Social mobility

Social mobility

See also: Economic mobility

Social mobility is the degree to which, in a given society, an individual's, family's, or group's social status can change throughout the course of their life through a system of social hierarchy or stratification. Subsequently, it is also the degree to which that individual's or group's descendants move up and down the class system. The degree to which an individual can move through their system can be based on attributes and achievements or factors beyond their control.

Inter- and Intra-generational mobility and Annette Lareau

Intra-generational mobility ("within" a generation) is defined as changes in social status over a single life-time. Inter-generational mobility ("across" generations) is defined as changes in social status that occur from the parents' to the children's generation. These definitions are particularly useful when analyzing how social status changes from one time period to another, and if a person's parents' social status influences that of their own. Sociologists usually focus on intergenerational mobility because it is easier to depict changes across generations rather than within one. This information helps sociologists determine whether inequality in a culture changes over time.

Intra-generational mobility occurs when a person strives to change his or her own social standing. In some societies, this type of change is not possible. In social systems where people are divided into castes, social mobility cannot occur. Whatever caste a person is born into, is what they will remain for the entirety of their life. However, in cultures based on merit, like the United States or the United Kingdom, for example, people are free to move up and down the social ladder. This is described further in the next section.

Intra-generational mobility can move a person either higher or lower in the social ladder. If one starts at a low level, they can improve their status by working hard, getting a better job, or becoming more culturally sound, to name a few. Pierre Bordieu describes three types of capital that place a person in a certain social category. These are economic capital, social capital, and cultural capital. Economic capital is command over economic resources such as money and assets. Social capital is resources one achieves based on group membership, relationships, networks of influence, 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, and any other form of knowledge. Usually, people with all three types of capital have a high status in society.

Inter-generational mobility occurs across generations. This mobility is both merit- and non-merit-based. Ability and hard work affect social mobility, but so does parents’ wealth, race, gender, and luck. Fiona Devine wrote a book, Class practices: how parents help their children get good jobs, specifically on inter-generational mobility and how parents’ influence can affect the child’s social mobility. Nearly every chapter emphasizes the importance of a good education in order to be successful. Parents also help children make important connections with people in order to expand their social network. Parents that can create social capital for their children tend to increase their child’s social mobility.

Annette Lareau makes a compelling argument regarding child-raising in her book, Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. She describes two different ways to raise children: concerted cultivation and natural growth. Concerted cultivation, normally used by middle-class families, incorporates many structured, organized activities for the child. They are taught to reason with parents through communication, and often the child adopts a sense of entitlement. Natural growth is almost the exact opposite of concerted cultivation. Used mainly in poor or working-class families, this style of childrearing does not include organized activities, and there is a clear division between the adult and the child. Children usually spend large amounts of their day creating their own activities, and they hardly ever speak with adults. In fact, adults use language in order to direct or order the children, never to negotiate with them. These two different types of childrearing can affect inter-generational mobility. Children who grow up with a concerted cultivation style of childrearing learn from their parents how to talk with adults as equals. This skill helps them create social networks, which can improve their social standing. Children with natural growth backgrounds tend to have a more difficult time improving their social standing. They lack the social skills and sense of entitlement that concerted cultivation children have that helps them acquire good jobs (and therefore, move up in their social standing). Natural growth children do learn to comply with authority figures, instead of argue with them, which gives them an advantage over concerted cultivation children.

Rules of status: ascription and achievement

Achieved status is a position gained based on merit, or achievement (used in an open system). An open system describes a society with mobility between different social classes. Individuals can move up or down in the social rankings; this is unlike closed systems, where individuals are set in one social position for life despite their achievements. Ascribed status is a position based on who a person is, not what they can do (used in a closed system). When this ascriptive status rule is used (Medieval Europe), people are placed in a position based on personal traits beyond their control. Mobility is much more frequent in countries that use achievement as the basis for status (U.S. & Canada). However, societies differ on the amount of mobility that occurs due to the direction of structural changes in their overall status systems. The process by which an individual alters the ascribed social status of their parents into an achieved social status for themselves is called Social Transformation.

Structural and exchange mobility

Structural mobility is a type of forced vertical mobility that results from a change in the distribution of statuses in a society. It occurs when the demands of a particular occupation reach its max and more people are needed to help fill the positions. Exchange mobility is that which is not structural. The key word "exchange" means trade-off. This means instead of positions reaching the max and more people are needed, positions are dropped and someone else must step up to fill the position. When ascriptive status is in play, there is not much exchange mobility occurring.

Upward and downward mobility

Upward social mobility is a change in a person's social status resulting in that person receiving a higher position in their status system. Likewise, downward mobility results in a lower position. A prime example of an opportunity for upward mobility nowadays is athletics. There are an increased number of minorities seeking careers as professional athletes which can either lead to improved social status or could potentially harm them due to neglecting other aspects of their life (ex. education). Transformative assets would also allow one to achieve a higher status in society, as they increase wealth and provide for more opportunity. A transformative asset could be a trust fund set up by family that allows you to own a nice home in a nice neighborhood, instead of an apartment in a down trodden community. This type of move would allow the person to develop a new circle of friends of the same economic status.

Mobility in the American workforce

Intra-generational mobility refers to the social mobility within a single generation. It measures shifts in career at some point in the individual’s lifetime, where your occupational status is determined by individual merit. Thus, irrespective of family background, one can move from being an unskilled blue collar worker to becoming a CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation.

Intra-generational mobility within the work force is a concept that has been heavily influenced by the American dream. Meritocracy, the idea that everybody who has a good work ethic can succeed and move up in class, is a notion that has been put into question using statistics through sociological research. There are several factors which complicate a strictly meritocratic view of an individual's ability to "climb the corporate ladder." These factors primarily include education, gender and race, and social networks.

Sociologists Blau and Duncan collected mobility data along with the U.S. Bureau of the Census in 1962. The data included information on occupational family backgrounds. In 1962, 56.8% of son's with fathers who had occupations in upper nonmanual ended up with occupations in the same level. Only 1.2% of sons with fathers who had farming occupations ended up in upper nonmanual occupations. In 1973, these differences increased. 59.4% of sons with fathers in upper nonmanual occupations achieved occupations of this same level and .9% of sons with fathers in farming occupations ended up in upper nonmanual occupations. However, the occupational structure is more rigid towards the top and bottom. Those in lower nonmanual occupations, and upper and lower manual occupations were more likely to be vertically mobile. Upper nonmanual occupations have the highest level of occupational inheritance.Kerbo, Harold (1996). Social Stratification and Inequality Edition= 3rd. The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc..

Educational factor

Wages and earnings tend to correlate with the amount of education a person has obtained. In 2003, those workers with less than a high school diploma, earned a median income of $21,000; while those workers with a four year college degree earned a median income of $53,000 (James 2005). The poverty line in 2005 according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was $19,350 for a four-person household; therefore, those with less education are more likely to be bordering on this line than those with more education. With a college degree, it is more likely for one to attain a professional-level job wherein he or she may earn a higher salary in comparison to someone working in a secondary, service-based job.

Higher educational opportunities are necessary in order to pull away from the poverty line. Of the 30 fastest growing occupations, more than half require an associates degree or higher. Yet, these jobs are less likely to supply additional jobs to the labor market; meaning, the majority of job growth is found in low-wage jobs (Jacobs 2005). These low-wage jobs are associated with those people who have less education. Workers in these areas are deemed unskilled because it does not require a great amount of education in order to perform these jobs, so the stereotype goes. White collar jobs, however, necessitate more human capital and knowledge and therefore produce higher earnings and require greater education. Therefore, it can be understood that education is a main determinant for potential social mobility in the American workforce.

Gender and race factor

When examining status mobility within the American labor force, one must consider the role that race and gender have. History has shown us that women and minorities have a disadvantage in earning promotions; thus, being a woman or minority is one of the main determinants in hindering status mobility within the labor market.

Women and minorities hold jobs with less rank, authority, opportunity for advancement, and pay than men and whites (Federal Glass Ceiling Commission 1995; Reskin & Padavic 1994). This concept is considered to be the "glass ceiling" effect. Despite the increased presence of blacks and women in the work force over the years, there remains a very small percentage that holds top managerial positions, implying the "glass ceiling."

One explanation is seen in the networks of different genders and minorities. The more managers that are in employees' immediate work environment, the higher their chances are of interacting and spending time with high status employees. The race and sex composition of employees' immediate work environment should indirectly affect the status of their network members. For instance, the more women with whom employees work, the more women with whom they will interact, and thus the more women they will have in their networks. The more women and minorities that employees have in their networks, the more low-status network members they should have because women and minorities tend to occupy low-level positions in work organizations (Brass 1985; Ibarra 1992). Less than half of all managers are women, whereas the vast majority of all clerical and office workers are women. Furthermore, less than fifteen percent of all managers were minorities, whereas roughly a quarter of all clerical and office employees were minorities. The networks of women and minorities are simply not as strong as those of males and whites. Therefore, women and minorities have a clear disadvantage in status mobility from the get-go.

In looking specifically at women, another explanation for this "glass ceiling" effect in the American work force is due to the job-family trade off that women face compared to men. Using data from the 1996 General Social Survey, it examined the trade-offs that women and men made as they attempted to balance their employment and family obligations, and the multiple ways that gender affects those trade-offs (Davis & Smith 1996). Evidence suggests that both parents face job-family conflict, but that men and women are almost equivalent in feeling like such a conflict exists. However, there is information that suggests women adjust their jobs around their family responsibilities more than men do. Some of these adjustments include adding flex-time, changing jobs, or creating part-time work. Women with children, particularly married women, are more likely to either temporarily leave the labor force or cut back on employment by working part-time or part of the year (Carlisle 1994; Estes & Glass 1996; Shelton 1992). Women are also more likely than men to take leave from their jobs to care for others rather than themselves (Gerstel & McGonagle 1999; Sandberg 1999; Sandberg & Cornfield 2000). This evidence makes employers wary of hiring and promoting women in the work force. Others have pointed out that men have statistically been willing to accept job conditions that women were not, such as working outside in extreme weather, working where you can become physically dirty on a regular basis, working more hours, etc. This is based on survey information, not speculation or stereotype, and shows that it is difficult to make direct comparisons ('apples to apples'). Economically, if it were less expensive to hire women for exactly the same duties, then every business interested in increasing profit margins would try to hire women exclusively; so it seems paradoxical that women have a harder time getting a job and also get paid less. This leaves doubt about the objectivity of the allegations.

Social mobility is especially difficult for immigrants in the United States. As George J. Borjas explains in his paper, Social Mobility in the Immigrant Population, the first generation of immigrants has the most difficult time adjusting to American society. They have to deal with language barriers in addition to trying to adjust to the new environment and culture. Second generation immigrants (those with at least one parent not born in the United States) adjust to life in the United States more easily. “There is significant economic ‘catching up’ between the first and second generations, with the relative wage of the second generation being, on average, about 5 to 10 percent higher than that of the first generation” states Borjas. Since the second generation has access to American schools, they typically learn English in addition to their native language and understand the culture of their society better than their parents do. Borjas also argues that social mobility across generations depends on “ethnic capital,” characteristics of the ethnic environment where children are raised. “A highly advantaged ethnic environment—where most parents are college graduates, for example—imbues the children who grow up in that environment with valuable characteristics that enhance the children's socioeconomic achievement later in life,” Borjas explains. Especially true for immigrant families, ethnic capital largely affects the second generation’s social mobility.

Intergenerational mobility is particularly apparent in immigrant households. Every generation following the original immigrants appears to increase their income by 5 to 10 percent, thus creating social mobility. Thus, if a family started out very poor when it migrated to the United States, they will improve their position in society substantially with every generation. However, Borjas noticed a trend known as regression towards the mean. It “acts like a double-sided magnet,” pulling both extremes (very poor and very rich) towards the middle. For example, if parents in a family are very successful, it is likely that the children will also be successful but unlikely that they will be as successful as their parents were. Regression towards the mean creates more equality in the United States, regardless of where the parents start out.

The negative impact of incarceration on social mobility

Within the United States the prison population has been steadily increasing since the early 1970s and has now surpassed two million. This is the highest per capita rate in the world. This boom is largely fueled by the “War on Drugs” that was started with President Nixon in 1971. This war has had the effect of effectively creating an underclass by providing a number of ways to deny one of the most important tools for social mobility, Education.

  1. The drug war has combined with public school zero-tolerance policies to remove tens of thousands of adolescents from their public schools.
  2. Denial of higher education has been adopted as an additional punishment for drug offenders.
  3. The war on drugs siphons drug users out of society and into prison.

The lack of education for convicted felons is compounded with difficulties in finding employment. These two factors contribute towards a high recidivism rate and downward social mobility.

Class cultures and networks

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 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 that a person is developed in has a large affect on the social class that a person will have.

Social system

Societies which use slavery are an example of low social mobility because, for the enslaved individuals, upward mobility is practically nonexistent, and for their owners, downward mobility is practically outlawed.

Social mobility is normally discussed as "upward only", but it is a two-sided phenomenon - where there is upward mobility, there can also be relative downward mobility. If merit and fortune play a larger role in life chances than the luck of birth, and some people can manage a relative upward shift in their social status, then some people can also move downward relative to others. This is the risk that motivates people in power to increasingly devise and commission political, legal, education, and economic mechanisms that permit them to fortify their advantages. However, by controlling that inclination, it is possible in a growing economy for there to be greater upward mobility than downward - as has been the case in Western Europe.

Official or legally recognized class designations do not exist in modern western democracies and it is considered possible for individuals to move from poverty to wealth or political prominence within one generation. Despite this formal opportunity for social mobility, recent research suggests that Britain and particularly the United States have less social mobility than the Nordic countries and Canada. These authors state that "the idea of the US as ‘the land of opportunity’ persists; and clearly seems misplaced."

Not only does social mobility vary across types of countries, it can also change over time. Comparing the United States to the United Kingdom, there was social mobility of different degrees existing between the two countries during different historical periods. In the United States in the mid-19th century inequality was low and social mobility was high. In the late 19th century, the U.S. had much higher social mobility than in the UK, due to the common school movement and open public school system, a larger farmer sector, as well as higher geographic mobility in the United States. However, during the latter half of the 20th and early 21st centuries, the difference between the social mobilities of the two countries has declined, as social inequality has grown in both countries, but particularly in the United States. In other words, the individual's family background is more predictive of social position today than it was in 1850.

In market societies like the modern United States, class and economic wealth are strongly correlated. However, in some societies, such as feudal societies transitioning to market societies, there is a reduced probability that class status and wealth overlap. Usually, though, membership in a high social class provides more opportunities for wealth and political power, and therefore economic fortune is often a lagging indicator of social class. In newly-formed societies with little or no established tradition (such as the American West in the 19th century) the reverse is true: Made wealth precipitates the elite of future generations.


Popular examples of upward social mobility from America include Abraham Lincoln and Bill Clinton, who were born into working-class families yet achieved high political office in adult life, and Andrew Carnegie, who arrived in the U.S. as a poor immigrant and later became a steel tycoon. Examples from other countries include Pierre Bérégovoy who started working at the age of 16 as a metal worker and later became Prime Minister of France, Ramsay MacDonald the illegitimate son of a farm labourer and a housemaid who became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and Sir Joseph Cook, an Englishman who had no schooling and worked as a coal miner at the age of nine and went on to become Prime Minister of Australia.

Symbols and perceptions influence on social mobility

Social science and understanding segmentation

Theory suggests that there is a connection between Social Psychologists understanding of collective identity and the way sociologists conceive it. Individuals are always seeking ways to define themselves with regard to the world around them and they can do this with the meaning given to community and the concept that people are different from others because of arbitrary differences.

Boundaries could be sexual, racial, or lingual, or they could look at other definitions of boundaries. Geographical boundaries are an example that is strongly reinforced but not as apparent without extra symbols. Sports teams are an excellent example of symbols that define geographic boundaries. When people place themselves, they must find a balance between their community or subgroup and larger communities and out groups (which are groups that can be perceived as having a distinct difference). Scientists “have been studying the segmentation between ‘us’ and ‘them.’”

The social definition of groups creates entry and exit barriers that can help us understand the reasons that social mobility across group boundaries can be difficult. With symbols ranging from tattoos to elite prep schools, the concept of a boundary is readily apparent and seems to be instinctual. The interplay of ‘achievement’ with status with actual economic success depends largely on the way that the in-group perceives these values. The nonparallel views of different groups at different point on the economic scale mean that advancement in some groups could be counter to the goals and directions of another group. High-income urban culture can define itself with multiple symbolic boundaries stemming from prejudice against other groups that they perceive to be of a different economic status. These actions make it difficult for others to interact with people who may be geographically very close. When groups consider themselves mutually exclusive, it is unlikely that they will worry about the well being of the others and are unwilling to share resources (In the form of social capital in this case)

An urban planning perspective on group boundaries

Kevin A. Lynch touches on the concept of geographic boundaries and their social impact, as well as ways they can be manipulated in his book Image of the City. This work addresses the visible and invisible boundaries that are created in urban environments from an urban planners perspective. The spatial information people use to create boundaries can be as important to perception as other more culturally entrenched symbols. To use some of Lynch’s own terms, the Paths that people use dictate their flow in every day behavior, and what is accessible to them easily. Districts are large sections of the city that have some specific character; these create a means of building individual identity that is shared by those who live and work inside them, and felt by those that must cross Edges for various reasons. When seeking jobs or healthcare for instance.

How sociology views neighborhood boundaries

According to Sampson, Morenoff, and Gannon-Rowley’s article Assessing “Neighborhood Effects”: Social Processes and New Directions in Research on the relationship between adolescent behavior and indicators of residential differentiation, “Robert Park and Ernest Burgess laid the foundation for urban sociology by defining local communities as 'natural areas' that developed as a result of competition between businesses for land use and between population groups for affordable housing.” This indicates that resources that are available to the community will largely be affected by the wealth of the population.

There is change that happens in communities however, and they evolve over time. This study suggests that longitudinal studies could observe trends in the community over time. As neighborhood dynamics change, there could be a movement of social groups into proximity with other similar groups creating a hybrid of the two cultures. Another possibility is that the groups in an area move around, but do not intermingle, and when they feel pressure that threatens their hold of an area, they could fight back at the local level, or choose to relocate to a place where economic conditions restrict entry.

Influences that cross multiple boundaries

The benefits of having symbols that define social boundaries work to keep people from falling down as much as they can prevent others from moving up. The value of work ethic that is shared in many cultures maintains an individual’s drive and prompts them to seek out and hold employment. Symbols of social status such as leadership roles are important for developing role models, and leadership models are often seen by children as bridging the more detrimental class boundaries. As shown here: “There are also cross-cultural differences in how symbolic boundaries are linked to social boundaries. The same social boundary can be coupled with different symbolic boundaries as class distinctions in Europe are tied to the symbolic boundary between high culture and popular culture.”

Social mobility v. economic mobility

The ability for an individual to become wealthy out of poverty does not necessarily indicate that there is social mobility in his or her society. Some societies with low or nonexistent social mobility afford free individuals opportunities to initiate enterprise and amass wealth, but wealth fails to "buy" entry into a higher social class. In feudal Japan and Confucianist China, wealthy merchants occupied the lowest ranks in society (at least in theory). In pre-revolutionary France, a nobleman, however poor, was from the "second estate" of society and thus superior, at least in theory, to a wealthy merchant (from the "third estate").

Current research

In recent decades, new status hiearchies has emerged, leading to new opportunities for competition. India has seen a recent boom in employment, communication, distribution of goods, centralized administration, and urban living. This urbanization provides an escape from the ties of memberships in rural based communities. Factors that would predetermine an individual's status are not as effective in urban areas. According to Harold Gould, the criteria for determining occupations in India are a person's skill and quality of performance rather than place of birth. The status of any given role is based on its economic rewards and mobility. Studies have also shown that technological advances have both displaced certain groups as well as offered the chance for upward mobility. Some groups find themselves displaced by developing technology because their economic and social status have declined (ex. water carriers in parts of Northern India have been displaced by the introduction of handpumps). In other cases, individuals are finding new occupation with the opportunity for upward mobility. Most advances, however, appear to coincide with the opportunity for enhancement of social status.

Comparison of different mobility regimes

According to sociolgist John H. Goldthorpe, social mobility is normally seen in two ways. The first being that it is a basic source of social "structuration." The second is that the extent of mobility may be a strong indicator to the balance of power and different characteristics within a society.

Change across time within mobility regimes

Morris and Hancock have a recent book on US mobility.

See also


  • Stark, Rodney. 2007 Sociology Tenth Edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education
  • 2006 Social Mobility
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge.
  • Borjas, George J. "Working Paper 12088." Making It in America: Social Mobility in the Immigrant Population. 2006. National Bureau of Economic Research. .
  • Devine, Fiona. Class Practices: How Parents Help Their Children Get Good Jobs. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Eitzen, D S."Upward Mobility Through Sport?."1 26 Sep. 2007 .
  • Francis, David R."'Upward Mobility' In Real Decline, Studies Charge." The Christian Science Monitor.27 Jan. 2003. 26 Sep. 2007
  • Goldthorpe, John H. 1987 Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain. New York: Oxford, Clarendon Press
  • Jacobs, Eva E. (ed). "'Handbook of U.S. Labor Statistics: Employment, Earnings, Prices, Productivity, and other Labor Data.'" Lanham, MD. Bernam Press. 8th ed. 2005.
  • Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. University of California Press, 2003.
  • Maume, David J. "'Glass Ceilings and Glass Escalators: Occupational Segregation and Race and Sex Differences in Managerial Promotions.'" Work and Occupations vol. 26. November 1999: 483-509.
  • McGuire, Gail M. "'Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Networks: The Factors Affecting the Status of Employees’ Network Members.'" Work and Occupations vol. 27. November 2000: 500-523.
  • Western, Bruce. Punishment and Inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006.

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