Social Mobility: Definition, Types, Avenues & Barriers

Definition of Social Mobility

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

Some may move from one position to 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 class membership.

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

Social mobility describes the volume and quality of movement among strata. That is the kind of movement that people make between the different social classes.

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

Types of Social Mobility

Sociologists have identified different types of social mobility. The following is a brief discussion of the different types of social mobility (Team of Exeprts, 2000).

Vertical Social Mobility

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

Horizontal Social Mobility

Horizontal social mobility is also called lateral social mobility. It is movement within a social class or a social position where the individual slightly improves and/or declines in his social 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 mobility involves the movement up or down, between the social class of one or two generations of a family, or a social group. In this mobility, our focus of attention is a social group, like the family. Here we look at change in the status position of the family over two or more generations, i.e., the social position of the grandfather, the father and the son.

If a child, for example, whose father was an upper class person as a result of his wealth becomes only a laborer in his own time, then he has experienced a downward intergenerational social mobility.

Intra-generational mobility

This concerns individual changes in positions during one’s lifetime. It may also refer to the change that occurs in social groups or a country’s socioeconomic position over a specified period of time. In other words, through achievement or other means one can move up from being a poor primary school teacher to a high court judge. Unlike the Inter-generational social mobility, intra-generational social mobility is within one generation.

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

Avenues of Social Mobility

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

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

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

The opportunities for upward social 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 may move up or down the social hierarchy. There are no legal and/or traditional restrictions that are put on social mobility on either direction. What count a lot are personal 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 within that category for their lifetime. The most important determinants here are not individual’s achievements, merits or personal effort, but what counts most are one’s ancestry, racial background, family background, religion, sex, ethnicity, etc. (Henslin and Nelson, 1995)

Barriers to Upward Social Mobility

These are factors that make it difficult 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 of access to an appropriate modern education; inequality in the distribution of inherited wealth; one’s color or ethnic origin, religion, etc. These are the most obvious barriers to social mobility.

  • What is social mobility? Discuss why social mobility takes place, the effects of it on the wellbeing of individuals in a given society.
  • Discuss the type of social immobility you or your family has experienced or is experiencing.