In This Article Social Mobility

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Data Sources
  • Statistical Methods
  • Journals
  • Early Work
  • Economic Mobility
  • Wealth
  • Class
  • Methods for Analyzing Mobility Tables
  • Trends
  • Educational Mobility

Sociology Social Mobility
Steven Rytina
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0049


Social mobility refers to the movement of individuals, families, or groups among stratified social positions. Conceptions of social stratification form a necessary backdrop, but mobility has long been recognized as a distinct area of concern. Since stratification is metaphoric and mobility concepts are derivative, mobility notions are rich in complexity. A central intuition is that the division of labor associates type of work with regularities in rank, including economic rank and ranked social condition(s), potentially extending to standards of living, politics, esteem from others, health, and much else. Colloquial terms for this include “class,” “standing,” and “status.” All convey some notion that households are ranked, or stratified, from higher to lower as a consequence of economic roles of principal breadwinners. However, colloquial usage no longer plays much part in terminology; and class, standing, and status have all acquired special meanings. As an illustrative complexity, Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992 (see Methods for Analyzing Mobility Tables) identifies “class” with nonvertical contrasts in addition to vertical ones. Mobility requires taking assessments of social rank at two (or more) points in time and comparing them. Those with the same rank are “immobile.” Those with different ranks at different points are “mobile” and, depending on the scheme of rank, may be mobile in different degrees. Plainly, all results are contingent on how rank is defined. In principle, all manner of entities—such as nations, firms, or ethnic groups—could be said to experience mobility. But in practice, mobility studies have primarily been carried out by means of large, random samples of individuals. Such studies are expensive and relatively few in number. Hence, the study of mobility is constrained by the decisions taken in the design of such studies. Many of the leading figures in mobility investigation were the principal investigators of the major data-generation projects. Every such dataset includes rich resources for classifying and ranking individual cases. Such schemes are often layered, with initial codes subject to recodes, sometimes followed by further assignments of coded categories to numerical levels. Ranks along multiple dimensions are defined by means of available variables. Such schemes, in general, can be said to “stratify” cases. All results are contingent on how strata are coded. Hence, stratifying schemes give rise to unity among persons who adopt a shared scheme and conflict among proponents of alternative schemes. These divisions played a large role in the evolution of the field. Dataset designers omitted resources that others deemed desirable, often from the perspective of hindsight. For example, the restriction of many early datasets to fathers and sons seems unfortunate today. However, the frustration of missing facets is, in part, compensated by the high precision implicit in drawing on a shared fact base. A further problem, closely intertwined with schemes of stratifying cases, is how to reduce the succession of ranks to any simple summary. From the earliest days, this problem was seen to pose stiff methodological challenges. Mobility studies attracted many of the top methodologists and inspired many key advances in quantitative sociology. Shared data and advanced methods have characterized the field. While methodological debate has sometimes dominated discussions, shared questions set the stakes. First, are the collective facts of family rank (or social class) persistent or evanescent, and is this changing? Pioneers hoped that mobility studies would help assess whether classes as collective actors were likely to wax or wane. The answer has proved elusive, for trends remain hard to pin down and are thus topics for ongoing debate. A second motive is to understand access to social advantage. How important is origin (e.g., father’s job) relative to other factors, such as education? For most, this bears on key issues of fairness.


There exist no texts on social mobility. However, some familiarity with social stratification is necessary. Kerbo 2008 provides one of the best surveys that attempts to provide a balanced introduction to the available perspectives. Grusky, et al. 2008 assembles many of the source materials. While not a text, Turner 1984 provides a crisp distillation of societal stratification that introduces many of the key concepts. While also not a text, Scott 1996 provides an introduction to the widely shared multidimensional view.

  • Grusky, D. B., M. C. Ku, and Szonja Szelényi, eds. 2008. Social stratification: Class, race, and gender in sociological perspective. 3d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

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    Provides very wide coverage of essential sources for stratification, covering the three modalities. Since mobility is addressed as a special topic, coverage is necessarily brief. A drawback is that most selections are excerpts. The interested reader might want to consult the originals, which are widely available online.

  • Kerbo, H. 2008. Social stratification and inequality: Class conflict in historical, comparative, and global perspective. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

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    A traditional survey text that reviews competing perspectives.

  • Scott, J. 1996. Stratification and power: Structures of class, status and command. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

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    Reviews and (partially) revises Weber’s influential triad of class, status, and party. The oft-neglected “party” is replaced with the more promising “command,” which nicely adds bureaucratic authority. Provides a good introduction to the almost universally held antirealist position that multiple analytic dimensions can be conjured up by theorists (or practitioners) as a preliminary to empirical work.

  • Turner, J. 1984. Societal stratification. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    Provides a succinct review of variables that shape stratification structures. Provides comprehensive tables that neatly summarize qualitative differences in societies that influence stratification systems. Combines factors as symbols in formulae that are clear and illustrate the challenge that theory faces, but that haven’t achieved wide currency.

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