Social Stratification and Social Mobility

Social stratification and social mobility are conceptual twins. Social stratification refers to a system of social positions that may be defined on the basis of occupation, socioeconomic status or other variables, as discussed above. This is sometimes referred to as ‘positional inequality’. Inequalities between these positions are defined by the allocation of rights, assets, rewards or other resources across these positions (called ‘allocative inequality’). Often, however, these two dimensions are confounded, which is the case when positions are defined based on assets and resources directly. The term ‘structural inequality’ (or, more generally, social stratification) refers to the joint distribution of positional and allocative inequality.

Given the structure of inequality, a second analytical dimension refers to the rules of access to these positions: how easy or difficult is it for individuals or families to attain a certain position, depending on their point of departure or origin? This second dimension thus refers to social mobility, or the degree of openness or closure, and to the related question of (in)equality of opportunities. It is typically addressed as intergenerational social mobility from origin to destination. However, with the advancement of longitudinal data, intra-generational mobility and the life-course have come into focus such that inter- and intra-generational mobility have become less distinct and more bridged.

It is important to note that structural inequality and social mobility are analytically independent dimensions, while concepts of ‘equality of opportunity’ only relate to the second. One can imagine a society with huge structural inequalities, though almost perfect equality of opportunity (like the public image of the US, which has been destroyed by empirical work), as well as a highly immobile society where the bottom and the top positions are not far away in terms of living conditions (as in many former socialist countries). Whether and how these dimensions are empirically linked remain pertinent but still open empirical questions. Economist have recently gained public attention for the finding that economic inequality and intergenerational earnings mobility are strongly negatively correlated—the so-called ‘Great Gatsby Curve’ (Corak 2013). Sociologists, on the other hand, have tended to assume that structural inequality of occupational prestige (Treiman 1977) and relative social mobility (see below) are almost similar across industrialized societies. Consequently, the question of how structural inequality and social mobility are related has not received much attention to date (Yaish and Andersen 2012; Beller and Hout 2006).

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