Social mobility

From New World Encyclopedia

Social mobility is the movement of the members of a particular society in terms of their social status, usually defined in terms of occupation and income (vertical mobility), or from one social group to another, not necessarily with concomitant change in social position (horizontal mobility). Human societies, apart from the most primitive, have been stratified and have had varying degrees of social mobility. The correlation between societal progress and social mobility is not clear, as many socially immobile societies experienced sudden progress through revolutions, while for others, increased education led to improvements in society but a decline in social mobility. Ultimately, social mobility may need to be redefined such that changes in occupation and social group are not connected to changes in social value, in other words these become horizontal in nature, and vertical mobility could be reserved for increased respect due to seniority or experience.


Social mobility is the degree to which, in a given society, an individual's social status can change throughout the course of his or her life, or the degree to which that individual's offspring and subsequent generations move up and down the class system. In other words, it is the movement (or circulation) of individuals, families, or groups within a social space mapped by status, occupation, income, and similar variables through which members of a society may be defined.

There are two types of social mobility, horizontal and vertical. Horizontal social mobility (Sorokin 1959), or "shifting," means the transition of an individual from one social group to another situated on the same level. For example, one may move from one factory to another in the same occupational status, from one family to another (through marriage), from one citizenship to another, or from any one place to another. In all these cases, "shifting" may take place without any noticeable vertical change in the social position of the shifter.

By vertical social mobility (Sorokin 1959) is meant the transition of an individual from one social stratum to another. In this case, there are two directions: upward and downward mobility. Vertical social mobility involves change in value. However, there is not a perfect correlation between social status and financial reward—some jobs have higher social status but lower salary. Individuals striving for higher status might find they are aimed for social status less financially rewarding, perhaps, compared to the one they started from (e.g. blue collar vs. white collar, high-tech entrepreneur vs. university professor, etc.).

According to the degree or the ease of the circulation, it is possible to make a distinction between immobile (closed) societies and mobile (open) societies, where the transition from one social stratum to another has minimum resistance. An important caveat: There has scarcely ever existed a society whose strata were absolutely closed, just as there has hardly ever existed a society where the vertical mobility was absolutely free of obstacles.

Positive and Negative Aspects

Social mobility is normally discussed in a positive light, but it is a two-sided phenomenon. Unlike absolute economic prosperity and individual standard of living, relative social class is a zero-sum game: where there is upward mobility, there is also downward mobility. A revolution, which changes the social structure, opens previously barred positions to some, while at the same time removing wealth and position from those previously in power. Thus, a high rate of social mobility can increase stress due to insecurity, since it is equally likely that one will move down the social scale. Also, individuals who move rapidly from one social situation to a very different one often feel out of place, experiencing anxiety when facing unfamiliar standards of conduct.

On the positive side of vertical mobility is the generally expected result that individuals have the opportunity to make the best use of their talents and abilities, and thus make greater contributions to society as a whole. Immigrants from poorer, less technologically advanced countries find opportunities that were not available in their country of origin and so benefit from social mobility. Similarly, people moving from poor, rural areas to richer cities find jobs that pay more and have higher social status.

There is a catch, however. Although societies with low or nonexistent social mobility might afford free individuals opportunities to amass wealth, wealth itself very rarely can "buy" entry into a higher social class. In feudal Japan and Confucius-era China, wealthy merchants occupied the lowest ranks in society. 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"). A similar situation exists in Saudi Arabia and neighboring sultanates: a commoner cannot become head of state nor can he hold any high or important position in the government. He can become rich, though.

In market societies like the modern United States, class and economic wealth are strongly correlated and, therefore, often conflated. In some societies, on the other hand, there are time-lagged factors at play. Usually, 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 nineteenth century), the reverse is true: Made wealth precipitates the elite of future generations.

The relationship between social mobility and the rigidity of class structure is also not simple. While it might appear that social mobility leads to breakdown of a class system, resulting in a more egalitarian society, this is not always the case. Individuals who have risen to higher positions in society may then act to enforce class differences in order to maintain their new, higher position. Revolutions may be times of greatest social mobility and radical change in the class system. After the revolution, however, is a different story: successful revolutions are often followed by minimal social mobility as the new leadership solidifies its position.

Examples of Social Mobility and Immobility

Examples of closed, or socially immobile, societies are feudal and caste societies. In Hindu society, under the caste system, only with rare exceptions could individuals leave the caste into which they were born, regardless of wealth or merit. But even in such a society, there have been individuals born in a lower caste, for example the son of Mahatma Gandhi, who succeeded in entering the top (Brahmin) caste. In societies that used slavery, mobility was nonexistent for the enslaved individuals, although the rest of society could have any amount of mobility.

Modern western democracies are characterized by much more intensive vertical mobility. In democratic societies, the social position of an individual, at least theoretically, is not determined by his birth; all positions are open to everybody who can get them; there are no judicial or religious obstacles to climbing (or going down) the social ladder. Official, or legally recognized, class designations do not exist, and it is possible, although rare, for individuals to move from poverty to wealth or political prominence within one generation. The case of Andrew Carnegie, who arrived in the United States as a poor immigrant and later became a steel tycoon, is well known. Pierre Bérégovoy, who started work at the age of 16 as a metal worker and became Prime Minister of France, is another example. Nevertheless, such examples tend to be the exception rather than the rule. While a few individual members of the working class, or even immigrants, may manage to achieve positions of wealth or power, the overwhelming majority does not.

It should also be noted that in some democratic societies, such as Britain and Japan, an interesting combination of horizontal and vertical immobility has been observed. In these cases, horizontal immobility, resulting from staying with one employer to show loyalty or stability for instance, often led to limited vertical upward mobility.

Basic Theories, Trends, and International Comparison

In modern industrial societies with a democratic tradition, including parliamentary "monarchies" such as Britain, Denmark, and Japan which are open to social mobility, there were at least two periods in which seemingly contradictory trends and, thus, changes in social mobility took place.

Post-War Industrialization 1950-1970

In the period from the end of the Second World War until the 1970s, all industrialized nations showed declining income inequality. Changes in the occupational structure, involving a decrease in the number of unskilled or manual jobs and a corresponding increase in the relative number of professional and white-collar occupations, permitted greater social mobility. Chances for upward mobility in this era increased steadily with increased education. This held for all countries that devised a good educational system, including tertiary education, open to all social strata (Gazenboom et al. 1989).

It was found that only eight percent of those with less than five years of formal education moved up a long distance from their social origins, whereas 53 percent of those with some postgraduate work experienced significant upward mobility. On the other side, men with an intermediate amount of education (at least eight years of compulsory education but without finishing college), experienced considerable downward mobility from their social origins, of whatever level. In other words, the positions with best rewards and highest rank were those requiring the most extensive training and/or talent. So, a sufficient determinant of rank appeared to be talent and expertise acquired through the educational channels.

Finally, it can be argued that, since historical, cultural, political, and institutional aspects are likely to shape mobility patterns, the range of opportunities for upward mobility has been roughly equal for people of all class origins in the industrialized societies during this period.

Post-Industrial Societies after 1970

On the one side, in the latter part of the twentieth century, upward social mobility kept its correlation with education in most European countries. Thus, they continued producing "meritocracies" where anybody with talent, education, and ambition could attain any social and economic apex, as opposed to "aristocracies" where bloodline was the main prerequisite to social status. The prevailing assumption in such societies has been that increased economic competition would cause employers to recruit on an increasingly meritocratic basis, with the result that the social advantages attached to factors such as class origin, gender, or ethnicity would decline in importance for upward mobility.

On the other side, and somewhat surprisingly, in the United States and Great Britain these meritocratic trends actually produced a decline in social mobility (Gottschalk and Smeeding 1997). In the U.S., by the end of the twentieth century there was a higher correlation between parents' and children's income than in the 1980s (and an extra push for the offspring of higher-income, college graduate parents to go to college too), while the income gap between college graduates and non-graduates doubled between 1979 and 1997 (Barone 2005). Thus, many believed that if these trends remain unchecked they could lead the U.S. toward something resembling a caste society, with the underclass mired ever more firmly at the bottom and the educated elite ever more firmly anchored at the top, in other words a class system based on education.

The late twentieth-century belief that more education would make Britain more meritocratic and shatter the class system caused a huge expansion in higher education, with the government determined to steer half the country's 18 to 30-year-olds into universities. The idea that we live in a "knowledge economy" strengthened that notion. However, trends show that education plays a smaller role in social mobility than it used to. Many employers seeking recruits for management jobs in fast-growing industries, such as leisure and retailing, as well as posts in public relations, sales, and customer care, wanted these new employees to be skilled in areas that formal education does not necessarily bring. What these posts required were skills in communication, teamwork, and personal attributes such as "good appearance," "good manners," "character," and "proper accent." These newly sought after attributes were more clearly linked to wealth and its accompanying educational attainment, with children from the poorer backgrounds trapped in the worst schools and less likely to continue their studies. Thus, the old class system has been reconstituted into a more or less meritocratic upper tier, with the lower tier defined principally by its failure to qualify for the upper tier (Jackson et al. 2006)

Transitional Societies

Many of the countries that converted to a market-based economic system in the latter part of the twentieth century have experienced an alarming increase in income inequality: a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. This is particularly noticeable in all countries of the former Soviet Union. When everybody, with the exception of the "apparatchiks" (bureaucrats or functionaries of the Communist Party apparatus), was equally poor relative to Western societies, it was bad, but bearable. The new market-based social mobility encouraged entrepreneurs of all kinds. It was expected that this should lead to a more equitable society. Instead, however, widespread insecurity and anxiety developed, due to widespread corrupt, unethical, and even criminal behavior on the part of the "nouveau-riche" ruling class that filled the gap following the breakdown of the previous system.

Impact of Globalization

Hand in hand with the widening income inequality gap found in the transitional (former underdeveloped or communist) societies, comes the effect of globalization. Thus, the outsourcing to workers in a different country may provide opportunities for upward mobility in that country, and possibly corresponding downward social mobility in the first country. For example, the loss of jobs in computer programming in the United States to India, might lead to upward social mobility in India and downward social mobility in the U.S.

As social mobility can be looked at in terms of the distribution of life chances among classes, countries, sexes, races, urban/rural populations, and age groups, the bright side of globalization has, in certain cases, improved possibilities for (educated and/or intelligent) young people of both sexes in poor countries, allowing them to more fully realize their potential.

More negatively, however, globalization has thus far increased the income inequality gap in these societies by creating another “nouveau-riche” sub-class (strongly attached to the original oligarchies via family ties, as their offspring have often seized all the opportunities). For example, we see that gaps in opportunities have tended to widen during the period of accelerated globalization on class lines everywhere: between the North (industrialized) and the South (underdeveloped), and even in the European Union, in which the former communist (East and Central) countries provide a drastic contrast to EU ideals.

However, it should be noted that these inequities have flowed largely from the policies that have been applied to globalization, rather than from globalization per se.


Social mobility is the movement of the members of a certain society within the social space mapped by status, occupation, income, and similar factors. In a perfect world, social background would be of no importance, since everybody would be able to train and apply for any jobs that interested them. We don't live in a perfect world, though. There are differences in the social circumstances of classes, of men and women, of people from different ethnic groups, and people from different occupational backgrounds. Thus, the relative ease of mobility within a society has ramifications for those who are not content to live within the limitations of their original circumstances, or for whom circumstances change due to events beyond their control.

To date, all societies have been stratified, which means that different (economic and other) value has been attached to the different strata. Such societies have had some kind of "sieve" in place, sifting the individuals—allowing some to climb up while keeping others in the lower strata, thus maintaining the social structure.

However, traditional democracies, with rights and freedom for all, which are prerequisites of social mobility, are, apart from being law-abiding societies, also leaders in economic prosperity and individual standards of living, stagnant or decreased mobility notwithstanding.

From all of this it follows that a sound moral foundation, law abiding societal behavior, a successful educational system open to the whole spectrum for everybody (regardless of the students' social strata), effective judicial system and law enforcement capability, respect for human rights, and freedom of religion should allow both social mobility and some stratification of society. These attributes should, then, bring the sustainable growth of societal prosperity and well-being, which is, after all, the ultimate goal of every society.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Barone, Michael. Is Social Mobility on the Decline? 2005. Retrieved October 14, 2015.
  • Breen, Richard. National Patterns of Social Mobility 1970-1995: Divergence or Convergence? Retrieved October 14, 2015.
  • Gottschalk, Peter, and Timothy M. Smeeding. "Cross-National Comparisons of Earnings and Income Inequality." Journal of Economic Literature 35(2) (June, 1997): 633-687.
  • Jackson, Michelle, J. Goldthorpe and C. Mills. "Education, Employers and Class Mobility," in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility edited by Kevin Leicht. Elsevier, 2006.
  • Sorokin, P. Social and Cultural Mobility New York, NY: The Free Press, 1959. ISBN 0029302706


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