Article

Social Mobility

Steven Rytina

in Sociology

ISBN: 9780199756384
Published online July 2011 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0049
Social Mobility

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  • Sociology
  • Comparative and Historical Sociology
  • Economic Sociology
  • Gender and Sexuality
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  • Population and Demography
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  • Social Movements and Social Change
  • Social Stratification, Inequality, and Mobility
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Social mobility refers to the movement of individuals, families, or groups among stratified social positions. Conceptions of social stratification form a necessary backdrop, but mobility has long been recognized as a distinct area of concern. Since stratification is metaphoric and mobility concepts are derivative, mobility notions are rich in complexity. A central intuition is that the division of labor associates type of work with regularities in rank, including economic rank and ranked social condition(s), potentially extending to standards of living, politics, esteem from others, health, and much else. Colloquial terms for this include “class,” “standing,” and “status.” All convey some notion that households are ranked, or stratified, from higher to lower as a consequence of economic roles of principal breadwinners. However, colloquial usage no longer plays much part in terminology; and class, standing, and status have all acquired special meanings. As an illustrative complexity, Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992 (see Methods for Analyzing Mobility Tables) identifies “class” with nonvertical contrasts in addition to vertical ones. Mobility requires taking assessments of social rank at two (or more) points in time and comparing them. Those with the same rank are “immobile.” Those with different ranks at different points are “mobile” and, depending on the scheme of rank, may be mobile in different degrees. Plainly, all results are contingent on how rank is defined. In principle, all manner of entities—such as nations, firms, or ethnic groups—could be said to experience mobility. But in practice, mobility studies have primarily been carried out by means of large, random samples of individuals. Such studies are expensive and relatively few in number. Hence, the study of mobility is constrained by the decisions taken in the design of such studies. Many of the leading figures in mobility investigation were the principal investigators of the major data-generation projects. Every such dataset includes rich resources for classifying and ranking individual cases. Such schemes are often layered, with initial codes subject to recodes, sometimes followed by further assignments of coded categories to numerical levels. Ranks along multiple dimensions are defined by means of available variables. Such schemes, in general, can be said to “stratify” cases. All results are contingent on how strata are coded. Hence, stratifying schemes give rise to unity among persons who adopt a shared scheme and conflict among proponents of alternative schemes. These divisions played a large role in the evolution of the field. Dataset designers omitted resources that others deemed desirable, often from the perspective of hindsight. For example, the restriction of many early datasets to fathers and sons seems unfortunate today. However, the frustration of missing facets is, in part, compensated by the high precision implicit in drawing on a shared fact base. A further problem, closely intertwined with schemes of stratifying cases, is how to reduce the succession of ranks to any simple summary. From the earliest days, this problem was seen to pose stiff methodological challenges. Mobility studies attracted many of the top methodologists and inspired many key advances in quantitative sociology. Shared data and advanced methods have characterized the field. While methodological debate has sometimes dominated discussions, shared questions set the stakes. First, are the collective facts of family rank (or social class) persistent or evanescent, and is this changing? Pioneers hoped that mobility studies would help assess whether classes as collective actors were likely to wax or wane. The answer has proved elusive, for trends remain hard to pin down and are thus topics for ongoing debate. A second motive is to understand access to social advantage. How important is origin (e.g., father’s job) relative to other factors, such as education? For most, this bears on key issues of fairness.

Article.  12361 words. 

Subjects: Sociology ; Comparative and Historical Sociology ; Economic Sociology ; Gender and Sexuality ; Health, Illness, and Medicine ; Population and Demography ; Race and Ethnicity ; Social Movements and Social Change ; Social Stratification, Inequality, and Mobility ; Social Theory

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