Social mobility is a term used to describe the movement of different individuals, families or groups through a system of social hierarchy. It is a natural process that usually involves upward and downward movement. The study of social mobility examines how far and how easy a person can move within the social system. Researchers believe that in an established egalitarian society there would be little need for social mobility. The same argument applies to societies with stable class structures, because such societies usually use mechanisms that limit the movement between various classes.
There are two major types of social mobility — social mobility within the career of individuals and social mobility between generations. The first type involves change in a person's occupation. If that movement does not include change in social class, then it is referred to as horizontal mobility. For example, this type of mobility occurs when a person steps down from an executive position in a company and moves to a similar position in another organization.
Vertical mobility, on the other hand, involves a change in social class, which can be either upward or downward. A working class person who becomes a wealthy businessman would be an example of upward mobility. A respected aristocrat whose wealth and position are destroyed in a war represents a move downwards in the system. The social effects of vertical mobility are not easy to measure. According to some sociologists, both upward and downward mobility damages class structure. Others argue that those who move upward actually strengthen the class system as they are more likely to want to pursue class differences.
Social mobility between generations is also called intergenerational mobility. Researchers investigating this type of social mobility focus on the extent to which parents influence the success of their children and examine how individuals succeed on the back of their own talents, motivation and luck. Success in the workplace is usually affected by many factors that have nothing to do with talent. These factors may include personal and cultural values, practical interests and personality qualities. All these qualities are directly influenced by a person's family and surrounding environment.
According to the the Center for American Progress, the key concept to focus on is intergenerational mobility. In the report Understanding Mobility in America (2006), CAP researchers found that children from poorer families only have a 1 percent chance of reaching the top 5 percent of income distribution, while children of the wealthy have a 22 percent chance of doing this. The study also found that education, race, health and state of residence were four crucial factors in which economic status can be transferred from a parent to a child. The United States has a low level of intergenerational mobility, below the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark.
What a particular society values the most is often a crucial factor for social mobility. If the only things that matter in a society are money and possessions, those people who have the most money or the biggest houses will have the highest ranks. However, if the biggest house is owned by local drug-dealers then their social status is likely to be viewed as low by others in that community.
Since the middle of the 20th century, standards of social mobility have generally become more relaxed. During that time the Western world abandoned the concept of nobility and moved towards more democratic ideas, with each citizen having equal rights under the law. That shift started out as a political concept, although it quickly spread among many societies and became popular.
In the 21st century, social mobility is usually determined by achievements, such as occupation, economic position or values, rather than by nobility or origin. There are still societies and nations with more rigid structures where social mobility is a challenging process due to the existence of sets of mechanisms to limit entry and exit into the various classes. For example, in India there is a traditional caste system according to which a person's social status is determined by his or her family's historical rank, which can rarely be altered. Social mobility in some regions is limited by rules that forbid marriage between people with social statuses that differ.