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Society, Politics & Law

Social mobility: Historically and now

Updated Monday 24th March 2014

Is there any evidence for social mobility? Laurie Taylor and guests consider the evidence.

Laurie Taylor:
 Illustration from a 1916 advertisement for International Correspondence Schools, Scranton, Pennsylvania, a vocational school, in the back of a US popular science magazine. Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain image via WikiCommons [In America, in theory, anyone can become president.] But what are the real chances of such movement of genuine social mobility? How likely are you to be wealthier than your parents or their parents before them? How likely are you to belong to a different and higher social class? And how have these changes – how have these chances changed over past and present times? Well they’re some questions for my next guest. He’s Andrew Miles, who’s a Reader in Sociology at the University of Manchester and he’s the author of Social Mobility in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century England and welcome.

We’re always hearing about social mobility – the declines in social mobility, the need to do something about social mobility, the Millburn Report for example – and here, just to play us in, here is Nick Clegg in 2011 launching a new social mobility initiative.

Nick Clegg:
The heart of this strategy is a common instinct, it’s the most natural feeling in the world for any parent to want their children to have the opportunities they didn’t. And we can all agree that in a fair society what counts, as I said, is how hard you work, not how much your parents earn. In a fair society ability trumps privilege. That is the society, Mr Speaker, this government wants to build.

Laurie Taylor:
Well let’s just try and start at the very beginning of this because this phrase social mobility is thrown around. If I’m a first year student and I want to know exactly how we define social mobility, what does it mean, what are we talking about – mobility between what and what?

Andrew Miles:
Well we define it in various ways and that’s part of the problem. The dominant way of dealing with social mobility in this country, in sociology at least, is to talk about movement between employment classes essentially, so based on occupation. And here it’s a sort of class structural approach and the basic measure is what percentage of people follow in their parents’ occupational footsteps essentially.

Laurie Taylor:
So we look at the familiar list of sort of occupational groupings and we count social mobility one person moved from the occupational grouping into another grouping?

Andrew Miles:
That’s correct, yeah.

Laurie Taylor:
Now what about – what is the period of time we’re talking about? I mean are we talking about the differences between my occupation and my father’s or are we talking about my father’s…. how much – how much is it intragenerational and how much is it intergenerational?

Andrew Miles:
Well the dominant approach has looked at intergenerational mobility and it’s essentially indexed a parents’ occupation, usually a father’s occupation, when a son usually was 16 with the outcome of the son’s career at a point at which they’re deemed to be occupationally mature, so around about 30, 35, something like that. So it really cuts out intragenerational mobility, the dominant approach.

Laurie Taylor:
And how much does it conflict – things like money and class and status – because if you’re talking about occupational groups, I mean sitting around the table we can all think of occupational groups who’ve suddenly acquired a great deal more money or some people who’ve been undercut and some occupational groups which enjoy great status but in fact don’t get paid very much, I mean how do these variables come into it?

Andrew Miles:
Occupations seem to be the best catch all of those different indicators of social position, so income is obviously included in occupation and so is status and I think partly it’s to do with the availability of consistent data over time. But clearly there are different rates of movement between different indicators of status, that’s for sure, but the dominant approach in this country is to look at class as a set of employment classes, employment aggregates and employment relations.

Laurie Taylor:
I heard this phrase as well talk about visible and underlying mobility, can you clarify that for me?

Andrew Miles:
Well I think at the forefront of British mobility research has been John Goldthorpe and his – his group at Nuffield College and he carried out a very important survey in the 1970s – Nuffield Mobility Survey – and as well as measuring rates of social mobility he made a very crucial distinction between what he called absolute and relative mobility. And so the distinction here is the mobility that you can sort of measure in raw percentages – the percentage of children who do or don’t share their parents occupational class. But underlying that is a relationship – well he calls it relative mobility – the relative chances of people from different class origins ending up in different class destinations. And that – those two measures are very distinct. And what he argued was there can be rising absolute mobility, which is what happened in the post-war period, in particular the sort of post-war boom in mobility rates.

Laurie Taylor:
So large numbers of people move up?

Andrew Miles:
Indeed. But the point is what’s causing that? And Goldthorpe argued that those – that increase in absolute mobility was created by a changing occupational structure, in other words the growth of…

Laurie Taylor:
The service sector for example.

Andrew Miles:
Service sector professions…

Laurie Taylor:
… becomes rated as middle class.

Andrew Miles:
So there was a pressure towards upward mobility to fill the gap if you like. But that didn’t alter the relative chances of somebody from – or two people from – say from working class or middle class backgrounds fetching up in a middle class position, that he says has remained constant. And so he argues that the underlying mobility regime is defined by something he calls constant social fluidity or best trendless fluctuation. And that he says has counted for the whole of the 20th Century which is the period in which his data covers.

Laurie Taylor:
And you’ve gone further because I mean you’re an historian by training and you’ve gone further back, haven’t you, to look at the way in which social mobility – 19th Century as well. What have you brought to bear upon our understanding?

Andrew Miles:
Well I think as an historian the idea that the social scientist says well this is how it’s always been without collecting data on the past was somewhat galling, although I’ve now joined the club of sociology. And so I looked at historical mobility rates, again using occupations of fathers and sons, which were collected from marriage registers, from marriage records – 10,000 marriage records between the 1830s and 1914. And what analysis of those data showed was that there was a trend – I mean high rates of inequality, high rates of occupational status intergenerationally but there was a trend towards more mobility and that more mobility was both absolute and relative, so it was a question of changes in the occupational structure but also slightly fairer chances between different classes.

Laurie Taylor:
It’s a very interesting area but I want to just hold it for the moment if I may Andrew because I want to bring in my second guest now, he’s the author of a new book on social mobility, which has been variously described as a, and I’m quoting: ‘a remarkable challenge to conventional wisdom about social mobility’ and as ‘provocative and adversarial.’ That book is entitled the Son (that’s S O N) The Son also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility and its author is Gregory Clark, who’s Professor of Economics at the University of California Davis, and he’s now with me here.

Let me just turn to – I mean surnames, I mean this is something that is completely new, as far as I know, in terms of measuring social…. why did you decide to use surnames, what prompted you in this direction?

Gregory Clark:
Measuring social mobility in the distant past is very difficult because the informational demands where we link fathers and sons is very strong. And so the initial idea of this study was just to be able to measure social mobility in societies like England back to the Middle Ages. And the key idea is that surnames differ in status often when they’re formed and that the rate at which they lose that status information is a measure of how much mobility there is within the society. And so that even though it’s this one odd feature we carry from the past it’s actually going to be a very strong indicator of how much mixing is going on in society.

Laurie Taylor:
And what periods of time are we talking about? I mean you take a particular surname and you look at the relative status the people who bear that surname enjoy over lengthy periods of time?

Gregory Clark:
That’s right. So in most surnames of the English were already formed by around 1300 and locational surnames at that period were all higher status than most occupational surnames or patronyms and so we can just trace over time what’s the relative status of these locational surnames as opposed to the more common surnames and that tells us Medieval social mobility rates and the very surprising conclusion is in 2014 social mobility rates in Britain measured through surname changes are no faster than in the Middle Ages.

Laurie Taylor:
And even when you look at a society which is supposed to be characterised by high rates of social mobility, like the Nordic countries, like Sweden for example, you find this same persistence of family names, status enjoyed over a lengthy period of time?

Gregory Clark:
That’s correct, so Sweden has a class of aristocratic surnames formed in the 17th and 18th Century, including such colourful names as Leijonhufvud, von Essen – people with those surnames descended now 200, 300 years later from the original aristocrats are still four times more likely to be doctors or attorneys or members of the Swedish academies.

Laurie Taylor:
But how is this coming about? I mean one obvious thing is they’re just passing money on and so therefore they’ve got lots of money and the lots of money secures them their status for century after century.

Gregory Clark:
Well interestingly in a society like Sweden entry into universities, into careers like medicine, is very little influenced by money. In somewhere like the United States you might think money would be much more important but another thing the surnames revealed surprisingly is that there isn’t any difference across modern societies in terms of the surname mobility rates.

Laurie Taylor:
Now we’re necessarily doing an injustice to the detailed arguments in your book but I mean to summarise what you’re saying seems to be that really all our endeavours to socially engineer social mobility and all our attempts to introduce new programmes, new educational programmes, whatever, seem to be a bit of waste of time, that they don’t seem to be having very much effect, not upon this perpetuation of these particular status groups?

Gregory Clark:
Oh not that is absolutely conclusion. In Sweden modern mobility rates are no higher than in the 18th Century and this is not just an issue about elites, even though we tend to use elite occupations. In England we can look at the persistence of criminals in the 19th Century through surnames, you’ll get exactly the same story, we can look at who’s probated, which is in the middle of the occupational distribution – sorry the status distribution, exactly the same outcomes. And so the message is very much this doesn’t seem to be something that societies can change.

Laurie Taylor:
So we seem to be, don’t we, turning to inheritance or to genetics here, are we simply saying that these people are genetically more intelligent, have more abilities than others and pass these abilities on and therefore if it’s genetics which is involved no amount of social engineering’s going to make any difference?

Gregory Clark:
The book doesn’t conclude that genetics is the key, what it does conclude though is that if someone was to assert that there’s no fact that we can observe about the social world that would disprove them.

Laurie Taylor:
That sounds a rather rehearsed answer, as though you’re – I mean what else could be the factor, I mean how else would you want to explain it other than it is the transmission of abilities?

Gregory Clark:
We do know from studies of twins, from adoption studies, from studies of various degree of relatives that genetics must be the most important element in the transmission of status, we just don’t know whether it’s everything.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay. Well I’ve just got time – I’ve just got time to bring you in again Andrew on this, I mean how do you react to this study, I mean do you think that it adds to what we know about social mobility or do you – do we see it contradicting some of the findings we’ve had on social mobility and the way it might be influenced?

Andrew Miles:
I think positively it’s very interesting to think about multigenerational mobility, I don’t think we’ve been able to do that very much. I mean there is some good work by Mayer and recently by Tak Wing Chana and Vikki Boliver at Oxford which looks at three generational mobility. So I think the relationship between families is interesting and important. As for this particular study I think there are all kinds of problems with it in terms of the reliance on names of the elite, despite what Greg says he does extrapolate from unusual elite names to the whole of the social structure. And what I was saying about Goldthorpe, I mean persistence in social mobility is nothing new, that kind of argument and certainly not at an elite level. But I think if you look at recent Swedish history you’ll find actually that social engineering is absolutely behind greater equality and it’s social engineering to engineer equality of condition that matters. And just as – I mean it’s a very controversial issue and I think we’ve been here before, this idea of genetics.

Laurie Taylor:
Well I wish we had time to expand upon that and to come back – maybe you’d like to write in about it and let us have your opinions. But meanwhile Andrew Miles, and Gregory Clark – thank you very much.

I should mention, by the way, the Taylor surname in all this does fare very, very poorly indeed – it remains resolutely artisan, which may explain my father’s endlessly repeated joke. “You know Laurence,” he’d always say to me with mock confidentiality, “one of your ancestors once stood on a public platform – and then they opened the trap door.”

 

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