Social mobility is the degree to which, in a given society, an individual's social status may change throughout the course of his or her life.
An example of a society with low social mobility is Hindu society under the caste system. Only with rare exceptions can individuals leave the caste into which they are born, regardless of wealth or merit. Societies which use slavery are an example where, for the enslaved individuals, mobility is nonexistent.
The modern United States has considerably more social mobility. Officially or legally recognized class designations do not exist, and it is possible for individuals to move from poverty to wealth or political prominence within one generation. Examples of this are John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich, who were born into working-class families yet achieved political office in adult life, and Andrew Carnegie, who arrived in the U.S. as an poor immigrant and later became a steel tycoon.
An example from another country is Pierre Bérégovoy who started working at the age of 16 as a metal worker and, in the end, became Prime Minister of France.
In market societies like the modern United States, class and economic wealth are strongly correlated and, therefore, often conflated. However, in some societies, they are different entities altogether. Usually, though, membership in a high social class provides more opportunities for wealth and political power, and therefore economic fortune is often a lagging indicator of social class. In newly-formed societies with little or no established tradition (such as the American West in the 19th century) the reverse is true: Made wealth precipitates the elite of future generations.
Social mobility is normally discussed in a positive light, but it is a two-sided phenomenon. Unlike economic prosperity and individual standards of living, social class, strictly speaking, is a zero-sum game, and when there is upward mobility, there is also downward mobility. In the past 30 years, the United States has seen both directions of mobility. The 1990s tech boom allowed many bright entrepreneurs to enter the ranks of the wealthy, while downsizing in the manufacturing, and later, information technology sectors resulted in massive job-loss and dislocation throughout recent decades. Social mobility encourages entrepreneurism and, according to the mainstream liberal and conservative opinion, leads to a more fair society, but an excess thereof leads to widespread insecurity and anxiety.
A common error when discussing social mobility is to focus on a few exemplary cases while neglecting the average cases. The fact that a few people who were originally poor have become very rich does not prove that the society in general enjoys social mobility, indeed they are exceptions.
The ability to for an individual to become wealthy, out of poverty, does not necessarily indicate that there is social mobility in his or her society. Even societies with low or nonexistent social mobility afford free individuals opportunities to initiate enterprise and amass wealth, but wealth fails to "buy" entry into a higher social class. In feudal Japan and Confucianist China, wealthy merchants occupied the lowest ranks in society (at least in theory). In pre-revolutionary France, a nobleman, however poor, was from the "second estate" of society and thus superior, at least in theory, to a wealthy merchant (from the "third estate").
A (theoretical) society with perfect social mobility and ample opportunity is called a meritocracy, because, in such a society, individuals' responsibilities and compensation would be matched to their capabilities.
Sceptical of social mobility
Google search of The Guardian newspaper for "social mobility" http://www.google.co.uk/search?hl=en&ie=UTF-8&safe=off&q=site%3Awww.guardian.co.
- This search pulls up a number of articles from The Guardian, most of which are sceptical about social mobility, primarily in the UK and United States.
Last updated: 02-07-2005 01:25:46
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55