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Considering Upwards Social Mobility


Social MobilityThis paper considers the issue of social mobility from a sociological perspective, but nonetheless treats the issue as one based upon both social and economic conditions. That is to say, this paper avoids disregarding the economic, and maintains that economic and social factors are often- if not in most cases- substantially related, in terms of explaining upward and downward social mobility, within a given society.

Furthermore, this paper is most interested in social mobility as a vertical, rather than as a horizontal concept. While questions related to social mobility as a horizontal concept are interesting and worth consideration; they do not tie in with socio-economic considerations, as well as the study of vertical social mobility does.

The first section of this paper begins with a consideration of social mobility as a multifaceted concept, in order to clarify the terms used throughout the remainder of this paper. Thereafter, a discussion concerning vertical social mobility as an absolute and relative phenomenon is presented. The purpose in so doing is to determine whether- and if so, why- absolute and relative social mobility most often occur in an upward, rather than downward manner. Finally, the conclusion sums up the main information and most critical arguments presented herein.

The Concept of Social Mobility from a Sociological and Socio-Economic Perspective

The concept of social mobility is a multifaceted one. In simple terms, social mobility concerns the process whereby individuals move either upward or downward from one class or social group into another (Habil et. al, 2), or out of and into social groups within the same socio-economic stats or class (ibid, 4). Nunn et. al (2007) describe social mobility in more complex terms, first mentioning that it “can be thought of in absolute and relative terms (9). When social mobility occurs in an absolute manner, a given society affords the mass of individuals therein with greater opportunities for socio-economic advancement. Absolute social mobility is made possible through advancements within the economic structure of a society. Relative social mobility however occurs as a result of progressive intra- and inter-generational advancements to the socio-economic status of an individual or family. Whereas intra-generational advancements refer to socio-economic advancement or upward social mobility within a given individual's lifetime; inter-generational advancements occur within a given family, but over two or more generations (ibid.).

Moreover, one can distinguish between two forms of social mobility; namely, horizontal and vertical. When the former sort of social mobility occurs, individuals move from one social group into another (Habil et. al, 3). Examples of horizontal social mobility provided by Habil et. al (3) include a change in religion or in country of citizenship. Vertical social mobility on the other hand refers to a movement from one class or socio-economic group, into another (ibid, 4). In the former type of social mobility, individuals do not improve their living conditions, nor do they necessarily improve their social or political status within a given society. In the latter form of social mobility though, individuals necessarily experience an increase in economic welfare, which often comes along with increased social and/or political welfare as well. In contrast to vertical social mobility; horizontal social mobility does not affect the socio-economic status or class of individuals and their families (ibid, 2-4).

Finally, it is worth noting that one often finds a strong relation between income and occupational status. And as such, the concept of social mobility is not a merely an economic or sociological question. However, Nunn et. al (2007, 21) notes that economists tend to consider social mobility from an economic perspective; i.e., income- while sociologists tend to consider social mobility from the perspective of social status or “occupational status (ibid.).”

Why Upward Social Mobility is More Common than Downward Social Mobility

In considering whether vertical social mobility most often occurs in an upward of downward trend, it is useful to remember that there are two ways of measuring social mobility; namely, absolute and relative. And in fact, many scholars maintain that these forms of vertical social mobility occur differently from one another, as will be demonstrated herein.

Moreover, it is interesting to note that most scholars agree; vertical social mobility more often occurs in a down-up context. Or in other words, groups and individuals experiencing absolute and relative vertical social mobility most often move up the socio-economic ladder, rather than downwards (Habil et. al, 5). However, individuals may move in an up-down context as well.

Wilby (2008) considers the issue of social mobility from both a historic and contemporary perspective. He mainly considers the issue within the context of post-World War II British society, though his findings to bear semblance within Continental European and American societies as well. He maintains that absolute and relative vertical social mobility occur in considerably different fashions, for similarly different reasons.

Vertical social mobility in the absolute sense has occurred within Britain, Continental European and American societies following WWII, on a large scale. This development relates mainly to economic development and structural changes to these various economies (ibid). Interestingly, he also maintains that democratic governments often attempt to remove barriers to upward social mobility, while “The barriers to downward social mobility grow all the time (ibid.).” This implies that when economies develop and governments seek to raise the living standard of their populaces; it becomes easier to increase one's wealth, while it simultaneously becomes more difficult to hit poverty.

According to Borjas (2006), one major reasons providing for the high degree of social mobility within American society throughout the 19th and 20th centuries has to do with the assimilation of large immigrant populations. Borjas maintains that first-generation Americans tended to struggle with adapting to life in their new country, in a number of ways. As a consequence, they typically remain relatively low on the socio-economic ladder. Their children; the second-generation, has generally managed to overcome the obstacles posed to their parents; such as linguistic and cultural issues, better enabling them to integrate into and move up the socio-economic ladder of American society (ibid.).

Second-generation Americans, by contrast, typically experience a considerable degree of relative social mobility, in comparison to their immigrant parents. There are a number of factors which enable the second generation to better adapt to and thrive in American society. Perhaps the most fundamental therein include early socialization in American culture, developing an early proficiency in the English language, as well as greater education- and consequently- improved work opportunities (ibid.).

Borjas (2005) mentions the phenomenon of regression towards the mean, and its relation to upward social mobility. The first side of this phenomenon is that the less wealthy classes of a given society- such as second-generation populations, female headed households and minority groups- tend to increase their socio-economic status, consequently experiencing upward social mobility. This occurs relative to the dominant groups in society, and happens over the term of two or more generations. On the other side however, the upper classes of a given society have little opportunity in the way of upward mobility; as a consequence then, they consolidate and/or maintain their lofty positions, or move down on social mobility scale (ibid.).

The importance of Borjas' argument for the purpose of explaining upward social mobility is this: in a society made up of a significantly large and relatively unskilled immigrant population where “…even though the children of low-skill parents are themselves likely to be low-skilled, they are unlikely to be as unskilled as their parents (ibid.),” and where higher skills and abilities most often equal higher socio-economic status; a significantly large proportion of that society- namely, the children of immigrants- is likely to experience upward social mobility. Perhaps this occurs by default, in so far as the only choices in this regard for second-generation Americans are often static or upward social movement.

This can be contrasted, however, with the case of a given society's extremely wealthy; for children born to individuals in this group “are not likely to be as successful as their parents,” and as a consequence, “Their economic performance will probably revert downward toward the population average (ibid.).” As a result then, when a considerably larger proportion of a given society consists of immigrants moving upwards in terms of social mobility, and a considerably smaller proportion of wealthy moving downwards on the same terms; that society's absolute degree of vertical social mobility increases.

It is worth considering whether and to what degree downward social mobility occurs within societies, in order to better understand the applications and limitations of the phenomenon of upward social mobility. Perhaps due to the economic developments of the mid and late 20th century, few Westerners think of vertical social mobility in absolute terms, as a downward movement (Corcoran, 1995; Zhou, 1997). However, this does not mean that downward social mobility in relative terms does not occur.

Indeed, it is worth noting that downward vertical social mobility in the relative sense was a constant ‘threat' for many American, British and Continental European middle and upper class families, prior to the economic booms following the commencement of WWII. In fact, individuals born prior to 1950 were more likely to move downwards on the relative vertical socio-economic scale, than they were to move upwards, throughout the first half of the 20th century. Following the commencement of WWII, and consequent government initiated economic reforms; along with the resultant economic growth wherefrom- individuals in Western societies are more likely to experience upward social mobility, as an absolute trend (Wilby, 2008). Moreover, many scholars ague that upward social mobility in absolute terms is either decreasing or remains largely static- at present-, within American and many other Western societies.

Corcoran provides a discussion concerning which factors can most influence relative social mobility. He maintains that the socio-economic status of one's parents bears a considerable impact upon the socio-economic status they will enjoy later on in life. However, parents of lower economic statuses can increase their children's chances of experiencing upward social mobility, through various means. For example; they might provide stable homes, relatively low-stress environments, provide for their children's educations, and etc. Thus, Corcoran (1995) maintains that both upward and downward social mobility in the relative sense are not necessarily processes which individuals undergo later on in life; but rather, ones which begin from the earliest years of childhood.

Incidentally, it is worth mentioning that much of the research conducted during the latter half of the 29th century concerning absolute vertical social mobility considered white families, with male heads of the household.

On the other hand though, very little research has been conducted until recent years, concerning absolute vertical social mobility, within the context of minority and/or female headed households. However, much of the recent research on this issue demonstrates that the latter groups of households have tended to fare worse in terms of vertical social mobility on the absolute scale, than those of the former (ibid.). Consequently then; even when vertical absolute social mobility increases within a given society, not all subgroups benefit wherefrom. Indeed, some might even be left behind; such as minority and females-headed households have traditionally been, within the United States (ibid.).

And indeed, while economic improvements and problems have a considerable impact upon absolute vertical social mobility; relative social mobility is not significantly impacted by such developments. Perhaps it helps to consider the former form of social mobility a collective type, and the latter an individual one. When the economy does well, new industries as well as new or increases opportunities within old ones appear. This provides individuals within a society with increased chances for upwards social mobility; taking us back to the idea that barriers to upwards social mobility decrease, while barriers to downward social mobility increase (Wilby, 2008). However, individuals may experience large economic successes or failures, despite the state of the economy in which they conduct business. In this way then, relative social mobility can be thought of as a phenomenon whereby individuals fall down or rise up the socio-economic latter, relative to the society in which they live (ibid.). And as Corcoran (1995) maintains, vertical social mobility in the relative sense is often a long-term process, affected mainly by personal factors; i.e., one's upbringing, while absolute social mobility can occur relatively quicky and can dissipate with similar speed as well.


To be sure, one cannot accurately speak of upward social mobility as a simple concept of a single implication; rather, it is multifaceted, and may be divided into two a variety of forums and functions. However, suffice it to say that vertical social mobility occurs in both good and bed times, economically speaking. Moreover, it occurs within relative and absolute terms.

Thus far, this paper has considered vertical social mobility in terms of upward and downward movements, albeit focusing mainly upon the former. Considerations presented herein concerning the latter have been provided, mainly in order to demonstrate the degree to which social mobility manifests in a multifaceted manner. As previously demonstrated; even if the amount of upward social mobility within a given society declines in absolute terms, relative social mobility may still take place.

Thus, social mobility as an absolute and as a relative concept can have very different consequences. When a given society undergoes 'good times' -economically speaking-, individuals may increase their socio-economic status and move up the social ladder, along with the bulk of society, under absolute social mobility.

However, the more elite within a society may experience downward social mobility during such times as well, as a result of relative factors. Similarly, the situation may be reversed; individuals of a lower socio-economic status may move up the socio-economic ladder in troubled times, or in static societies, through relative means.

Works Cited

Borjas, George J. ‘Making It in America: Social Mobility in the Immigrant Population.' The Future of Children 16.2 (2006): 55+. Questia.

Corcoran, M. ‘Rags to Rags: Poverty and Mobility in the United States.' Annual Review of Sociology (1995): 237+. Questia.

Habil et. al. ‘Social Mobility and Integration.' Vilnius University. Lithuania: Vilnius.

Nunn et. al 2007. ‘Factors Influencing Social Mobility.' Department for work and Pensions. United Kingdom: Leeds.

Wilby, Peter. ‘When There's No More Room at the Top: If You Move Up, Somebody Will Have to Move Down.' New Statesman 14 Jan. 2008: 18. Questia.

Zhou, Min. ‘Growing Up American: The Challenge Confronting Immigrant Children and Children of Immigrants.' Annual Review of Sociology (1997): 63+. Questia.

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