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.
Types of Social Mobility
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.
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 system of values. For example, Western capitalist countries are generally meritocratic, in which social standing is based on such personal attributes as educational attainment, income, and occupational prestige. In such countries, highly skilled jobs pay better than low-skilled jobs. This type of society has an open status system, which functions on the basis of achieved status, or status gained through one's own merit. Thus, the degree of mobility in Western capitalist states ideally depends on the extent to which individuals have access to educational and economic opportunity, rather than their position at birth. On the other hand, closed status systems are based on ascribed status. Ascribed status is a fixed position a person is born into, not based on their performance. When this ascriptive status rule is used (for example, in Medieval Europe), people are placed in a position based on personal traits beyond their control.
The ability of an individual to become wealthy out of poverty does not necessarily indicate that there is social mobility in his or her society. Some 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. In pre-revolutionary France, a nobleman, however poor, was from the "second estate" of society and thus considered superior to a wealthy merchant (from the "third estate"). These examples demonstrate how social mobility is not simply based on economic capital, but also social and cultural capital.
A Comparative View of Social Mobility
Several studies have been conducted to compare social mobility between countries. Recent data shows that of nine developed countries, the United States and United Kingdom have the lowest intergenerational vertical social mobility, with about half of the advantages of having a parent with a high income passed on to the next generation. The four developed countries with the the highest social mobility are Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Canada, with less than 20% of advantages of having a high income parent passed on to their children.
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.
Not only does social mobility vary across types of countries, it can also change over time. For example, social mobility in the United States has varied widely since the 19th century. In the United States in the mid-19th century, inequality was low and social mobility was high. In the 19th century, the U.S. had much higher social mobility than comparably developed nations like the U.K., due in part to the common school movement and open public school system, a large farming industry, and high geographic mobility. However, during the latter half of the 20th century and the early 21st century, social mobility has decreased and social inequality has grown in the U.S. In other words, in the U.S. an individual's family background may be more predictive of social position today than it was in 1850.