Social mobility

Social mobility is the movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between social strata in a society. It is a change in social status relative to others' social location within a given society.


Social mobility is defined as the movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between layers or tiers in an open system of social stratification. Open stratification systems are those in which at least some value is given to achieved status characteristics in a society. The movement can be in a downward or upward direction. Absolute social mobility refers to the overall numbers of people who end up in a different layer of stratification from that of their parents. Relative social mobility refers to the differences in probability of attaining a certain outcome, regardless of overall structural changes; a society can have high absolute mobility and low relative mobility. The availability of at least some social mobility can be important in providing pathways to greater equality in societies with high social inequality.


Mobility is most often quantitatively measured in terms of change in economic mobility such as changes in income or wealth. Occupation is another measure used in researching mobility, which usually involves both quantitative and qualitative analysis of data, but other studies may concentrate on social class.[1] Mobility may be intragenerational, within the same generation, or intergenerational, between one or more generations.[2] Intragenerational mobility is less frequent, representing "rags to riches" cases in terms of upward mobility. Intergenerational upward mobility is more common, where children or grandchildren are in economic circumstances better than those of their parents or grandparents. In the US, this type of mobility is described as a fundamental feature of the "American Dream" even though there is less such mobility than almost all other OECD countries.[3]

Social status and social class

Illustration from a 1916 advertisement for a vocational school in the back of a US magazine. Education has been seen as a key to social mobility, and the advertisement appealed to Americans' belief in the possibility of self-betterment and as threatening the consequences of downward mobility in the great income inequality existing during the Industrial Revolution.

Social mobility is highly dependent on the overall structure of social statuses and occupations in a given society.[4] The extent of differing social positions and the manner in which they fit together or overlap provides the overall social structure of such positions. Add to this the differing dimensions of status, such as Max Weber's delineation[5] of economic stature, prestige, and power and we see the potential for complexity in a given social stratification system. Such dimensions within a given society can be seen as independent variables that can explain differences in social mobility at different times and places in different stratification systems. In addition, the same variables that contribute as intervening variables to the valuation of income or wealth and that also affect social status, social class, and social inequality do affect social mobility. These include sex or gender, race or ethnicity, and age.[6]

Class cultures and social networks

These differing dimensions of social mobility can be classified in terms of differing types of capital that contribute to changes in mobility. 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 described three types of capital that place a person in a certain social category: economic capital; social capital; and cultural capital. Economic capital includes economic resources such as cash, credit, and other material assets.

Social capital includes resources one achieves based on group membership, networks of influence, relationships 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, or any other form of knowledge. Usually, people with all three types of capital have a high status in society. 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 in which person develops has a large effect on the cultural resources that a person will have.[7]

Patterns of mobility

While it is generally accepted that some level of mobility in society is desirable, there is no consensus agreement upon "how much" social mobility is "good" or "bad" for a society. There is no international "benchmark" of social mobility, though one can compare measures of mobility across regions or countries or within a given area over time.[8] While cross-cultural studies comparing differing types of economies are possible, comparing economies of similar type usually yields more comparable data. Such comparisons typically look at intergenerational mobility, examining the extent to which children born into different families have different life chances and outcomes.

Social mobility is lower in more unequal countries. Wilkinson and Pickett (2009).

In a study for which the results were first published in 2009, Wilkinson and Pickett conduct an exhaustive analysis of social mobility in developed countries.[9] In addition to other correlations with negative social outcomes for societies having high inequality, they found a relationship between high social inequality and low social mobility. Of the eight countries studied—Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Germany, the UK and the USA, the USA had both the highest economic inequality and lowest economic mobility. In this and other studies, in fact, the USA has very low mobility at the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, with mobility increasing slightly as one goes up the ladder. At the top rung of the ladder, however, mobility again decreases.[10]

One study comparing social mobility between developed countries[11][12][13] found that the four countries with the lowest "intergenerational income elasticity", i.e. the highest social mobility, were Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Canada with less than 20% of advantages of having a high income parent passed on to their children.[12]

Comparison of social mobility in selected countries

Studies have also found "a clear negative relationship" between income inequality and intergenerational mobility.[14] Countries with low levels of inequality such as Denmark, Norway and Finland had some of the greatest mobility, while the two countries with the high level of inequality—Chile and Brazil—had some of the lowest mobility.

In Britain, much debate on social mobility has been generated by comparisons of the 1958 National Child Development Study NCDS. and the 1970 Birth Cohort Study BCS70.,[15] which compare intergenerational mobility in earnings between the 1958 and the 1970 UK cohorts, and claim that intergenerational mobility decreased substantially in this 12-year period. These findings have been controversial, partly due to conflicting findings on social class mobility using the same datasets,[16] and partly due to questions regarding the analytical sample and the treatment of missing data.[17] UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has famously said that trends in social mobility "are not as we would have liked".[18]

Along with the aforementioned "Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults?" study The Economist also stated that "evidence from social scientists suggests that American society is much `stickier` than most Americans assume. Some researchers claim that social mobility is actually declining."[19][20] A German study corroborates these results.[21] In spite of this low mobility Americans have had the highest belief in meritocracy among middle- and high-income countries.[22]

Piketty (2014) finds that wealth-income ratios, today, seem to be returning to very high levels in low economic growth countries, similar to what he calls the "classic patrimonial" wealth-based societies of the 19th century wherein a minority lives off its wealth while the rest of the population works for subsistence living.[23]

Influence of intelligence

Social status attainment and therefore social mobility in adulthood are of interest to psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, epidemiologists and many more. The reason behind the interest is because it indicates access to material goods, educational opportunities, healthy environments, and nonetheless the economic growth.[24][25][26][27][28][29]

Researchers did a study that encompassed a wide range of data of individuals in lifetime (in childhood and during mid-adulthood). Most of the Scottish children which were born in 1921 participated in the Scottish Mental Survey 1932, which was conducted under the auspices of the Scottish Council for Research in Education (SCRE)[30] and obtained the data of psychometric intelligence of Scottish pupils. The number of children who took the mental ability test (based on the Moray House tests) was 87,498. They were between age 10 and 11. The tests covered general, spatial and numerical reasoning.[24][25]

At mid-life period, a subset of the subjects participated in one of the studies, which were large health studies of adults and were carried out in Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s.[24] The particular study they took part in was the collaborative study of 6022 men and 1006 women, conducted between 1970 and 1973 in Scotland. Participants completed a questionnaire (participant's address, father's occupation, the participant's own first regular occupation, the age of finishing full-time education, number of siblings, and if the participant was a regular car driver) and attended a physical examination (measurement of height). Social class was coded according to the Registrar General's Classification for the participant's occupation at the time of screening, his first occupation and his father's occupation. Researchers separated into six social classes were used.[31]

A correlation and structural equation model analysis was conducted.[24] In the structural equation models, social status in the 1970s was the main outcome variable. The main contributors to education (and first social class) were father's social class and IQ at age 11, which was also found in a Scandinavian study.[32] This effect was direct and also mediated via education and the participant's first job.[24]

Participants at midlife did not necessarily end up in the same social class as their fathers.[24] There was social mobility in the sample: 45% of men were upwardly mobile, 14% were downwardly mobile and 41% were socially stable. IQ at age 11 had a graded relationship with participant's social class. Same effect was seen for father's occupation. Men at midlife social class I and II (the highest, more professional) also had the highest IQ at age 11. Height at midlife, years of education and childhood IQ were significantly positively related to upward social mobility, while number of siblings had no significant effect. For each standard deviation increase in IQ score at the age 11, the chances of upward social mobility increases by 69% (with a 95% confidence). After controlling the effect of independent variables, only IQ at age 11 was significantly inversely related to the downward in social mobility. Which means that more years of education help a man to surpass his father's social class, and that low IQ makes a man prone to fall behind his father's social class.

Structural equation model of the direct and indirect influence of childhood position and IQ upon social status attainment at mid-life.All parameters significant (p<.05)[24]

Higher IQ at age 11 was also significantly related to higher social class at midlife, higher likehood car driving at midlife, higher first social class, higher father's social class, fewer siblings, higher age of education, being taller and living in a less deprived neighbourhood at midlife.[24] IQ was significantly more strongly related to the social class in midlife than the social class of the first job.

Finally, height, education and IQ at age 11 were predictors of upward social mobility and only IQ at age 11 and height were significant predictors of downward social mobility.[24] Number of siblings was not significant in neither of the models.

Another research[26] looked into the pivotal role of education in association between ability and social class attainment through three generations (fathers, participants and offspring) using the SMS1932[25] (Lothian Birth Cohort 1921) educational data, childhood ability and late life intellectual function data. It was proposed that social class of origin acts as a ballast[26] restraining otherwise meritocratic social class movement, and that education is the primary means through which social class movement is both restrained and facilitated – therefore acting in a pivotal role.

It was found[26] that social class of origin predicts educational attainment in both the participant's and offspring generations. Father's social class and participant's social class held the same importance in predicting offspring educational attainment – effect across two generations. Educational attainment mediated the association of social class attainments across generations (father's and participants social class, participant's and offspring's social class). There was no direct link social classes across generations, but in each generation educational attainment was a predictor of social class, which is consistent with other studies.[33][34] Also, participant's childhood ability moderately predicted their educational and social class attainment (.31 and .38). Participant's educational attainment was strongly linked with the odds of moving downward or upward on the social class ladder. For each SD increase in education, the odds of moving upward on the social class spectrum were 2.58 times greater (the downward ones were .26 times greater). Offspring's educational attainment was also strongly linked with the odds of moving upward or downward on the social class ladder. For each SD increase in education, the odds of moving upward were 3.54 times greater (the downward ones were .40 times greater). In conclusion, education is very important, because it is the fundamental mechanism functioning both to hold individuals in their social class of origin and to make it possible for their movement upward or downward on the social class ladder.[26]

In the Cohort 1936 it was found that regarding whole generations (not individuals)[27] the social mobility between father's and participant's generation is: 50.7% of the participant generation have moved upward in relation to their fathers, 22.1% had moved downwards, and 27.2% had remained stable in their social class. There was a lack of social mobility in the offspring generation as a whole. However, there was definitely individual offspring movement on the social class ladder: 31.4% had higher social class attainment than their participant parents (grandparents), 33.7% moved downward, and 33.9% stayed stable. Participant's childhood mental ability was linked to social class in all three generations. A very important pattern has also been confirmed: average years of education increased with social class and IQ.

There were some great contributors to social class attainment and social class mobility in the twentieth century: Both social class attainment and social mobility are influenced by pre-existing levels of mental ability,[27] which was in consistence with other studies.[33][35][36][37] So, the role of individual level mental ability in pursuit of educational attainment – professional positions require specific educational credentials. Furthermore, educational attainment contributes to social class attainment through the contribution of mental ability to educational attainment. Even further, mental ability can contribute to social class attainment independent of actual educational attainment, as in when the educational attainment is prevented, individuals with higher mental ability manage to make use of the mental ability to work their way up on the social ladder. This study made clear that intergenerational transmission of educational attainment is one of the key ways in which social class was maintained within family, and there was also evidence that education attainment was increasing over time. Finally, the results suggest that social mobility (moving upward and downward) has increased in recent years in Britain. Which according to one researcher is important because an overall mobility of about 22% is needed to keep the distribution of intelligence relatively constant from one generation to the other within each occupational category.[37]

See also


  1. Grusky, David B. & Erin Cumberworth (February 2010). "A National Protocol for Measuring Intergenerational Mobility" (PDF). Workshop on Advancing Social Science Theory: The Importance of Common Metrics. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Science. Retrieved 15 July 2014.
  2. Lopreato, Joseph & Hazelrigg, Lawrence E. (December 1970). "Intragenerational versus Intergenerational Mobility in Relation to Sociopolitical Attitudes". Social Forces. University of North Carolina Press. 49 (2): 200–210. doi:10.2307/2576520. JSTOR 2576520.
  4. Grusky, David B & Robert M. Hauser (February 1984). "Comparative Social Mobility Revisited: Models of Convergence and Divergence in 16 Countries". American Sociological Review. 49 (1): 19–38. doi:10.2307/2095555. JSTOR 2095555.
  5. Weber, Max (1946). "Class, Status, Party". In H. H. Girth and C. Wright Mills. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University. pp. 180–95.
  6. Collins, Patricia Hill (1998). "Toward a new vision: race, class and gender as categories of analysis and connection". Social Class and Stratification: Classic Statements and Theoretical Debates. Boston: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 231–247. ISBN 0-8476-8542-X.
  7. Bourdieu, Pierre (1984). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London:: Routledge. ISBN 0415567882. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  8. Causa, Orsetta & Åsa Johansson (2011). "Intergenerational Social Mobility in OECD Countries". Economic Studies. 2010 (1). doi:10.1787/eco_studies-2010-5km33scz5rjj.
  9. Wilkinson, Richard & Kate Pickett (2009). The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1608190362.
  10. Isaacs, Julia B. (2008). International Comparisons of Economic Mobility (PDF). Brookings Institution.
  11. CAP: Understanding Mobility in America - April 26, 2006
  12. 1 2 Corak, Miles (2006). "Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults? Lessons from a Cross Country Comparison of Generational Earnings Mobility". In Creedy, John; Kalb, Guyonne. Dynamics of Inequality and Poverty. Research on Economic Inequality. 13. Emerald. pp. 143–188. ISBN 978-0-76231-350-1.
  13. Economic Mobility Project
  14. The Great Gatsby Curve Paul Krugman| 15 January 2012
  15. Blanden, J.; Machin, S.; Goodman, A.; Gregg, P. (2004). "Changes in intergenerational mobility in Britain". In Corak, M. Generational Income Mobility in North America and Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-82760-4.
  16. Goldthorpe, J.; Jackson, M. (2007). "Intergenerational class mobility in contemporary Britain: political concerns and empirical findings". British Journal of Sociology. 58 (4): 525–546. doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2007.00165.x.
  17. Gorard, S. (2008). "A reconsideration of rates of 'social mobility' in Britain: or why research impact is not always a good thing". British Journal of Sociology of Education. 29 (3): 317–324. doi:10.1080/01425690801966402.
  18. Clark, Tom (10 March 2010). "Is social mobility dead?". The Guardian. London.
  19. "Ever higher society, ever harder to ascend". The Economist. December 29, 2004. Retrieved 2013-02-15.
  20. Mitnik, Pablo; Cumberworth, Erin; Grusky, David (2016). "Social Mobility in a High Inequality Regime". Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 140-183.
  21. Jäntti, Markus; Bratsberg, Brent; Roed, Knut; Rauum, Oddbjörn; et al. (2006). "American Exceptionalism in a New Light: A Comparison of Intergenerational Earnings Mobility in the Nordic Countries, the United Kingdom and the United States". IZA Discussion Paper No. 1938. Bonn: Institute for the Study of Labor.
  22. Isaacs, Julia; Sawhill, Isabel (2008). "Reaching for the Prize: The Limits On Economic Mobility". The Brookings Institution. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
  23. Piketty, Thomas (2014). Capital in the 21st century. Belknap Press. ISBN 978-0674430006.
  24. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Deary, I. J., Taylor, M. D., Hart, C. L., Wilson, V., Smith, G. D., Blane, D., & Starr, J. M. (2005). Intergenerational social mobility and mid-life status attainment: Influences of childhood intelligence, childhood social factors, and education. Intelligence, 455–472.
  25. 1 2 3 Deary, I. J., Whiteman, M. C., Starr, J. M., Whalley, L. J., & Fox, H. C. (2004). The Impact of Childhood Intelligence on Later Life: Following Up the Scottish Mental Surveys of 1932 and 1947. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 130–147.
  26. 1 2 3 4 5 Johnson, W., Brett, C. E., & Deary, I. J. (2010a). The pivotal role of education in the association between ability and social class attainment: A look across three generations. Intelligence, 55-65.
  27. 1 2 3 Johnson, W., Brett, C. E., & Deary, I. J. (2010b). Intergenerational class mobility in Britain: A comparative look across three generations in the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936. Intelligence, 268–281.
  28. Breen, R., & Goldthorpe, J. H. (2001). Class, mobility and merit: The experience of two British birth cohorts. European Sociological Review, 17, 81–101.
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  30. Scottish Council for Research in Education (1933). The intelligence of Scottish children: A national survey of an age-group. London, UK7 University of London Press.
  31. General Register Office (1966). Classification of occupations 1966. London, UK7 HMSO.
  32. Sorjonen, K., Hemmingsson, T., Lundin, A., & Melin, B. (2011). How social position of origin relates to intelligence and level of education when adjusting for attained social position. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 277–281.
  33. 1 2 Nettle, D. (2003). Intelligence and class mobility in the British population. British Journal of Psychology, 551–561.
  34. Forrest, L. F., Hodgson, S., Parker, L., & Pearce, M. S. (2011). The influence of childhood IQ and education on social mobility in the Newcastle Thousand Families birth cohort. BMC Public Health, 11(1), 895.
  35. Waller, J. H. (1971). Achievement and Social Mobility: Relationships among IQ Score, Education, and Occupation in Two Generations. Social Biology, 252-259
  36. Young, M., & Gibson, J. (1963). In search of an explanation of social mobility. The British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 27-36.
  37. 1 2 Burt, C. (1961). Intelligence and social mobility. The British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 1−24

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