and Social Mobility”. Annual Review of Economics. Annual Reviews.
Rodney, W. (1972). How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications.
Weber, M. (1904). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. George Allen & Unwin Ltd.