Mobility, Social

views updated Jun 11 2018


MOBILITY, SOCIAL. Early modern European societies were by definition nonegalitarian. Social position or status was determined by an individual's place within the institutions of family and social hierarchy. Removed from these hierarchies, the isolated individual appeared marginal at best. The hereditary nature of position and status was supported by systems of family lineage, patronclient relations, and loyalty. Marriages usually joined one "house," lineage, or family to another of equivalent social status. Thus, for the early modern period, social mobility, when it occurred, generally involved family and kinship groups and bore little resemblance to its modern counterpart. Nevertheless, there were opportunities for "upward mobility," as in sixteenth-century France, when réussite sociale (social success) enabled so many of the bourgeoisie to become gentlemen, and their families with them.

Nearly everything in the structure and function of European societies was opposed to social mobility of any great consequence. These were ordered societies with nobility at the top of the hierarchy. Because it was hereditary, the nobility was difficult to join. Thus, short of massive ennoblement, ascension to the social elite was inherently a minor, even marginal phenomenon. Heredity was also important in the artisan classes throughout Europe, as the sons of master craftsmen had privileged access to their fathers' skills. Indeed, social division was sometimes stricter among commoners than among the nobility. Finally, in a world where learning and literacy were not available to all of society, the fact of belonging to a noble or bourgeois elite, or even an artisan elite, conferred advantages that were as decisive as family wealth and constituted another obstacle to social ascension.

The fear of social backslidingslipping down the social ladderwas a veritable obsession. When nobility was particularly institutionalized, as it was in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, loss of status and its accompanying privileges became a permanent worry. Even among commoner families, there was a constant fear of social backsliding. However, this should not be considered solely a question of wealth: in the Maine region of France, the fact of belonging to an old, wellestablished, and honorable family was sufficient to dispel many of the social differences linked purely to wealth. There were three main avenues leading to loss of status:

  • Marrying beneath one's station. However, marriage was also a means of "enriching the stock," that is, bailing out the sons of impoverished noble families by marrying them to rich heiresses from the bourgeoisie, especially the daughters of financiers. Such exogamous marriages resulted in pulling women upward in social status.
  • Shame, linked to loss of honor or due to misbehavior. This was a consequence much feared by good families. It gave rise to many lettres de cachet.
  • Ruination, as a result of bad investments or careless spending.

Social backsliding could also be the result of bad luck, such as the premature death of the head of the family or of the only male heir. Also, a considerable number of families simply disappeared, either because a family produced no children at all or no male heir. Research based on patronyms can be misleading by exaggerating both geographic and social mobility of certain family names, because it was the women who ensured the continuity of the family. It is clear, however, that the lack of male offspring was a serious concern for strongly patriarchal families, especially among the social elites. It was the social destiny of the males that was essential, not that of the females.

In many countriesand primarily for the nobilitythere were legal mechanisms to protect male heirs while simultaneously ensuring the survival and integrity of estates. Obstacles to social mobility were also imposed in the name of religion. In Ireland during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when Britain's Penal Laws prohibited the practice of Roman Catholicism, Catholics saw their lands confiscated and were prohibited from constituting or reconstituting their estates, forced instead to live as tenant farmers. The central and western Pyrenees also had laws preventing the unification of estates. For the smooth running of this society, in which only the eldest inherited the ancestral patrimony, it was considered essential not only to preserve farms but also to maintain their number. Thus, the eldest child in a family, regardless of its sex, was supposed to marry a younger child from another family, or vice versa, but marriage between an "heir" and an "heiress" was forbidden because it would cause one "house" to disappear and reduce the number of farms. The corollary of this extremely constraining system was that younger sons and daughters could either marry with uncertain prospects, or choose to emigrate because they could not look forward to inheriting the estate.


A minority of migrants managed to improve their condition during the first generation, but many failed, and mortality was high among migrants, particularly when the migration was to a country with a tropical climate, which suited very few Europeans. Still, migration could enable some people to climb the social ladder. Stonemasons migrating from the Limousin region to Paris or Bordeaux were able to devote their earnings to enlarging the family holding. Migrants settling in Spain were able to use their earnings to become large rural landowners. And there can be no doubt that there were remarkable successes in the East and West Indies.

The agrarian colonization of North America, especially among the English, often resulted in a firmly rooted peasantry. Generally speaking, this was also the case for the soldier-colonists, including those that the French installed on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, particularly after 1668, with the officers and troops of the Carignan-Salières regiment that came to fight the Iroquois.

In the world of trade, some of the younger and less fortunate sons and cousins sent abroad to serve as commissioners or representatives for trading houses proved to be spectacularly successful. The success could be entirely individual, as in the case of Jacques Necker (17321804), the son of a poor Geneva family, who enjoyed unrivaled success as a banker and served as director general of finance for France in 1777. Success in the colonies could be accompanied by a reputation for knavery or could result in shocking nouveau-riche behavior, as in the case of the "nabobs"the most famous being Robert Clive (17251774), who went to the East Indies poor and returned in 1767, having conquered a large part thereof and possessed of a considerable income of £40,000 sterlingor the West Indian planters, known in France as the "Américains, " many of whom enjoyed a high profile in eighteenth-century London. It is clear that upward social mobility was often the result of successful migration accompanied by chance and talent. This was true even in sixteenth-century Russia, where a small but important merchant bourgeoisie developed, consisting of men of varied status, based on their extremely heterogeneous origins.


In Russia, as in western Europe, social mobility most often affected the nobility. However, Russian nobility was unique in that, until Peter I the Great (ruled 16821725), the hereditary elite was based on service to the state, or "chin." There were some very intense class struggles, but access to employment, therefore a higher "chin" level, depended on skills and personal success. Peter the Great restructured all that, particularly in 1721 and 1722. He created new titles, such as count or baron, which he borrowed from other realms. The nobility was divided into fourteen ranks, and while it was still possible to rise in the "chin" system, only the tsar could authorize such a rise. This resulted in a nobiliary social elite, as elsewhere, except that it was linked very directly to state functions and needs for service, which ensured real flexibility for the ruler, until Catherine II the Great (ruled 17621796) agreed in 1785 to emphasize the hereditary divisions among the nobility. Until then, social ascension both into and within the Russian social elite was perfectly possible.

The opportunity for social ascension was much more widespread than is generally believed. A great many painters, sculptors, and artists of all kinds came from very common and even humble origins. Moreover, it was often the case that neither their family background nor their place of birth predisposed them in any way toward their future status. For example, the painter Hans Memling (c. 1430 or 14351494), who was so important in Bruges during the fifteenth century, was born into a peasant family in a village situated some twenty kilometers from Frankfurt am Main. The flowering of his talent and his enormous success will always remain a profound mystery. Similarly, nothing in Sir Richard Arkwright's (17321792) origins offers any inkling of his future success. He may not have been scrupulously honest, but his invention, the water-powered spinning frame, was astonishing and led to his accession to the gentry.

The church also provides many examples of "self-made" men, with one significant difference: the benefits of a successful career in the church could not be passed on to one's descendants (however, there was no shortage of nephews and nieces to favor). The career of Cardinal Jules Mazarin (16021661) provides a remarkable example. Born into a Roman family of very modest extraction, he entered the service of Cardinal Richelieu (Armand-Jean du Plessis; 15851642), chief minister to Louis XIII (ruled 16101643) of France, and later succeeded him as prime minister (16421661). Mazarin amassed a considerable fortune, from which his nieces benefited greatly. Although distinctly less impressive, the success of Robert Gaguin (c. 14331501) is no less exemplary: born near the boundary between Flanders and Artois, his family may have been common laborers. But this did not stop him from quickly becoming the leader of the Trinitarian Order, a major figure in the University of Paris, a central character for the history of humanism and the Renaissance in France, a great author, a diplomatic adviser, and a representative of the kings of France. These very well-known examples provide us with the key to upward social mobility: the power to make personal talents bear fruit through networks of allied families and kinship groups.

Although family lines and kinship groups preserve social structures, and slow, limit, or prevent social backsliding, they also foster social ascension. J. M. Moriceau's study of powerful peasant families in the Île-de-France region provides a good illustration of these different aspects. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the group studied constituted a veritable village aristocracy that practiced endogamy and maintained very effective networks; it even tended to develop into a caste. Only major crises, like the one that followed the Fronde (16481652), could shake it, by multiplying failures and social mobility. However, this did not ruin the families. The rest of the family line, collaterals if necessary, recovered the positions. In this very closed milieumore closed than the nobilityfamilies had considerable power. During the second half of the eighteenth century, this resulted in their becoming veritable gentlemen farmers and, later on, rural notables.

In the eighteenth century, widespread interest in science and technology increased the number of direct ascensions to fame and wealth, as in the case of Gaspard Monge (17461818), the great mathematician and physicist, born at Beaune (Burgundy) to a knife-grinder father and a mother whose father was a coachman. Literature offers similar examples: the French writers Denis Diderot (17131784) and Jean-JacquesRousseau(17121778)camefromvery modest backgrounds.

While ability and talent were a means to rapid social ascension in science, literature, and the church, the same cannot really be said for the army because the officer level was only barely open to men rising from the ranks. Of course the army can provide some examples of swift ascension, but only when the position of the officer was not the absolute monopoly of the nobility, as in Russia. It was generally exceptional for a commoner to rise to the rank of officer. For example, the careers of British officers, who came largely from the lower branches of the gentry, were fixed in advance by their level of wealth. Whenever we find social ascension in the army, it relates primarily to members of the petite noblesse.


We therefore find multiple social groupsthe term class is too precise and should be avoided: master craftsmen, for example, did not constitute a classseeking to preserve their positions and most of all to ensure their status through their progeny and by jealously maintaining their positions. Craft communities or corporations were very much attached to their privileges and monopolies: these monopolies were "the key to the decent level of living to which the corporation masters considered they had a right, and the basis of their economic independence" (M. Prak). At the high end of society, patriciates, like that of Venice, provide classic examples of the self-protective group. The ranks of the nobility were nowhere more restricted than in Venice, where they remained closed from 1297 onward. Their members were listed in a golden book or in noble genealogies, and members could not form alliances with outsiders. This patriciate held all power and authority in Venice.

In Geneva also, the "Geneva aristocracy" completely dominated social and political life, just as it dominated trade and banking. Unlike other patriciates, however, it was more than willing to open its ranks, even to immigrants, when they were at the head of a great fortune or had acquired a great reputation in religion or the sciences. The Geneva patriciate was therefore remarkable by virtue of its cosmopolitan aspect, which clearly distinguished it from that of Venice.

The tendency for groups to remain closed was nevertheless a much more general phenomenon. In pre-Revolutionary, rural French society, many of the notarial acts to which families had recourse were aimed specifically at excluding girls from the greater part of the inheritance, particularly land inheritance. Girls received a dowry, usually a sum of money and some items of furniture (trousseau, bed, etc.) but the future inheritance went to the male heirs. There was much greater diversity for boys, ranging from egalitarian inheritance to the choice of a single distinctly privileged heir. There was in fact no standard, uniform practice. For example, customs in the region of Paris and Orléans aimed solely at preserving the family bond, paying no particular attention to whether the presumptive heir was male or female, older or younger. In Normandy and Anjou, however, the customary system was egalitarian, and estates in that region were far more difficult to preserve.

Furthermore, the closed nature of nobilities and patriciates was much less extensive than is often thought. It varied from period to period and from country to country. The sixteenth century was undoubtedly a period of great upward mobility in Europe as a whole. The high mortality caused by difficult living conditions combined with the effect of the multiple wars that marked the century to form a social context that was far less rigid than it later became. The passage to nobility was, indeed, more difficult from the eighteenth century onward. However, even when openness and mobility clearly existed, they were accompanied by a strong resistance to change, the Neapolitan nobility being a good example. Victory in the "Spanish affair" certainly ushered in some immediate upheavals in the positions of families, as well as many downfalls. Yet, the composition of the Neapolitan nobility manifested "a remarkable continuity compared to the previous period" (M. A. Visceglia). This resistance was no doubt facilitated by a shared belief in common values and social rules. Having been provost of Parisian merchants from 1622 to 1627 and having also become president of the parlement in 1627, Nicolas de Bailleul decided in 1639 to have his family tree drawn up. He managed to root the preeminence of his family in the distant past in order to erase the obstacles to his rapid ascension and efface all traces of social mobility in a world where prestige, virtue, and success were not linked to meteoric social ascension but to the reality of family and lineage.

See also Aristocracy and Gentry ; Art: The Conception and Status of the Artist ; Artisans ; Family ; Inheritance and Wills ; Military: Armies: Recruitment, Organization, and Social Composition ; Mobility, Geographic ; Officeholding ; Women .


Bush, M. L. The European Nobility. 2 vols. Manchester, U.K., 19831988.

Corvisier, André. Armées et sociétés en Europe, de 1494 à 1789. Paris, 1976.

Huppert, G. Bourgeois et gentilshommes: La réussite sociale en France au XVIème siècle. Paris, 1983.

Kaufmann-Rochard, J. Origines d'une bourgeoisie russe, XVIèmeXVIIème siècles. Paris, 1969.

Labatut, Jean-Pierre. Les noblesses européennes, de la fin du XVème siècle à la fin du XVIIIème siècle. Paris, 1978.

Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. "Système de la coutume: Structures familiales et coutume d'héritage en France au XVIème siècle." Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 4 and 5 (1972): 825846.

Meyer, J. Noblesse et pouvoirs dans l'Europe d'ancien régime. Paris, 1973.

Moriceau, Jean-Marc. Les fermiers de l'Ile de France XVèmeXVIIIème siècle. Paris, 1994.

Mousnier, Roland. Les hiérarchies sociales de 1450 à nos jours. Paris, 1969.

Parreaux, A. La société anglaise de 1760 à 1810. Paris, 1966.

Prak, M. "Identité urbaine, identités sociales: Les bourgeois de Bois-le-Duc au XVIIIème siècle." Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 4 (1993): 907934.

Ruggiu, François-Joseph. Les élites et les villes moyennes en France et en Angleterre (XVIIèmeXVIIIème siècles). Paris, 1997.

Visceglia, M. A. "Un groupe social ambigu: Organisation, stratégies, et représentations de la noblesse napolitaine XVIèmeXVIIème siècles." Annales: É conomies, Sociétés, Civilisations 4 (1993): 819852.

Jean-Pierre Poussou (Translated from the French by Liam Gavin)

Social Mobility

views updated May 29 2018

Social Mobility

Mobility and moral critiques of society

The mobility table

Findings of intergenerational studies

Determinants of social mobility

How important is parental status?

Social mobility and social structure


Social mobility is the movement of individuals, families, and groups from one social position to another. The theory of social mobility attempts to account for the frequencies with which these movements occur.

The study of social mobility relates a present to a past social position. It thus forms part of the more general study of social selection, i.e., of how people get distributed into different social positions. It is, however, hardly possible to study effectively the influence of past social position except in the context of other influences that determine the in dividual’s present social status. In practice, it has become increasingly difficult to separate the fields of social mobility and social selection. No rigorous separation has been attempted in the following discussion.

Studies of intergenerational mobility compare the social positions of parent and offspring; studies of career mobility compare the social positions of the same individual at different times. Group mobility is concerned with changes in the social position of groups possessing a relatively homogeneous status (for example, castes, intellectuals, artisans).

In the context of mobility studies, social position, or social status, signifies a certain rank with respect to the possession of goods (values) esteemed and desired by most members of a society. The changes in social position that interest the theory of social mobility are primarily variations in occupation, prestige, income, wealth, power, and social class. A high or low rank in one of these values is often associated with a roughly corresponding rank in most of the other values; consequently, position with respect to one of these values, and more especially a constellation of them, provides a measure of what in many societies is viewed as success in life. Studies in social mobility do not usually concern themselves with the possession of aesthetic, moral, and spiritual values. This is presumably due to the supposition, correct for most societies, that these goods do not measure“success in life.”Nor does their possession seem to lead, except in a limited number of societies, to the attainment of those material goods whose pursuit is more evident in human behavior and whose possession tends to limit the amount possessed by others and to provide opportunities foror at least the illusion of control over one’s own and others’ destinies.

Mobility and moral critiques of society

Political and moral critiques of society have both inspired and been inspired by studies in social and, more particularly, intergenerational mobility. This is understandable in view of the concern of intergenerational studies to show the relation of an individual’s life chances (income, occupation, prestige, etc.) to the social circumstances (parental status) in which he is brought up. Casual observation, historical studies, and quantitative inquiry have long made it evident that despite considerable intergenerational movement up and down the social ladder, many children of high-status and low-status parents retain, when adults, approximately the same status levels as their parents. Egalitarian sentiments are affronted by a social process that appears to condemn many children to the inferior life circumstances of their families or to guarantee to other children, by virtue of the more favored position of their families, a high degree of fortune. Observation of these continuities in family social position has led to the characterization of societies as“open”or“closed”according to the degree to which the adult status of offspring is independent of (open society), or dependent on (closed society), the social status of the parents.

Independence is sometimes interpreted, in this context, in its strictly statistical sense: societies are egalitarian (open, democratic) to the extent that children coming from very different family backgrounds have the same probability of achieving a specified status level. This criterion, however, could be met without any commonly accepted view of social justice being fulfilled. This distribution of social positions might equally well be achieved were children assigned to occupations or income levels by a state lottery or by a purely whimsical procedure of an absolute ruler.

Societies are also sometimes viewed as being more or less open according to the frequency with which social mobility occurs. This criterion is not consistent with the criterion of statistical independence. The maximum frequency of social mobility occurs (for example, in a two-status system) when all the children of high-status parents fall to low status and all children of low-status parents achieve high status. This entails certain consequences of dubious accord with commonly accepted notions of social equity: offspring of low-status parents must resign themselves to seeing their children excluded from high status; and the future social position of children is as fully fixed by that of their parents as in the most rigid caste society.

Evidently, moral and political critiques of society must rest not on distributions of children’s status by parents’ status (see Tables 1-4) but on the nature of the processes that produce these distributions. Late eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century writers on these problems were concerned in their critiques of society with the institutional and personal factors involved in mobility; they aspired toward a society in which merit and talent were rewarded and opportunities for their development and exercise were freely available. Contemporary writers have by no means abandoned this theme; but with the increased availability of quantitative data they have been more disposed to substitute summary statistical indices of the frequency of mobility for critical analysis of the total process of social selection. This seems to assume either that certain frequencies are in themselves desirable without regard to the institutional and personalfactors involved in social selection or that the frequency of mobility in itself provides secure knowledge concerning the nature and moral legitimacy of the selection system. Neither of these assumptions appears justified.

The mobility table

A central feature of most quantitative studies of intergenerational mobility is the mobility table ’(see Tables 1-4). An understanding of the technical problems associated with it is essential to the interpretation of the large body of data such tables have made available.

The mobility scale

If no additional assumptions are made, the social positions (e.g., occupations ) between which movement may occur remain a series of discrete, qualitatively different categories. The study of social mobility is, however, closely related to questions concerning social achievement and, more particularly, concerning the role of the parental social position in determining filial status. Interest attaches, then, to the amount of upward and downward mobility (or conversely, the amount of nonmovement, or inheritance). The terms“upward”and“downward”imply an ordering of the categories along some quantitatively defined axis. When the social positions are defined in terms of (occupational) prestige or income level, an ordering is more readily made, although in the first case not without difficulty. Often, however, the social position categories represent occupational classes (professional, entrepreneurial, clerical, skilled, etc.) or social classes (upper, middle, lower) arrived at, not by one clear-cut criterion (e.g., income, education), but by a mixture of criteria that often leaves the meaning of ordering on a single axis, and hence the interpretation of the data, in doubt. The difficulty is not entirely resolved by reducing the multiple criteria to a single score, since a considerable measure of arbitrariness enters into the weight assigned to each criterion in the total score.

Even if a satisfactory ordering is achieved, the categories may not mean-and in the empirical literature generally have not meantthat the social positions represent scale positions. It is, therefore, not always possible to say whether movement (“distance”) from social position A to social position B is as great as, greater than, or less than, movement from B to C. Recourse is sometimes had to speaking of the number of “steps”(ordered classes) through which movement has occurred. Clearly, however, these steps do not necessarily have the same significance, and this creates difficulties in relating the probability of movement be tween two positions to the“distance”separating them.

Mobility and number of social categories

A fundamental datum of the mobility table, the proportion of sons who manifest upward or downward mobility (or conversely, inheritance of the parental position), can be made larger or smaller by a simple change in the number of occupational or other classes representing the range of social positions. Thus, the amount of mobility (or inheritance) that a mobility table reveals is dependent on how fine (or broad) the social position categories area point that requires particular attention when inter-society comparisons are being made. The tendency toward arbitrariness in the number of occupational or other classes employed is increased both by the practical necessities of research (data availability, manageability) and by the use of multiple criteria in constructing the social-position classes.

Mobility within the life-span

Social position often varies during the life-span of the individual. It would, therefore, be desirable to make comparisons of the social position of father and son at several time points during their careers. This would also throw light on career mobility and bring its investigation into closer relation to intergenerational studies. Practical difficulties, especially in the specification of the father’s status at several time points, have generally discouraged the use of this procedure. If only a single time point in each career is used to fix the social position of the father and his son, a choice must be made appropriate to the objectives of the study.

When the aim is simply to measure the frequency with which sons attain a higher, lower, or similar status to that of their fathers, it is reasonable to match their occupations at corresponding ages, preferably a fairly mature age, when the occupational career has become relatively stable. Other choices are to compare the highest status levels achieved in each generation and to compare the occupations pursued over the longest number of years.

On the other hand, when analysis is directed toward understanding why the son attains the particular status that distinguishes his position, quite different considerations enter. The question is then which point in the parental occupational career best aids in the prediction of the filial status. Consequently, the investigator must choose a hypothesis to be tested; the question of comparability in the ages of father and son is not involved.

Sampling problems of father-son studies

Inter-generational mobility tables are usually constructed by obtaining from a sample of subjects (sons)their occupations and those of their fathers. But the probability of major interest is the probability that a son will attain a certain status given that the parent has a certain status. From this standpoint, and some others, it would be preferable to select a sample of fathers and trace the occupations of all of their sons, since the desired probability (when calculated from a table based on a sample of sons) is subject to error. This procedure is generally avoided because of the considerable age the fathers would have had to attain in order to ensure that the sons have likewise attained a fairly mature age and stable occupation. In addition, the fathers who have survived to that age would be a biased sample of the fathers of the current generation.

Adjusting for size of occupation

The mobility table provides an estimate of the relative frequency with which the sons of any particular class of fathers will be found in their fathers’ occupation (inheritance) or in an occupation of higher or lower status (mobility). However, the entries in the mobility table reflect not only the effect of the father’s status on the son’s occupational locus but also the effect of the size of each occupational group. The probability that the son of a cabinetmaker will also become a cabinetmaker is a function not only of the special advantages and motivations that may accrue to him from the nature of the paternal occupation (and family circumstances correlated with it) but also of the number of cabinetmakers that the society requires or supports. It is often desirable, then, to separate the component of mobility that is due to the current occupational distribution from the component that reflects the influence of the parental status. One way of effecting this separation is to relate the probability of movement from position E, to position Ek to the number of positions at E* currently available in the society.

The original entries, in percentage form, are the probability that a son will be in class E* given that the father is in class E, written

This expression is then divided by the proportion, P(Efc), aH sons who have entered occupation Et, which gives

where M, the mobility ratio, is the transformed entry that expresses the amount of movement (or in the diagonal cells, inheritance) from E,- to E% relative to the number of“openings”at Ek in the society (see Tables 1 and 2).

Table 1–Sons’ occupation by fathers’ occupation, Indianapolis, 1940, percentage distribution and mobility ratios
SONS’ OCCUPATIONProfessionalSemiprofessionalproprietors, monogers,etc.*Clerical and salesSkilledSemiskilledUnskilledProtective servicePersonal serviceFarming Total
* Includes officials.
Source: Adapted from Rogoff 1953, tables 4 and 53, pp. 48, 118.
Proprietors, managers, etc.*7.63.517.
Clerical ana1 sales27.917.530.642.219.117.313.122.817.115.222.12,188
Skilled15.423.714.315.132.318.415.417.022.623.1 #21.92,163
Protective service0.
Personal service1.
Total %100.0100.0100.1100.0100.1100.0100.199.8100.2100.3100.0 
N4741141,2031,0922,7291,5207202411641,635 9,892
Table 2 Sons’ occupation by fathers’ occupation, U.S. national sample, 1957, percentage distribution and mobility ratios
SONS’ OCCUPATIONProfessionalBusinessWhite collarSkilled manualSemiskilledUnskilledFarmerTotal 
Source: Adopted from Jackson & Crockett 1964, p. 7.
Professional40.4%18.3%20.3%8.5%2.3%1 .5%2.5%8.486
White collar12.822.524.615.617.210.68.414.0143
Skilled manual19.115.020.342.228.936.421.626.5271
Total %99.9100.099.9100.0100.0100.1100.1100.0 
N471206919912866394 1,023

Adjustment for occupational birth rate

The chances of movement into a particular occupation are also affected by differences in the birth rate of the various occupational classes. If, for instance, doctors had very few children, then, assuming a constant size of the medical profession, the medical replacements of the next generation will tend to come more largely from the children of other occupational groups.

The effects on mobility of the occupational distribution and of differential occupational birth rates are sometimes termed structural components of intergenerational mobility. These are to be contrasted with the effect of parental status (and of factors correlated with it).

Interpreting mobility ratios

The calculation of Mik provides a standard in terms of which mobility may be viewed as high or low. If sons were distributed in occupations on a purely random (chance) basis, then the sons of any given parental class would enter the various occupations simply in proportion to the size of that occupation in the society. In this case MU, has the value of 1.0. A value of Mjti greater (or less) than 1.0 signifies that sons from a particular class of fathers are entering an occupation more (or less) frequently than would be expected on a purely chance basis. Thus, deviations of Mjk from 1.0 indicate the operation of factors associated with“father’s status.”

Findings of intergenerational studies

Tables 1-4 provide illustrative intergenerational mobility findings. In Tables 1 and 2 the upper entries in each cell are percentages, and the lower, parenthetic entries are the cell values for Mlk (see above). These are summary tables and do not permit analysis in terms of particular age groups orother demographic subdivisions. These and numerous other tables to be found in the literature suggest the following statements:

(1) Mobility tables uniformly show deviationfrom random distribution, that is, they show thatfilial status is statistically (and positively) de- pendent on parental status in varying degrees (seeTables 3 and 4). Impressive as this relationshipmay appear to casual inspection, it is equally ap- parent that the sons of most classes of fathers aredistributed in substantial numbers throughout mostof the status classes. Evidently, then, the status ofthe father permits considerable variation in thestatus of the son. A more precise summary state- ment of the over-all relationship suggested by theavailable studies is that probably not more thanone-quarter of the variance in filial status is ac- counted for by parental status; and this includesthe effect of some factors correlated with, but notproperly included in, parental status (e.g., race).

(2) The sons are most heavily overrepresented(as compared with random expectation) in thediagonal cells, that is, in those cells representinginheritance or a continuity by the son of the pa- rental status. This necessarily implies underrepre-sentation in some other cells. This underrepresenta-tion is generally spread over a larger number ofcells and is, therefore, less striking, except at timeswhen the parental and filial statuses are in verymarked contrast. It follows, then, that for thosesons who enter an occupational class different fromthat of their fathers, -which particular other occu- pational class will be entered is, generally, lessdependent upon the paternal status.

(3) The above findings lend themselves to tworather different emphases. On the one hand, it isprobably correct to say that only one-quarter or

Table 3 Sons’ occupational status by fathers’ occupational status, Great Britain, 1949, percentage distribution
Source: Adapted from Glass 1954, p. 183.
(1) Professional; high administrative38.8%10.7%3.5%2.1%0.9%0.0%0.0%2.9103
(2) Managerial; executive14.626.710.
(3) Inspectional; supervisory; other nonmanual (higher grade)20.222.718.811.
(4) Inspectional; supervisory; other nonmanual (lower grade)
(5) Skilled manual; routine grades nonmanual14.020.635.743.047.339.136.440.91,429
(6) Semiskilled manual4.75.36.712.417.131.223.517.0593
(7) Unskilled manual1.
Total %100.0100.0100.0100.0100.0100.0100.0100.0 
N1291503455181,510458387 3,497

less of the over-all variance in filial status is accounted for by parental status and that consequently other factors, taken collectively, play a more important role in determining the status of the son than does parental status. At the same time, it is possible to select particular cells and quite correctly emphasize the large deviations from random expectation in these cases: for example, the considerable excess representation in professional occupations of sons of professional fathers; or the considerable deficiency among professional workers of sons of unskilled workers.

(4) The probability that the sons of a particularclass of fathers, Et, will achieve a given statuslevel, Ek, is inversely proportional to the status“dis- tance”between social positions E, and Ek. Sincethe status“distance”is itself a function of severalvariables, such as education and income, this sum- mary formulation cloaks a number of more spe- cific relations of interest (see below).

(5) Much discussion has been devoted in recentyears to two questions: (a) whether the rate ofmobility has changed during the last generation ortwo; and (fc) whether European societies show alower rate of mobility (a greater continuity offamily status from generation to generation) thanthe United States. Despite the number of mobilitystudies now available, numerous difficulties withrespect to their design and comparability precludeconfident answers to the foregoing questions. Thefollowing statements are therefore tentative.

Studies of the United States and most Western industrial societies with increasing urban sectors and considerable provision for education show in the last two generations no substantial over-all change in the tendency of sons to inherit the father’s occupational class, at least when these are rather broadly defined. The available data do not suffice unequivocally to detect smaller changes that may in fact have occurred. It is evident that the decline in agricultural employment and someskilled crafts, and the emergence of new occupations, operate to reduce occupational inheritance. But such changes have not been confined to any one generation and therefore do not necessarily produce drastic alterations in the mobility pattern. This is particularly true when social position is defined in terms of occupational prestige. The new occupations may leave unaltered the relative frequency of different status levels in the society and the distribution of the labor force among them. The increased access to educational facilities and the growth of large-scale enterprises also suggest that the data should show a decreasing dependence of filial status on parental status; but it may well be that more limited access to education in earlier years was offset by the correspondingly weaker emphasis on formal educational requirements and a greater reliance on apprenticeship and learning“on the job.”

The United States has often been viewed as a society in which individual effort and merit are rewarded more substantially than in European societies and where family background counts for less than elsewhere in the distribution of status positions. Available studies, on the other hand, show no striking differences between the amount of mobility in the United States and western European societies (compare Tables 1 and 2 with Tables 3 and 4). However, most international comparisons have, in the search for comparability, reduced the data of individual studies to a least common denominator which denudes them of much of their value, and it is dubious whether, even so, comparability has been achieved. Nonetheless, there is one characteristic of U.S. society, absent in any similar degree from European societies, that may account for the difference between common assumptions and research findings; namely, a large Negro population subject to severe handicaps in the selection process. The position of the Negro in U.S. society adds to the correlation between parental

Table 4 Sons’ social status of age 30 by fathers’ social status at age 30, Denmark, 7954
SONS’ SOCIAL STATUS(1)(2)(3)(4)(5) Total
 (Highest)   (Lowest) %N
Source: Adapted from Svalastoga 1959, p. 324.
(1)(Highest)41.9%5.1%2.1%.9%.6% 2.345
(2)25.830.812.83.92.2 9.4185
(3)16.130.336.020.713.4 24.1474
(4)12.923.933.345.236.9 36.9726
(5)(Lowest)3.29.815.829.346.9 27.4540
Total %99.999.9100.0100.0100.0 100.1 
N31234531675499  1,970

and filial status in the lower strata of the status hierarchy. When the upward mobility rate of unskilled white workers is considered separately, it is appreciably higher than the upward mobility rate for the total unskilled group. The assumption that the United States has higher mobility rates than European countries may, then, rest in part on a disregard of a sizable sector of the society.

Finally, if, as suggested above, parental status accounts at most for only one-quarter of the variance in the distribution of filial status, considerable differences could exist in the operation of different social-selection systems without necessitating correspondingly great differences in the specific effect of parental status.

Determinants of social mobility

Although the mobility table has been the principal product of many mobility studies, it leaves unanswered many questions central to the theory of social selection and social mobility. The“variable”parental occupation or status embraces, or rather conceals, a host of more specific influences. Research on social mobility is now increasingly directed toward untangling the roles of these more specific variables and shows a corresponding decrease of interest in simply adding new mobility tables to those already available. Further, with respect to the question of how people get sorted into different occupations or status levels, the mobility table can provide at best only a very partial answer, that is, an answer in terms of the statistical dependence of filial status on parental status. But there are clearly many other factors that determine occupational and status selection.

Father’s occupation

Parental occupation or status is related to the probability of filial entry into an occupation in two principal ways: (a) the father’s occupational status may be correlated with a variety of filial attributes, such as education, intelligence, and race, that affect the son’s occupational locus; (fe) the parental occupational status may affect filial occupational locus more directly: the father’s occupational experience may influence his son’s occupational interests and may provide him with special knowledge, experience, incentives, and opportunities for access to it or other occupations.

Educational level

A substantial portionsubstantial, relative to other variablesof the variation in status is accounted for by variations in educational level. Educational level is, of course, in considerable measure dependent upon the status level of parents. This dependence is lessened by increases in the society’s investment in educationalfacilities and the degree to which these make educational opportunities available without respect to social origin. To the extent that this occurs, the relation of education to status achievement is freed from an intermediate dependence on parental status. Sons of similar parental status show variations in educational levels, and the effect of these variations on status certainly cannot be ascribed to parental status. However, the extension of educational opportunities may at the same time reduce the correlation between status achievement and education. The more widespread a certain level of education becomes (for example, primary or secondary education), the less will variations in status, especially in the lower reaches of the status hierarchy, depend on variations in educational level provided, of course, that increased access to education does not change the status significance of the occupational groups.

Intelligence and mobility

Part of the effect of education on status achievement is due to the correlation of education with intelligence. In the process of status selection, variations in intelligence operate to influence the achieved level of social status, both by leading to variations in educational level and (for persons of similar educational level) by facilitating the advancement of those of greater intelligence. Certain educational attainments have, however, become such decisive prerequisites for entry into many occupational positions that high intelligence without the added attainment of a corresponding education is unable to produce its full potential effect. Even were educational opportunities commensurate with intellectual capabilities, the correlation of intelligence with status achievement would be limited by the dependence of achievement on motivational and other personality characteristics. An equally important limitation is the fact that, except in a certain gross sense, intelligence is not an overriding criterion in occupational selection and advancement.

Intelligence as customarily measured depends in part, in its turn, on environmental circumstances. But the present state of investigation also leads one to conclude that, even as currently measured, intelligence has a major genetic component. Consequently, part of the dependence of filial on parental status is due to two sources of correlation between parental and filial intelligencesocial and genetic.

Recent studies have been effective in demonstrating the existence of complex interactions between parental status, education, and intelligence and in establishing that each of these variables plays a significant role in determining filial status, both independently and by mediating the influence of the others. But tested models do not now exist that enable one to state quantitatively the probable change in status ensuing from an increment in one of the variables (occurring at a specified stage of an individual’s life), given the values of the other variables. The introduction of a genetic component of intelligence complicates the task of building such a model but at the same time appears indispensable if such models are to be used to derive a picture of the evolution of the mobility or social-selection system over time.


In some societies the existence of sizable racial or other groups subject to various modes of discrimination increases the dependence of filial status on parental status. The common obstacle shared by father and son tends to show up as a correlation between their status positions. Since status position as defined by mobility studies does not usually include the criterion of race, this necessarily inflates the degree of dependence of filial status on paternal status.

Other social handicaps

Relatively little attention has been paid in mobility studies to the role of special deficits that are not severe enough to exclude persons from the labor force and yet act as powerful handicaps to occupational achievement. High-grade mental deficiency, physical disabilities, chronic disease, mental disorders, alcoholism, etc., taken together, have a sufficiently high incidence and a sufficiently decided effect on occupational achievement to influence mobility tables. It is possible that a substantial part of the cases of extreme downward mobility can be accounted for in this way.

A neglected source of downward mobility

A further source of downward mobility may be viewed either as the result of a bias in the design of mobility studies or as an intrinsic feature of the parent-son status relationship. Mobility studies generally draw a sample of the gainfully occupied within the age range chosen for the investigation. The sample usually includes unmarried subjects and married subjects with and without children. The father sample, arrived at through the son sample, will, however, necessarily include only persons of the preceding generation who have at least one son and are therefore (in most cases) married. Since marriage and sometimes fertility are associated with greater occupational stability, mental and physical health, and general achievement, the fathers of the subjects will represent a special sample of their generation. If this is viewed as a bias in comparing the status of fathers and sons,it could be overcome by choosing the subject (son) sample only from those in the labor force who are married and have at least one child. Since, however, all sons must come from the special (father) sample of the preceding generation, it is more useful to view the differential character of the father and son groups as one source of downward mobility. Given the biological and social significance of marriage and, perhaps, fertility, fathers are, other things being equal, superior as a group to an un-selected sample of their sons. Consequently, one should expect that for this reason a number of the sons will arrive at status positions inferior to those of their fathers.

How important is parental status?

The variables cited above account for a large measure of the filial status distribution. Does this mean then that the emphasis on the derivation of filial status from parental status has been misplaced? In part, the answer is certainly, Yes. But there is, nonetheless, a danger that the reduction of parental status to a series of more specific and often independently operating factors may lead to a neglect of those sources of influence in the parental occupational situation that exercise a direct influence on the son’s occupational destiny by giving him special knowledge, incentives, and opportunities with respect to particular occupations. In dealing with sons who are professionals (or even more so, who are white-collar workers) it is fairly easy to account for their occupational status without making an appeal to the specific occupational locus of their parents. But if we are required to predict, not which sons will become professional or white-collar, but rather which sons will become doctors or cabinetmakers, then whether the parent is or is not a doctor or a cabinetmaker is still of considerable importance.

Behind the propensity of some classes of fathers to produce sons who follow in their occupational footsteps appear to lie certain relationships that, however, can be stated only very tentatively. Sons seem to be more likely to pursue their fathers’ occupations under certain conditions: (1) if the fathers are self-employed; (2) if the self-employed fathers utilize a substantial capital in the pursuit of their self-employed occupations; (3) if entry into the father’s occupation is regulated by licensing, examinations, union control, apprenticeship, or other obstacles that the parental status may aid the son to overcome; (4) if the parental occupation requires special training or education. Naturally, these relationships operate more effectively if the occupation involved provides satisfactory rewardsrelative to alternatives open to the sons.

There are numerous other individual and family attributes that affect the probability that a child will attain a given status position. The number of children in the family and the birth order of a child may in some institutional settings be particularly important. The motivations and aspirations of young people in different sectors of society obviously play an important role in determining the manner in which various individual and family assets and handicaps exercise their influence.

Social mobility and social structure

Finally, at least a brief word must be said about the relation of social selection and social mobility to the principal institutional structures of society. The research to which we owe the many mobility tables now available has been mostly pursued in Western industrialized societies with large urban sectors. This has made it easier to disregard the role of major institutional differences in the formation of social-selection systems. Current studies have tended to confine their attention more particularly to demographic and technological changes and to the role of educational institutions and the practices which affect access to them. Although there is a considerable literature on employment procedures, the study of social mobility has not adequately taken account of the fact that the occupational distribution process is a dual process, in which two sets of preferences and decisions, those of the employee and those of the employer or manager, confront each other, and that the distributive outcome is affected by the supply and demand of various qualities.

There are other major institutional features that, because of their relative stability, best reveal their relation to social mobility when it is studied over quite long time spans. Even the most stable political, juridical, and economic institutions of a society are of capital importance for the mobility process. Thus, the occupational selection process in Western society is decisively influenced by the nature of the labor contract, by laws relating to freedom of movement, and, ultimately, by the distribution of political power, together with the political and social sentiments associated with this distribution. As increasingly complex models of the social-selection process are developed, it will become necessary to specify more explicitly and exactly the institutional environment to which the model has application. Perhaps, too, it will become possible to relate parameter values to changes inthe institutional environment and thus to unify the interests of quantitative research and comparative historical inquiry.

Herbert Goldhamer

[See also STRATIFICATION, SOCIAL. Other relevant material may be found in CASTE; MARKOV CHAINS; OCCUPATIONS AND CAREERS.]


Bibliographical resources for the study of social mobility are excellent. For the earlier literature Sorokin 1927-1941 is still valuable. Lipset & Bendix 1959 provides an extensive listing of relevant literature in the course of a broad survey of occupational mobility, as well as a presentation of the authors’ own research. Consult also Mack et al. 1957 and Miller 1960. These sources can be brought up to date by consulting Sociological Abstracts.

For general surveys of social mobility, see Sorokin 1927-1941; Lipset & Bendix 1959; Barber 1957; Bendix & Lipset 1953. Studies of social mobility with national, regional, and special occupational samples are too numerous to list in detail. Representative studies for the United States are Taussig & Joslyn 1932; Warner & Abegglen 1955; Rogoff 1953; Jackson & Crockett 1964; Jaffe & Carleton 1954. For Great Britain, Ginsberg 1932; Glass 1954. For France, Bresard 1950; Desabie 1956. For the Scandinavian countries, Geiger 1951; Carlsson 1958; Svala-stoga 1959. For Germany, Bavaria, Statistisches Landesamt 1930; Janowitz 1958; Bolte 1959. For Japan, Nishira 1957. For Italy, Chessa 1912; Livi 1950. For the USSR, Inkeles 1950. For other countries, and for additional material on the foregoing countries, consult World Congress of Sociology. On the relation of education and intelligence to social selection and social mobility, see, in addition to the major sources already cited, Anderson et al. 1952; Conway 1958; Halsey et al. 1961; Duncan & Hodge 1963.

On the technical and methodological problems of studying social mobility, see especially Carlsson 1958; Svala-stoga 1959; Duncan & Hodge 1963. A developing literature on mathematical models of the mobility process includes Prais 1955; Blumen et al. 1955; Beshers & Reiter 1963; White 1963. A number of topics in social mobility (career mobility, three-generational mobility, social mobility of women, etc.) receive scant or no attention in this article. However, the reader will have no difficulty in finding material on these topics if he consults the more general works in the literature cited here.

Anderson, C. Arnold; Brown, J. C.; and Bowman, M. J. 1952 Intelligence and Occupational Mobility. Journal of Political Economy 60:218-239.

Barber, Bernard 1957 Social Stratification: A Comparative Analysis of Structure and Process. New York: Harcourt.

Bavaria, Statistisches Landesamt 1930 Sozialer Auf-und Abstieg im deutschen Volk. Beitrage zur Statistik Bayerns, Vol. 117. Munich: Lindauer.

Bndix, Reinhard; and Lipset, Seymour M. (editors) (1953) 1966 Ciass, Status, and Power: Social Stratification in Comparative Perspective. 2d ed. New York: Free Press.

Beshers, James M.; and Reiter, Stanley 1963 Social Status and Social Change. Behavioral Science 8:1-13.

Blumen, Isadore; Kogan, M.; and Mccarthy, P. J. 1955 The Industrial Mobility of Labor as a Probability Process. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

Bolte, Karl M. 1959 Sozialer Aufstieg und Abstieg: Eine Untersuchung iiber Berufsprestige und Berufs-mobilitiit. Stuttgart (Germany): Enke.

Bresard, Marcel 1950 Mobilite sociale et dimension de la famille. Population 5:533-566.

Carlsson, Gosta 1958 Social Mobility and Class Structure. Lund (Sweden): Gleerup.

Chessa, Federico 1912 La trasmissione ereditaria delle professioni. Turin (Italy): Bocca.

Conway, J. 1958 The Inheritance of Intelligence and Its Social Implications. British Journal of Statistical Psychology 11:171-190.

DESABIE, J. 1956 La mobilite sociale en France. Bulletin d’information 1:25-63.

Duncan, Otis D.; and Hodge, R. W. 1963 Education and Occupational Mobility: A Regression Analysis. American Journal of Sociology 68:629-644.

Geiger, Theodor 1951 Soziale Umschichtungen in einer ddnischen Mittelstadt. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.

Ginsberg, Morris 1932 Studies in Sociology. London: Methuen.See especially pages 160-174,“Interchange Between Social Classes.”

Glass, David V. (editor) 1954 Social Mobility in Britain. London: Routledge.

Halsey, A. H.; Floud, Jean; and Anderson, C. Arnold (editors) 1961 Education, Economy, and Society: A Reader in the Sociology of Education. New York: Free Press.

Inkeles, Alex 1950 Social Stratification and Mobility in the Soviet Union: 1940-1950. American Sociological Review 15:465-479.

Jackson, Elton F.; and Crockett, Harry J. JR. 1964 Occupational Mobility in the United States: A Point Estimate and Trend Comparison. American Sociological Review 29:5-15.Provides a table based on a U.S. national sample, and reviews earlier national sample studies.

Jaffe, Abram J.; and Cahleton, R. O. 1954 Occupational Mobility in the United States: 1930-1960. New York: King’s Crown Press.A cohort analysis of the American working force, with projections of mobility trends.

Janowitz, Morris 1958 Social Stratification and Mobility in West Germany. American Journal of Sociology 64:6-24.

Lipset, Seymour M.; and Bendix, Reinhard 1959 Social Mobility in Industrial Society. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Livi, Livio 1950 Sur la mesure de la mobilite sociale: Resultats d’un sondage effectue sur la population italienne. Population 5:65-76.

Mack, Raymond W.; Freeman, L.; and Yellin, S. 1957 Social Mobility; Thirty Years of Research and Theory: An Annotated BIBLIOGRAPHY. Syracuse Univ. Press.

Miller, S. M. 1960 Comparative Social Mobility: A Trend Report and BIBLIOGRAPHY. Current Sociology 9, no. 1:1-89.

Nishira, Sigeki 1957 Cross-national Comparative Study on Social Stratification and Social Mobility. Institute of Statistical Mathematics, Tokyo, Annals 8:181-191.

Prais, S. J. 1955 Measuring Social Mobility. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society Series A 118:56-66.

Rogoff, Natalie 1953 Recent Trends in Occupational Mobility. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Sociological Abstracts→Published since 1952. Consult recent entries under“Social Stratification”;“Sociology of Occupations and Professions”; and“Sociology of Education.”

Sorokin, Pitirim A. (1927-1941) 1959 Social and Cultural Mobility. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.→ReprintsSocial Mobility and Chapter 5 from Volume 4 of Social and Cultural Dynamics.

Svalastoga, Kaare 1959 Prestige, Class, and Mobility. Copenhagen: Gyldendal.

Taussig, Frank W.; and Joslyn, Carl S. 1932 American Business Leaders: A Study in Social Origins and Social Stratification. New York: Macmillan.

Warner, W. Lloyd; and ABEGGLEN, JAMES C. 1955 Occupational Mobility in American Business and Industry, 1928-1952. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

White, Harrison C. 1963 Cause and Effect in Social Mobility Tables. Behavioral Science 8:14-27.

Wilensky, Harold L. 1966 Measures and Effects of Social Mobility. Pages 98-140 in Neil J. Smelser and Seymour M. Lipset (editors), Social Structure and Mobility in Economic Development. Chicago: Aldine.

WORLD CONGRESS OF SOCIOLOGY Transactions.→Published since 1954. Transactions of the first congress, held in 1950, were not published.

Social Mobility

views updated May 29 2018


Hartmut Kaelble

A standard theme of social history, social mobility was one of the topics that inspired modern social history's beginnings in the 1960s and the 1970s in Europe and the United States. Historians approached the topic for various reasons. One of their central motivations was to determine the equality of social opportunities in certain periods and contexts—that is, whether modern industrial or service societies helped or hindered chances of upward mobility for men as well as for women. In an era when the industrial and then the tertiary societies were becoming predominant in the United States and Europe, and historians turned to certain central topics, including increasing openness or reinforced exclusiveness of modern elites; the rising or declining chances of social ascent for descendants from the lower classes or from immigrants or ethnic groups; and the broadening or reduced access to channels of social ascent such as education, business enterprises, public bureaucracies, family networks, politics, sports, and entertainment. Moreover, social mobility was frequently discussed by historians in a comparative perspective. European and American historians explored both the myth of the unique chances for social ascent in America and the myth of unrestricted social mobility in communist countries. They also started to investigate societies outside the Western world.


What do historians mean by social mobility? For the most part their investigations center on the social mobility of individuals rather than the grading up or down of entire social groups or classes. Thus the heading of social mobility does not cover the decline of the European aristocracy or of the urban artisanal elite; the ascent of the middle class, or of various professions, or of ethnic groups and groups of immigrants; or the decline or ascent of women. Although the study of social mobility takes these changes in social hierarchies into account, they are usually not its main theme.

Moreover, the study of social mobility does not focus on the geographical mobility of individuals, as the term might suggest, but rather on mobility within social structures and hierarchies. To be sure, a good many studies of social mobility do treat immigration and geographical mobility as a factor in social mobility; local studies especially treat the mobile as a group of historical individuals who are difficult to trace, hence creating severe methodological difficulties. The theme of transience has been particularly important in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century United States and European history. Wider studies of immigration have also tested causes (in terms of threatened downward mobility) and results (in terms of comparing mobility results for different immigrant groups) where geographic migration was involved.

Another defining feature of the study of social mobility is its concentration on occupational mobility. In investigations of intragenerational mobility, historians trace the mobility of individuals among different occupational positions or their persistence in the same occupation throughout their lives. In investigations of intergenerational mobility, historians compare the occupations of an individual with that of his or her father, mother, and ancestors at specific points in their lives. Occupation is usually seen as the crucial indicator of the situation of an individual in a historical society. To be sure, historians are fully aware of the limitations of this concept of occupational mobility. They are highly sensitive to the fact that the occupational activity of an individual in history, more often than today, might comprise a simultaneous plurality of occupations or include professions that are still in the making and thus without a clear position in the society of that time. In addition, a change in education, religious affiliation, or social networks might be as important as the change in occupation. Finally, historians are fully aware that, the farther back into history a study goes, the less reliable and distinct does occupation as an indicator of the social position of an individual become.

With occupation as the key indicator of social hierarchies, social mobility studies seek a highly differentiated body of knowledge about societies in the past. They explore variations in income, properties, educational training, prestige, and social networks among occupations by means of linking various historical sources; individuals can be traced through marriage license files, tax files, census materials, last wills, records of churches and public administrations, and autobiographical sources. The competence of historians in linking various sources has shown a marked improvement.

The study of social mobility has been criticized for various methodological reasons. Many historians argue that the sources normally used provide only a crude idea of the historical reality; they consider data on only two or three points of time in a whole life and on only one occupation insufficient and unsatisfying. In addition, by focusing on occupations the study of social mobility excludes large parts of the population. This is especially true for women, whose historical mobility until the first half of the twentieth century mainly involved marriage rather than occupational activity. It is also true in a more fundamental way for societies in which large parts of the population did not yet have distinct and single professions. This type of mobility study therefore has less to say about peasant societies or early modern urban societies than about modern industrial societies. Moreover, critics object that the quantitative study of social mobility concentrated too heavily on quantifiable aspects of objective circumstances and neglected entirely the subjective dimension of experiences, motivations, and mentalities. Defining status is a cultural matter, and occupations change in status over time. This variability requires sensitivity in mobility assessments.

These criticisms spurred some new trends in the methods of historical research on social mobility, with the result that the study of social mobility has achieved a higher level of sophistication. Individual careers are explored in micro studies of as many details as possible, with attention to autobiographical materials that often cannot be analyzed quantitatively. Studies of a few individual cases in which source materials are rich are given priority over quantitative studies of all members of a local society. This type of micro study is rarely limited to social mobility but covers a large variety of social aspects. In addition, studies of social mobility in which occupation is not predominant are becoming more important. Thus the study of the social mobility of women has begun, though only very few studies on gender differentials exist. It has become clear that the results are highly interesting, showing that the history of the social mobility of women is clearly different from that of men. Some studies also try to include subjective matters and trace the impact of mentalities and experiences on social mobility. Furthermore, the number of international and interregional comparative studies of the history of social mobility has increased somewhat, using the rich results of about thirty years of historical research in this field.


Social mobility is one of the major fields of social history in which research comes not only from historians but also from scholars of other disciplines. This is especially true for three crucial aspects of the history of social mobility: Political scientists have sponsored important investigations using the historical perspective in exploring the recruitment of the elites, particularly the political and administrative elites. Educationists and sociologists have participated in the historical research on educational opportunities in schools and in higher education. The most important contribution comes from sociologists in the investigation of the overall trends of social mobility during the twentieth century.

In the early years of the social mobility field, historians were strongly encouraged by the work of major historical sociologists such as Pitirim Sorokin, Seymour M. Lipset, Reinhart Bendix, and D. V. Glass, who had published studies of the history of social mobility. In this interdisciplinary cooperation, quantification became an important bridge between historians and sociologists. Later, a sort of division of labor emerged between the two fields. Sociologists usually explore social mobility on the level of entire countries by means of cohort analysis, which is based on actual surveys and traces differences between older and younger age cohorts, assuming that these differences represent historical changes in social mobility. They sometimes use separate, often more detailed surveys for different age groups and compare their life stories, going on to write international comparisons of historical trends of social mobility. Sociologists also developed highly sophisticated statistical indicators for measuring trends and international differences. By contrast, historians usually explore social mobility on the local or regional level, using the variety of sources discussed above. Some historians claim to be able to study social mobility for entire regions or even countries from the early modern period onward on the basis of these sources. In selecting different types of cities and villages and in comparing local studies on a transregional and transnational level, historians also can investigate general tendencies of social mobility. Historians mostly use simpler quantitative methods of analysis that are less difficult to understand than the indicators used by sociologists. As the links between these two disciplines are disappointingly weak, the reader is obliged to consult the sociological as well as the historical literature.


Four major questions have especially attracted the attention of historians of social mobility: Did industrialization and modernization produce an increase, decrease, or no change in social mobility? Did social mobility advance in the United States and in communist societies, especially as compared to Western European societies? How were opportunities for social mobility different for each gender? What was the discourse of contemporaries on social mobility?

Social mobility in modern society. The increase in social mobility in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries means different things to different authors in the field. Greater mobility, in the context of industrialization and modernization, can signify a more meritocratic recruitment, especially for the few most prestigious, most powerful, and best-paid positions. That mobility may occur between occupations; it may be upward as well as downward; it may apply to job mobility within the same social class. Increased social mobility may encompass the chances of both genders and of minorities. Sometimes it refers specifically to a clear increase in the opportunities of the lower classes as compared to the opportunities of the upper and middle classes, rather than greater mobility across the board.

The advocates of the view that social mobility has undergone a general increase often point specifically to the rising number of upwardly mobile persons since industrialization. They argue that various major social changes led to greater social mobility and social ascent. The general decline of the fertility rate during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made it possible for parents not only to invest more in the individual help and education of their children but also to promote their own professional careers. The rapid expansion of secondary and higher education, especially since the end of the nineteenth century, enlarged enormously the chances for better training. The rapid increase of geographic mobility since the second half of the nineteenth century led to a widening of the labor market and to a greater variety of new chances. Among the active population, the fundamental shift from the predominance of agrarian work up to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the predominance of service work, especially since the 1970s, generated substantial social mobility between occupations. The distinct increase in the sheer number of occupations in all modern societies since the industrial revolution also must have led to more social mobility. The general change in mentalities; the weakening of the emotional identification with specific professions, social milieus, and local milieus; and the rising readiness for job mobility and for lifelong training further enlarged the number of socially mobile persons. The rise of the welfare state, the mitigation of individual life crises, and the guarantee of individual social security clearly improved the chances for further training and for the purposeful use of occupational chances. Government policies aimed at enhancing educational and occupational opportunities for lower classes, for women, for ethnic and religious minorities, and for immigrants also have had an impact on social mobility. The list of factors attesting to an increase in social mobility in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is substantial.

Yet there are those who see social mobility as having remained stable or even declined. They are a heterogeneous group, with arguments stemming from very different ideas of social developments. It is sometimes argued that nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century industrialization led not only to a rising number and a fundamental change of occupations but also to a class society in which the major social classes—the middle class, the lower middle class, the working class, the peasants, and in some societies also the aristocracy—tended to reinforce the demarcation lines between classes and hence to reduce rather than enlarge the number of mobile persons. Other advocates of the skeptical view argue that the fundamental upheaval of modern societies during industrialization led to a unique volatility in social mobility, both upward and downward, and that modern societies thereafter became more closed: the generation of pioneers in business ended, most occupational careers became more formalized and more dependent on higher education, modern bureaucracies emerged, and mentalities adapted to the modern, highly regulated job markets.

Other scholars argue for the stability of social mobility rates in a different and much more narrow sense: they argue that long-term changes in social mobility from the industrial revolution until the present were mostly structural; that is, they depended almost exclusively on the redefinition of the active population rather than on the reduction of social, cultural, and political barriers. In this view social mobility remained stable if one excepts the changes simply induced by alternations in occupational structure; peasants, for example, became workers, which constituted a real change, but not necessarily a case of upward mobility. Still other scholars posit a stable inequality of educational and occupational chances for the lower classes, women, and minorities in comparison with those for the middle and upper class, the male population, or the ethnic majority.

Out of this long debate has grown, since the beginning of quantitative studies of social mobility after World War II, a large number of historical studies of social mobility. Their wide range of results can be distilled to three main points: First, only in very rare cases was a clear decline in social mobility rates found. Most studies show either stable or increasing rates of social mobility, depending upon the type of community and country and the generation and period under investigation. However, there is no overwhelming overall evidence for either the stability or increase of social mobility rates. Second, changes of overall social mobility rates do in fact depend to a large degree on changes in occupational and educational structure. Thus one can say that modern societies became more mobile to a large degree because education expanded so much and because occupational change became so frequent and normal. Finally, much evidence indicates that the increase of educational and social mobility of the lower classes and women did not impair the educational and occupational chances of the middle and upper classes and men. Except for the eastern European countries in some specific periods, social mobility was usually not a zero-sum game.

Social mobility in the United States and the communist bloc. The question of advanced social mobility in the United States dates at least from the early nineteenth century, when the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville argued that American society offered more chances for upward social mobility than did Europe. For a long time the subject was approached from a moral perspective, concerning the advantages and disadvantages of a mobile society. After World War II some social scientists attacked the notion that American society was in fact more mobile, the American sociologist Seymour M. Lipset being the most prominent. He argued that industrialization and social modernization everywhere led to the same basic increase in social mobility; overall international figures on rates of social mobility and of social ascent after World War II did not show any American superiority in those terms. Lipset's attack on what was a myth of long standing provoked a debate among academics and intellectuals. American influence in the world had reached its peak, and the model of the American way of life in general was undergoing intense debate both in America and in Europe. Skepticism about the American superiority in social mobility was voiced by Simone de Beauvoir, the French intellectual, who wrote in L'Amérique au jour le jour (1948) after travel in the United States that "there is almost no hope any more for the lower class to move up into this [upper] class." Other social scientists as well as writers defended the notion of advanced American social mobility. Ralf Dahrendorf, the German sociologist, argued in his book Die angewandte Aufklärung: Gesellschaft und Soziologie in Amerika that "much direct evidence exists that [the United States] offers the opportunity of social ascent also to those who would have been stopped in Europe by the rigid social hierarchies."

Evidence in three areas was put forward to prove that America was a leader in social mobility. Detailed empirical studies by sociologists demonstrated that lead in some crucial aspects, especially mobility in the professions. American higher education was more extensive and offered greater access to the professions than did the European counterpart. Hence the social ascent from the lower classes into the professions that are based on higher education was clearly more frequent than in Europe. In addition, comparative historical studies on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American and European cities showed that in a special sense a modest American lead existed during that period: unskilled workers in fact moved up into white-collar positions in American cities somewhat more frequently than in European cities. Finally, historians demonstrated that the important difference between American and European societies could be found in the idea of social mobility rather than in the actual rates of mobility. Americans continuously believed that their country offered more opportunities than the rigid European societies.

Studies in the late twentieth century tended to argue that American society no longer leads Europe in general social mobility. To be sure, international comparisons show that strong and persistent differences in social mobility between cities and countries existed and still exist. Hence it is difficult to accept the assertion of a worldwide convergence of social mobility through industrialization and modernization. However, probably because of the fundamental social changes in Europe since World War II, there is no clear evidence for a general American lead in social mobility against the whole of Europe.

Neither as provocative nor as persistent, nevertheless the subject of social opportunities in communist countries, especially in the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s and in the Eastern European nations in the late 1940s and 1950s, attracted its share of social mobility studies. During these periods rates of upward social mobility into the higher ranks of the social hierarchy were substantial compared to rates in Western European societies. This was true partly because higher education expanded rapidly; partly because the communist abolition of the business and landowning elites and the seizure of power by the Communist Party opened up top positions for social ascent in industry and agriculture, politics and administrations; and partly because employment structure changed rapidly during rapid industrialization. However, the rise of social opportunities in communist countries was, if it existed at all, largely limited to the period of the initial upheaval. Most comparative studies of the 1970s and 1980s show that rates of social mobility were not distinctly higher in the eastern part of Europe compared to the western part. This change occurred for several reasons: the communist political and administrative elite became exclusive and gentrified; in several communist countries the expansion of higher education slowed down, and hence the student ratio in Eastern Europe in general fell below the ratio in Western Europe; and social change slowed down.

Gender contrasts in social mobility. Except for a few studies, the history of gender contrasts in social mobility is largely unexplored. But gender contrasts undoubtedly will add important new aspects to the general debate about long-term trends in social mobility. The existing studies point to four conclusions. First, in a more radical sense than in the study of male mobility, female mobility raises the question of whether social mobility should in fact be centered around occupational mobility or whether other factors such as marriage and unpaid or partially paid work in emerging professions are to be taken into account much more than they have been so far. In the end, marriage might turn out to be an important channel of upward or downward mobility for men as well in past societies. Second, female mobility raises the question of greater downward mobility during the transition to modern society, when female activity outside the family sphere increased. A study of female social mobility in twentieth-century Berlin demonstrates that a large number of active women became intergenerationally déclassé during the early parts of the century. Further studies are required to corroborate the results. Third, the study of the social mobility of women demonstrates much more clearly than the study of the social mobility of men the effects of economic crises and fundamental transitions on social mobility. Opportunities for women seem to have depended strongly on economic prosperity, on long-term social stability. In periods of economic crisis and rapid transitions such as the upheaval of 1989–1991, women more than men belonged to the losers. Here again the study of female mobility might draw the attention of historians to a more general aspect of mobility that was not sufficiently investigated. Finally, the social mobility of women also demonstrates that definite changes in social opportunities can be achieved only in the long term. Even though important channels of upward social mobility such as education offered equal chances to women, this did not lead to a parallel improvement of occupational chances for women. It is highly doubtful that the explanation for this gap can be found simply in the study of institutions and context factors. Historical studies of the experience of social mobility and the perception of social mobility will become more important than they have been so far.

The discourse on social mobility. The historical study of social mobility has begun to be conducted in the light of another field of inquiry, the history of identities and the debate about modernity. Unlike the aspect of social opportunities, this aspect of the subject is relatively unexplored. One approach to it is by way of the history of European identity. In the decades before World War I, Europeans became aware of the rise of the superior American economy and the more liberal American society. European self-understanding was no longer based on an implicit feeling of superiority over all other societies; rather, it was tinged with a growing uneasiness about modernity. Tocqueville was a very early example of this worried European self-understanding. More advanced social opportunities in America came to symbolize modernity and, therefore, relative European backwardness. Such opportunities were welcomed by the more liberal Europeans and described as a horrifying social scenario without any fixed hierarchies by the more conservative.

This debate gradually changed when Europe entered the period of a fundamental crisis of self-understanding between World War I and roughly the 1960s. The idea of open social opportunities gradually was shared by all Europeans. However, some Europeans still saw Europe as a backward society with lower social opportunities than the United States. Other Europeans argued that one of the last aspects of European superiority was the greater room for individuality allowed by European society compared to the conformity of American society. These Europeans, among them Simone de Beauvoir, thus saw Europe as the society with more opportunities for the individual. When the historical study of social mobility began, this initial debate was still going on. After the 1970s or so European self-understanding changed again, overcoming the period of fundamental identity crisis. Social ascent became less important as an element of European self-understanding and as a theme of the debate over modernity.


During the 1980s and 1990s social mobility was much less frequently investigated by historians. The major trend of social history was directed to other themes, other fundamental questions, and other methods. A variety of factors contributed to this declining interest in social mobility.

First, the initial wave of studies of social mobility appeared to be repetitive, and the subject seemed to have lost its former innovative power. After the completion of the first twenty or thirty local studies of social mobility during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States and Europe, historians failed to develop a convincing strategy showing which type of community in which country and period promised to open new insights. Historians did not rush to investigate the seventh industrial or fourth port city in the sixth industrializing country. In addition, the more sophisticated the methods and the use of sources became, the more time-consuming and expensive the individual study of social mobility grew to be. This rising standard of the study of social mobility was only partially compensated by the technical progress of personal computers. One can say that the quality standard for social mobility studies by historians rose dramatically, while the chance to present additional new arguments declined. At the same time, the gap between the quantitative methods employed by historians and sociologists widened, and thus the study of social mobility by sociologists was less encouraging for historians. Moreover, some of the questions that inspired the historical study of social mobility—the more open American society, the effects of industrialization and modernization—were asked much less frequently. These questions lost their former urgency once it was widely accepted that social mobility rates were about the same in most societies and that an upward trend in social mobility in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in industrializing and modernizing countries could not be proved. Finally, the thematic trends in historical research made social mobility seem less modern a theme. The quantitative and social scientific profile of the historical study of social mobility made it less attractive among the mainstream thematic trends of historical research, which led toward a return to political history, toward a cultural history inspired by anthropological questions unconnected with social mobility, or toward a social history dealing primarily with discourses, mentalities, and microworlds.

To be sure, it would be misleading to say that historians abandoned social mobility as a theme. Quite the opposite, the study of discourses, mentalities, values, and microworlds often treated the social mobility of individuals and rendered it a normal topic of the historian. But the label of social mobility no longer appeared on the title pages of books, chapters, or articles.

The future of the study of social mobility is that of a normal theme among many others in history rather than a top theme in an expanding branch of history, as in the 1960s and 1970s. In this more modest but realistic sense, one can expect and hope for four sorts of studies on neglected aspects of social mobility. The first is the so far neglected study of social mobility beyond Western Europe and the United States, leading to international comparisons in a geographic dimension including Eastern European, Asian, African, and Latin American cases. The questions of social opportunities in advanced and developing societies and of the particularities of Europe will then be answered in a much more comprehensive way than they have been so far. Gender contrasts is the second aspect deserving of future study. Our knowledge of the social mobility of women, in contrast to that of men, is still very limited. The subject should be pursued through case studies of contrasting countries, various activities of women, and contrasting general conditions such as prosperity and economic depression, peace and war, stability and transitions. A third future theme involves specific factors of social mobility such as religion, types of family, immigration, unemployment and poverty, background in terms of social milieu, and social upheavals and transitions. Historians will probably explore these contexts of social mobility in case studies of a certain number of individuals rather than in quantitative studies of entire communities, thus attending to the subjective experience of social mobility. Finally, the history of social mobility debates, as delineated here, is itself deserving of further study.

See alsoThe Industrial Revolutions (volume 2);Gender and Work; History of the Family (volume 4);Schools and Schooling; Higher Education (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


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Social Mobility

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The term "social mobility" describes the nature and amount of change in social position over time. In principle, this change can be defined for any social entity. Thus, one can study the "collective mobility" of classes, ethnic groups, or entire nations in terms of, for example, average health status, literacy, education, or gross domestic product per capita. More commonly, the term is used in connection with the movement of individuals or families. However, even though social mobility typically is defined with respect to micro units of society, the pattern of mobility across those units generally is considered a core characteristic of a society's social structure, and the study of this mobility generally is recognized as a fundamental area of macro-level sociology.

Social mobility typically is conceptualized in terms of the quantity of movement and the distribution of its direction and distance. The different rates that together constitute the mobility structure of a society is highly complex, however, for several reasons. First, societies have more than one dimension along which mobility can occur. Thus, one can speak of occupational mobility, social class mobility, educational mobility, job mobility, income mobility, wealth mobility, and so on. In principle, one also can use the term "social mobility" to describe movement among nonhierarchical social statuses, such as religious affiliation mobility and geographic mobility or mobility across categories that describe attitudes, belief systems, life styles, and the like. The dominant use of the term in the literature, however, concerns mobility along a social hierarchy that defines a dimension of social inequality in a society. Second, even with respect to a single hierarchy, the mobility structure is not easy to summarize. A different rate of mobility can be calculated with respect to each combination of origin and destination position along the social hierarchy in question. Empirically, it may be possible to summarize this collection of rates accurately in terms of a function of the social distance between origin and destination or in terms of specific relationships between the origin and destination categories. In general, however, an accurate summary cannot be expressed in terms of a single number. Thus, for each social hierarchy, there is not a single rate of social mobility but a core set of rates that, taken together, can be termed the structure of mobility with respect to the particular hierarchical dimension.

Social mobility is an important issue in sociology for several reasons. For one thing, it is relevant to social equity. Philosophical and moral evaluations of social inequality often depend not only on the level of inequality in a society but also on the extent to which individuals or families can leave disadvantaged states during their lifetimes or across generations. Social mobility is also an important explanatory factor in social theory. The basic stratification variables affect a wide variety of social outcomes and behaviors, but these effects accumulate over time; social mobility therefore affects outcomes by changing the states and durations of these key explanatory variables. The societal rate of mobility also may have macro-level consequences. An early conjecture in this area appears in the work of Werner Sombart, who argued that the failure of early twentieth century socialist parties in the United States stemmed in part from the high rate of American social mobility, which prevented the formation of strong class identification.

The longest-standing tradition in sociological mobility research concerns mobility in occupational groupings or social classes. Much of this work has used "mobility tables" (cross-classifications of origin by destination position) to study "intergenerational mobility," that is, the extent to which the social position of adults differs from that of their parents. Another large body of work has focused on "intragenerational mobility," or the mobility experienced by individuals or families over the course of their adult lives. Because male labor force participation generally has been higher and more persistent than female participation and because of the somewhat controversial presumption that the status of a family derives from the status of the male breadwinner, for many years these studies focused on intergenerational mobility between fathers and sons, although more recent literature has examined the structure of mobility for women as well.

An important question in intergenerational mobility research is whether overall rates of intergenerational social mobility differ by country. Earlier in the century, scholars hypothesized that the United States had especially high rates of mobility, and some argued that those rates were a consequence of the American meritocratic value system. More recently, it became clear that the primary factors in cross-national differences in mobility rates are structural, not cultural. Differences in socalled structural mobility across countries arise from the extent to which the distribution of positions for sons or daughters differs from the distribution of positions for their fathers. Changes in this distribution across generations (as well as more subtle factors such as class differences in fertility, death rates, and migration rates) necessarily produce intergenerational social mobility. Countries whose occupational distribution is changing rapidly (high rates of structural change) therefore have greater levels of mobility than do countries whose occupational distribution is changing slowly.

Not all social mobility occurs as a result of structural change. The component of social mobility that occurs beyond the amount produced by structural change is typically called circulation mobility, exchange mobility, or relative mobility. The Featherman, Jones, Hauser (FJH) hypothesis of the mid-1970s asserts that cross-national and historical differences in social mobility are accounted for almost completely by differences in levels of structural mobility. According to the strong form of this hypothesis, once structural mobility is taken into account, the pattern of relative mobility chances is invariant over time and across countries. This pattern has three principal features: (1) relatively high immobility at the top and bottom of the hierarchy, (2) higher levels of short-range mobility than long-range mobility (moves from the top to the bottom or from the bottom to the top of the hierarchy are especially rare), and (3) a relatively small impact of origins on destinations in the middle of the hierarchy.

More recent research has determined that even though the weak form of the FJH hypothesis (overall mobility differences are due largely to differences in structural mobility) is supported by the data, the strong form (invariance of relative mobility chances) appears to be false. However, further progress on this issue has been elusive. In particular, the question of whether cross-national differences in relative mobility chances are the subject of such complex national historical differences that they are idiosyncratic or whether they are the product of a more parsimonious set of structural forces (e.g., the extent to which the political system is democratic, the level of modernization, and the level of social inequality) remains to be answered.

Another continuing challenge in mobility research concerns conceptualization and measurement of the component of mobility that is due to structural change. The specification of this causal force in terms of differences in the distribution of positions of fathers and their adult children is problematic for subtle but important reasons. Such an identification assumes that the observed destination distribution is caused by forces (such as technological change) that are not affected by (and therefore are a legitimate cause of) the observed mobility process. This amounts to assuming that the observed destination distribution constitutes a rigid supply constraint, a set of preexisting empty vacancies that are filled by the movement of sample members with respect to their origin positions. This assumption is never perfectly true. If the "supply constraint" is not rigid (and it is unlikely to be so), the observed distribution of destination positions (which by definition represents a summing up of the mobility outcomes for a particular statistical sample) is a consequence of the mobility process as well as of the "structural forces" that constrain the character of this destination distribution. It therefore cannot be taken to be a pure cause of social mobility. The logic of structural mobility becomes especially problematic when subgroups of the population are studied in this fashion. For example, if the distribution of women's occupations shifts toward high-status occupations relative to the total occupational distribution, it is problematic to argue that the relative improvement of women's destinations is a "cause" of women's higher levels of social mobility as opposed to being a consequence of that mobility. This problem, which is sometimes referred to as the "reflection" problem, has not had a satisfactory solution.

Although structural change is a major part of the explanation for overall levels of intergenerational social mobility in a society, it cannot explain differences in the likelihood that particular individuals will be upwardly or downwardly mobile. The prevailing pattern of circulation mobility that was noted above (relatively high levels of immobility at the top and bottom, the predominance of short-range over long-range mobility, etc.) implies that class of origin is a significant predictor of the types of mobility that do occur. However, an explanation for destination positions that relied solely on the status of origin would be unsatisfactory in two respects: First, the predictive power of social origins by itself is relatively weak; second, the explanation does not indicate how and why social origins matter.

Efforts to redress these deficiencies stem largely from the publication of Blau and Duncan's The American Occupational Structure (1967). A major goal of that work was to understand whether the educational system operated primarily as a device that transmitted the status of parents to their children or as an engine of social mobility that freed children from the effects of the status of their parents. To accomplish that goal, Blau and Duncan developed what has come to be known as the status attainment model. Their approach to the study of mobility assumed a dominant metric to social hierarchy: the socioeconomic status of occupations. Their research showed that, at least for men (Blau and Duncan did not study the mobility of women), education was a more important determinant of a son's adult socioeconomic status than were his socioeconomic origins. Furthermore, while educational attainment was strongly influenced by socioeconomic origin, most of the individual-level variation in educational attainment was not explained by socioeconomic origin. Those authors also showed that most of the effect of socioeconomic origins on outcomes was indirect, derived from the effect of those origins on education. Finally, the effect of education on occupational attainment regardless of social background was much larger in the United States than was the direct effect of father's socioeconomic background (regardless of the son's education). These findings led many to interpret Blau and Duncan's research to mean that the United States more closely approximated an "achievement" than an "ascription" society, although others pointed to the still large (even if not decisive) disadvantage arising from low socioeconomic origin along with the disadvantages associated with being a first-generation immigrant, an African-American, or a woman as constituting important qualifications to such a generalization.

The Blau and Duncan approach essentially divided the intergenerational mobility process into three segments. The first segment concerned the process of educational attainment, the second concerned the transition from school to work, and the third concerned the "intragenerational" mobility that occurs over the working life. Leaving aside the powerful but difficult to specify force of structural change, this division may offer the best possibility for understanding the mechanisms that lie behind intergenerational social mobility as well as identifying possible policy interventions and shedding light on three processes that have great importance in their own right. Each of these processes calls attention to specific institutions (in particular, the educational system and the labor market) that facilitate, limit, or channel social mobility. The focus on how institutional forces constrain the impact of individual resources on individual outcomes sometimes is referred to as the "fourth generation" of social mobility research (with early mobility studies being the first generation, the status attainment tradition being the second, and statistically sophisticated analyses of mobility tables being the third).

A large body of literature has grown around each of these components of the intergenerational mobility process. With respect to education, scholars have conceptualized the educational career as a set of transitions to successively higher grades and have asked whether family background has the same influence at each grade level of this transition process. Results for the United States and several other countries suggest that the effects of family background decline at higher-grade transitions, though these findings are controversial. Assuming that the decline is real, some scholars have argued that the historical raising of the minimum school-leaving age should have reduced the impact of family of origin on outcomes over time. Again, however, while there is some evidence that the effects of family background have declined during the twentieth century and that these declines are caused by the expansion of education, empirical studies have failed to confirm this conjecture decisively.

A second major focus in the literature concerns the reasons why socioeconomic background is associated with educational performance. It has been appreciated since Sewell and associates developed the "Wisconsin model" in the early 1970s that there is a social psychological component to mobility in which family status is related to parental expectations for the child. In combination with grades in school, peer group influences, and teachers' expectations, this shapes a student's educational and occupational aspirations. More recent work has reconceptualized these family advantages or disadvantages in terms of cultural resources ("cultural capital"), which sometimes are specified as a family's participation in "high-cultural" activities (exposure to art museums, opera, theater, dance, etc.); in other studies, they are defined more broadly (and vaguely) as encompassing all the cultural advantages a family may possess that affect a child's ability to do well in school. Other recent literature focuses on "social capital," which sometimes is interpreted to mean the level and quality of interaction parents have with their children and at other times is interpreted to refer to the resources embedded in the parents' social networks that could in principle influence a child's outcomes. A third, rather controversial focus of attention in recent years concerns possible links between socioeconomic status and genes and the extent to which intergenerational correlations among status variables (particularly educational outcomes) indicate the presence of a genetic force. A fourth focus concerns the specific consequences of low income on children's development and later socioeconomicoutcomes. A fifth focus concerns the extent to which the characteristics of schools, neighborhoods, and communities can mute or exaggerate the impact of family characteristics on educational outcomes.

The second mobility component is the transition from school to work. A large body of literature focuses specifically on aspects of this transition, including variation in the extent to which the diplomas, degrees, and advanced degrees provided by schools are linked by law or custom to specific occupational careers; the extent to which credentials are standardized in a country; the extent to which the supply of those credentials is controlled by schools in light of estimated demand; and the extent to which students who graduate with these diplomas or degrees are provided with knowledge of the relevant job market. Many policy concerns in the United States focus on those who leave school before the tertiary level and the extent to which they are provided with a mix of academic and vocational skills and credentials that is valuable on the job market. Vocational education in particular is organized quite differently across industrialized societies, and in recent years comparative research on this transition has accelerated.

The third component concerns intragenerational mobility over the life course. This research has taken different forms. The Blau and Duncan approach largely emphasized the mean or typical pattern of life-course development as a function of education, first job, and father's occupation. In this form, the question of mobility is reduced to a question about the average status "return" to the resources an individual possesses on first entering the labor market. Although this approach is informative about the typical level of status advancement during the work career as a function of origin conditions, it suffers from two deficiencies: First, it does not explain how education and the first job lead to the current job; second, it does not provide an explanation of the frequency or consequences of deviations from the typical amount of status advancement during the work career.

An understanding of the full distribution of outcomes (i.e., both upward and downward career mobility) is made possible through the use of the "mobility table" approach that has been applied to the study of intergenerational mobility between the status of the father and the status of the son or daughter. The prevalent approach in recent sociology, however, has been more institutional. One line of work has focused on structural linkages between jobs in particular occupational or organizational labor markets. This work has addressed the implications of entering these "internal labor markets" for subsequent career advancement, with an important subset of it directed at questions about whether these institutional mechanisms reproduce, enhance, or mute racial or gender differences. Because these job linkages generally are not expressed in terms of abstract hierarchical measures such as class and socioeconomic status, studies of these organized labor markets frequently have turned away from the earlier focus on class or status and toward more concrete reward variables such as earnings and job level within an organizational hierarchy. Jobs outside of organized hierarchies that lacked other forms of institutional protection (such as professional licensing requirements) were characterized as "open" or (if low-quality) "secondary" labor market jobs. For several years, sociologists hoped that a parsimonious set of labor market "boundaries" could be operationalized and used to explain labor market outcomes in terms of labor market segment early in one's career. The promise of this "segmented labor market" approach to career mobility has faded, however. It is now recognized thatthe boundary between unstable, low-paying jobs in what once was commonly referred to as the "secondary labor market" and "internal labor market" jobs is by no means impermeable, especially in the early years of the adult life course. The segmented labor market approach has been undermined further by the appreciation of the numerically high levels of mobility (including involuntary mobility) out of corporate jobs, often as a result of plant closings and corporate restructuring. Literature on "displaced workers" that has developed largely in labor economics rather than sociology has attempted to quantify the short-term and medium-term career consequences of job displacement (the literature shows only transitory effects on employment but more durable effects on earnings). It can be assumed that job displacement is a principal mechanism by which structural change produces short-term and longer-term intragenerational (and ultimately intergenerational) occupational mobility. However, sociologists have only begun to explore the connection between job displacement and the structural mobility observed in mobility tables.

A separate body of literature has addressed the intragenerational mobility of people who at one time or another in their lives are poor. Aside from questions about the intergenerational transmission of poverty, much of this literature has focused on whether poverty is a permanent or transitory status. It has been recognized that most poverty in the United States is transient, although an important fraction of the poor remain poor for long periods, while many who escape poverty have a relatively high probability of returning to poverty in the future. Much of this literature addresses the factors that influence rates of entry into and exit from poverty.

Poverty studies use a measure of income, especially income in relation to needs, rather than class or status as the basic measure of position. They typically make the family the relevant unit of measurement because it is family income, not individual earnings or status, that most directly determines poverty status. They also direct attention to the facts that income mobility is a household, not an individual-level, concept; that income mobility can be generated by labor market events involving one's partner as well as oneself; that public transfers can be an important source of income and can play a significant role in determining levels of income mobility; and that changes in household composition (including marriage, cohabitation, and union dissolution) can strongly influence income mobility.

More recent mobility literature has focused as much attention on instability as on stability (or stable "career advancement") over time. This emphasis raises important questions about an important presupposition underlying the sociological framework for mobility studies: that it was meaningful to conceptualize the socioeconomic status of the family of origin as a stable point and the "current" status of the adult son or daughter as a "realized" socioeconomic status that could be compared with the point of origin. Early studies were forced by the limitations of data to use parental status at a single point in time (e.g., the point at which the respondent was 16 years old) as the measurement of family status over the duration of childhood. The growing availability of multigenerational panel data that provide information about the possibly changing status of the family of origin during childhood has made it possible for scholars to study how temporal variations in the status of parents affect the process of intergenerational transmission. These more extensive data on the lives of parents and their grown-up children are allowing scholars to study intergenerational and intragenerational mobility with respect to statuses such as income, wealth, and poverty, which are perhaps more volatile than are occupational status and class position.

Questions about racial and/or ethnic or gender differences in mobility have largely been subordinated to gender and racial and/or ethnic inequality and changes in levels in inequality over time. In other words, the focus has been more on the collective mobility of these groups with respect to white males than on whether the structure of individual-level mobility within groups defined by race or gender is different from the structure of mobility for white males. This literature has perhaps paid more attention to economic outcomes than to class or status outcomes. Research on gender inequality in particular has avoided the use of status metrics or broad occupational groups, which understate the gender inequality that is visible in earnings. The issue of mobility still plays an important role in this literature because of the possible role of mobility processes in explaining how gender or racial and/or ethnic inequality comes about. In the case of women, the literature has focused on why women take a different mix of academic subjects than men do and on how gender differences in the transition from school to work and in career mobility produce differences in the average earnings of women and men over the life course. In this literature, the pattern and quantity of work experience and the different distribution of men and women across jobs and occupations ("sex segregation") have been the issues of greatest interest. In contrast, the role of specifically intergenerational processes and their possible impact on gender inequality or on the well-documented declining level of gender inequality in earnings has received less attention.

The issue of race is in some respects parallel to that of gender but has its own unique features. Women and men grow up in the same families, while whites and nonwhites grow up in different families, and these differences involve socioeconomic factors as well as race or ethnicity per se. Furthermore, racial and/or ethnic segregation by educational major, job, or occupation has not been as extreme as gender segregation in recent years. However, just as research has shown that the effects of race on income declined over the postwar years (though the trend has stalled and perhaps reversed since about 1980), it also has shown that the direct effects of race on socioeconomic attainment have declined, at least through the late 1980s. African-Americans experience no disadvantage at all in educational attainment because of race per se (though they experience a disadvantage stemming from their lower average socioeconomic origins). Specifically race-based intergenerational factors still may affect the levels of black–white inequality in the next generation, but they probably operate through the quality (as opposed to quantity) of schooling, and these effects are not well understood.

Comparative analyses of mobility that go beyond the mobility table approach described above are complicated by substantive differences in institutional structures across nations and differences in the measurement of key variables. Nonetheless, progress is being made. In perhaps the most notable application of the original Blau and Duncan model to comparative analysis, Treiman and Yip used the ratio of the net effect of education on occupational attainment to the direct effect of the father's socioeconomic background (this might be conceptualized as a ratio of "achievement" to "ascription") to compare the process of attainment in different countries. This ratio varies from a relatively high level in industrialized societies (particularly in Scandinavia) to a low level in less industrialized societies (with India having the lowest value in their study). Scholars also are focusing on comparative studies of topics such as the transition from school to work, job mobility, earnings mobility, sex segregation, and family dynamics. Many of these studies are being carried out with newly available panel data on demographic and socioeconomic outcomes that are being collected in many industrialized societies. These new sources of data are complex, and it will take several years before a broad-based comparative literature that uses them becomes available. The direction and pace of research, however, are encouraging. Social mobility is likely to retain its vitality as well as its centrality in sociology for the foreseeable future.


Blau, Peter, and Otis Dudley Duncan 1967 The AmericanOccupational Structure. New York: Wiley.

Corcoran, Mary 1995 "Rags to Rags: Poverty and Mobility in the United States." Annual Review of Sociology 21:237–267.

Duncan, Greg J., and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, eds. 1997 Consequences of Growing Up Poor. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Erikson, Robert, and John H. Goldthorpe 1992 TheConstant Flux: A Study of Class Mobility in IndustrialSocieties. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Fischer, Claude S. 1996 Inequality by Design: Cracking theBell Curve Myth. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Ganzeboom, Harry B. G., Donald J. Treiman, and Wout C. Ultee 1991 "Comparative Intergenerational Stratification Research: Three Generations and Beyond." Annual Review of Sociology 17:277–302.

Grusky, David B. 1994 Social Stratification: Class, Race,and Gender in Sociological Perspective. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.

Jacobs, Jerry A. 1996 "Gender Inequality and Higher Education." Annual Review of Sociology 22:153–185.

Kerckhoff, Alan 1995 "Institutional Arrangements and Stratification Processes in Industrial Societies." Annual Review of Sociology. 21:323–347.

Reskin, Barbara 1993 "Sex Segregation in the Workplace." Annual Review of Sociology 19:241–269.

Rosenbaum, James E., T. Kariya, R. Settersten, and T. Maier 1990 "Market and Network Theories of the Transition from High School to Work: Their Application to Industrialized Societies." Annual Review ofSociology 16:263–299.

Rosenfeld, Rachel 1992 "Job Mobility and Career Processes." Annual Review of Sociology 18:39–61.

Shavit, Yossi, and Hans-Peter Blossfeld 1993 PersistentInequality: Changing Educational Attainment in Thirteen Countries. Boulder, Colo.: Westview.

——, and Walter Müller, eds. 1997 From School toWork: A Comparative Study of Educational Qualifications and Occupational Destinations. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Sørensen, Annemette 1994 "Women, Family, and Class." Annual Review of Sociology 20:27–47.

Thomas A. DiPrete

mobility, social

views updated Jun 08 2018

mobility, social The movement–usually of individuals but sometimes of whole groups–between different positions within the system of social stratification in any society. It is conventional to distinguish upward and downward mobility (that is, movement up or down a hierarchy of privilege), and intergenerational from intragenerational or career mobility (the former referring to mobility between a family of origin and one's own class or status position, the latter to the mobility experienced during an individual career, such as respondent's first job compared to his or her present job). Other distinctions–most notably that between structural and non-structural mobility–are more contentious.

Most sociological attention has focused on intergenerational mobility, in particular the role of educational achievement as compared to that of social background or of ascriptive characteristics such as race, in explaining patterns of occupational attainment. Although there have been many case-studies of élite recruitment (for example P. Stanworth and A. Giddens's Elites and Power in British Society, 1974), the most popular research instrument has been the large-scale sample survey, and the most common points of comparison have been occupations. Some sociologists have studied social mobility in pre-industrial contexts (see, for example, H. Kaelble , Historical Research on Social Mobility, 1977
), and others in contemporary developing countries such as India (see A. Beteille , Caste, Class and Power, 1965
), but the great majority of studies have dealt with the modern industrialized West and, to a lesser extent, the former communist states of Eastern Europe.

The study of social mobility has a long sociological pedigree, extending back to the mid-nineteenth-century writings of Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, with major contributions in the early twentieth century from Vilfredo Pareto (who proposed a theory of the ‘circulation of élites’) and Pitirim Sorokin. The now vast literature on the subject is inextricably entangled with wider discussions of (among other things) education, gender, culture, power, statistical techniques, and the role of theory in social research.

It is possible, indeed, to trace many of the classic debates in modern sociology back to the early arguments about mobility. For example, in Social Mobility (1927) Sorokin wrote that ‘channels of vertical circulation exist in any stratified society, and are as necessary as channels for blood circulation in the body’. In an argument that prefigures the later functionalist theory of stratification, he suggested that these ‘staircases’ or ‘elevators’ are necessary to the efficient allocation of talents to occupations, and that failure to achieve this promotes inefficiency and disorder. However, unlike Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore writing two decades later, Sorokin did not then conclude that high rewards were necessary to motivate individuals to undertake training for functionally important positions in society. More plausibly, he maintained that the incumbents of these positions were able to exploit their strategic occupational roles, in order to attract material and other privileges. Sorokin was particularly interested in the role of educational institutions in allocating people to the various occupational positions. Anticipating the radical critiques of the new sociology of education of the 1970s, he argued that schools function primarily as ‘a testing, selecting, and distributing agency’; in other words, they merely certify children for particular positions in the labour-market, rather than promote each individual's abilities or encourage the development of talent.

Confronted by this potentially vast field of interest, it is useful for heuristic purposes to view the modern literature on social mobility as a dispute between two divergent research programmes which have set the terms of discussion for this subject since 1945, and continue to dominate the field even today. On the one hand, there are those investigators who view mobility in the context of a social hierarchy, within which individuals can be ranked according to income, educational attainment, or socio-economic prestige. On the other, there are those who set it within the context of a class structure, embracing social locations defined by relationships prevailing within labour-markets and production units. During the 1950s and 1960s, the former hierarchical perspective was dominant, culminating in the so-called status-attainment tradition of mobility studies emanating principally from the United States. This was increasingly challenged, during the 1970s and 1980s, by researchers schooled within or influenced by the European tradition of class analysis.

The status-attainment programme sees the principal interest of mobility studies as being an attempt to specify those attributes which are characteristic of individuals who end up in the more desirable rather than the less desirable jobs. Characteristically, these studies investigate the extent to which the present occupational status of individuals is associated with the status of their family of origin, rather than individual achievements such as educational attainment. One virtue of this approach, as compared to earlier cross-tabulations of father's occupation by son's occupation, was that it disentangled at least some of the processes that linked the generations. For example, researchers explored the effects of father's education on son's occupational attainment, and showed that these were distinct from the effects of father's occupation. Most studies maintained that son's education was the crucial link between family background and occupational success, arguing that as much as half of the association between the two was mediated via education, with children from more privileged family backgrounds being higher educational achievers than their poorer peers. Later researchers extended the field of interest to include data on income, with most concluding that the impact of family background on earnings is substantial, but operates entirely indirectly through educational and occupational attainment.

Most of these studies employed the statistical techniques of regression analysis (and in particular path analysis). Most were also underpinned by a tacit adherence to a liberal model of industrial societies as increasingly homogeneous, middle class, meritocratic, and open. Typically, therefore, they tended to conclude that structural shifts in advanced industrial economies (especially the expansion of managerial, professional, and administrative occupations) created more ‘room at the top’ and so increased the opportunities for upward social mobility of individuals from working-class origins. This increasing social fluidity was reinforced by a progressive shift from ascriptive to achievement criteria as the dominant factors determining status attainment, a movement towards meritocratic selection that, together with the prevailing high rates of social mobility, undermined the potential for class formation and class conflict in industrial societies. Peter M. Blau and Otis D. Duncan's The American Occupational Structure (1967) is generally held to be the paradigmatic example of a study of social mobility within the status-attainment tradition.

The Blau-Duncan model prompted an enormous number of related and derivative studies. Whatever their differences and similarities, however, they all rested upon the assumption that occupations can be ranked within a status hierarchy about which there is a wide degree of consensus within and between societies. In some studies this social hierarchy was conceptualized narrowly as being one of occupational prestige. In others it was generalized to include additional wider aspects of socio-economic status. Rather than dispute the details of the occupational hierarchy, however, European class analysis came increasingly to challenge the basic premiss of the status attainment research programme; namely, that social mobility was most appropriately viewed as a matter of hierarchical occupational attainment among competing individuals.

The class analysis tradition starts from the rather different assumption that individuals are born into distinct social classes, membership of which has clear consequences for life-chances, values, norms, life-styles, and patterns of association. Representatives of this tradition argue that the socio-economic status scales at the heart of the status-attainment perspective display many unresolved methodological weaknesses. Most importantly, because these scales are a composite measure of popular judgements about the relative prestige or social standing of the various occupations, they rank alongside each other, as having similar levels of socio-economic status, occupations which have quite different structural locations. For example, skilled manual workers may have the same prestige score as routine clerical workers and self-employed shopkeepers, or office supervisors may be ranked alongside farmers and schoolteachers. In other words, the synthetic categories of the scale typically contain occupational groupings that are subject to different structural forces: because of sectoral and other changes in the occupational structure, some occupations will be in expansion, others in contraction, and some will be static. Such heterogeneity merely muddies the water of mobility: it is impossible to distinguish adequately the various structural influences on mobility from those which originate in other factors, and impossible also therefore to isolate hierarchical effects (family background, educational attainment, or whatever) from other effects of a non-hierarchical kind (such as changes in the occupational division of labour, industrial or sectoral growth and decline, government policies of protection, and so forth).

The class analysis programme of social mobility research, initiated in the 1970s, abandoned the Blau-Duncan form of occupational prestige-scaling in favour of discrete class categories whose members shared similar positions within labour-markets and production units. In Europe probably the most widely used class categories are those devised by John Goldthorpe (see GOLDTHORPE CLASS SCHEME) for the Oxford Mobility Study during the 1970s, a class scheme which attempts to aggregate occupational groupings whose members share similar ‘market situations’ and ‘work situations’ (a theory of class which Goldthorpe derived from his earlier collaboration with David Lockwood during the Affluent Worker Study of the 1960s). In the United States, the ‘new structuralism’ of the 1970s alerted some analysts of social mobility to the importance of labour-market influences on mobility trajectories, and led to the emergence of ‘multiple regression Marxists’ (such as Erik Olin Wright) who adapted the methods of Blau and Duncan to a theoretical stance which pointed to the importance of ownership, authority, and autonomy in the workplace.

Along with this new theory went new methods and conclusions. Class analysts argued that mathematical techniques of loglinear modelling were better suited to the analysis of mobility data, both because they did not require ordinal-level data (and therefore unsubstantiated assumptions) about a status hierarchy, and because they allowed researchers analysing a standard mobility matrix (a contingency table cross-tabulating class origins against class destinations) to distinguish absolute or total mobility rates (including those changes in mobility occasioned by shifts in the occupational structure) from changes in social fluidity or openness within the structure as such (relative rates). Applied to the same sorts of large-scale data-sets as were used within the status-attainment programme, the class analysis perspective and the new techniques of loglinear modelling suggested that the liberal assumptions of the earlier studies were unwarrantably optimistic. In most industrialized societies absolute levels of mobility have indeed increased significantly over the past three-quarters of a century, in accordance with the growth in skilled non-manual occupations, but relative mobility chances have remained largely unaltered throughout this period. More room at the top has not ensured greater equality of opportunity to get there, since proportionately more of the new middle-class jobs have been captured by the children of those already in privileged class locations. As a result, the association between an individual's class of origin and eventual destination has remained remarkably stable across successive birth-cohorts, despite economic expansion, educational reform, and redistributive social policies.

In the mid-1980s, Goldthorpe (together with collaborators in Sweden and Germany) designed the CASMIN (Comparative Analysis of Social Mobility in Industrial Nations) Project, an intensive comparative study of this problem. The project produced data which show that the mobility profiles of advanced societies are more complex than is allowed within either the liberal theory of industrial society or Marxist accounts of capitalist society. The most important findings suggest that, measured in absolute rates, the amount and pattern of mobility displays considerable variation across societies; that relative rates (or fluidity patterns) display a ‘large commonality’ across societies; and that changes in social fluidity over time follow a pattern of ‘trendless fluctuation’ rather than showing evidence of a general increase. In short, therefore, there is no long-term ‘loosening’ of the class structure, no increase in ‘fluidity’, and (by implication) no move towards meritocracy.

Each of these research programmes disputes the principal substantive conclusions arrived at by the other. The relevant journals are littered with acrimonious exchanges about matters of theory and method. Sometimes these leave outsiders puzzled or bemused: one sceptical observer has described the field as a ‘set of statistical techniques in search of a problem’. Others argue that, for a variety of different reasons, debates about social mobility continue to raise the fundamental issues of the discipline as a whole. For example, feminists have pointed to the fact that most mobility studies are based on samples of males only, and this has prompted wide-ranging discussion of the relevant ‘unit of mobility analysis’ (individual or family), the nature of so-called cross-class families (where two adult wage-earners are in different class positions and have different mobility trajectories), and the implications of the occupational division of labour by sex for mobility studies. The best overview of these and other related debates is Anthony Heath's Social Mobility (1981).

However, much dispute in the area is of a highly specialized and technical, rather than theoretical, nature. The longest-running controversies hinge on the possibility of distinguishing structural and non-structural sources of mobility. In earlier studies, some sociologists attempted to distinguish between structural (or net) and circulation (or exchange) mobility, the former being that amount of mobility required by the structure of the table itself (the fact that, if the marginal totals showing the distribution of fathers and that of sons are regarded as being fixed, then their differences mean that some respondents must fall into the off-diagonal cells in the table). The percentage of respondents who were mobile because of the very structure of the table was said to represent the amount of structural mobility in a society. Circulation mobility was then simply the difference between the total number of respondents who were mobile and those defined as being structurally mobile. However, both of these concepts are statistical artefacts with no clear substantive interpretation, so the somewhat artificial distinction between structural and circulation mobility has given way to a dispute about the concepts of absolute and relative mobility rates. In any origin to-destination mobility table, the row and column marginal totals (say, the distribution of fathers as compared to sons) will be different, an asymmetry that is due in part to changes in the occupational structure itself (such as, for example, sectoral shifts of the kind noted above). The use of loglinear techniques (based on the technique of odds ratios) permits the calculation of relative mobility chances which allow for (exclude) that portion of total mobility that is due to changes in the marginal distributions of the table. Many class analysts insist that this technique therefore distinguishes meaningfully between mobility which is the result of changes in the shape of the class structure and that which reflects of changes in its degree of openness. Critics maintain that the concept of relative mobility is no less artificial than that of structural and circulation mobility since, whether or not social mobility is caused by sectoral shifts alone, absolute or overall mobility is ‘real’—whereas respondents do not experience the ahistorical and acontextual phenomenon of ‘relative mobility chances’. In part this is also a dispute about the relationship between occupational mobility and class mobility; and, therefore, is inescapably a debate about the very definition of social class itself. See also BENINI COEFFICIENT; CONTEST AND SPONSORED MOBILITY; FEATHERMAN-JONES-HAUSER HYPOTHESIS.

Social Mobility

views updated May 11 2018


Social mobility is the movement of individuals or other social units between social statuses and positions. This mobility can be between the status of individuals and that of their forbears or their offspring ("intergenerational" mobility), or between different statuses of individuals within their own lifetimes ("intragenerational" mobility). The study of social mobility focuses on movement between occupations or, to a lesser extent, on changes in status signaled by income, wealth, poverty, or educational attainment. In principle, however, social mobility encompasses a wider set of social and cultural traits, such as family structure, religious affiliation, language, and political party identification.

Most modern research on social mobility focuses on the conceptualization, measurement, and description of mobility patterns at the national level for a variety of countries and periods. Motivated by an effort to examine the "openness" or "rigidity" of systems of social stratification and inequality, the study of mobility is part of the analysis of population composition. Social mobility, however, is also linked to dynamic aspects of demography because of its interdependence with basic demographic processes at both the individual and population levels.

Measurement and Analysis of Social Mobility

Research on social mobility focuses on either bivariate or multivariate relationships between dimensions of social position. Bivariate analyses of occupational mobility typically compare individuals by their occupational categories at their places of social origin and destination. The classification of occupations may be highly aggregated, focusing on only a small number of analytically important categories, or disaggregated to detailed occupations. Analytical categories may emphasize a general socioeconomic hierarchy or follow more relational, nonhierarchical class schemes. Regardless of the type of occupational classification, mobility analyses focus on the patterns of association between origins and destinations.

In the context of intergenerational occupational mobility, patterns include the degree to which offspring occupy the same social positions as their parents and, for those who are in different locations from those of their parents, whether flows between particular combinations of discrepant origins and destinations are unusually large or small. Using modern methods of categorical data analysis applied to mobility tables, researchers investigate the complex patterns of associations between origins and destinations. A cross tabulation of individuals by their origins and destinations is affected by the relative numbers of persons in the various categories of origins and destinations considered separately–the "marginal distributions" of the mobility table–and the associations between origins and destinations. Some degree of mobility may occur simply because the relative numbers of persons in origin positions differ from the relative numbers in destination positions. This mobility is often termed "structural mobility" because it is interpreted as resulting from changes in the occupational structure. Even in the absence of change in the occupational structure, however, substantial mobility typically occurs because of a certain degree of openness in a society. This mobility is termed "exchange," "circulation," or "relative" mobility.

A common focus of mobility analyses is to compare mobility patterns across populations and to discern the degree to which differences result from variation in the changes between the origin and destination marginal distributions, and which result from variation in the associations between origin and destination once the marginal distributions have been statistically controlled. In most Western societies during the twentieth century, secular changes in occupational mobility were mainly the result of changes in the distribution of occupations. These changes resulted from the shrinkage of agriculture, the shift from a manual to a largely non-manual workforce, and the shift from an industrial to a service economy. In comparison to these large changes in structural mobility, fluctuations in exchange or circulation mobility have been modest. Similarly, occupational mobility variations among industrial societies are mainly attributable to variations in occupational structure per se rather than crossnational variations in the net association between social origins and destinations.

The theoretical distinction between structural and circulation mobility, however, corresponds only roughly to the empirical distinction between marginal and associational variations in intergenerational mobility tables. The two marginal distributions of a social mobility table cannot both correspond directly to occupational structures at two points in time. For example, in mobility data derived from a cross-section survey of adult offspring, the destination marginal of the table does represent the occupational structure at the time of survey. The origin marginal of the table, however, does not represent the occupational structure at any single point in time because of variations in the timing of fertility among parents. Moreover, the relative numbers of parents in different occupation categories are affected by differentials in the level of fertility by parents' occupation, as well as by the occupational structures that prevailed during the periods when they raised their offspring.

Multivariate analyses of social mobility follow two general strategies. One is to examine the processes through which the statuses of social origins affect the statuses of destinations by identifying variables and statistical relationships that intervene between characteristics of parents and those of their adult offspring. These analyses typically focus on scalar measures, such as occupational status, years of school completed, earnings, and number of siblings, and attempt to isolate the direct and indirect effects of antecedent statuses on adult outcomes. For example, the gross effect of parent's occupational status on offspring's occupational status is attributable in part to the smaller average number of children born to higher status parents, the higher level of education acquired by offspring in such families, and the advantages that higher levels of education and fewer siblings bring to adult achievement. In most industrial and postindustrial societies, educational attainment plays a pivotal role in social mobility and achievement. Much of the association between parent's and offspring's adult socioeconomic statuses is accounted for by the dependence of offspring's educational attainment on parents' socioeconomic position and by the strong effect of offspring's educational attainment on the offspring's own socioeconomic attainment. Across cohorts born during the twentieth century, moreover, the indirect effect of social origins on destinations via educational attainment has increased, while the direct effect of social origins net of educational attainment has decreased. A second multivariate approach to the investigation of social mobility is the direct investigation of movement between education levels, jobs, occupations, or wage levels. This approach relies on variants of event history and multivariate life table analysis and uses data on the detailed temporal sequences of statuses or positions that individuals hold. Such analyses are well suited for the description of careers and the interdependence of socioeconomic mobility and other demographic transitions, such as movement between marital and childbearing statuses.

Social Mobility and Population Renewal

Social mobility is linked to population renewal in a variety of ways at the individual, family, and aggregate population levels. A longstanding concern of demographers is the potential impact of intergenerational social mobility on the fertility of women. The social mobility hypothesis suggests that upwardly mobile individuals may have unusually low fertility because low fertility may facilitate career success and wealth accumulation. Rigorous efforts to substantiate this hypothesis, however, have been largely negative, showing that apparent mobility effects are largely reducible to the effects of fertility norms specific to a woman's socioeconomic origin and to her destination rather than to social mobility per se. In contrast, a much better established relationship is a negative effect of fertility in the family of orientation–that is, number of siblings–on adult socioeconomic success. This relationship occurs because number of siblings indexes the degree of dilution of the economic, social, and psychological resources that parents provide their children. It holds for most Western societies, even when multiple indicators of parental socioeconomic background and family structure are controlled. Exceptions to the generally negative effect of number of siblings, however, occur in populations in which larger kin networks provide a socioeconomic advantage.

At the aggregate level, social mobility is a key mechanism through which fertility, marriage, and immigration may affect population composition. The classic model of population renewal assumes an age-differentiated but otherwise homogeneous onesex closed population subject to age-specific rates of fertility and mortality. This model can be extended to two-sex populations, to geographically heterogeneous populations, and to populations open to immigration and emigration. When considering how population renewal affects changes in the makeup of socially differentiated populations, however, it is usually necessary to also incorporate social mobility into the models. Differential fertility of social groups defined by, for example, language, religious affiliation, educational attainment, measured intelligence, or income strata, may affect the subsequent makeup of the population in these groups. The effect of fertility differentials on population composition, however, depends on the degree to which membership in these groups is open or closed across generations. In populations in which intergenerational social mobility is low–that is, in which the correlation between parental and offspring characteristics is high–differential fertility may strongly affect the differential growth rates of social groups. Conversely, when social mobility is high, the effects of differential fertility are offset by the tendency for offspring to belong to different social groups from their parents'. Similarly, high correlations between the socioeconomic characteristics of marriage partners may create higher levels of inequality in subsequent generations because of the reinforcing effects of both variation and covariation in parents' characteristics on inequality among their children. The inequality-producing effects of assortative marriage, however, may be nullified if high rates of intergenerational social mobility cause large proportions of offspring to belong to different social groups from their parents'. The few studies of the interdependence of social mobility, differential fertility, and assortative mating that have been carried out indicate that intergenerational social mobility rates in Western industrial societies are high enough to offset almost all of the potential effects of differential fertility and assortative mating on differential rates of population growth.

See also: Caste; Dumont, Arsène; Intergenerational Transfers; Partner Choice; Social Institutions; Social Reproduction.


Blake, Judith. 1989. Family Size and Achievement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Blau, Peter M., and Otis Dudley Duncan. 1967. The American Occupational Structure. New York: Wiley.

Duncan, Otis Dudley. 1966. "Methodological Issues in the Analysis of Social Mobility." In Social Structure and Mobility in Economic Development, ed. N. J. Smelser and S. M. Lipset. Chicago: Aldine.

Erikson, Robert, and John H. Goldthorpe. 1992. The Constant Flux: A Study of Class Mobility in Industrial Societies. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Featherman, David L., and Robert M. Hauser. 1978. Opportunity and Change. New York: Academic Press.

Ganzeboom, Harry B. G., Donald J. Treiman, and Wout C. Ultee. 1991. "Comparative Intergenerational Stratification Research: Three Generations and Beyond." Annual Review of Sociology 17: 277–302.

Hauser, Robert M., and John Robert Warren. 1997. "Socioeconomic Indexes for Occupations: A Review, Update, and Critique." In Sociological Methodology 1997, ed. Adrian E. Raftery. Washington, D.C.: The American Sociological Association.

Hout, Michael. 1988. "More Universalism, Less Structural Mobility: The American Occupational Structure in the 1980s." American Journal of Sociology 93: 1,358–1,400.

Mare, Robert D. 1997. "Differential Fertility, Intergenerational Educational Mobility, and Racial Inequality." Social Science Research 26: 263–291.

Rosenfeld, Rachel. 1992. "Job Mobility and Career Processes." Annual Review of Sociology 18: 39–61.

Sørensen, Jesper B., and David B. Grusky. 1996. "The Structure of Career Mobility in Microscopic Perspective." In Social Differentiation and Social Inequality: Essays in Honor of John C. Pock, ed. J. N. Baron, D. B. Grusky, and D. J. Treiman. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Robert D. Mare

social mobility

views updated Jun 11 2018

social mobility See MOBILITY, SOCIAL.

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