Everyone a Winner?

By Steph Lawler, University of York and Geoff Payne, Newcastle University

The collective resignation by members of Social Mobility Commission, just before Christmas, ended yet another phase in the long public debate over social mobility.  Although social mobility analysis has usually been regarded as a particular strength of British sociology, sociology has had a weaker voice in this debate than we might have hoped or expected.  Despite our politicians preaching ‘fairness’ and ‘opportunity for all’, they have shown scant understanding of how social mobility actually works, perhaps because their advisors have not understood, or have ignored, most sociological findings on mobility (Payne, 2017).

This seems surprising, because the sociology of social mobility has shown considerable intellectual coherence. It has developed strong conventions which shape its research questions, operational definitions, and research methods in the study of life chances and inequalities of opportunity. These have enabled researchers to co-ordinate and cumulate their research studies, develop their technical expertise, and to make substantial contributions to our understanding of national patterns of social inequalities, including how these have changed in recent decades.

On the other hand, to the extent that we recognise this coherence as a specialist, dominant paradigm, it can be seen to have a constraining influence of what we study, and how we study it. Changes at the Social Mobility Commission, together with new developments elsewhere in the discipline, make now a good time to consider whether an expansion of mobility’s conceptual and methodological frameworks might be productive.

Our point is not to denigrate the previous research, but to suggest that an expanded approach would revive a number of questions which have been relatively neglected. These questions include the significance of physical (as well as social) space, the relationship between migration and social mobility, the interrelationship between class and other vectors of inequality, the significance of local networks and wider kin relations, the consequences of differentials in men and women’s occupational experiences, and the personal and emotional pain that many of the ‘socially mobile’ experience. In this way, the issue of social mobility could be approached by other sociologists – interested, for instance in topics as various as gender, race, family studies, identity or critical discourse analysis.

A looser, more inclusive framework could improve intellectual connections between mobility and recent developments in work on social class and culture, not least the Bourdieusian perspectives currently so influential in the sociology of education, and with critiques of neo-liberalism. This is what our new addition to the BSA’s Sociological Futures series* sets out to explore and encourage.

One of the driving forces behind mainstream mobility research has been moral, and indeed ideological, outrage at the systematic reproduction of social inequalities. Legitimate though this stance is, it should not mean that, without question, upward social mobility is regarded as an unalloyed ‘Good Thing’.  A Bourdieusian concern with habitus and field suggests that the experience of being mobile can generate stress and personal anxieties. The ‘dissociation’ involved in exchanging one social environment for another is not without personal costs to social relationships and identity.

While education is frequently cast as the privileged route to upward social mobility, the costs of this route are usually ignored. As Diane Reay has recently argued, the educational system imposes heavy penalties on working-class children, even if better access to qualifications can increase the chances of upward mobility for some. Further research into the detailed dynamics of educational processes would help to explain why formal qualifications are weak predictors of occupational outcomes, and why mobility rates seem so resistant to change.

This kind of work would also help to challenge neo-liberal perspectives which cast human beings as units of labour, to be deployed (by employers and politicians alike) in the search for ‘economic efficiency’ in production, and cost-savings in public services. Discourse analysis is beginning to demonstrate how immobile people themselves are being blamed for their immobility: even vocal critics of low upward mobility rates often point to their own atypical personal achievement in ‘escaping humble origins’. Think-tanks portray ‘Les Immobiles’ as lacking drive, aspiration, systematic application of effort, resilience in the face of set-backs: an absence of the ‘strength of character’ which is asserted to be the characteristic and causes of middle class success.

The collection of papers in our new book sets out to address these and other issues. Developing out of a day-conference at the University of York in 2016, the contributors cover a diversity of topics, from a variety of perspectives. The chapters range from more conventional questions such as how mobility is measured, through individual accounts, and the dynamics of family relationships, schooling and higher education, to commentaries on policy and public discourse.

What provides coherence is our shared advocacy that mobility research needs new approaches. A methodologically pluralist approach, one which integrates the valuable, ‘marginal’ work on mobility already being done by many members of the Association, is an important way to deliver this.

*Lawler, S. and Payne, G. (2018) Social Mobility for the 21st Century: Everyone a Winner? Abingdon: Routledge/BSA. BSA Sociological Futures Series.