Social mobility is an act of moving from one social class to another. The amount of movement up and down the class structure would indicate the extent of social mobility prevalent in the society.

The social mobility is greatly influenced by the level of openness of the society. Open society is the one where people attain their status primarily by their own efforts. In fact the extent of mobility may be taken as an index of openness of a society indicating how far talented individuals born into lower strata can move up the socioeconomic ladder. In this respect, social mobility is an important political issue, particularly in countries committed to liberal vision of equality of opportunity to all citizens. In this perspective industrial societies are mostly open societies portraying high social mobility. Compared with them, pre-industrial societies have mostly been found to be closed societies where there has been low social mobility. People in such societies have been confined to their ancestral occupations and their social status has mostly been ascribed.

Social mobility can be classified as:

Vertical mobility: The movement of individuals and groups up or down the socioeconomic scale. Those who gain in property, income, status, and position are said to be upwardly mobile, while those who move in the opposite direction are downwardly mobile.

Horizontal mobility: The movement of individuals and groups in similar socioeconomic positions, which may be in different work situations. This may involve change in occupation or remaining in the same occupation but in a different organization, or may be in the same organization but at a different location.

Lateral mobility: It is a geographical movement between neighborhoods, towns or regions. In modern societies there is a great deal of geographical mobility. Lateral mobility is often combined with vertical as well as horizontal mobility.

The movement of people up or down the social hierarchy can be looked at either within one generation called intra-generational mobility or between generations labeled as inter- generational mobility. Intra-generational mobility consists of movement up and down the stratification system by members of a single generation (the-social class in which you began life compared with your social class at the end of your life).

Inter-generational mobility consists of movement up and down the stratification system by members of successive generations of a family (your social class location compared with that of your parents, for example). Comparison is usually made between social class status of son and father.

Mobility is functional. Open societies provide opportunities to its members for the development of their talents and working toward their individual fulfillment. At the same time a person can select the best person for doing a particular job.

Mobility determinants

Three main factors that affect mobility:

Structural factors:

Structural factors are the ones, which determine the relative proportion of high-status positions to be filled and the ease of getting them. Societies differ in the relative proportion of high- and low-status positions to be filled. A society with a primarily agricultural economy will have many low- status and few high-status positions, and mobility will be low. The rate of mobility rises with the degree of industrialization of the economy. In an industrial society there is expected to be an increase in the number of occupations as well as in the number of jobs in each occupation. An increase in the division of labor is expected and along with it there is increasing specialization, hence the jobs multiply.

As the societies move from agricultural to industrial and to postindustrial societies, there is a change in the nature of jobs e.g. decline in manufacturing jobs and an increase in service jobs. Such a change provides new opportunities for employment, which the people avail and thereby the whole process becomes instrumental to social mobility

Even in a relatively open society, upward mobility is not open equally to everyone. Middle class children typically have learning experiences which are more helpful in gaining upward mobility than the experiences of lower-class children. Nevertheless, mobility may further depend upon the prevalent policies, laws and other factors that may discriminate between groups and individuals on the basis of factors like race, gender, religion, age, and ethnicity.

Individual factors:

While structural factors may determine the proportion of high-status, well-paid positions in a society, individual factors greatly affect which persons get them. It means that one has to look into the procedures of access and entry to the available positions. There could be the possession of the entry based qualifications by the individuals and there could be number of individual factors that influence the possession of necessary qualifications.

The individuals may have differences in their “mobility oriented behaviors”. There is much which persons can do to increase their prospects for upward mobility by improving their educational qualifications. The work habits learned in early childhood are very important for making efforts in improving one's position. Of course hard work carries no guarantee of upward mobility, but not many achieve upward mobility without it.

Then there is the often referred “principle of deferred gratification.” This consists of postponing immediate satisfaction in order to gain some later goal. Saving one's money to go for higher studies or to start a business is an example. At the moment you are studying sociology rather than using the same time for having fun somewhere else. You are postponing ‘having fun' over studying the subject of sociology. In this way you are practicing “deferred-gratification” pattern of behavior. The parents may spend the money on the education of their child and postpone the celebration of his marriage. Mobility oriented people are likely to demonstrate such pattern of behavior. It is usually assumed that the “deferred gratification” principle is followed by the middle class people.

Gender differential may be another factor as part of individual differences. It is generally observed that there are greater opportunities for males than for females. Even if the two persons possess the same qualifications but being a male or a female may influence one's climbing the mobility ladder. Under the law such a discriminatory approach may be prohibited but in reality it may be practiced in an invisible way. Such a barrier is usually referred to as “Glass ceiling”: a concept used to explain how women are prevented from attaining top (managerial and professional) jobs. In UK 50% of daughters of professional and managerial households enter non-manual job (intermediate level) with little chance of work-life upward mobility.

Differential fertility by social class:

The number of suitable off-springs available to fill the positions from the same class is another factor influencing social mobility. The inadequate number of children available in the middle class to fill jobs will provide an opportunity for the children from the adjacent class to fill the vacancies.

Interaction of all factors: All of the above factors interact and have a cumulative effect on the mobility of a person. Look at a person who is poor, uneducated, and belongs to a minority group is handicapped on all three counts and all these factors may interact and make things worse for him.


While social mobility permits society to fill its occupational vacancies with the most able people and offers the individual a chance to attain his or her life goal, it also involves certain costs.

A mobile society arouses expectations which are not always fulfilled, thereby creating dissatisfaction and unhappiness. One could come across lot more frustrations in the mobile society than in the traditional society.

The costs could include fear of falling in status, as in downward mobility; the strain of new roles learning in occupational promotions, the disruption of primary group relationships as a person moves upward or downward. Parents and children may become strangers because of changes in social attitudes. Mobility oriented parents may work hard, come home late, and have less interaction with their children. It may lead to bitterness and estrangement.

Social mobility often demands geographic mobility, with a painful loss of treasured social ties. An offered promotion may be declined because of fear of the burden of new responsibilities. Even marriages may be threatened when spouses are not equally interested in mobility. It can result in mental illness and conflict.

General observations:

  • Social mobility, at least among men, has been fairly high. Comparative mobility between men and women shows that men have been more mobile than women.
  • The long-term trend in social mobility has been upward. With the shift toward industrial economies there are prospects of enhanced job opportunities resulting in greater scope for upward mobility.

Within a single generation, social mobility is generally incremental, not dramatic. Most young families increase their income over time as they gain education and skills. But with the exception of few drastically upward or downward mobility cases, most social mobility involves limited movement within one class level rather than striking moves between classes.