Most people, particularly in Western societies, experience a change in social status during their lifetimes. Sociologists study social mobility because it helps them understand how individuals move between and among social strata within a society. Horizontal and vertical mobility describe movement among and between strata. Intragenerational mobility describes and an individual's movement during his or her lifetime, while intergenerational mobility describes the movement that takes places across a family's generations. Circulation mobility describes movement that can be attributed to an individual's personal traits, abilities, efforts, or opportunities, and structural mobility describes movement that happens as a result of changes in an individual's environment. Sociologists disagree on just how independent circulation and structural mobility are.
Keywords Circulation Mobility; Downward Mobility; Horizontal Mobility; Intergenerational Mobility; Intragenerational Mobility; Stratification; Structural Mobility; Upward Mobility; Vertical Mobility
Types of Social Mobility
Many people, particularly in Western societies, experience some kind of change in social status during their lifetimes. Whether that shift occurs through one's career path, a change in income level, or the influence of economic forces, social mobility is a major feature of modern society.
Social mobility can move individuals either horizontally or vertically across social strata. Vertical mobility describes a change that moves an individual either up into a higher social stratum or down into a lower social stratum. Horizontal mobility describes a change that moves an individual into a new position that is of the same status as his or her previous position.
Change in social status can be traced using two critical indices—intergenerational and intragenerational mobility. In the former case, an individual's movement is compared to the status of his or her parents in order to determine how mobile a family is across generations. In the latter case, the individual's statuses at various points in time are compared to determine his or her individual mobility across his or her lifespan.
In all of these types of social mobility, changes in social status can be ascribed to either personal or environmental factors. Circulation mobility describes the former case in which changes in an individual's status are attributable to his or her personal traits, abilities, efforts, or opportunities. Structural mobility describes the latter case in which an individual's status changes not as a result of his or her own pursuit of change, but because his or her environment has changed. As an economy changes, for example, and creates a new demand for a certain skill or product, an individual may move into a different income bracket not because of his or her actions, but as the result of a change in his or her industry or profession.
Social mobility does not always describe a shift between levels of income or status. In some situations, individuals' statuses change without a corresponding shift within the social hierarchy. The term “horizontal mobility” describes this lateral change.
Horizontal mobility can be caused by a variety of factors. An individual may feel that his or her present position can no longer satisfy his or her personal needs and choose to seek another position, though one that is of similar status. Geographical preference, disinterest in one's industry or profession, and social networking may all play a role in fostering horizontal mobility. Health and physical limitations can further prod individuals to make a lateral shift. Even a person's dissatisfaction with the pace at which advancement is likely to occur in his or her present environment may drive him or her to seek a lateral move into a position of similar status in a different industry or profession.
It is likely that a person's potential for horizontal mobility cannot be determined by the direct benefits of a lateral move. Rather, fringe benefits that appeal to an individual's personal preferences may play a stronger role. Long-term benefits, investment opportunities, social interactions, and corporate growth are among some of the benefits that may or may not be offered to encourage an employee to make a transition. At the very least, these benefits offer the worker incentives to consider moving (Brissenden, 1955).
Vertical mobility describes movement up or down the social strata. For most Americans, the desire to advance upward into a higher social stratum is a natural urge. Among members of certain strata, this pursuit is far more intensive, for it means departing from a life of poverty, vulnerability to crime and frequent hunger, and otherwise poor living conditions. This upward shift does not occur easily in modern society, for many of the resources, services, and programs that might assist people in making such a move are difficult to obtain or afford.
In a 2005 study, working-class and middle-class African Americans were polled on the resources available to them to foster upward mobility. Interestingly, many of the social programs and services offered by nonprofit community organizations and government agencies did assist a number of people within the study group in moving into a higher income bracket. However, the study also revealed that access to social capital, such as information about loans, grants, scholarships, and employment opportunities, was not as prevalent among many of those sampled. Without the aid and social capital offered by social programs, the authors concluded, the simple availability of financial, educational, and employment opportunities did not make a strong impact on the group's vertical mobility potential (Parks-Yancy, DiTomaso & Post, 2005).
This study is demonstrative of an important point concerning vertical mobility: upward movement is often dependent upon both knowledge of and access to resources such as educational degrees, business grants and loans, job training programs, and even the basic amenities through services like homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
Sociologists recognize two other forms of mobility: intragenerational mobility and intergenerational mobility. Intragenerational mobility describes the changes in status that occur over an individual's lifetime. These changes, either vertical or horizontal, can be ascribed to an individual's particular traits or opportunities as well as overall social or economic forces. Sociologists measure intragenerational mobility by comparing an individual's statuses at multiple points over the course of his or her life. A person who begins her career as a fast food worker and later becomes a dentist is a good example of intergenerational mobility, as is a person who begins his career as a lawyer and later becomes a store clerk (Covington, 1997).
Intergenerational mobility describes the differences in social status between family members across generations. It is measured by comparing the occupations and adjusted incomes of parents and their children. If, for example, a father is a coal miner and his son...
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