social mobility

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Related to social mobility: social stratification
Social Mobilityclick for a larger image
Fig. 30 Social Mobility. While changes in the occupational structure can be seen as the main determinant of the extent of opportunities for social mobility (1), and educational institutions act mainly as an avenue of social mobility which is particularly important in modern societies and can also influence who becomes mobile (2), educational institutions (3) also induce changes in the occupational structure.

social mobility

the movement of individuals (or sometimes groups) between different positions in the hierarchy(ies) of SOCIAL STRATIFICATION within any society Within modern societies, CLASS positions within the OCCUPATIONAL STRUCTURE are usually of prime interest in studies of social mobility. Social mobility may involve movement up a class or status hierarchy -upward mobility - or down – downward mobility It may take place from one generation to another – intergenerational mobility - where the focus of interest for sociology is on differences between the socioeconomic class or status of a person's FAMILY OF ORIGIN compared with his or her ‘achieved’ class or status position, or it may be more short-term, e.g. the ups and downs of an individual CAREERintragenerational mobility In sociology the main focus of study has been on differences in the volume and character of’intergenerational mobility’ within different societies. Interest has been greatest in levels of movement between manual and nonmanual socioeconomic status positions, and movement into and out of ÉLITE positions and the SERVICE CLASS. It is usually accepted that, in general, modern societies permit more mobility than earlier types of society, i.e. in comparative terms are open-class societies.

Systematic study of social mobility was pioneered by SOROKIN, who saw all societies as possessing 'selection agencies’, which varied in form between different societies. As have sociologists in general, Sorokin conceived of social mobility, whatever its particular form, as performing vital social functions, e.g. promoting talent, acting as a 'safety valve’. Postwar study of social mobility in industrial societies began in earnest with the undertaking of large social surveys designed to establish overall levels of intergenerational social mobility (e.g. Glass, 1954; LIPSET and BENDIX, 1959). These studies seemed to suggest that levels of upward intergenerational social mobility – especially between manual and non-manual

occupations – were substantially the same in all industrial societies, despite differences in patterns of industrialization, educational structure, etc. Subsequent studies (see Miller, 1960) have refined this finding, pointing to considerable differences in the more detailed patterns of social mobility, e.g. Germany Italy and Spain are less ‘open’ than Britain or the US, and socialist countries have generally had higher levels of social mobility than non-socialist countries (e.g. both eastern bloc countries and social democratic societies such as Sweden, see Heath, 1981).

A further important distinction in studies of social mobility is between structural and nonstructural social mobility, the former referring to movements made possible by fundamental changes in the form of the occupational structure (e.g. in the relative size of particular classes, status groups, etc.) within a particular society, the latter to any movements which do not involve such changes. As indicated in Fig. 30, one main assumption that can be stated in terms of this distinction is that occupational structures are often more fundamental in determining the form and volume of social mobility within a particular society or historical period – i.e. produce 'structural mobility’ – than are differences in educational institutions, individual motivation, etc – i.e. nonstructural sources of mobility. However, although the capacity of the latter to affect levels of mobility may be limited, ‘nonstructural’ factors, such as education, do make a difference, not least where they act to induce changes in occupational structures, e.g. in encouraging ‘occupational upgrading’ or occupational transition, involving the 'substitution’ of nongraduates by graduates, or the more general upgrading in the status and content of particular jobs (compare CREDENTIALISM).

While some researchers have concluded that rates of social mobility in the UK have remained relatively stable and have not increased during the postwar period, studies by GOLDTHORPE et al. (1980) have suggested that overall levels of upward mobility (including entry into the service class) may be higher than assumed. Goldthorpe's suggestion is that most of this increase can be accounted for as 'structural mobility’.

Where EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY between social classes is the focus of attention, Glass (1954) argued that it is the extent of mobility once changes in the occupational distribution have been taken into account which is mainly of interest, 'structural mobility’ should be discounted. Payne (1989), however, has argued against any such automatic assumption: that ‘the relative chance of mobility … without the artificial removal of structural change’ is also of relevance. Thus, comparing studies across time (including Goldthorpe's study, conducted in 1972, with the 1984 Essex study, Marshall et al., 1988), we find that while the 'service class's success in retaining class positions does not diminish, the disadvantage experienced by those with working-class origins is ameliorated’ (Payne, 1989).

Complex methodological problems attend all studies of social mobility, including problems of occupational classification (see also OCCUPATIONAL SCALES), reliance on respondents’ memories, and the comparison of older generations with completed careers with younger generations whose careers are uncompleted. In the most advanced studies, highly sophisticated statistical and mathematical techniques may be employed, in which some have suggested ‘techniques’ and ‘measurement’ run ahead of sociological clarity or relevance. A final problem of major significance, is that most studies of social mobility have focused only on men. See also CONTEST AND SPONSORED MOBILITY, HIGHER EDUCATION.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Social Mobility


change in social position within the social structure by an individual or group.

Social mobility is related to the laws of social development and class struggle, which lead to the growth of certain classes and groups and the decline of others, and also to individual personal activity. A distinction is made between vertical social mobility—upward or downward movement in social position—and horizontal social mobility—movement by an individual within the same social level. Social mobility is broken down into interclass and intraclass mobility. Distinctions are also made between principal and secondary, typical and accidental, and mass and individual trends and channels of social mobility. Social mobility measures changes in social position within a single generation, two generations (fathers and sons), or three generations (grandfathers, fathers, and sons).

In a society with castes and estates, social mobility is severely restricted. Capitalism, in doing away with estate divisions, encourages social mobility. “Unlike social estates, classes always leave the road quite free for the transfer of individuals from one class to another” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 2, p. 477). Members of the petite bourgeoisie who meet financial ruin generally become part of the working class, while some industrial workers become part of the intelligentsia or office workers. Some workers become entrepreneurs and members of the bourgeoisie.

Under socialism, profound social transformation has significantly increased mobility. Prediction and control of the processes of social mobility have also become very important. The principal trends of social mobility are the movement of the population from the peasantry to the working class and from the country to the city. Workers also tend to move upward from jobs entailing physical labor to become part of the intelligentsia or engage in office work. The stratum of unskilled workers decreases and the proportion of highly skilled and semiskilled workers increases.

In bourgeois sociology, theories of social mobility are closely related to concepts of social stratification. Directed against Marxist-Leninist theory, they deny the relation of class structure and class struggle under capitalism to property relations and allege that people can freely change their social position through their own efforts. In reality, socioeconomic processes in modern capitalist society make the antagonistic classes maintain their positions more firmly; they also reinforce the castelike nature of the ruling elite.

The class struggle of the working people and the student-youth movement have substantially undermined the basic premises of bourgeois theories of social mobility.


Marx, K., and F. Engels. Manifest Kommunisticheskoipartii. Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4.
Lenin, V. I. Razvitie kapitalizma v Rossii. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 3.
Programma KPSS (Priniata XXIIs”ezdom KPSS). Moscow, 1974.
Semenov, V. S. Kapitalizm i klassy: Issledovanie sotsial’noi struktury sovremennogo kapitalicheskogo obshchestva, chs. 5-6. Moscow, 1969.
Rutkevich, M. N., and F. R. Filippov. Sotsial’nyeperemeshcheniia. Moscow, 1970.
Sorokin, P. A. Social and Cultural Mobility. Glencoe-London, 1964.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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