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Social Mobility

Social Mobility
Social mobility is the movement of an individual or group from one social position to another
over time.
Learning Objectives
Assess how different factors facilitate social mobility
Key Takeaways
Key Points
A person’s ability to move between social positions depends upon their economic,
cultural, human, and social capital.
The attributes needed to move up or down the social hierarchy are particular to each
society; some countries value economic gain, for example, while others prioritize
religious status.
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
Key Terms
Relative Social Mobility: A measure of a person’s upward or downward movement in
the social hierarchy compared to the movement of other members of their inherited social
meritocratic: Used to describe a type of society where wealth, income, and social status
are assigned through competition.
social mobility: the degree to which, in a given society, an individual’s, family’s, or
group’s social status can change throughout the course of their life through a system of
social hierarchy or stratification
Intergenerational Mobility: Refers to the phenomenon whereby a child attains higher or
lower status than their parents.
Social mobility refers to the movement of individuals or groups in social positions 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.
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.
A distinction can also be drawn between absolute social mobility, which refers to the total
observed movement of people between classes, and relative social mobility, which is an estimate
of the chance of upward or downward movement of a member of one social class in comparison
with a member from another class. An example of absolute social movement is when a region’s
economic development provides quality education to a social group that previously did not have
access to education, thus raising the group’s literacy level and socioeconomic status. Relative
social mobility might refer to the opportunities presented to a middle class child born in a
particular area of the United States, who might be predicted to attain a college level education
and a maximum income of $80,000, for example.
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
Societies present different opportunities for mobility depending on their systems of value. For
example, Western capitalist countries are generally meritocratic. In such countries, social
standing is based on such personal attributes as educational attainment, income, and occupational
prestige. Thus, the degree of mobility in Western capitalist states depends on the extent to which
individuals have access to educational and economic opportunity. By contrast, in countries where
religious devotion is valued over economic standing, mobility may depend upon individuals’
access to religious rituals and shows of piety. In different countries or regions, the extent to
which individuals have social mobility depends upon different factors.
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
Growing Gap Between Rich and Poor
Economic inequality (also known as the gap between rich and poor) consists of disparities in the
distribution of wealth and income.
Learning Objectives
Discuss the causes of economic inequality
Key Takeaways
Key Points
Economic inequality refers to inequality among individuals and groups within a society,
but can also refer to inequality among countries.
Inequality is most often measured using the Gini coefficient, a statistic used to
demonstrate the dispersion of wealth in a group.
Both the capitalist market and government interventions can increase or decrease the
level of inequality in a society.
Key Terms
supply and demand: An economic model of price determination in a market based on
the relative scarcity or abundance of goods and services.
gini coefficient: A measure of the inequality of a statistical distribution, ranging from
zero (total equality) to one (maximal inequality), used in various disciplines but
especially in economics to compare incomes or wealth.
Capitalist Market: Refers to an economic system in which supply and demand
determines the cost of goods and wages for services.
Economic inequality (also known as the gap between rich and poor, income inequality, wealth
disparity, or wealth and income differences) consists of disparities in the distribution of wealth
(accumulated assets) and income. The term typically refers to inequality among individuals and
groups within a society, but can also refer to inequality among countries. The issue of economic
inequality is related to the ideas of equity: equality of outcome and equality of opportunity.
There are various numerical indices for measuring economic inequality, but the most commonly
used measure for the purposes of comparison is the Gini coefficient (also known as the Gini
index or Gini ratio for Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini). The Gini coefficient is a
statistical measure of the dispersal of wealth or income. A Gini coefficient of zero indicates that
there is perfect equality—assets are equally divided between all people in the group. A Gini
coefficient of one indicates that all of a group’s wealth is held by one individual. Most countries
fall toward the middle of this range.
Map of Global Gini Coefficients: Using Gini coefficients, this map illustrates the extent to
which each country in the world has internal inequality, or a gap between its richest and poorest
There are many reasons for economic inequality within societies, and they are often interrelated.
Acknowledged factors that impact economic inequality include, but are not limited to:
Inequality in wages and salaries;
The income gap between highly skilled workers and low-skilled or no-skills workers;
Wealth concentration in the hands of a few individuals or institutions;
Labor markets;
Technological changes;
Policy reforms;
Computerization and growing technology;
Innate ability
A major cause of economic inequality within modern economies is the determination of wages
by the capitalist market. In the capitalist market, the wages for jobs are set by supply and
demand. If there are many workers willing to do a job for a great amount of time, there is a high
supply of labor for that job. If few people need that job done, there is low demand for that type of
labor. When there is high supply and low demand for a job, it results in a low wage. Conversely,
if there is low supply and high demand (as with particular highly skilled jobs), it will result in a
high wage. The gap in wages produces inequality between different types of workers.
Apart from market-driven factors that affect wage inequality, government sponsored initiatives
can also increase or decrease inequality. Social scientists and policy makers debate the relative
merits and effectiveness of each approach to regulating inequality. Typical government
initiatives to reduce economic inequality include:
Public education: Increasing the supply of skilled labor and reducing income inequality
due to education differentials.
Progressive taxation: The rich are taxed proportionally more than the poor, reducing the
amount of income inequality in society.
Minimum wage legislation: Raising the income of the poorest workers
Nationalization or subsidization of products: Providing goods and services that everyone
needs cheaply or freely (such as food, healthcare, and housing), governments can
effectively raise the purchasing power of the poorer members of society.
Open vs. Closed Stratification Systems
In an open class system, people are ranked by achieved status, whereas in a closed class system,
people are ranked by ascribed status.