Social Mobility: Meaning, Types, Examples, Causes, Factors, Importance

Social mobility refers to the movement of individuals or groups in social positions over time

Definition: Social stratification is the system by which society categorises people and ranks them in a hierarchy. If one were to consider society to resemble the ranks of a ladder, wherein higher rungs represent higher in the hierarchy; then the position an individual has in society is dependent on the factors which society deems important. These are a multitude of factors, including race, gender, wealth and wealth, education, caste, etc. Those individuals whose factors align with what society deems important, ie. resources, fall at the top of the social hierarchy. Social stratification is a notable trait of society, which allows us to understand the hierarchical nature of society and how inequalities are passed down from one generation to the next.

Social Mobility Examples

From these factors, some are unchangeable such as race, gender and, to a degree, caste. While others, such as education level, or income may change over time. Hence, it is possible for an individual or a whole group to move from one stratum of society to another, the ability to move from strata to strata is referred to as social mobility. A sociologist to propose the concept of social mobility, Pitirim Sorokin, defines it as “any transition of an indi- vidual or social object of value-anything that has been created or modi- fied by human activity-from one social position to another

Types of social mobility

  • Intergenerational mobility
  • Intragenerational mobility
  • Horizontal and vertical mobility.

Social mobility can happen in both an upwards or a downwards manner and is of two types- intergenerational mobility and intragenerational mobility. These two types are less concerned with the degree of mobility as opposed to the time period in which this mobility occurs. As suggested by the name, intergenerational mobility is the social mobility that occurs from one generation to another. Hence, intergenerational mobility is a relative measure of mobility from parent to child. Here, social mobility can be measured by examining the extent and pattern of association between parents and adult children’s socioeconomic standing, where a higher association means less mobility.

On the other hand, intragenerational mobility is the study of mobility that occurs in a single individual’s lifespan, i.e. during one generation. Intragenerational mobility is usually the crux of many rags to riches tales, wherein individuals who are poor and working dead-end jobs are able to overcome and gain stardom and recognition. A popular example of this type of mobility is JK Rowling, who was a poor single mother and is now one of the richest women in the world.

Lastly, horizontal mobility refers to a change in a person’s occupation but no change to their social standing. While vertica; mobility implies that either an upward or downward shift in the hierarchical ladder has occurred.

Causes and examples of social mobility

  • Social class & poverty

Social class, referred to simply as a class, refers to a group that have a similar socio-economic position. In a capitalist society, Frank Parkin offered an occupational basis on which to classify social class on the basis that ‘the backbone of the class structure and the means to gain economic rewards is the occupational structure. Hence, here economic reward may be decided as to how functionally unique a certain occupation is (as per the functionalist perspective).

Additionally, one economic reward is typically directly proportional to one’s occupational prestige. Lastly, class has two main sources- wealth and income, between these two sources, one generation can only see a substantial change in income and not in wealth, as wealth is accumulated over time. While class is further influenced by a number of other sociological factors such as race, caste, gender etc. hence, economic circumstances are widely studied as a key contributor to social mobility.

  • Education

The correlation between class and social mobility is best illustrated within the American education system. Education is often referred to as the great equaliser of the conditions of men. This means that regardless of the conditions or social strata one is born into, education is a powerful tool for social mobility. However, despite public education being a reality, equal quality education is not. In the United States quality of education depends on the community one lives in. Hence, if an individual lives in a poor community they are likely to attend an underfunded school.

This is further exemplified by the statistic that- children that live in poverty are five times more likely to drop out of high school, than those who are upper class. Hence, if education is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, then the opposite also holds true: students who receive a poor education before graduating can end up on the wrong side of a lifelong gap in employment, earnings, even life expectancy.

  • Caste

Caste is an aspect of social stratification which is specific to India, much like class and education, is interlinked with one’s social position in society. Caste, however, is particularly pertinent as one’s caste is oten times an indicator of which hereditary occupation one performs. Also Read: Sociology of Caste

  • Migration

 In a society natural citizens are afforded certain privileges, which immigrants can either not access, or must struggle to obtain. For example, immigrants typically have to pay higher fees at university than citizens. Similarly, certain jobs may not accept immigrants, and healthcare may not be offered to them, or may be unfamiliar with the national language. Hence, immigrants are often at a disadvantage compared to citizens and therefore fall lower in the social hierarchy. Also Read: Sociology of Immigration


Absolute mobility refers to social mobility in an absolute sense, while relative mobility is concerned with social mobility relative to the rest of society. For example, if an employee’s income increases by 10% over the course of one decade while all his peers’ income increases by 20%. In this example, while the employee’s absolute income has increased, their relative income has not.

  • Occupation

Another, far more commonly used method of measuring social mobility is in terms of occupational status relative to one’s parents. For instance, a study conducted in the United States saw that a third of individuals do not experience intergenerational mobility, ie, they have the same occupation as their parents. Hence, a majority of individuals remain in the same class as their parents. However, this same study saw eighty per cent of the individuals achieve horizontal mobility– the individual has a different occupation from their parents but remains in a similar social position/class. Lastly, this means of measuring social mobility does not consider the possibility that an individual may have the ability but instead chooses to work a similar job as their parents.

The number of people able to achieve social mobility differs based on country. The more important an individual’s social position is given,  the more rigid and closed is the stratification system. Thereby the lower the possibility of social mobility the more rigid and stratified that system is. The Great Gatsby Curve is a tool that allows for the connection between the concentration of wealth in one generation and the ability of those in the next generation to move up the economic ladder compared to their parents, to be visually illustrated.

  • The Gatsby Curve

The Gatsby Curve is plotted internationally, thus showcasing and measuring the relative degree of social mobility that occurs from one country to another. From the curve, one can conclude that The Nordic countries have the highest rate of social mobility. From the curve, one can also conclude that East Asian countries do not have good scores, but the big Latin American economies are the worst in this regard. The position India holds on the curve is caused by the fact that there is great inequality with poor intergenerational mobility. Due to this, India is in a position that it may not become like East Asia with its rapid growth rates, but rather like Latin America with lower performance. Thus the question arises: Why does India have low rates of social mobility?

  • Social structure and system

The main argument is that order to move up the social ladder is not merely a matter of individual choice and hard work. But instead, it is caused by the system itself, a system of collective political bargaining, privileges that dominant class and caste status afford, access to resources all resulting in a rigid and stratified society. The reason for the low rate of social mobility and continual high rates of poverty are likely twofold. Governmental policies, though in place, are not effective enough to enable social mobility in a competitive laissez-faire economy.

Secondly, in reference to impression management, a prominent theory under the structural-functionalist perspective, participation that will allow for social mobility hinges upon one’s ability to dress for the part, to be able to perform as though they belong in a particular space. These places include private schools and various private industry jobs. In a country such as India, wherein identity is so strongly affected by one’s social strata, this performance is near impossible.

In order to increase the possibility of upwards mobility (and decrease the likelihood of downwards mobility), changes may need to be made at the policy level. This includes regulating inheritance (ie. the ability to be born into a class far higher or lower), as well as to raise access to high-quality education, improve social mixing, both influence attitudes and help people form networks with people from different backgrounds. Lastly, greater disclosure of employers’ recruitment practices and increased quotas for minorities, are some ways in which a country can perform better on the Great Gatsby Curve.

Why social mobility is important

  • A high rate of social mobility corresponds to low rates of social inequality.
  • Analysing social mobility explain social structures and class formation

Social stratification and inequality are two concepts that go hand in hand. The degree to which mobility is possible is directly proportional to how equal a society is. That is, a high rate of social mobility corresponds to low rates of social inequality. For example, if a family continues in the line of work as a factory worker, from generation to generation, and the ability for anyone to leave this line of work is low, then intergenerational social mobility is low.

This correlation between mobility and equality exists because placing higher in society  means that an individual possesses all the traits society deems desirable. Egalitarian philosophies of justice suggest that some sort of equality should prevail in terms of the likelihood for upward social mobility. This means that while one may be born into social strata, that individual must be given the resources that allow for (upward) social mobility. That is why equality, in this instance, is not the occurrence of every individual in society having the same factors but instead every individual having the ability to gain these factors.

A prime example of a resource that would allow for all individuals to gain a high position in society is free universal education. Hence, social mobility matters for reasons of efficiency, fairness and equality of opportunity. Additionally, from a structural-functionalist perspective, social cohesion and inclusion may be more likely to be achieved in a society where people believe they can improve themselves through their abilities, talents and effort than in a society where opportunities and quality of life depend on social background.

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Natasha D'Mello is currently a communications and sociology student at Flame University. Her interests include graphic design, poetry and media analysis.