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), and intergenerational from intra-generational or career mobility (the former referring to mobility between a family of origin and one's own class or status position, the latter to the mobility experienced during an individual career, such as respondent's first job compared to his or her present job). Other distinctions—most notably that between structural and non-structural mobility—are more contentious.
Most sociological attention has focused on intergenerational mobility, in particular the role of educational achievement as compared to that of social background or of ascriptive characteristics such as race, in explaining patterns of occupational attainment. Although there have been many case-studies of elite recruitment (for example P. Stanworth and A. Giddens’ Elites and Power in British Society, 1974), the most popular research instrument has been the large-scale sample survey, and the most common points of comparison have been occupations. Some sociologists have studied social mobility in pre-industrial contexts (see, for example, H. Kaelble, Historical Research on Social Mobility, 1977), and others in contemporary developing countries such as India (see A. Beteille, Caste, Class and Power, 1965), but the great majority of studies have dealt with the modern industrialized West and, to a lesser extent, the former communist states of Eastern Europe.
The study of social mobility has a long sociological pedigree, extending back to the mid-19th-century writings of Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill, with major contributions in the early 20th century from Vilfredo Pareto (who proposed a theory of the ‘circulation of elites’) and Pitirim Sorokin. The now vast literature on the subject is inextricably entangled with wider discussions of (among other things) education, gender, culture, power, statistical techniques, and the role of theory in social research.
A key early view was that of Sorokin (Social Mobility, 1927), who wrote that ‘channels of vertical circulation exist in any stratified society, and are as necessary as channels for blood circulation in the body’. In an argument that prefigures the later functionalist theory of stratification, he suggested that these ‘staircases’ or ‘elevators’ are necessary to the efficient allocation of talents to occupations, and that failure to achieve this promotes inefficiency and disorder. However, unlike Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore writing two decades later, Sorokin did not then conclude that high rewards were necessary to motivate individuals to undertake training for functionally important positions in society. More plausibly, he maintained that the incumbents of these positions were able to exploit their strategic occupational roles, in order to attract material and other privileges. Sorokin was particularly interested in the role of educational institutions in allocating people to the various occupational positions. Anticipating the radical critiques of the new sociology of education of the 1970s, he argued that schools function primarily as ‘a testing, selecting, and distributing agency’; in other words, they merely certify children for particular positions in the labour-market, rather than promote each individual's abilities or encourage the development of talent.