the word psychology over ocean sunrise (copyrighted)

The Many Different Elements to Social Mobility


The Many Different Elements to Social Mobility

There are many different elements to social mobility; moving up in life is not as easy as it may appear. Social mobility refers to the movement of individuals or groups from one position in a society’s stratification system to another (Schaefer, 2010, p. 149). The degree of social mobility varies among open stratification systems and closed stratification systems. In addition, there are four major types of social mobility; horizontal, vertical, intergenerational, and intragenerational. Education, race and ethnicity, and gender all impact social mobility in various ways. Sociologists among the structural functionalist school of thought and the conflict theorists both have differing perspectives on social mobility.

Stratification systems
A stratification system, according to Schaefer is the structured ranking of entire groups of people that perpetuates unequal economic rewards and power (p. 130). In general, there are two types of stratification systems; open and closed. In an open stratification system it is possible to move up or down in social mobility because success is widely obtained by an individual’s achieved status. The United States is an example of an open system, where there is opportunity for individuals to work towards success. On the contrary, in a closed system, such as India, social mobility is very limited, because it is based on a person’s ascribed status; determined by the caste system he or she is born into. “The question of social mobility has been a major concern of scholarly literature on Indian society” (Doron, 2009, p. 2). According to Doron, anthropologist M.N. Srinivas coined the term “Sanskritisation” to describe the process by which low castes have been actively seeking to advance their collective status by emulating upper-caste values and social practices (p. 2). 

Four Types of Social Mobility

Horizontal Mobility
Sociologists have compiled a list of prestige ratings ranging from 0 to 100 for several different occupations. Moving from one occupation to a different occupation with the same prestige ranking is considered horizontal mobility because the person involved has not moved up or down on the ratings; they have simply moved laterally (Schaefer, 2010, p. 150). For example, if a man changed his occupation as a farmer to a correctional officer his prestige ranking would remain the same (Schaefer, 2010, p. 141; 150).

Vertical Mobility
If an individual moves from one occupation to another occupation with a different prestige ranking, this would be considered vertical mobility. Moving vertically can mean that the individual has moved up in their prestige ranking or down in their prestige ranking (Schaefer, 2010, p. 150). For example, if my husband moved from his comfortable position as CEO of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, to a mechanic, this would cause him to move downward in his prestige ranking. On the contrary, if I was to move from the position of child care worker to elementary school teacher, my prestige ranking would move upward.

Intergenerational Mobility
In intergenerational mobility, sociologists compare the social positions between children and their parents. Sociologist study upward and downward intergenerational mobility. For example, a garbage collector whose father was a janitor would be considered an upward intergenerational move. However, a bartender whose mother was a waitress would be viewed as a downward intergenerational move. Furthermore, individuals who achieve an occupational level that differs from his or her parents usually advance or fall back only one or two out of a possible eight occupational levels (Schaefer, 2010, p. 251).

Intragenerational Mobility
Changes in a person’s social position within his or her adult life is defined as, intragenerational mobility (Schaefer, 2010, p. 150). A nurse’s aide who moves from her position to a registered nurse would be considered intragenerational mobility. Similar to intergenerational mobility, intragenerational mobility can be upward or downward. For example, a secretary who is let go from her company, and in turn finds a position as a receptionist experiences downward intragenerational mobility.

The Impact of Education, Race and Ethnicity, and Gender Education

According to Schaefer, education plays a major role in social mobility (p. 151). Achieving a college degree can significantly increase a person’s chance for reaching a higher prestige level, more so than simply having a high school diploma. Of course a person born into a wealthy family has a favorable start already by simply being born into wealth and prestige. However, an individual born into a lower class family who does not have a favorable start can still have a chance of some success if he or she is able to achieve a college degree. Furthermore, higher education is perceived to reverberate within the home, promoting a culture of learning among, and encouraging the educational aspirations of, children (Wainwright, 2010, p. 1).
Although obtaining higher education can promote social mobility, the impact that education has on social mobility has declined some in the past few years. This is mainly because so many people are now entering the job force with college degrees; there are simply not enough jobs to go around. According to research conducted on education and social mobility, “Education plays a smaller role in social mobility than it used to… Employers want office and personal skills rather than more advanced education” (Jackson, 2004, par. 4).

Race and Ethnicity
Compared to Whites, minorities, namely African Americans and Latinos, are at a disadvantage when it comes to social mobility. In the United States a person’s ascribed status; especially their race, has a major impact on how much wealth and prestige he or she can obtain. According to Colette van Laar, in her article on Valuing Social Identity, stigmatized group members, or minorities, who pursue upward mobility, face significant threats in out-group, or White, environments (p.1). Downward mobility is more prevalent among minorities, than it is for Whites.
The civil rights movement had a positive effect on African Americans, however discrimination still exists today; which is evident in the significant income gap between Whites and African Americans with the same educational level. According to Schaefer, White men with a median income of $52,228 earned thirty percent more money than Black men in 2008 and nearly twice what Hispanic women earned (p. 182,183). In our society, Whites are the dominant group and therefore are privileged simply because of the color of their skin.

The nineteenth amendment marked an apparent advancement towards equal rights for women in the United States. However, despite the tremendous breakthrough of the 1900’s, social mobility between men and women still remain drastically unequal. Men in general, regardless of skin color have a greater advantage for upward mobility than women. Although women have obtained higher education and occupational skills that are equivalent to men, women are generally less compensated. In addition, women who are a part of a minority group are far more disadvantaged than women who are a part of the dominant group.

Women are stigmatized such that they are expected to marry, have children, and take care of the home. However, while women may achieve some recognition in corporate America, it is not as important to their identity as it is for men (Schaefer, 2010, p. 192). Because of the gender roles that have been placed upon males and females in our society, the idea of a woman occupying a position at the top of major corporation is simply and unfortunately, out of the norm. Men, especially those who are among the dominant group, have the greatest opportunity for upward social mobility.

Functionalist and Conflict Perspectives on Social Mobility Functionalist Perspective

Sociologist from the structural functionalist school of thought would feel as though it was necessary to society that the dominant group have more opportunity for social mobility. Theorists such as, Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore believe that social inequality is necessary so that people are motivated to fill functionally important positions (Schaefer, 2010, p. 137). Society could not survive if everyone was able to be at the top of the corporate ladder because there would still be a need for lower positions, such as janitorial positions, to be filled. Furthermore, not every person is equipped to handle that much responsibility; not everyone has the knowledge and skills to hold a position at the top of the corporate ladder.

Conflict Perspective
Contrary to the functionalist school of thought, conflict theorists believe that inequality relating to social mobility is excessive and that it promotes exploitation. Theorist Ralf Dahrendorf believes that the powerful of today want society to run smoothly so that they can enjoy their privileged positions (Schaefer, 2010, p. 138). Conflict theorist stress that the powerful want to further their own interests while exploiting those with little or no power although doing so could lead to instability. From a Marxist point of view, the inability for certain groups to move up in society will keep the subordinate groups in low-paying jobs, thereby supplying the capitalist ruling class with a pool of cheap labor (Schaefer, 2010, p. 175).

Social mobility is a very complex social issue that affects everyone. Horizontal, vertical, intergenerational, and intragenerational mobility are four types of social mobility. Many factors, such as education, race and ethnicity, and gender all impact social mobility in various ways. Theorists from among the structural functionalist perspective and the conflict perspective have differing perspectives on social mobility.

Works Cited
Doron, A., & Rao, U. (2009). From the edge of power: The cultural politics of disadvantage in south Asia. Retrieved November 25, 2011, from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost

Goldthorpe, J., Jackson, M., & Mills, C. (2004). What’s it worth? Retrieved from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost

Schaefer, R. T. (2010) Sociology Matters (5th ed.).
New York, NY: McGraw-Hill van Laar, C., Derks, B., & Ellemers, N. (2010). Valuing social identity: Consequences for motivation and performance in low-status groups. Retrieved from

Wainwright, E., & Marandet, E. (2010). Parents in higher education: Impacts of university learning on the self and the family. Retrieved November 25, 2011, from http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost


Courtesy of Free Content Web.

Articles posted on this site are the works of their respective authors. They may be for informational or entertainment purposes and do not necessarily represent the views of this website nor imply endorsement by this website, nor endorsement of this site by the authors, nor do we get paid for posting articles. Nothing herein is intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. Please do your research and seek professional advice before using any information.


Leave a Reply

New Report


Skip to content
This Website is committed to ensuring digital accessibility for people with disabilitiesWe are continually improving the user experience for everyone, and applying the relevant accessibility standards.
Conformance status