Social Mobility

Social Mobility

Social mobility is the movement of an individual or group from one social position to another over time.

Learning Objectives

Assess how different factors facilitate social mobility

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A person’s ability to move between social positions depends upon their economic, cultural, human, and social capital.
  • The attributes needed to move up or down the social hierarchy are particular to each society; some countries value economic gain, for example, while others prioritize religious status.
  • Social mobility typically refers to vertical mobility, movement of individuals or groups up or down from one socio-economic level to another, often by changing jobs or marriage.

Key Terms

  • Relative Social Mobility: A measure of a person’s upward or downward movement in the social hierarchy compared to the movement of other members of their inherited social class.
  • meritocratic: Used to describe a type of society where wealth, income, and social status are assigned through competition.
  • social mobility: the degree to which, in a given society, an individual’s, family’s, or group’s social status can change throughout the course of their life through a system of social hierarchy or stratification
  • Intergenerational Mobility: Refers to the phenomenon whereby a child attains higher or lower status than their parents.

Social mobility refers to the movement of individuals or groups in social positions over time. Most commonly, social mobility refers to the change in wealth and social status of individuals or families. However, it may also refer to changes in health status, literacy rate, education, or other variables among groups, such as classes, ethnic groups, or countries.

Social mobility typically refers to vertical mobility, movement of individuals or groups up or down from one socio-economic level to another, often by changing jobs or marriage. Nonetheless, social mobility can also refer to horizontal mobility, movement from one position to another within the same social level, as when someone changes between two equally prestigious occupations.

In some cases, social mobility is intergenerational, as when children attain a higher or lower status than their parents held. Other times, social mobility is intra-generational, meaning that a person changes status within their lifetime. A high level of intergenerational mobility is often considered praiseworthy and can be seen as a sign of equality of opportunity in a society.

A distinction can also be drawn between absolute social mobility, which refers to the total observed movement of people between classes, and relative social mobility, which is an estimate of the chance of upward or downward movement of a member of one social class in comparison with a member from another class. An example of absolute social movement is when a region’s economic development provides quality education to a social group that previously did not have access to education, thus raising the group’s literacy level and socioeconomic status. Relative social mobility might refer to the opportunities presented to a middle class child born in a particular area of the United States, who might be predicted to attain a college level education and a maximum income of $80,000, for example.

Social mobility can be enabled to varying extents by economic capital, cultural capital, human capital, and social capital. Economic capital includes a person’s financial and material resources, such as income and accumulated wealth. Cultural capital includes resources ranging from holding a graduate degree to having a grasp of a group’s customs and rituals, both of which may confer an advantage in job markets and social exchanges. Human capital refers to such individual traits as competence and work ethic, which may enable increased educational or professional attainment. Social capital includes the advantages conferred by one’s social network, such as access to professional opportunities and insider knowledge. These types of capital facilitate mobility by providing access to opportunities and the tools to acquire wealth and status.

Societies present different opportunities for mobility depending on their systems of value. For example, Western capitalist countries are generally meritocratic. In such countries, social standing is based on such personal attributes as educational attainment, income, and occupational prestige. Thus, the degree of mobility in Western capitalist states depends on the extent to which individuals have access to educational and economic opportunity. By contrast, in countries where religious devotion is valued over economic standing, mobility may depend upon individuals’ access to religious rituals and shows of piety. In different countries or regions, the extent to which individuals have social mobility depends upon different factors.

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Intergenerational Mobility in a Sample of Developed Countries: This graph shows the results of a study on how much intergenerational social mobility there is in a sample of developed countries. Countries with higher intergenerational income elasticity have lower social mobility — in countries on the left of the graph, children are likely to attain the same social status as their parents.

Growing Gap Between Rich and Poor

Economic inequality (also known as the gap between rich and poor) consists of disparities in the distribution of wealth and income.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the causes of economic inequality

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Economic inequality refers to inequality among individuals and groups within a society, but can also refer to inequality among countries.
  • Inequality is most often measured using the Gini coefficient, a statistic used to demonstrate the dispersion of wealth in a group.
  • Both the capitalist market and government interventions can increase or decrease the level of inequality in a society.

Key Terms

  • supply and demand: An economic model of price determination in a market based on the relative scarcity or abundance of goods and services.
  • gini coefficient: A measure of the inequality of a statistical distribution, ranging from zero (total equality) to one (maximal inequality), used in various disciplines but especially in economics to compare incomes or wealth.
  • Capitalist Market: Refers to an economic system in which supply and demand determines the cost of goods and wages for services.

Economic inequality (also known as the gap between rich and poor, income inequality, wealth disparity, or wealth and income differences) consists of disparities in the distribution of wealth (accumulated assets) and income. The term typically refers to inequality among individuals and groups within a society, but can also refer to inequality among countries. The issue of economic inequality is related to the ideas of equity: equality of outcome and equality of opportunity. There are various numerical indices for measuring economic inequality, but the most commonly used measure for the purposes of comparison is the Gini coefficient (also known as the Gini index or Gini ratio for Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini). The Gini coefficient is a statistical measure of the dispersal of wealth or income. A Gini coefficient of zero indicates that there is perfect equality—assets are equally divided between all people in the group. A Gini coefficient of one indicates that all of a group’s wealth is held by one individual. Most countries fall toward the middle of this range.

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Map of Global Gini Coefficients: Using Gini coefficients, this map illustrates the extent to which each country in the world has internal inequality, or a gap between its richest and poorest citizens.

There are many reasons for economic inequality within societies, and they are often interrelated. Acknowledged factors that impact economic inequality include, but are not limited to:

  • Inequality in wages and salaries;
  • The income gap between highly skilled workers and low-skilled or no-skills workers;
  • Wealth concentration in the hands of a few individuals or institutions;
  • Labor markets;
  • Globalization;
  • Technological changes;
  • Policy reforms;
  • Taxes;
  • Education;
  • Computerization and growing technology;
  • Racism;
  • Gender;
  • Culture;
  • Innate ability

A major cause of economic inequality within modern economies is the determination of wages by the capitalist market. In the capitalist market, the wages for jobs are set by supply and demand. If there are many workers willing to do a job for a great amount of time, there is a high supply of labor for that job. If few people need that job done, there is low demand for that type of labor. When there is high supply and low demand for a job, it results in a low wage. Conversely, if there is low supply and high demand (as with particular highly skilled jobs), it will result in a high wage. The gap in wages produces inequality between different types of workers.

Apart from market-driven factors that affect wage inequality, government sponsored initiatives can also increase or decrease inequality. Social scientists and policy makers debate the relative merits and effectiveness of each approach to regulating inequality. Typical government initiatives to reduce economic inequality include:

  • Public education: Increasing the supply of skilled labor and reducing income inequality due to education differentials.
  • Progressive taxation: The rich are taxed proportionally more than the poor, reducing the amount of income inequality in society.
  • Minimum wage legislation: Raising the income of the poorest workers
  • Nationalization or subsidization of products: Providing goods and services that everyone needs cheaply or freely (such as food, healthcare, and housing), governments can effectively raise the purchasing power of the poorer members of society.

Open vs. Closed Stratification Systems

In an open class system, people are ranked by achieved status, whereas in a closed class system, people are ranked by ascribed status.

Learning Objectives

Differentiate between open and closed stratification systems

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Social stratification describes the socioeconomic levels of a society as “layers,” with the wealthiest and most powerful citizens being at the top.
  • An achievement-based economic system with social mobility and relations between classes is known as an open class system.
  • By contrast, people in a closed class system have been confined to their ancestral occupations, and their social status has mostly been prescribed by birth. Most closed class systems are found in less industrialized countries.
  • Ascribed status is the social position one is born into and personal characteristics beyond one’s control, such as race and gender. Achieved status is one’s social standing that depends on personal accomplishments.

Key Terms

  • achieved status: A social status of a person that is acquired, such as being an Olympic athlete, being a criminal, or being a college professor.
  • structural mobility: Opportunity for movement in social class that is attributable to changes in the social structure of a society, rather than to changes in an individual.
  • ascribed status: The social status of a person that is given from birth or assumed involuntarily later in life.

Social stratification describes the socioeconomic levels of a society as “layers,” with the wealthiest and most powerful citizens being at the top. Typically, the top layer of society tends to have lots of property, as well as prestige and social influence.

Sociologists who study stratification have identified open class systems and compared them to closed class systems. The difference between these types of class systems are their structural mobility. In a class system that has high structural mobility, it’s easy to move around between social classes based on the way the society is structured, regardless of your individual achievements.

In an open class system, the hierarchical social status of a person is achieved through their effort. These types of class systems are achievement-based economic system with social mobility and relations between classes. Status based on family background, ethnicity, gender, and religion, which is also known as “ascribed status,” is less important. In an open class system, there is no distinct line between the classes, and there is a wide range of positions within each status level. Core industrial nations seem to have more of an ideal open class system than less industrialized countries, in which there are fewer opportunities for economic advancement.

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Steve Jobs’ Childhood Home: The United States exhibits an open stratification system, where individuals can move between social statuses based on achievement. Pictured is the middle class home of Steve Jobs’ parents, where he founded the technology company that eventually made him one of the world’s wealthiest people.

Compared with industrialized open systems, pre-industrial societies have mostly been found to be closed class systems where there is low social mobility. People in such societies may be confined to their ancestral occupations, and their social status is largely prescribed by status at birth. A society in which traditional or religious caste systems dominate, opportunity for social mobility is unlikely.

Achieved status is a position gained based on merit or achievement (used in an open system). An open system describes a society with mobility between different social classes. Individuals can move up or down in the social rankings; this is unlike closed systems, where individuals are set in one social position for life despite their achievements. Ascribed status is based on who a person is, not what they can do. In closed class systems, people tend to be ranked by ascribed status. When ascribed status is used to determine social position, fixed roles develop, such as those of lord and serf in feudal Europe. Roles are assigned at birth, and there is little change over one’s lifetime. Social mobility is much more frequent in countries that use achievement as the basis for status.

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The French Estates: This fifteenth-century woodcutting illustrates the closed stratification system of the three estates of the French Ancien Régime. People were divided into clergy, nobility, and commoners. These categories were discrete, and there was little interaction or mobility between them.

Types of Social Mobility

Social mobility can be vertical and horizontal, absolute and relative, and between generations.

Learning Objectives

Describe several types of social mobility

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Social mobility refers to the movement of individuals or groups in social position over time.
  • Social mobility may refer to classes, ethnic groups, or entire nations, and may measure health status, literacy, or education; however, more commonly it refers to individuals or families, and to their change in income.
  • Movement up or down the social hierarchy is called vertical social mobility.
  • Movement between two equally ranked social positions is called horizontal mobility.
  • Intra-generational mobility (“within” a generation) is defined as change in social status over a single lifetime.
  • Absolute mobility measures whether (and by how much) living standards in a society have increased; this is often measured by what percentage of people have higher incomes than their parents.
  • Relative mobility refers to how likely children are to move from their parents’ place in the social hierarchy.

Key Terms

  • meritocratic: Used to describe a type of society where wealth, income, and social status are assigned through competition.
  • vertical mobility: Movement of individuals or groups up or down from one socioeconomic level to another, often by changing jobs or through marriage.
  • intra-generational mobility: Change in social status over a single lifetime.

Social mobility refers to the movement of individuals or groups in social position over time. Most commonly, social mobility refers to the change in wealth and social status of individuals or families. However, it may also refer to changes in health status, literacy rate, education, or other variables among groups such as classes, ethnic groups, or countries.

Social mobility typically refers to vertical mobility, which is the movement of individuals or groups up or down from one socioeconomic level to another, often by changing jobs or through marriage. In some instances though, social mobility is used to refer to horizontal mobility, which is the movement from one position to another within the same social level, as when someone changes between two equally prestigious occupations.

Social mobility can be intergenerational, such as when children attain a higher or lower status than their parents held. Other times, social mobility is intra-generational, meaning that a person changes status within their lifetime. A high level of intergenerational mobility is often considered praiseworthy, and can be seen as a sign of equality of opportunity in a society.

A distinction can be drawn between absolute social mobility, which refers to the total observed movement of people between classes, and relative social mobility, which is an estimate of the chance of upward or downward movement of a member of one social class in comparison with a member from another class. An example of absolute social mobility is when a region’s economic development provides education to a social group that previously did not have access to education, thus raising the group’s literacy level and socioeconomic status. Relative social mobility might refer to the opportunities presented to a middle class child born in a particular area of the United States, who might be predicted to attain a college level education and a maximum income of $80,000, for example.

Social mobility can be enabled to varying extents by economic capital, cultural capital, human capital, and social capital. Economic capital includes a person’s financial and material resources, such as income and accumulated wealth. Cultural capital includes resources ranging from holding a graduate degree to having a grasp of a group’s customs and rituals, both of which may confer an advantage in job markets and social exchanges. Human capital refers to such individual traits as competence and work ethic, which may enable increased educational or professional attainment. Social capital includes the advantages conferred by one’s social network, such as access to professional opportunities and insider knowledge. These types of capital facilitate mobility by providing access to opportunities and the tools to acquire wealth and status.

Each society presents different opportunities for mobility depending on its system of values. For example, Western capitalist countries are generally meritocratic. In these countries, social standing is based on such personal attributes as educational attainment, income, and occupational prestige. Thus, the degree of mobility in Western capitalist states depends on the extent to which individuals have access to educational and economic opportunity. By contrast, in countries where religious devotion is valued over economic standing, mobility may depend upon individuals’ access to religious rituals and shows of piety. In different countries or regions, the extent to which individuals are socially mobile depends upon different factors.

Social Mobility in the U.S.

Strong social and economic mobility is considered part of American Dream, though there is relatively low social mobility in the U.S.

Learning Objectives

Explain how the “glass ceiling” and other factors lower social mobility in the United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Socioeconomic mobility in the United States refers to the movement of Americans from one social class or economic level to another, often by changing jobs or marrying.
  • The ” glass ceiling ” effect is the upper limit on the mobility of minorities, such as African-Americans and women, that prevents them from occupying more than a very small percentage of high status positions.
  • For women, another explanation for the glass ceiling effect in the American work force is the job- family trade off.

Key Terms

  • The American Dream: The belief that with hard work, courage, and determination, anyone can prosper and achieve success.
  • Socioeconomic Mobility: The movement of Americans from one social class or economic level to another, often by changing jobs or marrying.
  • glass ceiling: An unwritten, uncodified barrier to further promotion or progression for a member of a specific demographic group.

Socioeconomic mobility in the United States refers to the movement of Americans from one social class or economic level to another, often by changing jobs or marrying. This “vertical” mobility can be the change in socioeconomic status between parents and children (“inter-generational”), or over the course of a lifetime (“intra-generational”). It typically refers to “relative mobility”—the chance that an American’s income or status will rise or fall compared to others in another income or status group; however, mobility can also be “absolute”— whether (and by how much) living standards in America have increased. The belief that there is significant social mobility in America, or in other words, that Americans can and do rise from humble origins to riches, is called the American Dream.

Researchers have found that in fact, there is relatively low social mobility in the United States. Explanations for this phenomenon include the following:

  • The fact that affluent children have better access to superior schools in an economy where pay is higher for educated workers
  • The low rate of unionization, which leads to lower wages among the least skilled workers
  • Public health problems, like obesity and diabetes, which can limit education and employment
  • The sheer size of the income gap between the rich and poor, which makes it harder to climb the proverbial income ladder because the rungs are far apart
  • Poverty, since those with low income have significantly lower rates of mobility than middle and higher income individuals

Despite the increased presence of African Americans and women in the work force over the years, women and non-whites hold jobs with less rank, authority, opportunity for advancement, and pay than men and whites. The limit to women’s and minorities’ upward mobility is called the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling is thought to prevent women and minorities from occupying more than a very small percentage of top managerial positions. One reason for the persistence of the glass ceiling, even as explicitly discriminatory policies are eliminated, is the small proportion of high status individuals in the social networks of women and ethnic minorities. The more managers there are in an employee’s immediate work environment, the higher the employee’s chances of interacting and spending time with high status and high income employees. Consequently, the more likely these employees are to be drawn on for promotion.

For women, another explanation for the glass ceiling effect in the American work force is the job-family trade off. While both men and women feel that a conflict exists between work life and family life, women with children, particularly married women, are more likely to either temporarily leave the labor force or cut back on employment by using flex time, working part-time, or working only part of the year. Statistically, men have been willing to accept job conditions that women do not, such as working outside in extreme weather, working where you can become physically dirty on a regular basis, working extra hours, and other such undesirable conditions.

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US Gender Pay Gap, by Race/Ethnicity: In the United States, white males have greater social mobility than women and racial/ethnic minorities, whose mobility is limited by the glass ceiling.