Major Sociological Paradigms

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Social Stratification

Social Stratification

Social Mobility

Social mobility is a term used by sociologists to refer to the movement of individuals or groups between the different levels or categories making up the system of social stratification. Movement between social positions or levels can be vertical (up or down) or horizontal (lateral) also intergenerational and intragenerational mobility.

The feudal and caste systems were characterized by a great deal of rigidity in respect of the possibilities for individuals to move within a lifetime to any other level of the stratification system. These systems can be characterized as closed, an individual’s status for life being fixed at birth. Sociologists refer to this as ‘ascribed status’.

Birth is only one form of ascribed status. Other systems of stratification exist that are based on ascriptive criteria, but which do not fix an individual for life in a low or high position, e.g. the age-gender or age-set systems of the Maasai or Aborigine peoples. Here the social development of an individual is identical with that of his age-mates and although elders hold decisive authority, each male in his time becomes an elder).

It is generally agreed that modern industrial societies are considerably more open and fluid than the cast or feudal systems in that movement between different levels of the system of social stratification is much more common. These societies are characterized by what is known as achieved status. An achieved status is one where individuals take up a social position according to their own talent and ability. It should therefore follow that any systematic investigation into the amount of movement by individuals up or down the class structure – social mobility should reveal high rates of mobility as a feature of industrial societies. You should bear this hypothesis in mind when reading about the findings from mobility studies.

Social mobility may be upward or downward and may be achieved or forced. In industrial societies, when sociologists have studied social mobility, they have usually focused on the movement of individuals between occupations, either intergenerational (comparing father’s job with son’s – at a similar stage of the life cycle) or, less frequently, intragenerational (focusing on job changes in the careers of individuals).

Social mobility may be short or long range – in modern industrial societies most movement is usually over short distances. Long-range mobility does occur occasionally, but it is a quite restricted phenomenon. There are many factors that may affect the extent of social mobility:

  • Changes in the occupational structure can be particularly important; for example, the expansion of skilled positions in professional, managerial and technical occupations in recent years has created many new opportunities for white-collar employment.
  • The extent of social mobility is also affected by the extent to which the education system provides for equality of opportunity and thus some kind of meritocratic placement therefore. In this respect, the issue of relative class chances in access to further and higher education is of some importance.
  • The number of suitable people available to fill positions is another influence on levels of social mobility. For example, if there is a fall in the number of young people available for employment without a corresponding fall in the numbers of jobs available, the opportunities for upward mobility will be increased.

 

Reasons for studying mobility

There are a number of reasons why sociologists are interested in studying social mobility:

  1. Class formation – it is believed that low rates of social mobility may contribute to class solidarity, since common life experience over generations may be perpetuated and perhaps more collectivist solutions to perceived inequalities are likely to be a consequence.
  2. Individual group membership – studies of mobility can reveal perspectives on life chances, i.e. the influence of origins on likely destinations.
  • Mobility studies can reveal the consequences of upward and downward mobility for the attitudes and behaviour of those who experience it. For example, does the experience of upward mobility act to legitimize the social structure in a person’s eyes and does the possibility of limited forms of social mobility act as a safety valve for the conflicts inherent in unequal societies by siphoning off talented and highly motivated members of the underclass – at the same time weakening class solidarity?

Such questions have made the area of social mobility studies of considerable interest to sociologists.

 

Social Mobility Studies

There have been two major studies of social mobility in Great Britain. The first was carried out by David Glass and his research team in 1949 and the second was done by a team of sociologists at Nuffield College, Oxford University (frequently referred to as the Oxford Mobility Study).

  1. David Glass’ Study:

In order to analyse the system of stratification in Britain and the movement within it, Glass used a more sophisticated version of the Registrar-General’s scale – the Hall-Jones scale. This has seven levels.

The Hall-Jones scale

  1. Professional and high administrative
  2. Managerial and executive
  3. Inspectional, supervisory and other non-manual (higher grade)
  4. Inspectional, supervisory and other non-manual (lower grade)
  5. Skilled manual and routine grades of non-manual
  6. Semi-skilled manual
  7. Unskilled manual

 

Table 1           Social Mobility (%) – Glass

SON’S STATUS CATEGORY

Father’s

Status category             1                         2             3               4               5                    6                  7

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

 

39

11

4

2

1

0

0

15

27

10

4

2

1

1

20

23

19

11

8

4

4

6

12

19

21

12

9

8

 

14

21

36

43

47

39

36

 

5

5

7

12

17

31

24

2

2

6

6

13

16

27

 

Glass obtained his results by comparing the occupational positions of 3,497 men with that of their fathers (see table above). Reading the table from left to right, it shows, for example, 39 per cent of sons whose fathers were in status category 1 are themselves in status category 1, while only 2 per cent of them are in status category 7. Similarly, 27 per cent of those whose fathers were in status category 7 have remained in that category, while none of them has moved to status category 1. The main finding of Glass’ study is that although social mobility exists – a third experienced upward mobility and a third downward mobility – most of it was short range, or across only one or two bands. There was very little long range mobility, where individuals have moved from one end of the scale to the other. For example, only 13 per cent of the sample had moved from category 7 to above 5, and no one from this band had moved into the top band. This pattern is almost identical in category 6. Most mobility for the working class was therefore within the working class itself.

  1. The Oxford Mobility Study

In a similar but more widely based study of 8,575 men, a research team of sociologists at Nuffield College at Oxford University, undertook a second intergenerational study with 1972 as the base year. This is frequently referred to as the Oxford Mobility Study, whose findings were d=written up by John Goldthorpe (1980). The stated intention of this study was not only to update Glass’s work, but to examine the reality of three theories of social mobility and class formation:

  • That there is social closure at the top of the class structure
  • That there is a buffer zone around the manual/non-manual boundary beyond which it is difficult to progress
  • That education is the main means of social mobility.

The Oxford study used a seven-point scale which was similar but not identical to the Hall-Jones model

Table 2 Social Mobility (%) – The Oxford Mobility Study

 

Father’s                                                                SON’S CLASS

Class                            1                    2            3                 4                5                   6              7

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

46

29

19

14

14

8

7

19

23

16

14

14

9

9

12

12

13

9

10

8

9

7

6

7

21

8

6

6

5

10

13

10

16

12

13

5

11

16

15

21

31

25

6

9

16

16

17

26

32

 

The scale used here is not directly comparable to the used by Glass, but it is as follows:

  1. Higher professionals, higher grade administrators, managers in large industrial concerns and large proprietors
  2. Lower professionals, higher grade technicians, lower grade administrators, managers in small businesses and supervisors of non-manual employees
  3. Routine non-manual workers
  4. Small proprietors and self-employed artisans
  5. Lower-grade technicians and supervisors of manual workers
  6. Skilled manual workers
  7. Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers

The chief difference between the two scales is that, where the Hall-Jones scale used by Glass emphasizes occupational prestige, the Oxford scale emphasizes concepts of market rewards. In the first table, the manual working class embrace three bands; in the second only two.

The Oxford Mobility study clearly identifies greater long-range mobility than that discovered by Glass. More, for example, have moved intergenerationally from top to bottom and vice versa. As many as 7 per cent of those whose fathers were in class 7 have moved to class 1, and 6 per cent of those born in class 1 have moved to class 7. Those who experience this long range downward mobility are sometimes called ‘skidders’. But, on the other hand, 46 per cent of those who began life in class 1 have managed to remain in it. This is called ‘elite self-recruitment’.

To make their data manageable, and give greater meaning to the figures, the Oxford team grouped their first two social categories together and called this ‘the service class’. They termed social categories 3, 4 and 5 the ‘intermediate class’ and 6 and 7 were called the ‘working class’. In general, and unlike Glass, the Nuffield team found that there had been net upward mobility – more people moved up than down. This meant that, with few people entering the working class from above, it remained a homogeneous or uniformly constituted class. But with fewer people leaving the service class, and more entering it from below, it became more mixed or heterogeneous, what Goldthorpe termed ‘a class of low classlessness’ meaning that its class consciousness and solidarity are low.

N.B.:      As with any statistics in sociology, these tables need to be interpreted carefully.

 

The changing occupational structure

What has happened in the 20th century in the advanced industrial countries is that:

  • the amount of manual work has declined, while service and intermediate occupations have correspondingly increased.
  • The working class has the highest number of children per family, this means that upward mobility is inevitable, regardless of the degree of openness of the class structure.

These two factors make social mobility studies complex, as they are only directly comparable over time if the class structure and fertility rates remain constant. Table 3 synthesises the data from both Glass and Oxford Mobility Study

Table 3: Male occupations, 1911 – 71 (%)

OCCUPATION                                                1911                1951                  1971
Managerial and professional                 6.9                12.6                  21.5

Intermediate                                           11.9               13.3                  14.5

Manual                                                     73.6               68.4                  58.8

 

Problems of mobility studies:

While positivist sociologists would be happy with the use of mobility statistics the reality is that they do not express the of people’s own experiences of the class and social mobility. The Oxford Mobility study has been the target of a number of criticisms, both ideological and methodological

  1. Rosemary Crompton (1980) has argued that occupations may not be comparable over time because the status of those occupations change (as evidenced in the arguments between Braverman 1974 and Lockwood 1958). These writers have argued that being born to a clerical worker at the turn of the century gave you a different status to being born to a clerical worker in the 1960s. The same could be said of printers, with the growth of electronic technology and desktop publishing. Against this, Goldthorpe has argued that it is common for work and market conditions to change, but this does not imply changes in class position. In his classification, he did not look at occupational labels, but at a full description of what each occupation entailed.
  2. A second criticism is that Goldthorpe’s class 1 is too broad to tell anything about the chances of reaching the very top or highest echelons of the ruling class. Critics claim that as long as there is homogeneity in the ruling class, where real and effective power resides, as long as the exclusive elite networks are in effective operation, then mobility rates at other levels in the class system are less meaningful.
  3. Feminists and others have also criticized the Goldthorpe classification system for excuding women’s occupations from analysis, arguing that this is important when more women work and many households , thus, have dual income.

Goldthorpe’s class 1 contains roughly 12 per cent of all men in work. Other studies of those at the very top (company chairmen, chief executives and managing directors) have shown that elite self-recruitment is very high, and entry into this group is highly restrictive.

Marxists see mobility studies as an illusion. They argue that the limited mobility that does occur is merely a means of creaming off the ablest of the working class to help run the capitalist system, so leaving the rest of the proletariat leaderless and divided. Marxists claim that the outcome of studies showing mobility to be possible helps legitimize capitalism by making the system seem fair, however limited the numbers involved.

 

Source: Bernard, et al, 2004: p. 77-80.