History Of Social Mobility Research Paper

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1. General Questions

Social mobility was one of the important themes of social history during its beginnings in the 1960s and the 1970s. Historians explore social mobility for two reasons. First, they want to study the general question of the history of equality of social opportunities. The question whether modern societies enlarged or reduced chances of social ascent for men as well as for women was attractive for historians. The rising openness or reinforced exclusiveness of modern elites, the rising or declining opportunities of upward social mobility for men and women from the lower classes, immigrants, poor families, and ethnic groups, the broadening or reduced access to channels of social ascent such as education, careers in business or public bureaucracies, and politics, and the role of family networks were central topics. Second, historians discuss the history of social mobility in a comparative view. European and American historians explore the myth of the opportunities for social ascent in America, which were unique compared to Europe. Historians also investigated the myth of unblocked social mobility in communist countries before 1989 91 compared to Western Europe. Social mobility was a historical theme to which major contributions did not only come from historians, but also from sociologists and political scientists.

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2. Definitions And Sources

Studying the history of social mobility, historians usually investigate only the social mobility of individuals. They usually do not explore under the heading of social mobility the grading up or grading down of entire social groups or entire social classes. Moreover, the study of social mobility primarily focuses upon mobility in social structures and hierarchies rather than upon the geographical mobility of individuals as the term might suggest. It also mostly concentrates upon occupational mobility. If investigating career mobility (or intra-generational mobility), historians trace the mobility of individuals between different occupational positions or their persistence in the same occupation throughout the life. If they investigate mobility between generations (or intergenerational mobility), they compare the occupation of the father, the mother or the ancestors at specific points of their life with the occupations of a historical individual. Occupation is usually seen as the crucial indicator of the situation of an individual in a historical society. To be sure, historians are fully aware of the fact that the activity of an individual in history, more often than today, might comprise a variety of occupations at the same point of time or might include professions that still are in the making. Historians of social mobility work to link various historical sources and to trace individual persons through marriage license files, census materials, tax files, last wills, records of churches and public administrations, and autobiographical sources. The competence of historians in linking various sources has grown distinctly.

During recent years, the study of social mobility has become highly sophisticated. Individual careers are more frequently explored in micro studies of as many details as possible. These studies investigate a few richly documented individual cases rather than all members of a local society. They often use autobiographical materials difficult to analyze quantitatively. This type of micro study rarely concentrates only on social mobility, but covers a large variety of aspects. At the same time, the international and interregional comparative study of the history of social mobility has become somewhat more frequent, using the rich results of about 30 years of historical research in this field.

3. Three Main Debates

A first debate on social mobility by historians covers the increase of social mobility from 1800–2000. In this debate the rise of social mobility has various meanings. It sometimes means a more meritocratic recruitment, especially for the few most prestigious, most powerful, and best paid positions. It sometimes means more mobility between occupations, upward mobility as well as downward mobility, and job mobility in the same occupation as well as mobility between occupations in the same social class. Sometimes, the increase of social mobility includes the chances of both genders and of minorities. Sometimes it means a clear increase of the opportunities of the lower classes compared to the opportunities of the upper and middle classes and not just more social mobility for everybody. One has to make sure what meaning is used by individual authors.

The advocates of the rise of social mobility usually think of a general increase of mobile people, but often also of a rising number of upwardly mobile persons since industrialization. They argue that various major social changes should have led to more social mobility and to more social ascent: the general decline of the fertility rate during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made it possible for parents not only to invest more in individual help and education of their children, but also to promote their own professional careers. The rapid expansion of secondary and higher education especially since the end of the nineteenth century enlarged the chances for better training enormously. The rapid increase of geographical mobility since the second half of the nineteenth century led to a widening of the labor market and to a greater variety of new chances. The fundamental changes of the active population from the predominance of agrarian work up to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the predominance of service work especially since the 1970s generated substantial social mobility between occupations. The distinct increase of the sheer number of occupations in all modern societies since the Industrial Revolution also must have led to more social mobility. The general change of mentalities, the weakening of the emotional identification with specific professions, social milieus, and specific local milieus, and the rising readiness for job mobility and for lifelong training further enlarged the number of socially mobile persons. The rise of the welfare state, the mitigation of individual life crisis, and the guarantee of individual social security clearly improved the chances for further training and for the purposeful use of occupational chances. Deliberate government policies of enhancing educational and occupational opportunities for the lower classes, for women, ethnic and religious minorities, and immigrants should also have had an impact on social mobility. In sum, a substantial list of factors in favor of an increase of social mobility from 1800–2000 can be put forward from this side of the debate.

The advocates of stability or even the decline in social mobility are a heterogeneous group. Arguments stem from very different ideas of social developments. It is sometimes argued that nineteenth and early twentieth century industrialization not only led to a rising number and a fundamental change of occupations, but also to a class society in which the major social classes, the middle class, the lower middle class, the working class, the peasants, and in some societies also the aristocracy tended to reinforce the demarcation lines to other social classes and, hence, to reduce rather than to enlarge the number of mobile persons. Other advocates of the skeptical view argue that the fundamental upheaval of modern societies during industrialization led to a unique rise of social mobility, of upward as well as downward mobility, and that modern societies thereafter became more closed since the generation of pioneers in business ended, as most occupational careers became more formalized and more dependent on formal education, as modern bureaucracies emerged and as mentalities adapted to the modern, highly regulated job markets. Other advocates argue for the stability of social mobility rates in a different and much more narrow sense. They argue that the long-term change of social mobility from the Industrial Revolution until the present was mostly structural, that is, it depended almost exclusively upon the redefinition of the active population rather than on the reduction of social, cultural, and political barriers. In this view social mobility remained stable if one abstracts from the changes simply induced by alternations in occupational structure (as peasants, for example, became workers, a real change, but not necessarily a case of upward mobility). Still other advocates of the longterm stability of social mobility posit a stable inequality of educational and occupational chances of lower classes, women, and minorities in comparison with the educational and occupational chances of the middle and upper class, the male population, or the ethnic majority, respectively.

This long debate has led since the beginning of quantitative studies of social mobility after World War II to a large number of historical studies of social mobility and to a wide range of results. To sum up briefly, three main results ought to be mentioned. First, only in very rare cases could a clear decline of social mobility rates to be found. Most studies show either stable or increasing rates of social mobility, depending upon the type of community and country and the generation and the period under investigation. There is no overwhelming overall evidence, either for the stability or for an increase, of social mobility rates. Second, changes of overall social mobility rates do in fact depend to a large degree on changes in occupational and educational structure. So one can say that modern societies became more mobile to a large degree because education expanded so much and because occupational change became so frequent and normal. Finally, there is much evidence that the educational and social mobility of the lower classes and women did not increase to the detriment of the educational and occupational chances of the middle and upper classes and men. Except for the Eastern European countries in some specific periods, social mobility was usually not a zero numbers game.

A second debate covers the more advanced social mobility in the United States. This old debate dates at least from the early nineteenth century, when the French social scientist Alexis de Tocqueville argued that American society offered more opportunities of social ascent than did European.

Various pieces of evidence was presented in favor of the American lead. Some empirical studies by sociologists demonstrated that in some crucial aspects a clear American lead could be shown. This was especially true for mobility into the professions. Higher education was more extensive and offered more chances than in Europe. Hence, the social ascent from the lower classes into the professions that are based on higher education was clearly more frequent than in Europe. In addition, comparative historical studies on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century American and European cities showed that in a special sense a modest American lead existed during that period: unskilled workers in fact moved up into white-collar positions in American cities somewhat more frequently than in European cities. Finally, historians demonstrated that the important difference between American and European societies could be found in the American creed in more opportunities in America than in closed European societies.

Other recent comparative studies tend to argue that a general lead of the American society no longer exists in comparison with Europe. According to this view industrialization and modernization led to about the same opportunities everywhere. Various international comparisons of social mobility rates support this view and demonstrate that the overall rates were not distinctly higher in the US than in old societies such as Western Europe or Japan. As these comparisons almost exclusively deal with the second half of the twentieth century, the results might be due to the fundamental social changes in Europe and Japan since World War II.

The lead of communist countries in social opportunities especially in the USSR during the 1920s and 1930s and in the Eastern European communist countries in the late 1940s and 1950s is the topic of a less intensive, but important debate. Some historical studies of social mobility demonstrate that during these periods rates of upward social mobility into the higher ranks of the social hierarchy were substantial compared to Western European societies. This was true partly because of the rapid expansion of higher education, the communist abolition of the middle class, and the rapid change of the employment structure due to rapid industrialization. However, the rise of social opportunities in communist countries, if it rose at all, was largely limited to the period of the system upheaval. Most comparative studies of the 1970s and 1980s show that rates of social mobility were not distinctly higher in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe. This was partly because the communist political and administrative elite became exclusive and gentrified, because social change slowed down, and because the expansion of higher education was reduced in several communist countries.

Gender contrasts in social mobility were explored only by a small number of studies by historians. A debate among historians has not yet started. But gender contrasts undoubtedly will add new important aspects to the general debate about long-term trends in social mobility. Four conclusions can be expected from the few studies. First, in a more radical sense than in the study of male mobility, female mobility raises the question whether social mobility should in fact be centered around occupational mobility or other factors such as marriage and unpaid or partially paid work in emerging professions are to be taken in account much more than so far. Second, the question of a rise of downward mobility during the transition to modern society, i.e., during the rise of female activity outside the family sphere, is to be explored. A study of female social mobility in twentieth century Berlin demonstrates a high rate of intergenerational declassement of active women during the early parts of the twentieth century. Third, the study of the social mobility of women demonstrates much more clearly than that of males the effects of economic crises and fundamental transitions on social mobility. Opportunities for women seem to have depended strongly on economic prosperity, on long-term social stability. In periods of economic crisis and rapid transitions such as the upheaval of 1989 91 women more than men belonged to the losers. Here again the study of female mobility might draw the attention of the historians to a more general aspect of mobility that was not investigated enough. Finally, the social mobility of women also demonstrates that definite changes of social opportunities can only be reached in a longterm perspective. It was shown that even when important channels of upward social mobility such as education offered equal chances to women, they did not lead to a parallel improvement of occupational chances for women. Besides the study of institutions and policies, the historical study of the experience of social mobility and the perception of social mobility will become crucial.

4. The Future Historical Research On Social Mobility

During 1980–2000 social mobility was much less frequently investigated by historians. The declining interest in social mobility has partly to do with the rising research standards that are more and more difficult to match by projects limited in time and financial resources. Moreover, the initial questions asked in this field lost the former attraction because it became widely accepted that social mobility rates were about the same in most societies and did not rise distinctly during in the nineteenth and twentieth industrialization and modernization centuries. Finally, the general thematic trends in historical research made social mobility look unlike a modern theme.

The future of the study of social mobility is that of a normal theme among many others in history rather than a top theme in an expanding branch of history as in the 1960s and 1970s. One can hope for four sorts of studies of neglected aspects of social mobility. A first future aspect is the historical study of social mobility in Eastern Europe, but also outside Europe, and thereafter the international comparisons reaching beyond Western Europe and the US. The question of the particularities of social mobility in Europe might then be answered differently. A second future aspect of social mobility is gender contrasts of social mobility. We need a well-reflected number of case studies of contrasting countries, different female activities, contrasting general conditions such as prosperity and economic depression, peace and war periods, stability and transitions. A third future theme is specific factors of social mobility such as religion, types of family, immigration, unemployment, and poverty and more generally the impact of background social milieu. It seems that historians will explore these contexts of social mobility often in looking at a limited number of individuals and that they will include also the subjective experience of social mobility. The fourth future topic is to be the history of the debate on social mobility, as an aspect of the history of identities, e.g., the European or American identity. The debate among historians was inspired by this debate and this topic will help us to understand better why historians became interested in this theme in the 1960s.


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