Social Mobility: Definition, Types, Avenues & Barriers

Definition of Social Mobility

Every society has differentstrata in it. The different individuals and groups who occupy a certain socialposition may not remain in that position permanently.

Some may move from one positionto another, from higher social class position to lower social class position,and vice versa. Social mobility implies a set of changes in opportunities,incomes, lifestyles, personal relationships, social status and ultimately classmembership.

Social mobility is a type ofmovement but it is not physical movement over geographical space althoughsocial mobility could involve, and be brought about by, physical mobility. Itis movement in the social space, the shifting or changing of statuses or classpositions. Social mobility is a social process that takes place amongindividual members or groups in a society, as they interact with each other. Itis a process by which individuals or groups move from one status to another; orfrom one class or stratum to another.

Social mobility describes thevolume and quality of movement among strata. That is the kind of movement thatpeople make between the different social classes.

Our unit of analysis in socialmobility may be an individual, or a social group or a nation.

Types of Social Mobility

Sociologists have identifieddifferent types of social mobility. The following is a brief discussion of thedifferent types of social mobility (Team of Exeprts, 2000).

Vertical Social Mobility

Vertical social mobility is atype of social mobility that individuals experience when they move from theirsocial status to other higher or lower social status. It is a radical socialchange in an individual’s position. It is a movement between different socialclasses and it involves a change in social position of an individual, a familyor a group. It may be upward or downward.

Horizontal Social Mobility

Horizontal social mobility isalso called lateral social mobility. It is movement within a social class or asocial position where the individual slightly improves and/or declines in hissocial position with in his/ her class level. Unlike vertical social mobility,it doesn’t involve drastic changes.

Inter-generational Social Mobility

This type of social mobilityinvolves the movement up or down, between the social class of one or twogenerations of a family, or a social group. In this mobility, our focus ofattention is a social group, like the family. Here we look at change in thestatus position of the family over two or more generations, i.e., the socialposition of the grandfather, the father and the son.

If a child, for example, whosefather was an upper class person as a result of his wealth becomes only alaborer in his own time, then he has experienced a downward intergenerationalsocial mobility.

Intra-generational mobility

This concerns individual changesin positions during one’s lifetime. It may also refer to the change that occursin social groups or a country’s socioeconomic position over a specified periodof time. In other words, through achievement or other means one can move upfrom being a poor primary school teacher to a high court judge. Unlike theInter-generational social mobility, intra-generational social mobility is withinone generation.

But like inter-generationalsocial mobility, it may be an upward or downward social mobility. Unlike theintergenerational social mobility, our focus here is on a specific individualor group. Here, we observe change in the social position of an individual or agroup over the life cycle of the individual himself or the group either upwardor in some cases downward. For example, a person in his/her lifetime may riseup from a lower position such as shoeshining, and climb up the social ladderuntil he or she becomes a member of privileged social and economic position.Or, others may happen to lose their once prestigious socio-economic positionand as a result move down until they end up in destitution.

Avenues of Social Mobility

The avenues of social mobilityare the doors through which a person moves upward in the social hierarchy.

The major avenue to socialmobility in most modern societies is access to appropriate modern education.

Change of profession/ occupationand geographical mobility are also avenues. There are also some sudden or shortcut avenues to social mobility. These include windfall gains in terms of inheritance,gambling, theft or financial corruption, winning a lottery game, etc. Such mobilityis rare, bearing in mind that most inheritance is within the same social group.

The opportunities for upwardsocial mobility are great in modern societies which have open systems. In such societies,there is freedom of vertical social mobility, and any member of a society maymove up or down the social hierarchy. There are no legal and/or traditional restrictionsthat are put on social mobility on either direction. What count a lot arepersonal merits, competitions and efforts for achievement. On the other hand,in societies with closed system vertical, especially upward, is very difficult.In such societies, individuals born to a certain social position remain withinthat category for their lifetime. The most important determinants here are notindividual’s achievements, merits or personal effort, but what counts most areone’s ancestry, racial background, family background, religion, sex, ethnicity,etc. (Henslin and Nelson, 1995)

Barriers to Upward Social Mobility

These are factors that make itdifficult to individual families or groups to move from one status position to another.Such barriers may include various social, psychological, cultural, economic,political and other related factors. Lack of opportunity, motivation, commitment,interest, or positive attitude, etc., is very crucial psychosocial factors.Other most important barriers may include one’s own physical condition, lack ofaccess to an appropriate modern education; inequality in the distribution ofinherited wealth; one’s color or ethnic origin, religion, etc. These are the mostobvious barriers to social mobility.

  • Whatis social mobility? Discuss why social mobility takesplace, the effects of it on the wellbeing of individualsin a given society.
  • Discussthe type of social immobility you or your familyhas experienced or is experiencing.

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