Missing Link Friday – Social Mobility Edition

In the UK, the coalition government is taking an axe to spending but it hasn’t abandoned a commitment to fairness. At least that’s what Nick Clegg and Iain Duncan Smith argue in a recent opinion piece for The Telegraph:

Our welfare reforms are intended to help people get on, and to get ahead. And as a government, we have committed ourselves to promoting social mobility as the main goal of our social policy. For us, a fair society is an open society, one in which opportunities are not determined by background but by drive and ability.

According to Clegg’s new social mobility strategy: "What ought to count is how hard you work and the skills and talents you possess, not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did."

Of course the socially mobile society presupposes inequality. It’s not an egalitarian vision. The struggle for advancement is a zero sum game. What’s at stake are relative positions in a social hierarchy. So rather than attempting to improve the wellbeing of those at the bottom or raise the overall level of prosperity, supporters of the socially mobile society want to make sure that everyone rises or falls to the level they deserve.

While the rhetoric of equality of opportunity probably plays well in focus groups, some bloggers are unconvinced. At The Great Unrest Anne Archist complains that social mobility entrenches class divisions:

… the first lesson we can take from our analysis of social mobility as a concept is that it’s incompatible with an equal, classless society. Social mobility presupposes a class divide or a spectrum of inequality; equality and classlessness makes ‘mobility’ impossible because mobility means (the capability for) movement from one point to another, and an equal, classless society is one in which everyone occupies the same social position – everyone is at the same point because there is only one point.

No doubt supporters of social mobility would argue that separate classes only exist when people are unable to escape the class they’re born into — that the socially mobile society is unequal but classless.

At Stumbling and Mumbling Chris Dillow writes:

I suspect that equal opportunity is both unattainable and undesirable, and that efforts to increase social mobility are only likely to succeed at the margin. They should be seen more as an attempt to legitimate inequality than to genuinely transform the relative chances of the worst off.

Dillow also argues that a highly unequal society is unlikely to have high social mobility: "the closer the gap between high and low incomes, the easier it is to leap that gap", he writes. He also notes that the coalition government’s strategy says nothing about encouraging downwards mobility. Much inequality is due to inheritance, but the government is not proposing to increase inheritance taxes.

In an earlier post Dillow argued that equality of opportunity pays no attention to the wellbeing of those at the bottom of society. It ignores absolute outcomes in a way that doesn’t make much sense:

Imagine we introduced a compulsory lottery, where there was a £1m prize and ten "prizes" of the death penalty. We’ve created equality of opportunity. But few would tolerate such a lottery, as it’s unacceptable to impose such risks onto people.
This thought experiment shows that we care outcome outcomes, not just opportunity.

A supporter of social mobility might argue that their vision isn’t of a society where positions are assigned by chance, but one where people earn their relative position based on ability and effort. But even so, Dillow’s objection might still work. What if society becomes more mobile in this way but the position of those in the bottom 25 per cent becomes much worse than it is now — is that fair? What if the top 1 per cent claim 90 per cent of the income?

In a recent speech Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard also spoke about social mobility. Trevor Cook is critical of Gillard’s approach:

Focusing on opportunities is simply code for abandoning the goal of keeping inequality to a minimum. Wealth and income disparaties [sic] don’t matter to Gillard, just a better prospect for the next generation. Not fairness today, but fairness tomorrow (and then only for the academically bright). Labor’s political ambition has been diminished.

Economist John Quiggin isn’t impressed either:

It is a speech that could have been given, with absolute sincerity, by John Howard on behalf of the Liberal party, and marks, in both large and small ways, Gillard’s acceptance and celebration of the values and beliefs of the Liberal party as espoused by its leaders from Menzies onwards.

Writing at The Age of Uncertainty, Steerforth tells a story about colleague who was studying at Sussex University. She was attending a lecture on postwar urban poverty where the lecturer was showing a series of grim black and white slides illustrating the problems of urban deprivation:

My colleague was relaxing in her chair, absorbed by the images being beamed by the projector.

Suddenly, to her horror, a picture appeared on the wall of her mother dragging a mattress down a street. The lecturer calmly deconstructed the image, explaining its context and meaning, unaware that the woman’s daughter was sitting a few feet away from him.

What a shining example of social mobility.

Update: At the Great Unrest Anne Archist has a second post on social mobility.

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31 Responses to Missing Link Friday – Social Mobility Edition

  1. Incurious and Unread (aka Dave) says:

    Don,

    Well, there are some pretty lame arguments here.

    To say that inequality implies class-ridden is just semantic sophistry. “Class” has always been anathema to social mobility (as you rightly note).

    The death penalty argument is ridiculous. One might as well say: “let’s make it equal by shooting everyone. If you don’t like that idea, you obviously don’t like equality.”

    Then we have the “equal opportunity is impossible, so you must have another agenda”. But true “equality” is impossible too, so what is the agenda of those proposing equality?

    Equality and equal opportunity are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the latter must logically be a subset of the former: you cannot have equality if there is unequal opportunity. So why would an egalitarian ever be against equal opportunity? I think it must just be tribalism: “liberals are for it, therefore we have to be against it”.

  2. Don Arthur says:

    Dave – Part of what worries me about the rhetoric of social mobility is its vagueness.

    There’s an assumption that citizens are arranged in a single hierarchy that has something to do with income and something to do with occupational prestige. But the nature of the hierarchy is never really spelled out. Nor is the idea of ability.

    All things being equal it’s better to have a higher income than a lower one. But all things are not equal and beyond measures of income or wealth we’d have a hard time agreeing on how to rank people on a single scale.

    For example, imagine I’m a specialist cleaner with my own business. If I make twice what a high school teacher makes, am I above or below the teacher? What about someone who pursues a career as a novelist but makes less money than a labourer? Do we say that they’ve failed if they win awards but never get to own their own home?

    Rather than have the opportunity to compete for a place on some income/prestige scale, it seems to me what’s really important is that people have the opportunity to live the kind of lives they have reason to value. And there are all kinds of lives that people might want to live. They might value fame, money, political power, respect from peers, relationships with family, autonomy, creativity and so on.

    The idea of ability suffers from the same problem. There are all kinds of abilities and it seems crazy to insist they’re commensurable. Of course you can establish a market value for a person’s skills. But that doesn’t mean that a more highly paid person is a person with more ability.

    For example, there are many highly skilled musicians who can never earn enough from music to give up their day jobs. The market for musicians tends towards a winner-take-all model. But there are other occupations where you can earn a very good living with a moderate level of skill. So you might find someone who’s incredibly skilled as a guitarist but who works as a plumber.

    Imagine if rewards really were distributed according to some objective and universally agreed measure of ability and effort. Then when anyone claimed that Jack was as good as his master, we could assure them that such an injustice was impossible. What a wonderful society that would be.

  3. Jacques Chester says:

    So rather than attempting to improve the wellbeing of those at the bottom or raise the overall level of prosperity, supporters of the socially mobile society want to make sure that everyone rises or falls to the level they deserve.

    Which would fit neatly with the Dunning-Krueger effect, I reckon. Or to put it another way: everyone can support this policy who lives in Lake Wobegon.

  4. Incurious and Unread (aka Dave) says:

    Don,

    “it seems to me what’s really important is that people have the opportunity to live the kind of lives they have reason to value.”

    That is what I call “equal opportunity” – or “social mobility” if you like, although I agree with you that the latter term is largely rhetorical. All of the rest of the stuff you talk about – money, status, prestige – is irrelevant to that. It is up to the individual how those are valued.

    Does that simple definition help to resolve your dilemmas?

  5. Don Arthur says:

    Jacques – Yes, I suspect that one of the reasons the meritocratic ideal is so popular is because very few people think they’d be disadvantaged.

    In the UK a lot of the rhetoric about social mobility seems to be aimed at people in aspirational middle income families who think the poor are getting too many benefits they don’t deserve and that kids from rich and well connected families are hogging all the places in prestigious universities and the most sought after entry level jobs.

    Dave – I agree. If equality of opportunity is just about breaking down barriers of class or caste then there’s little to object to.

    A lot of the concrete policy is about making sure children develop the kinds of basic capabilities they’ll need regardless of their choices. That’s a good thing.

  6. Anne Archist says:

    Hi Don, thanks for reading The Great Unrest and for including some of my thoughts in your article.

    (Don and) Dave, you say that ““Class” has always been anathema to social mobility (as you rightly note).” I think you have a substantially different notion of “class” to me. Quite how would class be “anathema” to social mobility? Well, it would have to be something that prevented or inhibited social mobility; i.e. something which prevented people from moving up or down the social hierarchy. Is “class” something like that? I think not – there are obviously various conceptions of class, and to be clear I was talking about the Marxian conception of class (which is defined by social relations between persons and means of production), so I’ll try to cover several.
    On the liberal “social class” model which incorporates factors like income, education, etc this is obviously a changeable factor. People who want to rise up the social ranks can simply read more books, learn which fork to eat their salad with, study evening classes, negotiate a pay rise, get a new job with more social prestige, etc. There’s no way that this is anathema to social mobility.
    On the Marxian “economic class” model which focuses purely on the relations to the means of production it is still a changeable factor. To say someone is working class (in the narrow sense of proletarian, rather than the broader sense that could include peasants/etc) is to say that at this point in time they are more or less forced by circumstance to work for a wage – they are the owner of their labour power but no other means of production in the productive processes they standardly engage in, and they hire their labour power out to a buyer. This doesn’t mean that they always have been and always will be in this position though – as I pointed out in my post, working class people can win a lottery jackpot and never have to work again while business owners might watch their finance empire ruined or their factory closed down to pay their gambling debts, etc.
    What you seem to be thinking of is something which is more or less immutable between generations and within a person’s lifetime. Something more like “caste” than “class”, perhaps? Separate classes do exist even within one lifetime and even if some people can move between these. Class may be a less theoretically useful dimension to explore if there is greater class mobility, but even in most “socially mobile” societies, there is still an entrenched class divide that people broadly stay on one side of for substantial portions of their life. Swedish citizens don’t oscillate between employer and employed on a weekly basis!

  7. Don Arthur says:

    Hi Anne – I take your point. ‘Class’ can mean a number of different things.

    I’m wondering how invoking the Marxian idea of class makes things clearer. You write:

    The kind of social mobility we’re talking about here (and that most people are talking about elsewhere) is ‘vertical social mobility’. This is the idea that people can move up or down the social hierarchy. Some people are at the ‘top’ of society (generally those who are best educated, have the highest incomes, have the most political/economic power, know the most powerful people, etc) and others are at the ‘bottom’ (the opposite), with people in various layers in between, or a spectrum stretching from one to the other.

    Obviously it’s possible to have a high level of education, a high income, have influence and be connected to powerful people while at the same time earning a living from labour rather than capital. Senior managers in large corporations, medical specialists, lawyers, elite consultants, and sports stars can all earn higher incomes than the capitalist owners of small manufacturing businesses.

    So I’m wondering whether vertical social mobility in the sense you described really does presuppose the existence of Marxian classes. From the paragraph above it sounds like you are talking about people’s position on a continuum (eg of wealth or power) rather than their membership of a distinct class.

  8. Incurious and Unread (aka Dave) says:

    Anne & Don,

    I don’t know where you are from, Anne. But Don’s post was introduced by statements from the UK government. In the UK, where I was born and bred, “class” has a very clear meaning as “caste”: something you are born into and find it hard to escape from. Hence the quote from Nick Clegg:

    “What ought to count is how hard you work and the skills and talents you possess, not the school you went to or the jobs your parents did.”

    I don’t think Nick was envisaging helping people to change from employer to employed on a weekly basis! From a UK perspective, if there is a low correlation between the class of the parents and the class of the children, that is “social mobility”.

    The Marxist stuff might constitute an equally valid paradigm, but that is all way over my head. I do love the idea, though, that social mobility requires having separate classes to move between, hence social mobility implies inequality.

    That sounds to me like saying that hospitals needs sick people to look after, therefore having hospitals implies a sick nation. Strictly correct, but not really an argument against hospitals.

  9. Stephen Bounds says:

    Agree that UK “class” means something much more ingrained than we have here in Oz.

    Personally, I like the idea of evaluating a society based on this test:
    How would you feel about being reincarnated and randomly born as a member of any family within that society?

    To me, the degree of horror you feel about taking that punt is a reasonable proxy of that society’s social mobility.

  10. Sam Stone says:

    “Jacques – Yes, I suspect that one of the reasons the meritocratic ideal is so popular is because very few people think they’d be disadvantaged.

    In the UK a lot of the rhetoric about social mobility seems to be aimed at people in aspirational middle income families who think the poor are getting too many benefits they don’t deserve and that kids from rich and well connected families are hogging all the places in prestigious universities and the most sought after entry level jobs.”

    Excellent, couldn’t agree more. The concept of social mobility put forward by many commentators is one that focuses on the exceptional cases (particularly the argument in favour of grammar schools – that they let ‘bright working class kids’ move up the social ladder) without ever mentioning that such a system leaves most individuals in the class where they started. It would take a decidedly conservative frame of mind to believe that the children of the rich deserve to be rich purely on their own merits. The ideal of social mobility as described in much of the press doesn’t actually seem to differ too much from the situation as it stands – only a few individuals move between social classes in their lifetimes. To actively tackle such a trend – to develop a society where upper-class children are as likely as lower-class children to become checkout operators or roadsweepers – would require far more radical changes than the Lib Dems are likely to be happy with.

    (I’m using the approximate lower*/middle/upper class definition, rather than the Marxist capitalist/petit bourgeois/proletariat description of social relations, because I think that’s the one Nick Clegg would be thinking of in this context – he’s likely to see someone from a council estate going to university and becoming, say, a bank manager as an example of social mobility, rather than insisting that they’ve not changed class because they’re still waged labour).

    *There’s a whole other debate about whether the appropriate term here is ‘lower class’ or ‘working class’ – I feel the latter merges Marxist attitudes on class with the idea of a social caste system in an unhelpful manner, but it’s not too critical.

  11. Richard Tsukamasa Green says:

    I’ve often thought that “meritocracy” could be best defined as “A society that works the benefit of those like the speaker”.

    Something that interests me is that one common empirical measure of social mobility (one referenced by Dave) is the correlation between the income/occupation of parents and children, since this could represent a society with a great deal of random churn rather than self determination by each new generation. I’ve never really thought of a better measure though, but since I suspect that the appeal of “social mobility” comes from the sense of agency contrasted with the randomness of birth. Presumably post natal randomness would also be disliked, although I think there is something to be said for transparent arbitrariness. This in turn makes me question how distinct the coveted elements of social mobility differ from concepts of “positive liberty” – freedom defined by the range of your possibilities (what you can do as opposed to what you are explicitly told not to.

    Stephen – Does this test come directly from Rawls or did you end up in a similar place through other means?

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  13. Mike Pepperday says:

    “Equality and equal opportunity are not mutually exclusive.” says Dave at #1. Hmm. Let’s idealise the concepts and do a thought experiment. And let us banish that vagueness people are complaining of.

    Let a society have equality of condition. Let equality of opportunity be introduced. Some will grasp the opportunity. They want to “get ahead.” But those who succeed will no longer be of equal condition with those who don’t succeed. Moreover, now that they are ahead in condition that will give them new opportunities.

    So the winners must withdraw. Those who successfully grasped the opportunity must now withdraw from the competition and leave their former equals to continue being equal with each other.

    The winners’ equality also has to be preserved which means that they must all have won the same prize. This allows them now to go into a new competition on equal terms with each other, all seeking to win, again, a new, but same, prize whereby those that achieve it will again withdraw to again compete against each other as equals.

    It’s rather complicated so there will have to be rules and the rules will have to be enforced. Enforcement will require a hierarchy. Which makes it all clear: the always equal prize is simply the next rank up.

    Hierarchy (the epitome of inequality) is the way to realise equality of condition and equality of opportunity simultaneously. Class has no meaning, income and prestige depend on rank so are entirely fair and even Steven Bounds’s Rawlsian horror should be irrelevant.

    I expect most people will be delighted at my solution to the problem, however there are bound to be a few stick-in-mud types who will complain that I have only answered Dave’s question: “Why would an egalitarian ever be against equal opportunity?”

  14. Tel says:

    Imagine we introduced a compulsory lottery, where there was a £1m prize and ten “prizes” of the death penalty. We’ve created equality of opportunity. But few would tolerate such a lottery, as it’s unacceptable to impose such risks onto people. This thought experiment shows that we care outcome outcomes, not just opportunity.

    No, it just shows we don’t appreciate being told what to do by force from above.

    The proposal rates the average value of a human life at £100k and most people would value their life a bit higher than that… so the universal rule applies: when a decree comes down from above and they feel the need to back that up with force and compulsion, you can be sure you will be getting a bad deal. If it was a good deal, it would be voluntary.

  15. Tel says:

    Personally, I like the idea of evaluating a society based on this test:
    How would you feel about being reincarnated and randomly born as a member of any family within that society?

    Since I believe in a market-based libertarian society, I would naturally be reincarnated as someone else who also believes in a market-based libertarian society and so I’d just do the best with what I got, while trying to keep the Man off my back, which is pretty much what I do now.

    *shrug*

  16. Incurious and Unread (aka Dave) says:

    Mike,

    It really depends upon what you mean by “equality of condition”. Obviously, in a modern society, you cannot have everybody do exactly the same job. Perhaps you can have everyone paid the same wage, but is that equal when some jobs are harder or more dangerous than others? Perhaps you can have a “just deserts” where every job is paid what it deserves, but who is to say what that is? And you cannot adjust wages so everybody is indifferent to which job they do, since every person has different preferences.

    So, I think complete equality, whilst being a nice thought experiment, is meaningless in the modern world. But, leaving aside that “purist” equality, we know that some societies are more egalitarian than others. All I am saying is that the more egalitarian societies are likely to have more equal opportunity and social mobility rather than less.

  17. Mike Pepperday says:

    Well Dave, you asked, “Why would an egalitarian ever be against equal opportunity?” so I presumed egalitarian meant a proponent of equality of condition. I know no other kind of egalitarian who would be against equal opportunity.

    I think the meaning of equality of condition quite plain. Your descriptions will do. It’s true it can’t be perfectly attained in real society but then, what concept can ever be perfectly realised? At least one can imagine what it would be – which is more than you can say for equal opportunity. What does equal opportunity look like in reality? As for realising it, given the spectrum of human abilities and family backgrounds, surely it is fantasy.

    The reliable way to tell whether equal opportunity prevails would be to check the equality of condition. For example if some minority (ethnic, religious, etc) is overrepresented in the gaol system we might reasonably conclude that this minority does not have equal opportunity vis-a-vis the rest of society.

    But that way of detecting (in)equality of opportunity is a little late in the day. What is wanted is that equal opportunity prevail, not that inequalities be measured down the track. So equal opportunity needs to be monitored and adjustments made to promote it. Since it is wickedly hard to measure (unlike equality of condition) and extremely difficult to adjust, an army of expert bureaucrats will be needed to keep an eye on things and manage them so that opportunities are improved for these people and restrained for those people.

    Evidently, equality of opportunity – if, indeed, the concept has meaning – will require a fearsome hierarchy. It’s much easier to provide equality of condition since all you have to do is collect simple statistics and then take from the rich and give to the poor.

    Anyway, we can why egalitarians are against equality of opportunity.

  18. desipis says:

    Mike:

    Let a society have equality of condition. Let equality of opportunity be introduced.

    That presupposes that equality of condition is possible without equality of opportunity.

    It’s much easier to provide equality of condition since all you have to do is collect simple statistics and then take from the rich and give to the poor.

    If its so easy then:

    1) How do you create incentives for people to be productive if you’re going to ensure an equal outcome for all?

    2) How do you ensure equality across non-financial issues such as political power, social status, etc?

  19. desipis says:

    Since I believe in a market-based libertarian society, I would naturally be reincarnated as someone else who also believes in a market-based libertarian society…

    I think it’s a bit naive to assume that your political ideology is in no way influenced by your life experiences.

  20. Mike Pepperday says:

    desipis –

    “How do you create incentives for people to be productive if you’re going to ensure an equal outcome for all?”

    Why, you don’t. If some people win an incentive they would then be unequal, would they not? Isn’t that clear from #13?

    You presume that “incentives” are needed. Are people trained animals? Performing bears who need a reward every time they are productive? The presumption of individual selfishness is slur on people’s good nature – and self-fulfilling if enough people believe it and behave accordingly.

  21. desipis says:

    Mike, if we can achieve some magical solution that eliminates human desires of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony then I imagine achieving equality would be rather trivial. We might be able to achieve a better equilibrium between self-reinforcing virtues and self-reinforcing vices, however I can’t imagine we’ll ever achieve a form of communal perfection as long as we remain human.

    Equality of opportunity is about enabling pursuit of these human desires within the social system in a way that maximises benefit of these motivations for society while minimising the impact on equality of outcome. Certainly if we continue to shift towards a more just and less selfish society we should be able to have a more significant baseline of equality and less significant variation dependant on successful utilisation of opportunities.

  22. Fred Argy says:

    Don, I too find the debate – on the relationship between equal opportunity and equality of outcomes – getting nowhere.

    When I last looked at the subject (Equality of Opportunity in Australia, Australia Institute Discussion Paper no. 85, April 2006), I decided that a country needs to have an adequate safety net to ensure enough mobility. That aside, I felt that apart from a few interventions (such as in the treatment of our unemployed), we have done enough on equal outcomes and that we now need to decide how to improve equality of opportunity.

    I chose the Scandinavians as a reasonable starting point on substantive equality of opportunity. I then looked at what they did and drew some conclusions for Australia about deficiencies in our system. It was a bold attempt but I doubt that I made much advance.

    I will happily read others like Anne Archist.

  23. Tel says:

    I think it’s a bit naive to assume that your political ideology is in no way influenced by your life experiences.

    Sure, sufficient indoctrination with the right coercive environment can get pretty much anyone to believe pretty much anything, especially if you start on them from an early age.

    But if you want to play by those rules, then consider a strong theocratic society where the High Holy Arch-Poobar simply declares their society to be equitable (and perfect in every other way besides). All the citizens are in extreme agreement with the Arch-Poobar and that’s quite normal because all these people ever do is agree with authority. Such a society passes the above mentioned equity test just as well as the Libertarian philosophy passes the test… and it would continue to pass the test even if the Arch-Poobar decided that 10% of the population needed to starve themselves to death for the good of the state.

    So if I was born a completely different person, with completely different motvations and abilities in a completely different circumstance, I’d probably have different social views. And if I was born an aphid, I’d be greener. Proving what?

  24. Mr Denmore says:

    On growing disparity in wealth, Joe Stiglitz’s piece in Vanity Fair is worth a read.

  25. James Rice says:

    While it’s true that social mobility may involve movement between two unequally ranked positions in a social hierarchy, social mobility itself is conceptually distinct from inequality. Social mobility as a concept does not require a social hierarchy or inequality. All that’s required is that starting off in one position does not hinder movement into another position, whether these positions are unequally ranked in a social hierarchy or not. (You could think, for example, of a society – a hypothetical one – which consists of two more-or-less equally ranked occupations, maybe “hunter” and “gatherer”, or “pastoralist” and “agriculturalist”. Social mobility would then involve movement between these two more-or-less equally ranked occupations. Or you could think of a subset of occupations that are more-or-less equally ranked within Australian society, maybe medical doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Movement between these more-or-less equally ranked occupations would also constitute social mobility.)

    Would, or should, we be concerned about a lack of social mobility between two positions, even if these positions are not unequally ranked in a social hierarchy? (For example, should we be concerned if only the children of medical doctors could become medical doctors or if only the children of lawyers could become lawyers?) I think so. For one thing, factors that restrict social mobility, even between positions that are not unequally ranked in a social hierarchy, restrict people’s freedom to live the kind of lives they want to live. Factors that restrict social mobility also increase the likelihood that the best person for a position may not be able to occupy that position, which has implications for societal productivity. Factors that restrict social mobility could also restrict the number of people who are able to compete for and enter certain positions, even in the face of labour shortages within these positions. Because of this, factors that restrict social mobility could lead to inefficient allocations of resources, as well as exacerbating inequalities in the face of labour shortages.

  26. James Rice says:

    The idea that social mobility requires a social hierarchy or inequality may stem from the methodological biases of particular disciplines. Standard econometrics textbooks, for example, cover a very wide range of statistical methods designed for the analysis of ranked data (including interval-level data), while having virtually no coverage of statistical methods designed for unranked, categorical data. Perhaps because of this, most analyses of social mobility conducted by economists focus on ranked data, like income or years of education (or maybe occupational status). In contrast, a significant body of work on social mobility by international and Australian sociologists (for example, Erikson and Goldthorpe’s “The Constant Flux”, Wright’s “Class Counts”, the work of Australian sociologist Frank Jones, and so on) focuses on unranked, categorical data. This work focuses on social mobility between class or occupational categories that are not straightforward to rank, analysing this data through the use of log-linear models for contingency tables. It is true that theories of social hierarchy or inequality do lie behind much of this work, but the statistical methods used do not require hierarchy or inequality.

  27. Don Arthur says:

    While it’s true that social mobility may involve movement between two unequally ranked positions in a social hierarchy, social mobility itself is conceptually distinct from inequality. Social mobility as a concept does not require a social hierarchy or inequality.

    James – Your concept of social mobility looks coherent and useful, but it’s not the concept I learned about in sociology textbooks. As I understand it, the concept of social mobility is almost always defined in terms of hierarchy or social stratification — a system where there’s an ‘up’ and a ‘down’.

    Here are some examples of definitions:

    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)…

    Oxford Dictionary of Sociology

    social mobility the movement of individuals (or sometimes groups) between different positions in the hierarchy(ies) of SOCIAL STRATIFICATION within any society …

    Collins Dictionary of Sociology

    social mobility Social mobility is upward or downward movement in a stratified society.

    The Blackwell Dictionary of Sociology

  28. James Rice says:

    Obviously the people who wrote those definitions are bumpkins! But they’re in good company. The entry for “social mobility” in my edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Sociology begins with: “A concept used in the sociological investigation of inequality, social mobility refers to the movement of individuals between different levels of the social hierarchy, usually defined in terms of broad occupational or social-class categories”. I suppose I prefer my definition of social mobility as movement between social positions, whether these positions are unequally ranked in a social hierarchy or not. You can then choose to distinguish between “vertical” and “horizontal” social mobility if you want to, on the basis of the relative rank of positions. The definitions above seem to define social mobility as “vertical social mobility”. Some of them also seem to consider the term “horizontal social mobility” to be almost self-contradictory, which seems strange to me. Of course it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between vertical and horizontal social mobility – especially when social positions are defined by multiple social hierarchies rather than just one, as in the cases mentioned in a number of the comments above (for example, comments 2 and 7). If you choose to distinguish between vertical and horizontal social mobility – and there are many compelling reasons for doing so – these ambiguous cases can be problematic. But if the problems posed by these ambiguous cases are insurmountable, there is always the option of setting aside questions of vertical and horizontal social mobility, while at the same time continuing to look at social mobility understood in broader terms (in other words, social mobility of any kind, whether vertical, horizontal, or ambiguous).

  29. Don Arthur says:

    James – I’m interested in the idea of how open a society is — how easy it is for a person to move to whatever social role they choose.

    Some societies reserve certain roles for people from particular families (eg monarchs) genders (eg combat roles in the military)or ethnicities.

    I can’t help thinking of this scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

    REG: Furthermore, it is the birthright of every man–

    STAN: Or woman.

    REG: Why don’t you shut up about women, Stan. You’re putting us off.

    STAN: Women have a perfect right to play a part in our movement, Reg.

    FRANCIS: Why are you always on about women, Stan?

    STAN: I want to be one.

    REG: What?

    STAN: I want to be a woman. From now on, I want you all to call me ‘Loretta’.

    REG: What?!

    LORETTA: It’s my right as a man.

    JUDITH: Well, why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?

    LORETTA: I want to have babies.

    REG: You want to have babies?!

    LORETTA: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.

    REG: But… you can’t have babies.

    LORETTA: Don’t you oppress me.

    REG: I’m not oppressing you, Stan. You haven’t got a womb! — Where’s the fetus going to gestate?! You going to keep it in a box?!

    LORETTA: [crying]

    JUDITH: Here! I– I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the right to have babies.

    FRANCIS: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother. Sister. Sorry.

    REG: What’s the point?

    FRANCIS: What?

    REG: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can’t have babies?!

    FRANCIS: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.

    REG: Symbolic of his struggle against reality.

  30. Pingback: Reconsidering social mobility « ofchiu

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