What is Social Mobility?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

In a society that defines itself by some type of status hierarchy, people naturally move up and down in the system throughout their lives. Social mobility refers to how far and how easily a person can move in the social system. People looking to gain power and influence, or simply an easier or more luxurious lifestyle, are often said to be “upwardly mobile.” Scrambling for power can also carry its own risks, however, and in societies where mobility is extremely important, it is often much easier to lose social status than to gain it.

In the Indian caste system, social status, such as membership in the Brahmin caste, is determined by birth.
In the Indian caste system, social status, such as membership in the Brahmin caste, is determined by birth.

Social mobility often depends on what the society values the most. If it is a society driven by money and possessions, the highest ranks will be owned by those with the most money or biggest house. Societies rarely value only one trait or concept; if it is found that the biggest house on the block is owned by drug-dealers in a neighborhood that despises drug-use, the owner's will likely lose their social status.

In an extreme case of social mobility, the Vanderbilt family went from being poor farmers to controlling a transportation empire in one generation.
In an extreme case of social mobility, the Vanderbilt family went from being poor farmers to controlling a transportation empire in one generation.

While in many cultures, a person's position is determined mainly by achievements, some places have much more rigid structures based on status across generations. In the traditional caste system of India, social position is determined by the historical rank, or caste, of the family and can rarely be changed. Mobility is very limited in areas with rigid social structures, as marriage is often forbidden or frowned upon between people with widely different social standing.

In Queen Victoria's era, it would have been unthinkable for a royal to marry a commoner.
In Queen Victoria's era, it would have been unthinkable for a royal to marry a commoner.

Rigid social structures have become less common since the mid-20th century. In the Western world, humans moved away from the complicated concepts of nobility and toward democratic ideals where each citizen has equal privileges under the law. Although this began as a political concept, it quickly permeated many societies and greatly relaxed the standards of social mobility. In the early 20th century, King Edward the Eighth of England was forced to abdicate in order to marry a woman of a different social class; in 2005, by contrast, Prince Charles of England was able to marry a commoner without any serious public outcry.

Although many social standards may have been relaxed, they certainly have not disappeared. A visit to any high school cafeteria will be a quick and easy reminder that people are often broken down into different ranks and social groupings based on money, appearance, and interests. Adults in the modern world do not fare much better than teenagers; status is still largely determined by occupation, economic position, or values.

Even among animals, society arranges itself into a social hierarchy based on strength and value to the community. The relative fluidity of wealth and dissipation of defined social classes has diminished the strict rules guiding mobility to some extent, but it can often lead to confusion as many social rules are now unspoken and difficult to understand. The world of social mobility can be quite frustrating and confusing, and leads many to suggest that it is more important to focus on personal and family happiness rather than social position.

Within a caste system, people are rigidly expected to marry and interact with people of the same social class.
Within a caste system, people are rigidly expected to marry and interact with people of the same social class.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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During Black History Month in the US, an article about a janitor who became school principal was going around. ("Inspiration: Janitor Becomes School Principal") Do you think this was coincidence to promote the Horatio idea? I honestly don't know.


The good news is that I have ideas that I can share with you. Jobs provide high or low incomes. Jobs are status symbols (high, low or average). Jobs can be secure and long lasting or insecure with high turnovers or not. Full-time permanent jobs give workers the following choices: “love it or leave it.” But if they cannot afford to “leave it”, they just “hate it.” This situation defines many lives.

In all societies (capitalist, communist or socialist) where full-time jobs exist, you will find people who are stuck in jobs that they cannot leave without risking personal financial collapse.

The only solution is for society to be organized in such a way that workers can change jobs with fewer risk and fewer loss of seniority related benefits.

Imagine a world in which all jobs were half-time jobs. By “half-time” I mean the following.

If I get a job from one employer, I will need to report to work every other week (week one and then week three). If I want to work full-time, I will still be looking for another half-time job that requires me to report to work on the even numbered weeks (week two and week four). But, if instead of working full-time, I want to go to school half the time, there will be schools that offer classes to accommodate the alternating week schedules. In short, nearly all full-time workers will have two employers. Workers will no longer be at the mercy of one employer.

Society should stop “doing a job” on jobs. There is always work to be done. In the age of computers, it is very easy to setup a modern employment system without loopholes. The biggest loophole is the denial of benefits to part-time workers. Some companies make the workweek shorter than 40 hours and avoid paying benefits. Benefits should be paid to workers based on the numbers of hours worked as compared to 40. Those who work 20 hours should get half the benefits. Those who have two part-time jobs adding to 40 hours or more should have two “half benefit packages” from two employers which could add up to full benefits. Once you close this loophole, the workers’ lives will no longer be controlled by one employer. As things stand now, when you leave the job, the job does not leave you. A former employer can diminish your chances of getting a job when a potential new employer contacts them for a reference.

Society is losing too much when people who spent years in training end up taking jobs that are not related to their training. This is the way to achieve a workforce that can adapt faster as technology changes. Workers will no longer be afraid to lose it all because one employer holds their only mean of financial support. Fewer people will hate their jobs and more people will have jobs. Some will accumulate sixty hours of work and benefits working like doctors do in different hospitals.

Two bosses are better than one because working people will be free at last. --PRPaul1


SauteePan- I agree with that theory. My parents were immigrants from Cuba. Although they worked very hard their social mobility was considered working class.

However, all of my siblings as well and I went on to college and got degrees. Our education not only enhanced our social mobility index but provided opportunities that are parents did not have.

Sometimes intragenerational social mobility stays the same. Sometimes you see this with people that live in government housing known as projects.

Because of the subsidies that they receive from the government sometimes it is difficult for people to have enough of a salary to not need government assistance anymore.

Some do become more socially mobile with education and break the cycle of government dependence but it is not easy.


Bhutan-Intragenerational social mobility refers to the social ability of various generations. For example, this social theory compares your parent’s social mobility with that of yours.

Your parents may have been working class with limited social mobility, but you and your generation may actually be upper class because of more favorable circumstances that allowed you to be more upwardly mobile.

Often many of our parent’s generation did not have a college degree. However, we sought a better future and continued to go to college and get a degree therefore our social and cultural mobility would be better. This would provide us more job opportunities and enhanced lifestyle. This explains the social mobility theory.


Horizontal social mobility is when you have a change in a job or position that does not affect your social class.

This would be an example of a lateral move in which your job does not pay you more money, but it just gives you different responsibilities. This would not change your social status therefore it is considered horizontal social mobility because there was no change upward or downward.

Traditional social mobility in sociology refers to vertical social mobility. This is a change upward or even downward in social class. A big promotion that offers you a substantial raise may make you go from middle class to upper class.

However, if you lose your job and find another job that pays you substantially less your social mobility index would be going downward.

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