Academic journal article Policy Review

The Secret of Your Success

Academic journal article Policy Review

The Secret of Your Success

Article excerpt

THE STUDY OF SOCIAL mobility is finally coming in from the cold (or at least from the Frigidaire of university sociology departments). A couple of years ago three of America's leading newspapers--the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times--all published, almost simultaneously, multipart series on social mobility. All three papers focused on the same problem: Why is the American dream of limitless upward mobility fading? Why are people finding it harder to climb the social ladder? And why are so many people ending up on the same rung as their parents (or even several rungs lower down)? The assumption behind all this newsprint was that the "natural state" of a highly advanced society is a fluid and mobile one.

This essay tries to look at social mobility from the other end of the telescope. It looks back to an Anglo-American world where people started off with the opposite assumption from that of today's journalists: not that we should be surprised that people follow their parents into their jobs but that we should accept that as the natural state of affairs. It focuses on a group of thinkers who tried to grapple with the emerging problem of social mobility--but whose first instinct was not to look at social forces but at individual characteristics. Why do some people climb up the social ladder while others stay put? What personal characteristics account for the fact that some people "get ahead" in life and others fall behind?

The purpose of this examination is threefold. The first is to remind people that there are two issues involved in any study of social mobility: the social forces that determine the shape of society and the individual qualities that determine the life chances of particular individuals. This is something that the Victorians instinctively understood but that their descendants, particularly since the 1960s, have tended to forget. The second is to remind people that explanations of individual social mobility have varied widely over the years, from individual character to individual intelligence to blind chance. And the third is to argue that the second of these theories--the one concerned with individual intelligence--is much the most interesting. This is the school of thought that flourished from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth and that helped to reshape educational systems from America (through the SATS) to Britain (through the 11+) to India and Singapore. This school of thought has lost ground in recent years as social scientists have questioned the science of individual differences and policymakers have made equality rather than equality of opportunity the aim of social policy. This loss of ground, however, has led not to a more egalitarian society but, on the contrary, to the calcification of a once mobile society on the basis of social privilege.

"Work, boys, work"

BY THE MID-NINETEENTH century, Anglo-American thinkers had become obsessed by the spectacle of social mobility, regarding it as the thing that most distinguished their own era from those that had gone before. Under the old order, positions had been ascribed by birth and sanctified by tradition; under the new, men could rise and fall within a fluid social hierarchy. This burgeoning optimism was reflected in changes in linguistic conventions. The traditional static names for social divisions--"estates" or "orders"--gave way to names appropriate to a stratified society open to upward mobility: "classes," "status groups," and, most evocative of all, "elites."

But why were men mobile? Why did some rise and others fall? Throughout most of the nineteenth century, commentators explained individual mobility in terms of individual character. Men rose up the social order as a result of work and thrift. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when the natural sciences exercised a powerful influence over the social sciences, intellectuals increasingly ascribed individual mobility to personal ability. …

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