Social Mobility

When studying class and stratification in society, you might have wondered: are social classes set in stone? Is it possible to move up through the ranks of society and attain some form of social mobility? 

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Table of contents

    Let's look at studies and theories of social mobility in sociology.

    • In this explanation, we'll look at the definition and types of social mobility.
    • We will touch on what it means to have a lack of social mobility.
    • Next, we will explore the patterns of social mobility in the UK, and we'll take a look at the importance of social mobility.
    • Then, we will go over some classic studies on social mobility and responses to them.
    • Finally, we will touch on the issues with measuring social mobility.

    Defining social mobility in sociology

    Let's look at a useful articulation of the concept of social mobility in sociology.

    According to Stephen Aldridge (2001), social mobility refers to "the movement or opportunities for movement between different social groups, and the advantages and disadvantages that go with this in terms of income, security of employment, opportunities for advancement, etc"1.

    What is a lack of social mobility?

    If social mobility refers to opportunities to change one's social class, then a lack of social mobility means the lack of such opportunities. Essentially, in a society with low or no social mobility, people are likely to remain in the same class they were born into all their lives.

    This can be especially dire for poorer and disadvantaged groups in society, because it means they have little chance to improve their standards of living.

    Types of social mobility

    Now that we know the definition of social mobility and the lack thereof, let's familiarise ourselves with the two broad types of social mobility that are recognised in sociology.

    Absolute mobility

    Absolute mobility is also known as structural mobility because it is concerned with structural changes in society. Absolute social mobility looks at the total number of people moving from one social class to another.

    An example of this can be seen in the post-industrial economy. There was an increase in absolute mobility when more people moved into middle-class occupations as a result of society shifting from an industrial to a service economy.

    Social Mobility, Image of woman working on computers in office, StudySmarterFig. 1 - An increase in "middle-class" occupations such as office work has led to a rise in absolute mobility.

    Relative mobility

    Relative mobility is sometimes known as exchange mobility because it refers to individuals ‘exchanging relative positions’ in the social hierarchy. That is, as some people experience upward social mobility, others experience downward mobility.

    Relative social mobility measures the ways in which mobility differs according to someone’s starting position in the class structure, i.e. due to their social group.

    It is important to distinguish between absolute and relative forms of social mobility because we come to different conclusions about society depending on how we view social mobility. For instance, it is possible for absolute mobility to increase while relative mobility stays the same.

    Patterns of social mobility in the UK

    Let's lay out some of the broad patterns of social mobility we can observe in the UK.

    Absolute (structural) mobility

    A major trend over the past century that has resulted in increased absolute mobility is structural changes in the economy. This is illustrated by:

    • the decline in so-called "blue-collar" jobs, from around 75% of the workforce in 1911 to around 35% in 2000, and

    • the increase in "white-collar" occupations from about 7% to 35% over the same period2.

    Put differently, at the start of the 1900s, the majority of jobs in the UK could be defined as largely working-class. At the beginning of the 21st century, this was the opposite – around three-quarters of all occupations can be considered middle-class.

    This means that many people have achieved, and were more likely to achieve, upward social mobility.

    Relative (exchange) mobility

    In contrast to the rise in absolute mobility, available evidence suggests relative mobility in the UK was low and somewhat static throughout the 20th century.

    Sociologists such as John H. Goldthorpe (1972) argue that, despite the rise in the number of middle-class occupations, the chances of an individual from a working-class background moving to the service class, for example, were extremely minimal.

    The odds of achieving upward mobility were still significantly skewed towards those already from higher classes. This was echoed by similar studies which conclude that exchange mobility within most Western societies is both low and constant (when compared to structural mobility).

    Intergenerational mobility

    Studies have found that intergenerational mobility rose throughout the 20th century for both men and women.

    Intergenerational mobility refers to social mobility between generations. It is measured by comparing the occupations of members of the same family e.g. the difference between a parent’s and a child’s occupational position.

    According to Heath and Payne (2000), in the late 1900s, about 40% of men and 36% of women in the UK experienced upward mobility (in comparison to their fathers) and 13% and 27% respectively experienced downward mobility3.

    It is important to note, however, that the majority of social mobility studies have "regarded the family as the unit of class stratification and have taken the father’s position to be the best guide to the social class of the household as a whole"3.

    Therefore, figures for female mobility may not actually take into account the woman's individual position.

    The impact and importance of social mobility

    Social mobility is important to society for a myriad of reasons.

    • It has a critical effect on class formation and structure. Anthony Giddens (1973) suggests that low rates of social mobility breed higher rates of class solidarity among people. This can change existing class structures if downwardly mobile populations resent their misfortune and demand more opportunities, higher pay, better conditions, etc.

    • Studying the social mobility of society can provide an indication of the life chances of its members. For instance, it can reveal the degree to which a person’s original class background influences their chances of obtaining a high-paying or high-status occupation.

    • Social mobility has practical benefits. For modern economies to function and develop properly, they have to make the best use of people's skills and abilities. A society will therefore be economically prosperous if it can provide opportunities for people to develop and use their talents by rewarding their efforts through higher incomes, status, etc.

    • Social mobility can act as a form of social control. Individually, it reinforces the idea of meritocracy (instead of, for example, nepotism) by recognising and rewarding people's abilities and merits. On a group level, if the chances of advancement of a certain social group, e.g. an ethnic minority, are undermined, they may develop behaviours that are both socially and economically disruptive.

    • The level of mobility in a society is a test of fairness. Aldridge (2001) proposes that mobility can tell us a lot about equality of opportunity because a lack of upward mobility "implies inequality of opportunity"1.

    • Social cohesion is more likely to be achieved in a society where people believe they can improve their and their family's quality of life through their own efforts and determination.

    Cultural capital and social mobility

    Social mobility is also related to another important concept and phenomenon you will come across in sociology - cultural capital.

    Sociologists believe that a person's level of cultural capital, which includes their perceived intelligence, education, speech pattern, mannerisms, and clothing, can impact their social mobility. People can gain social relevance, stature, and power by amassing and displaying their cultural knowledge.

    Examples of social mobility research

    Let's outline some examples of sociological research on social mobility, including seminal social mobility studies.

    Social Mobility in Britain (1954)

    In this landmark analysis, David Glass studied men over the age of 21 and compared their occupations to their fathers'. He found that two-thirds of the subjects were in different social classes than their fathers (a third higher and another third lower).

    However, most of this mobility was short-range, meaning that they moved one adjacent spot up or down the class hierarchy - long-range mobility was very rare.

    The Affluent Worker Study (1967)

    In the 1960s, David Lockwood and J. H. Goldthorpe conducted a study on car assembly workers, an occupation generally considered working-class but who were earning high wages at the time. Lockwood and Goldthorpe wanted to investigate if the workers' wealth had any impact on their mobility rates and social classes.

    The researchers found that although the assemblers were highly paid, most of them were not actually "middle-class" in attitude. They had formed a "new middle-class", in that they were rich in wealth and maybe property but not middle-class in views, values, norms, etc. - they didn't have the corresponding cultural capital.

    The Oxford Social Mobility Survey (1972)

    This study was based on over 10,300 men between the ages of 20-64 from England and Wales. Goldthorpe assigned these men to seven social classes of his own conception which were based on:

    • the conditions of the labour market e.g. levels of income, job security
    • the conditions of workplaces e.g. degree of control, authority in jobs

    Goldthorpe’s survey found high rates of absolute mobility due to changes in the economic system of post-war Britain, as well as little change in relative mobility and equality of opportunity for the working class. Due to the latter findings, Goldthorpe argues that society has not changed significantly, since class inequalities still prevail.

    The Sutton Trust (2005)

    Researchers from the Sutton Trust compared the social mobility rates of people born in 1970 to those born in 1958. The results showed that the 1970 cohort's earnings were more similar to their parents' than the 1958 cohort's4.

    They also found that the percentage of people who obtained higher education increased from 5% to 7% among the poorest fifth of families. For the richest fifth of families though, this change was much more pronounced - from 20% to 37%4.

    Social Mobility, Image of students at graduation, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Higher education is a stepping stone to achieving upward mobility.

    Debates on social mobility research

    Goldthorpe's Oxford Social Mobility Study produced some fascinating insights on mobility and class but also prompted debates. For instance, Goldthorpe's findings on relative mobility and unequal class positions were accused of painting an unnecessarily pessimistic picture of the UK.

    Goldthorpe has also been criticised by other social mobility theorists, discussed below.

    Payne

    Rather than focusing on rates of mobility between classes, Geoff Payne's Scottish Mobility Study of 1974-75 concentrated more on mobility rates between occupations. This angle found even higher rates of absolute mobility in UK society and stated that relative class inequalities had reduced somewhat.

    Payne argues that British society and its class structure is not as fixed and impenetrable as Goldthorpe presents it to be.

    Saunders

    Similarly, Peter Saunders (1990) disagrees with Goldthorpe’s claim that society has not changed significantly. Saunders asserts that Goldthorpe dismissed the importance of high absolute mobility by only emphasising relative rates of mobility.

    According to Saunders, capitalism and the new economic structure may not have eliminated class inequalities, but they have created new possibilities for advancement. This has been advantageous to the middle-class and so is a positive development even if it doesn't solve all working-class issues.

    Additionally, Saunders believes that "natural" abilities and talents play a part in deciding class positions, refuting Goldthorpe.

    Issues with measuring social mobility

    When examining and comparing rates of social mobility, it's vital to remember that there are problems with measuring it. These concerns are as follows:

    Criteria for social mobility in studies

    Occupation is often the primary indicator of class position in mobility studies and this can be problematic since different researchers use different criteria to rank occupations. Some categorise occupations by the level of social status associated with them, while others put more emphasis on the rates of pay they offer.

    This means that the occupations cited in different studies and the results of these studies aren't always entirely comparable.

    Cultural capital and social mobility

    Another problem that can arise is the fact that many researchers or studies base a person's social class on their occupation. It is not always possible to identify who is working-class or middle-class this way because an individual's job doesn't necessarily determine their levels of social and cultural capital, which are also important in defining class.

    An often overlooked indicator of social mobility is the nature of an individual's schooling. Private education can open up entirely new sources of social capital and networks, but according to Danny Dorling (2014), 9 out of 10 people in the UK attend state schools5.

    This means the average person in the UK probably has lower chances of achieving upward mobility than those who have been privately educated.

    Gender and social mobility

    Furthermore, much of the research bases its data and assumptions entirely on men's occupations and mobility. Anthony Heath and Nicky Britten (1984) show that women's qualifications actually have a more substantial impact on their careers than their husbands' social class positions.

    Michelle Stanworth (1984) adds that, contrary to popular belief at the time, women can and do have different careers and therefore class positions than their husbands and that obscuring this overlooks another dimension of the class system.

    Ethnicity and social mobility

    Social mobility studies can often overlook the role of ethnicity and the experience of ethnic minorities. Lucinda Platt's (2005) study of the intergenerational mobility of different ethnic groups in the UK finds that some minorities are more upwardly mobile than others, e.g. Afro-Caribbean, Indian and Chinese groups.

    However, migrants were more likely to achieve this than non-migrants, and this was more so the case for men than women.

    Social Mobility - Key takeaways

    • Social mobility refers to "the movement or opportunities for movement between different social groups, and the advantages and disadvantages that go with this in terms of income, security of employment, opportunities for advancement, etc" (Aldridge, 2001).
    • There are two broad types of social mobility in society: absolute mobility and relative mobility.
    • Rates of social mobility are important to society because they can impact class structure, reveal people's life chances, have practical economic benefits, act as a form of social control, act as a test of fairness and help achieve social cohesion.
    • There are a number of influential social mobility studies and debates on their results.
    • Measuring social mobility comes up with notable issues to do with defining occupation and class and obscuring the experiences of women and ethnic minorities.

    References

    1. Aldridge, S. (2001). Social Mobility: A Discussion Paper. Performance and Innovation Unit.
    2. Gallie, D., Kostova, D., & Kuchar, P. (2001). Social Consequences of Unemployment: an East-West Comparison. Journal of European Social Policy, 11(1), 39–54.
    3. Heath, A. , and Payne, C. (2000) ‘Social Mobility’, in Halsey, A. H. with Webb, J. (Eds.), Twentieth-Century British Social Trends, Basingstoke: MacMillan, pp: 254–78.
    4. Intergenerational Mobility in Europe and North America - Sutton Trust. (2005). Sutton Trust. https://www.suttontrust.com/our-research/intergenerational-mobility-europe-north-america/
    5. Dorling, D. (2014). Thinking about Class. Sociology, 48(3), 452–462.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Mobility

    What are some factors that affect social mobility?

    Factors that affect social mobility include:

    • the economic structure of society
    • an individual's occupation
    • their parents' occupation
    • social class of origin
    • gender
    • ethnicity

    What does social mobility mean?

    The degree of social mobility in society refers to the ease with which people can move upwards (or downwards) through the class hierarchy.

    What is an example of social mobility? 

    An example of social mobility is: a person achieves upward mobility when they obtain a higher-paying job and occupy a higher social class.

    What is the importance of social mobility? 

    Rates of social mobility are important to society because they can impact class structure, reveal people's life chances, have practical economic benefits, act as a form of social control, be a test of fairness, and help achieve social cohesion.

    What is the definition of social mobility?

    According to Stephen Aldridge (2001), social mobility refers to "the movement or opportunities for movement between different social groups, and the advantages and disadvantages that go with this in terms of income, security of employment, opportunities for advancement, etc".

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Absolute or structural mobility has stayed stable over the past century. Is this true?

    Stanworth (1984) believed that:

    Relative mobility is concerned with structural changes.

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