When studying social classes, the question naturally arises: Is it possible for people to move within a society's stratification system? In other words, is there some possibility of social mobility, or progression from one social level to another? Yes, but the degree to which this is possible varies considerably from society to society.
On the one hand, in a closed society with a caste system, mobility can be difficult or impossible. Social position in a caste system is decided by assignment rather than attainment. This means people are either born into or marry within their family's caste; changing caste systems is very rare. An example of the rigid segregation of caste systems occurs today in India, where people born into the lowest caste (the “untouchables”) and can never become members of a higher caste. South Africa also has a caste system.
On the other hand, in an open society with a class system, mobility is possible. The positions in this stratification system depend more on achieved status, like education, than on ascribed status, like gender. For example, the United States' social stratification is of this type, meaning movement between social strata is easier and occurs more frequently.
Patterns of social mobility
Several patterns of social mobility are possible:
- Horizontal mobility involves moving within the same status category. An example of this is a nurse who leaves one hospital to take a position as a nurse at another hospital.
- Vertical mobility, in contrast, involves moving from one social level to another. A promotion in rank in the Army is an example of upward mobility, while a demotion in rank is downward mobility.
- Intragenerational mobility, also termed career mobility, refers to a change in an individual's social standing, especially in the workforce, such as occurs when an individual works his way up the corporate ladder.
- Intergenerational mobility refers to a change in social standing across generations, such as occurs when a person from a lower‐class family graduates from medical school.
Sociologists in the United States have been particularly interested in this latter form of mobility, as it seems to characterize the “American Dream” of opportunity and “rags to riches” possibilities.
Structural mobility and individual mobility
Major upheavals and changes in society can enhance large numbers of people's opportunities to move up the social ladder at the same time. This form of mobility is termed structural mobility. Industrialization, increases in education, and postindustrial computerization have allowed large groups of Americans since 1900 to improve their social status and find higher‐level jobs than did their parents. Nevertheless, not everyone moves into higher‐status positions. Individual characteristics—such as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, level of education, occupation, place of residence, health, and so on—determine individual mobility. In the United States, being a member of a racial minority, female, or a disabled person have traditionally limited the opportunities for upward mobility.